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On Whose Shoulders: Towards a Mindful Citational Practice

“Use at least 5 peer-reviewed sources,” the assignment guideline says. 

Quickly, I search within the library catalog and use the advanced search function to set the filter as “Scholarly/peer-reviewed.” Without a second thought I start to browse through the results and look for useful articles for the project. As graduate students, we probably have worked on assignments that require students to cite peer-reviewed articles when writing essays. Peer review refers to the process in which the manuscripts are evaluated by external reviewers, journal editorial boards, or qualified experts (EBSCO, 2018). Some professors would justify this requirement, believing that peer-reviewed sources are likely to be more rigorous and objective, thus more valuable. An unspoken message is conveyed here: as members of the academic community and future “scholars,” we should prioritize peer-reviewed articles. As an international student socialized in the Westernized education system of Taiwan and the U.S. for years, I seldom question this requirement, as this is the default academic norm. 

This automatic practice was challenged when I took a community health work preparation course in which the elders and teachers from the Cultural Wellness Center encouraged the class to view ancestors’ wisdom and our lived experiences as valuable sources of knowledge. Feeling uncertain and uncomfortable, I struggled to engage in the conversation about enhancing community health. “Shouldn’t we adopt an evidence-based approach?” I kept asking myself until I heard a classmate sharing her prior experience in another class. Self-identified as a Native American, she incorporated teachings from elders in her paper, but received a comment: “The source is not peer-reviewed evidence.” Naturally, the student was upset and considered this feedback reinforcing White supremacy, the perceived superiority of Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic voices. 

This incident inspired me to reflect on the different values attached to various knowledge sources and the domination of Western ways of thinking. I started to pay attention to the rare cases when textbooks mention some concepts and contributions from ancient Chinese thinkers. The monopoly of Western/European knowledge and ideologies begs the question of who makes the decision. 

While many agree that “knowledge is power,” few critically consider the flip side: Does power determine what is considered knowledge? 

Power in Citations

Scholars and scientists strive to contribute to the progress of our collective understanding of the world. Over generations, humans have accumulated valuable knowledge and made significant breakthroughs. Incorporating previous studies and discoveries allows us to build on knowledge accumulated by previous thinkers, researchers, and practitioners. As Isaac Newton suggested, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We stand on the shoulders of the giants (various sources of accumulated knowledge) in hope of a clearer, farther and broader view. 

However, not all giants are treated the same. With the domination of Western values in academia, rationality and objectivity are favored. Knowledge and sources that fit these values are considered more “appropriate” to use in our classes, assignments, and publications. Urlings and colleagues (2021) analyzed factors that are associated with an article’s frequency of being cited in the biomedical field. The results suggest that those with positive outcomes, authored by “authorities,” and published in journals with high impact factors are more likely to be cited. Knowledge that is not published in prestigious academic journals attracts little attention.

Yet, even while trying to diversify voices represented in academic journals, we sometimes fall into the trap of tokenizing. The slogan, “Nothing about us without us,” has been used to advocate to include input from the disability community in decision-making processes. The movement attracted attention to the representation of community/stakeholders’ voices and encouraged us to cite works authored by researchers from the communities. However, many see this as a checkbox. Sources from the community are sometimes treated as something people should include in response to reviewers’ comments. Once community sources are cited, we assume that we understand the community’s perspective without further consideration of the diversity within the community and the changes in beliefs and opinions. Mindless inclusion of community sources can tokenize marginalized voices and deter genuine understanding of the community’s stories. 

In an interview with the CBC Radio, Kyle Powys Whyte (2018), an Indigenous professor at Michigan State University, pointed out that “To see a lot of Indigenous scholars do really important work not get cited as much, and a lot of non-Indigenous people think that it’s okay just to cite the same old [Indigenous] person for due diligence, it’s really insulting.”

Another problematic aspect of current citational practices is favoring academic scholars and researchers. Citing people’s works is a way to honor their intellectual properties. However, do these scholars/researchers own the knowledge? Oftentimes, we give credit to those who introduce and interpret the information for us, because these scholars are published in peer-reviewed journals. Without attributing to practitioners, community members, and traditional knowledge holders, we fail to honor the intellectual properties of the real owners. Collectively, we contribute to an extractive academia in which researchers become the exploiters, as suggested in a panel discussion on Research Justice hosted at Duke University (Abdur-Rahman et al., 2022). 

Through our citational practices, we selectively pay attention to certain “cite-worthy” ways of thinking and highlight certain “cite-worthy” sources of knowledge. This power structure and politics in citations may compromise the inclusivity of our science communication.

Spiral of Silence

The threats originated from the politics of citation may form a negative feedback loop. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s (1974) theory of Spiral of Silence can be used to explain the process. Originally intended for public opinion studies, the theory posits that the public tends to perceive the opinions of vocal members as the consensus. This perception of consensus discourages those who hold different ideas from voicing their opinions. As a result, the visibility of less popular/marginalized viewpoints decreases and the perception of consensus is strengthened.

“The singular opinion that confronts one ever more frequently and confidently; the other is heard less and less. The more individuals perceive these tendencies and adapt their views accordingly, the more the one faction appears to dominate and the other to be on the downgrade. Thus, the tendency of the one to speak up and the other to be silent starts off a spiraling process which increasingly establishes one opinion as the prevailing one” (Noelle-Neumann, 1974, p.44).

In the context of citations, studies and sources that are cited more frequently are considered more important and accepted by the community. Those who hold different perspectives, or practice different ways of thinking, may feel pressured to remain silent or avoid citing “non-traditional” sources. As a result, sources and dominant ways of thinking that were cited frequently were perceived as the authority and mainstream, which further silences diverse perspectives and sources of knowledge. 

Through citations, we amplify certain voices/sources and (unintentionally) oppress the others. As a whole, this selective process sends a message to the society, “cited works are better than uncited works/sources”; and to the future scholars and researchers, “you should cite well-cited sources.” The perception of these messages would discourage the younger generations from citing unpopular ideas, marginalized voices, and non-printed sources. Without proper recognition and appreciation, those who express these ideas/voices in less favorable formats may switch to the dominant ways of knowledge production or decide to say no more. This would damage the diversity of the information landscape in our fields. 

Journal reviewers often suggest additional references to cite. While these kinds of comments can provide resources for the authors, this practice may reinforce certain voices, especially those that are consistent with the status quo and the mainstream definitions of valuable knowledge. 

So…What’s Next?

Understanding that citations can be a powerful tool, I would like to encourage us to critically examine our own citational practices. How can we avoid silencing and tokenizing marginalized voices? We can start from mindfully incorporating diverse sources of knowledge in our works. Here are some steps we can take:

Broaden our views: We tend to acquire tunnel vision as our disciplines get more specialized. Familiar names, theories and knowledge sources feel safe and legitimate to cite. We can actively seek opportunities to be exposed to and get familiar with more diverse ways of thinking, so that these sources of knowledge will be top of our minds and readily connected. Read broadly, talk with people outside of academia, and listen mindfully to stories and voices from non-printed sources. 

Search outside of the box: In addition to a mindless click on the “peer-reviewed” filter, we should intentionally seek to learn from communities: elders, those who work on the frontline, and collective lived experiences. Using a collaborative approach for cultural humility, we invite community knowledge holders to the table and learn from them genuinely. This intentional citational practice can significantly enrich the collective understanding of the topic. 

Pay respect and give credit where credit is due: For example, Lorisia MacLeod (2021) advocates for a respectful way to cite indigenous elders and traditional teachings which are typically categorized as “personal communication” in many reference styles. Differentiating indigenous elders’ teachings from other personal communications helps us recognize and highlight these culturally significant sources of knowledge and ways of thinking. Similar efforts can be considered for other communities where culturally important knowledge is oppressed/undervalued in mainstream publications.

Share with the community: We should let the community know how their traditional teachings, collective wisdom, and lived experiences are cited in our works. This can serve as an opportunity for clarification and correction. More importantly, seeing community knowledge and input being cited can be empowering, especially for traditionally marginalized communities. It is an indicator that their voices matter and can encourage further exchange of knowledge.

Be the change: As current/future educators, we should strive to explain the advantages of peer-reviewed journal articles, without discounting the values of other sources. Instead of discouraging students from using non-academic sources, we welcome non-Western ways of thinking to enrich our collective understanding of the subject. Instead of, “you cannot use these sources; they are not evidence-based,” maybe we can help students appreciate both non-Western and Western sources of knowledge through mindful citational practices.      

By standing on the shoulders of a larger, more inclusive group of giants, we may enjoy a more comprehensive view of the world. 


Abdur-Rahman, A. ,Andrade, L., Spurlock, D., & Pearson, J. (2022, April). Research Justice: shifting from extractive study to humanized relationship. Panel discussion in the Rooted in Relationship: Power & Privilege in Food Systems Event at Duke University. 

CBC Radio. (2018, February 23). The politics of citation: Is the peer review process biased against Indigenous academics? 

EBSCO Connect. (2018, December 14). What are Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) publications? 

MacLeod, L. (2021). More than personal communication: Templates for citing Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers. KULA, 5(1), 1-5.

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The spiral of silence: A theory of public opinion. Journal of Communication, 24(2), 43-51.

1 Comment

  1. Katie Levin

    I’m so glad to have read this! You had me at “While many agree that ‘knowledge is power,’ few critically consider the flip side: Does power determine what is considered knowledge?”—but I was nodding my head even more as I continued through the rest of your piece. And as someone who supports student writers (including helping to create handouts and web resources on citation!), I now want to read Lorisia MacLeod—and I want to quote you in whatever we produce, because this is so well put: “Differentiating indigenous elders’ teachings from other personal communications helps us recognize and highlight these culturally significant sources of knowledge and ways of thinking.” Thank you for writing and sharing this piece!

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