The politics of citation: Is the peer review process biased against Indigenous academics?

"Publish or perish" is a phrase often used to describe the constant pressure academics face to publish their work. Having a healthy publishing record can have a real impact on job prospects, research grants and fellowships. But for Indigenous academics whose work focuses on Indigenous issues, the peer review process can be difficult to go through.
Kyle Powys Whyte is a professor at Michigan State University, and Sarah Hunt is an assistant professor of First Nations and Indigenous Studies at University of British Columbia. Both have experienced first hand how difficult the peer review process can be for Indigenous academics.
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Originally published February 25, 2018.

"Publish or perish" is a phrase often used to describe the constant pressure academics face to publish their work. 
The more often, the better.

In fact, having a healthy publishing record can have a real impact on job prospects, research grants and fellowships. 

But for Indigenous academics whose work focuses on Indigenous issues, the peer review process can be difficult to go through.

Peer reviewing is when an anonymous jury of academics working in the same field review an article submitted for publication, and decide whether or not it's a fit for the publication. The reviewers, who often don't know the identity of the author, will provide feedback on the article — ranging from praise to criticism.

"I actually know many scholars who decided to end their careers in academia because of the discrimination they faced in the peer review system," said Kyle Powys Whyte, professor of philosophy at Michigan State University. He is from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. 

Even if the research in question is written from an Indigenous perspective, Powys Whyte said Indigenous academics are often asked to cite the work of white male scholars, even if it is unrelated to the topic.

This is something Sarah Hunt, a professor at UBC's First Nation and Indigenous Studies program, said she's seen first hand. She is from the Kwakwaka'wakw nation. 

"I recently received three peer reviews on an article for a journal based in Europe — two were positive, and one just felt like I was being lectured and talked down to," said Hunt.

"[The review stated] I should be referencing all these white male scholars … in order to legitimize my work."

The reviewer also insinuated that Hunt's work does not add anything new to the canon, because previous non-Indigenous scholars have written similar ideas.

"It can be quite demoralizing, especially when you're writing about issues in your own community that you really care about."

Citational politics

In addition to being asked to cite non-Indigenous academics in their work, Hunt and Powys Whyte said that rising Indigenous academics are not often cited in the work of their peers.

"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," said Powys Whyte.

He added that in his field, publications written over 20 years ago continue to be cited, even though there are more current — and relevant — publications to draw from.

In the end, for Hunt, the problem with citational politics is whose work is being validated.

"It's really about who we cite in our work, whose work we hold up, which really validates and legitimizes  that as knowledge," said Hunt.


Click the Listen button above to hear the full conversation.

This story was updated on February 24th, Sarah Hunt was incorrectly identified as a PhD student in the main cutline. She is, in fact, an assistant professor at UBC.