Braving Citational Justice within Human-Computer Interaction

Neha Kumar (Georgia Tech) & Naveena Karusala (UW)

On October 29, 2020, Naveena and I (Neha) were invited by Katta Spiel to talk about citational justice at their public lecture series on critical perspectives on technology. The talk was not recorded but we share an abridged version of it here for those who may like to read and respond, and participate in the next steps we list at the end.

A fist, in green, holding up a pencil. But so much more than that.
Thank you for this sketch, Katta Spiel!

We aim to engage our readers in a dialogue on the topic of citational justice in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) — to define what this means, and to create space for a critical consciousness to emerge around this topic. We hope this takes us — the HCI community — to a place of greater awareness, purpose, and responsiveness around issues we raise.

Why Citational Justice

We are scholars who are originally from the Global South, and conduct research in the Global South. We are also employed at elite academic institutions in the United States. Our work has been cited generously by many, and we duly recognize this privilege. We also relate to and draw from experiences of not being cited in related “mainstream” HCI research, shared by many of our colleagues who work in the Global South. We contend that there are biases at play; this is why we write this post.

We began to focus on citational practices last November, when an article in the Interactions magazine chose to cite us, calling us out for being on the other, the wrong side of citational justice. We were missing an important citation [Rankin & Thomas 2019; Kumar & Karusala 2019]¹. There are justifications to be offered, but in the end we were responsible for overlooking the work of the authors. As we made sense of their article and our culpability, we came to ask more questions: Why do we (all) cite how we cite? Where do we look for knowledge? And in the process, who do we omit to cite and why? Is it fundamentally a question of what we can “get away with”? Where does responsibility lie? Is it with the individuals or the institutions and power structures of which they are a part?

Going deeper, we also questioned how we recognized and valued good work, because that is intimately tied with whose work we choose to value and cite. Also, how do we make our work good, and in doing so, how do we make sense of difference, of work that is seemingly not like ours?

Because Papers Have Politics

Our papers have politics, much like technological artifacts [Winner 1980], and are embedded in a larger politics of knowledge production [Dillahunt 2020, Causevic et al. 2020, Mott & Cockayne 2017]. Dillahunt talks about subfield bias in HCI, describing how certain research topics, or ways of knowing are valued more than others in the field [2020]. Causevic et al. draw attention to more generally recognized biases around whose work is valued or made possible, highlighting how Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), queer, and Dalit scholars are routinely overlooked in scholarship, online spaces, historical narratives, and cultural institutions [2020].

Citations reflect these biases to convey how ideas are valued (or not) [Chivukula 2020, Chivukula & Gray 2020, Jacques & Sebire 2010, Earhart et al. 2020]. The act of citing can also distort or amplify work over time [Marshall et al. 2017, Marshall & Linehan 2017, Greenberg 2009], for example by using cursory cites that misrepresent a paper to readers [Marshall et al. 2017]. Citations, or the lack thereof, can serve to erase work over time, disproportionately impacting women and people of color [Bailey & Trudy 2018, Chakravartty et al. 2018]. Also, papers can make assumptions about their audience and signal who is considered the default readership and who is on the margins [Kou et al. 2018].

These biases do engender material consequences. Citations are heavily correlated with recognition of work, and feed into awards and tenure, as well as more informal rewards. Latour and Woolgar’s study of currency in knowledge production describes how “the object of ‘purchase’ is the scientist’s ability to produce some sort of information in the future.” Beyond one-off awards, recognition meant that scientists were more accepted and received more opportunities [Latour & Woolgar 1979]. If we view citations are wealth, then the question arises: how is this wealth distributed and to whom?

Thinking About (Citational) Justice

Distribution of wealth and assets has been a central topic of study in theories of justice that we frequently engage with in our field of Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD). Rawls, Nussbaum, Sen, and others ask what should be distributed, whether it is material resources [Rawls 1971] or capabilities to achieve wellbeing [Nussbaum 2011, Sen 1992]. They also ask how resources should be distributed [Nussbaum 2011, Rawls 1971], whose duty it is to ensure justice [Lötter 2011, Nussbaum 2011], and how we might know when justice has been achieved [Rawls 1971, Sen 2009].

In HCI we see a strengthening line of work building on the above and other theories of justice, asking how the benefits and burdens of research and design are distributed, by Costanza-Chock [2018], Fox, Asad, and colleagues [Fox et al. 2016 — 2017, Asad 2019, Asad et al. 2019], as well as how design can grapple with issues of recognition, reciprocity, enablement, or distribution [Dombrowski et al. 2016]. It is also important to consider the role of consequences in justice when harm is done [Anonymous 2019]. Retribution assumes that crime should be met with proportional punishment, while restoration asks: who has been harmed, how can their needs be met, and how can those involved put things right?

Thinking about justice as distribution fails to call attention to how distribution happens and the social relations that underlie it, our main focus here. Iris Marion Young, a political theorist and socialist feminist, offers a relational perspective on justice that we now turn to [1990]².

Iris Marion Young: Oppression as a Structural Concept

Rainer Forst says of Young’s take on justice: “Justice is not primarily about evaluating end-states or distributions of goods regardless of how they came about; justice is a relational virtue of the actions, structures, and institutions in which persons stand to each other as social and political subjects, be they structures of the production and distribution of material goods or of the exercise of political power” [2007].

The focus for Young is on structures rather than the individual. According to her, social justice does not require the disappearance of differences, but instead, institutions that promote the reproduction of and respect for group differences without oppression. She speaks of the shifts in the meaning, the concept of oppression brought about by the new left social movements in the ’60s and ’70s. “In its new use,” Young notes, “oppression designates the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power coerces them, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society.” She adds that its “causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules.” She also stresses that the “conscious actions of many individuals daily contribute to maintaining and reproducing oppression, but those people are usually simply doing their jobs or living their lives, and do not understand themselves as agents of oppression.

This lens of justice seems apt for our scrutiny of citational practices because there is no tyrannical power that coerces us to adopt particular everyday practices. Rather, there are unquestioned norms we are accustomed to which prevent us from viewing ourselves as responsible for oppression. Unpacking “oppression” further, Young says that whether a group is oppressed or not depends on whether it has been subjected to one or more of five faces of oppression: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence.

We frame citational justice as a response to these faces of oppression. This allows us to do two things. First, it draws our attention away from assigning blame to an individual towards recognizing the structures and practices that we are so deeply and unquestioningly embedded in. At the same time, it does not keep us from taking responsibility for our actions at a personal level — how we cite and do not cite, and more deeply, whose contributions to knowledge we draw on or unconsciously overlook. We now elaborate on these faces that Young theorizes about, and how citational justice emerges as a function of these in the world of knowledge production.

FACE 1: EXPLOITATION

Young says, “Social rules about what work is, who does what for whom, how work is compensated, and the social process by which the results of work are appropriated operate to enact relations of power and inequality. These relations are produced and reproduced through a systematic process in which the energies of the have-nots are continuously expended to maintain and augment the power, status, and wealth of the haves.” She adds, “The injustices of exploitation cannot be eliminated by redistribution of goods, for as long as institutionalized practices and structural relations remain unaltered, the process of transfer will re-create an unequal distribution of benefits.”

We translate these concerns to the following questions: What differentiates the haves from the have-nots in the processes and practices of knowledge production? How might we train ourselves to better recognize this power, status, and wealth? And how might we reimagine these institutional practices and structural relations?

The Rich Get Richer

We begin by naming some of the ways in which citational practices have shown up routinely for us and our colleagues, because naming is a good place to start. We refrain from giving citable examples because our intent is not to assign blame. In fact, we are not without our own guilt; indeed we have learned how to cite while embedded in these practices.

Common enough is the Cite-Me Cite, the “Just add this cite to my paper and I’ll mark your paper as an accept.” There is the Name-Agnostic Cite, where names that are hard to recognize or generally unfamiliar are Othered like so: “Other HCI authors have studied… [x].” The In-the-Global-South Cite simultaneously expands and reduces the contribution of a work to the Global South: “This broad concept has also been studied in the Global South [x].” Similarly common is the Unrelated-to-the-North Cite that goes a step further to say: “Maybe this has been studied extensively in the South but we will skip that very well-known literature and rediscover our own knowledge.” Throwaway cites or Just-Another Cites show up quite commonly, as in “HCI has looked at rainbows [2, 5, x, 10, 23, 33, 39, 45, 54, 67, 79, 85, 90]”; these have been studied by Marshall and colleagues [2017]. These have really nothing to do with the Global South. And then, there is No Cite, that simply overlooks related work; whether intentionally or unintentionally, we will never know, though it cannot hurt to remind ourselves here of the fundamental attribution error, regardless [Harman 1999].

The haves here might include, though certainly not always, people with relative privilege, perhaps because they are relatively senior or supported by more elite institutions and can afford to be gatekeepers. These are people who can have their work published even if they do not list some names while listing others. If we can get our papers accepted without being asked to address the omission of certain works, we are less likely to make an intentional effort to get to know this literature.

FACE 2: MARGINALIZATION

Young defines marginalization as occurring when “[a] whole category of people is expelled from useful participation in social life and thus potentially subjected to severe material deprivation and even extermination” — as scholars on the margins of HCI have been. She also stresses, “Dependency should not be a reason to be deprived of choice and respect, and much of the oppression many marginals experience would be lessened if a less individualistic model of rights prevailed.” She additionally asserts that marginalization does not entail issues of distributive justice alone, but “also involves the deprivation of cultural, practical, and institutionalized conditions for exercising capacities in a context of recognition and interaction.”

All this to say the margins of HCI are many, and much more populated than we think! How might we move a step away from individualistic models of knowledge production? And how might we foster greater solidarity towards the collective good?

Cycles of Marginalization

We have likely all noted cycles of marginalization perpetuated in the worlds around us. We routinely find the “rich getting richer” and the “poor getting poorer”. In our field, these cycles take a different form. The cycles below that we do have evidence for — what stops us from taking action to disrupt them? If we don’t have the evidence, perhaps that then is the place to intervene?

  • Global inequities prevent participation in conferences that are expensive and far. Conferences are still held expensively and far.
  • Elite universities contribute papers in large numbers. Papers from elite universities continue to be considered more worthy of acceptance (and subsequently citation).
  • BIPOC scholars are in smaller numbers and less cited to begin with. Citational practices continue to overlook their work, mostly likely on account of unconscious biases.
  • Lack of diversity in awards committees can perpetuate unconscious biases and inequities in future selection of awardees.
  • Inequities in recognition are exacerbated when individuals are rewarded instead of collective bodies of work.

FACE 3: POWERLESSNESS

Young notes: “Nonprofessionals suffer a form of oppression in addition to exploitation, which I call powerlessness.” She adds that “most people in these societies do not regularly participate in making decisions that affect the conditions of their lives and actions, and in this sense, most people lack significant power.” Also: “To that extent many people have some power in relation to others, even though they lack the power to decide policies or results.… the powerless are situated so that they must take orders and rarely have the right to give them.”

Who are the non/less professionals in HCI? What are the assumptions we make about these individuals? How do these assumptions come in the way of citational justice? A lot of this boils down to representation and inclusivity of cultures. We mentioned subfield bias. Notions of quality are shaped significantly by the assumptions we make that we could perhaps check ourselves on. Some of these are listed below.

Assumptions We Make

These are not assumptions that are articulated quite as we write them below. Exaggerated for effect to convey how several reviews end up getting read and what they reveal about dominant attitudes towards knowledge production.

  • “Qualitative work is not generalizable, therefore questionable in quality.”
  • “Blogs, news reports, etc. are not valid sources of knowledge.”
  • “This work was not published at CHI or CSCW (or another top venue).”
  • “Work done at better known institutions is obviously good.”
  • “Work that targets social justice/activism is not quality research.”
  • “Academic writing looks and sounds a certain way.”
  • “Good papers are written in good English.”
  • “Work done in the Global South obviously lacks rigor.”

FACE 4: CULTURAL IMPERIALISM

According to Young, “To experience cultural imperialism means to experience how the dominant meanings of a society render the particular perspective of one’s group invisible at the same time as they stereotype one’s group and mark it out as the Other.” Further, “often without noticing they do so, the dominant groups project their own experience as representative of humanity as such. […] Since only the dominant group’s cultural expressions receive wide dissemination, their cultural expressions become the normal, or the universal, and therefore the unremarkable.” And, “while the subject desires recognition as human, capable of activity, full of hope and possibility, she receives from the dominant culture only the judgment that she is different, marked, or inferior.”

Who does HCI end up Othering? What are these Othering practices in the field? How might these practices come in the way of citational justice?

Othered, then Uncited

Some of these examples below are (only mildly) exaggerated for effect, to draw attention to how these reviews are read and experienced. They have been tweaked slightly to preserve anonymity, but represent first-hand knowledge.

  • Work in the Global South must “save” the most marginalized populations (e.g., “why did the sample not include the poorest communities?”)
  • The role of religion and faith matters mainly outside of the North (e.g., “this paper must be rejected because it does not explicitly mention religion”)
  • Culture contributes novelty only in the South (e.g., “what about India makes this different?”)
  • Paternalism is okay when directed towards Southern populations (e.g., “women in the South are more fragile”)
  • Ethical standards are universally applicable (e.g., “did this study have IRB approval?”)
  • Work done in the Global South lacks good English (e.g., “this paper is written in surprisingly good English given that the first author is Chinese”)

These are some of the ways in which we Other; these generate suspicion around the work, question its authority, and mark it as separate from “us”. No matter whether the intent is real, the experience certainly is.

FACE 5: VIOLENCE

Young says, “While the frequency of physical attack on members of these and other racially or sexually marked groups is very disturbing, I also include in this category less severe incidents of harassment, intimidation, or ridicule simply for the purpose of degrading, humiliating or stigmatizing group members.” She adds, “What makes violence a face of oppression is less the particular acts themselves, though these are often utterly horrible, than the social context surrounding them, which makes them possible and even acceptable.”

Here we pose two questions. First, how might we encounter violence in the context of citational justice? And second, how might we counter violence towards citational justice?

(En)Countering Violence

As Young acknowledges, there are degrees of degradation and violence. We share some examples here — our own and others’ — of encountering and countering violence. In the first case, we see an example where a large fraction of our HCI community is marginalized: “[Insert health topic experienced by most women] is a niche topic. It may be challenging to find participants interested in engaging with this.”

In a recent CSCW paper, Erete and colleagues talk about epistemic violence that Black scholars have historically been at the receiving end of. “Unsurprisingly, a significantly low percentage of CSCW or HCI publications are authored by Black scholars [54, 63]. In essence, the review process, with its “objective criteria,” which is subject to the interpretations of reviewers who tend to support research aims endorsed primarily by White scholars, becomes a site of violence” [Erete et al. 2020].

Mott and Cockayne talk about the longer term consequences of low citation counts, given the systemic biases that persist: “When we acknowledge in the studies highlighted above that women, people of color, queer, and otherwise othered voices are marginalized or disregarded in academic publishing practices [Anonymous 2002; Domosh 2014b; Monk and Hanson 1982], it is insulting to assume that another’s work is not profoundly relevant and well-informed simply because their work is not well known, or because they are not highly cited” [Mott & Cockayne 2017].

In an anonymous essay on citational justice issues in a different academic community, we read about the occurrence of actual physical violence raising questions about citational practices. We recommend the full article linked below, but here’s an excerpt that talks about how physical violence circles back to citations: “Most of Bond’s audience would have been aware of Harris’ recent retirement in the wake of a harassment lawsuit, and would probably have understood her to be pointing to this as the reason to cite other scholars. […] she no longer cites influential digital humanist Franco Moretti because of allegations against him” [Anonymous 2019].

And now coming back to the missing citation that we started out with: “While Kumar and Karasula (sic) did not cite Thomas et al.” [Rankin & Thomas 2019]. We were advised by some to take an adversarial stance, to “fight back”. But this is the point where Young’s advocacy for shifting from personal to political responsibility comes in (see below). As women of color, we can feel the pain of being called out thus, we can even be angry or consider it unjust that things unfolded as they did. But as women of color, and as humans in general, we can also still take responsibility for recognizing our complicity, apologizing, and doing better. For being on the same side, and the right side, of citational justice.

Efforts to do Better

We are not the first to recognize challenges around citing. There have been significant efforts to improve citational practices that we acknowledge here. There are database repositories of work by groups that have traditionally been underrepresented (e.g., CiteHER, UC Boulder’s collection of publications/projects by BIPOC alumni, Cite Black Authors). It can be helpful to create new social/professional networks that prioritize learning about who does what (e.g., through workshops, and the Gender, Health, and Wellbeing Collective that we recently formed) and amplifying scholars from underrepresented backgrounds (e.g., POC Also Know Stuff, Cite Black Women). Zines have been effective for discussing how to improve citational practices, for example “How to Cite like a Badass Feminist Tech Scholar of Color” by Amrute and colleagues [2019]. A number of papers discuss how deeper engagement in cites [Marshall et al. 2017, Chivukula 2020], being aware of who is represented in bibliographies [Mott & Cockayne 2017], or courageously self-citing [Amrute et al. 2019] can generate greater recognition for scholars from historically underrepresented groups.

Moving Forward with a Critical Consciousness

More than just a distribution of wealth, we can view citations relationally. Young’s framework offers us a path. She argues for political responsibility, where we all fight injustice because we recognize that we all participate in processes that produce injustice. In taking responsibility, we also move towards developing a critical consciousness of oppression [Freire 1996] and begin to take collective action against injustice. This requires us all to recognize how we’ve been complicit in injustice, whether around citations or other facets of knowledge production.

Citations are symptoms that are reflective of biases, as we mentioned above. Fixing citations cannot fix biases, but we can view them as anti-racist, feminist technologies [Mott & Cockayne 2017]. Or as opportunities to draw attention to the work of women of color scholars [Amrute et al. 2019], and to engage deeply with the work we build on, rather than relegating it to a sea of references [Marshall et al. 2017].

We can also use citations to demonstrate creative connections and unearth ties to seemingly different work. Identifying commonalities in a sea of differences can be done by drawing on principles of feminist solidarity in the work we connect with. Here we offer our work as an example [2019], where we build on postcolonial feminist scholar Mohanty [2003] to argue for understanding and connecting on similarities in a way that honors differences; we ask how you might reconsider what is similar and different. Is a work too different to cite if it happens in a different country, or might this be a form of Othering? Is a work too niche if it focuses on a specific population, or can we abstract out lessons learned? We can also review and recommend citations more generously and without blame, to encourage others to make connections across differences.

Make no mistake, this is a call for collective action. We must break the culture of unnecessary silence around citations, which Freire [1996] deems crucial for a critical consciousness to emerge. How might we normalize talking about and improving citational practices towards more responsible knowledge production overall? How might we cultivate greater awareness around how reviewing is one of the most influential social relations in research? How might we disincentivize reviewing behaviors that are insensitive to the politics of knowledge production? How might we make it safe to call in people about lack of recognition, to visibilize biases, and focus on doing better?

A collective effort to legitimize and then address these questions above can serve as an initial step in eventually helping us and our institutions move towards a more just evaluation of research, awards, and promotions, particularly in light of issues such as subfield bias [Dillahunt 2020]. It must not be the work of scholars located on the margins to muster enough courage to ask for recognition for their contributions, particularly when these are published in the same elite venues and otherwise too. They must not be the only ones braving citational justice within HCI. This is our task — to act with courage and take responsibility for our past mistakes, to correct our paths as we move forward.

Next Steps

We hope to put together a workshop on this topic, and invite you to participate in this effort with us — to brainstorm ways in which we can work together towards removing citational injustices in HCI. This may involve, for example, recommendations for sensitively bringing voice to the challenges around citations that have been affecting scholars in our community, suggestions for studies that might be done to generate more knowledge around why this is a matter of justice, or ideas around design interventions that could address issues raised above.

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Footnotes

  1. We missed seeing the paper by Thomas et al. [2018] that wrote about intersectional computing when we wrote our article with the same title; our piece was written and submitted a few weeks after theirs came online, as best as we can rely on internet records. We have since talked on several occasions and hope to continue working together in the future.
  2. We acknowledge here that our intimate, and inarguably liberating, introduction to Young’s philosophy is owed to Nassim Parvin, and takes root in prior co-authored research (by Neha, Nassim, and Mehrab Bin Morshed) [2018].

Associate Prof at Georgia Tech; Chair of ACM Future of Computing Academy; SIGCHI Vice President at-Large

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