January 13, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

For centuries, the process of scholarly research has depended upon the principle of duly crediting the work of others when it is used or referenced in an argument. For this reason, plagiarism has long ranked among academia’s most egregious transgressions — a mark of scholarly misconduct that can cast a shadow over even the most distinguished careers. But giving due credit also extends to the simple expectation that we cite our sources.

This norm serves dual purposes that bolster the rigor and originality of scholarship. First, proper citations safeguard against the theft of another’s original work. Second, they provide a road map for other scholars to track and replicate a claim, including independently vetting whether a stated reference provides sufficient evidence for an assertion.

While crediting another scholar’s work can signal respect for that person’s contribution, this norm acquires even greater importance when an argument is contested. A proper citation allows the reader to independently verify whether one author is fairly and accurately representing the position of his or her opponent.

Two recent cases portend that the time-honored practice of citing one’s sources is starting to crumble under the leftward hyper-politicization of several academic disciplines. Political disagreements are nothing new to scholarly research, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. But even the most heated academic debates have long adhered to the norm of properly acknowledging material from an opponent.

That norm is now giving way to one of the most toxic practices of the Far Left — the act of “deplatforming” disliked persons and viewpoints so as to exclude them from a discussion entirely. In the world of scholarly citations, deplatforming entails intentionally refusing to cite or acknowledge an opponent as a source — even when directly responding to their arguments.

Consider it the Voldemort principle of academic footnotes, wherein a disliked opponent’s work simply becomes “he who must not be named.”

Harvard Law School professor Mark Tushnet recently indulged in this childish tactic as part of a long-running dispute over the New Deal–era Supreme Court ruling of Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States. The 1935 decision struck down a key part of Franklin Roosevelt’s attempts at economic central planning through the aggressive regulation of private businesses. The regulatory issue in question involved an attempt to cite a Jewish butcher for violations of poultry industry codes that arguably impeded the butcher’s ability to meet kosher religious practices in food preparation.

In a recent dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch built his reasoning in part upon the Schechter case and referenced its anti-Semitic overtones as described in Amity Shlaes’s book The Forgotten Man. Tushnet vehemently disputed Shlaes’s analysis on his personal blog. Shlaes then responded to Tushnet in an article for National Review, as did South Texas College of Law professor Josh Blackman at the popular Volokh Conspiracy legal blog.

Rather than engage his interlocutors fairly and in a reciprocal fashion that acknowledges their counterarguments, Tushnet opted to throw an academic temper tantrum by announcing his own refusal to even cite the responses of Shlaes or Blackman. As a note in Tushnet’s new working paper about the dispute states, “I don’t provide citations/links to their responses because I want to limit the number of ‘clicks’ the responses get. Interested readers will know how to search for the responses on their own.”

Shlaes and Blackman thus became the Voldemorts of Tushnet’s world: opponents to be denounced and maligned for their points of political disagreement, but whose work could not be named lest a reader give it “clicks.” As an article about the incident on the College Fix observed, Tushnet even accused his interlocutors of “epistemic closure” while obliviously engaging in the very same by refusing to cite them out of spite.

Another variant of this form of bibliographic deplatforming played out at the University of Calgary last week, when sociology professor Ted McCoy made a stunning announcement on his Twitter feed: “I heard it rumoured students will fail my class if they cite Jordan Peterson and I’d like to clarify that this is absolutely correct.”

McCoy later deleted the tweet and backtracked into retroactively designating it as a joke, but the message came across as a clear signal of ideological discrimination against a source who is disliked for political reasons. Any students in his class who consider citing and crediting Peterson’s work now have a reason to fear that doing so will lead to negative repercussions for their grades.

Whatever one thinks of Peterson, a conservative psychology professor at the University of Toronto, he remains an accomplished scholar in his field. In fact at over 12,000 citations and multiple top journal hits, Peterson’s record of peer-reviewed scholarship is substantially stronger than his critic’s. McCoy has only a couple dozen citations as of this writing, spread across a small handful of articles in lower-tier venues. He nonetheless felt obliged to “joke” that Peterson would be treated as yet another Voldemort where bibliographic practices in his classroom are concerned.

Though both cases involve professors attempting to impede the crediting and use of work by scholars with disliked political views, their behavior speaks to an even baser ideological pettiness that has overtaken some quarters of academic life. Academics who enjoy the company of a political majority in their disciplines have effectively taken it upon themselves to stifle their opponents from even being acknowledged in their respective domains.

These activist academics no doubt do so out of a belief that the opposing viewpoints they wish to shutter away from public view are wrong. But rather than confront those viewpoints and make their cases openly and before external scrutinizing eyes, they each chose to obfuscate that process — either by refusing to provide a citation where another’s words and ideas were clearly used or by threatening a penalty upon others for even using the disliked source.

Such behavior serves no other purpose than to attempt the exclusion of the targeted viewpoints from each academic’s own domain of control. It’s a tactic that almost all scholars outside of the academy’s left-wing majority have experienced at some point, usually with the aim of denying them credit for their work and thereby reducing the impact of the very same. 

I experienced as much a few weeks ago amid the ongoing debate over the 1619 Project. After several well-known commentators from the political mainstream and center-left praised my analysis of the project’s disputed factual claims, they came under heavy fire from a handful of self-appointed gatekeepers on the left wing of the history profession. The gatekeepers’ message conspicuously evaded any substantive engagement with my arguments about the 1619 Project. Instead, they dismissed it out of hand on account of their own political prejudices and directed their fury at other journalists and scholars who dared to credit my piece – or any other analysis from a source that they deemed insufficiently progressive.

This expanding tactic reveals an intentional strategy of academics who refuse to engage a scholarly contribution that chafes with their own ideological priors or arises from the outside of their own echo chambers. Amusingly, its deployment includes many instances where the shunned contributions come from scholars with significantly stronger research records and better claims to expertise in the contested subject matter than their dismissive critics possess. The application of the Voldemort rule accordingly reveals a comical lack of self-awareness, as with both McCoy’s tweet and Tushnet’s article title. 

Yet this behavior also undermines the process of scholarly exchange itself, in each case signaling that the targeted viewpoint or author is no longer welcome in that conversation on account of an author’s politics, which are sometimes accurately represented but more often caricatured presumptions. But political disagreement makes for a lousy basis on which to exclude a citation — or a cited author entirely. It’s fundamentally a case of academic misconduct — of denying another due credit for their work, or preventing that work from even entering the conversation as you simultaneously attempt to rationalize confining your opponents to the territory of “he who must not be named.”

Phillip W. Magness

Phil Magness

Phillip W. Magness works at the Independent Institute. He was formerly the Senior Research Faculty and F.A. Hayek Chair in Economics and Economic History at the American Institute for Economic Research. He holds a PhD and MPP from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, and a BA from the University of St. Thomas (Houston). Prior to joining AIER, Dr. Magness spent over a decade teaching public policy, economics, and international trade at institutions including American University, George Mason University, and Berry College. Magness’s work encompasses the economic history of the United States and Atlantic world, with specializations in the economic dimensions of slavery and racial discrimination, the history of taxation, and measurements of economic inequality over time. He also maintains an active research interest in higher education policy and the history of economic thought. His work has appeared in scholarly outlets including the Journal of Political Economy, the Economic Journal, Economic Inquiry, and the Journal of Business Ethics. In addition to his scholarship, Magness’s popular writings have appeared in numerous venues including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, Politico, Reason, National Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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