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Who can you cite?

In a conversation this morning with some of my fellow sociology grad students, we were lamenting the length of the theory / literature review sections of sociology publications. Reading them is tedious, and having to write them puts those of us who do interdisciplinary work at a distinct disadvantage, compared to those in disciplines that favor shorter, timelier papers.

Completely separately, the other day I was reading (Cornell’s own) Steven Strogatz’s excellent New York Times blog making math accessible — and interesting — to non-mathematicians. In the most recent post, he mentioned the well-known, silly formula for bounding socially acceptable age differences in dating: the minimum acceptable age for a dating partner is defined as (n / 2) + 7, where n is one’s own age. *

These two things go together, I promise.

I propose a new heuristic for deciding what previous scholarly works to cite — do not cite any work produced a larger number of years ago than twice your age. It is 2010 and I was born in 1980, so the earliest acceptable work for me to cite is 1950. This is good, because I am now old enough for The Human Group, for example, but bad because I won’t be able to cite Simmel until I’m 80. But maybe that’s not so bad. As of now, younger and mid-career professors can cite most anything post-WWII, which seems pretty reasonable. Many senior faculty can reach back to Weber and Durkheim. Marx, on the other hand, is approaching the event horizon.

The benefits of this are clear. Younger scholars can focus on developing concrete findings but retain the ability to fit those findings into the theoretical developments of the past several decades. By the end of one’s career, in contrast, one gains the flexibility to situate one’s work in the larger context of the full intellectual history of the discipline.

* Note that the inverse function doesn’t necessarily work as the maximum acceptable age for a dating partner, just the age of the person for whom you represent the minimum acceptable age. It’s an open question as to whether acceptability goes in both directions– if a is an acceptable dating partner for b, is b an acceptable partner for a? I don’t think this is true. There are perhaps some age disparities in which either the younger or older partner would be seen as making a normatively unacceptable choice, but the other partner would not. I’d also suggest that (n / 2) + 7 is gender-specific. But I’m not a demographer or a gender scholar, and this isn’t even close to science anyway.



  1. scottgolder says:

    Alternative proposal: Number of citations must be <= (age + years_since_phd).

  2. Michael Bishop says:

    This: http://www.infiniteinjury.org/blog/2010/02/25/reading-originals/ is sorta related. My opinion is that reading originals is sometimes worthwhile, but that in many fields it is over-appreciated relative to its intellectual value.

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