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Academia as a Status Game
Which BLM Research Gets Cited?
In academia, citation is the coin of the realm. With occasional exceptions, professors cite more of what they value. Academics whose work is widely cited are then more likely to gain grants, tenure, promotions, and status. Since professors seek approval from administrators, funders and sometimes students, more broadly, citations demonstrate what the whole higher education industry values.
Does higher education value policy and administrative reforms likely to save black (and ideally other) lives? Or does higher education care more about virtue signalling and promoting a broad leftist agenda to enhance the power and status of academics and their institutions, whatever the impacts on most other human beings?
The genesis of this essay can be found in a 2019 academic conference in which one of us (Maranto) presented a paper, later published in Public Integrity,which ranked police departments in 21 of the 25 largest US cities by their success in 2015 in keeping homicide rates low and not killing civilians, while adjusting for poverty rates, since high poverty makes policing more difficult. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) topped the rankings, with very low homicide rates and the lowest rates of police killings of civilians despite the city’s relatively high poverty. (Our 2020 analyses of 50 cities again ranked NYPD first.) As with other attempts at bureaucratic reform, ranking police departments based on their success on these important metrics has the potential to drive improvements by encouraging less successful cities to copy their more successful peers. Since both police killings of civilians and much more common civilian-on-civilian homicides disproportionately take black lives, progress on these indicators would indeed make black lives matter.
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Almost any American without a PhD can see the value in this kind of research. But as recounted by one of us in the Wall Street Journal,other social scientists at the 2019 conference expressed confusion and at times astonishment as to why anyone interested in Black Lives Matter might study ways to improve policing. Instead, BLM researchers were interested in using the movement to increase progressive power. As of June 2020:
Using Google Scholar, the five most cited research articles and book chapters with “black lives matter” in the title include “a herstory of the #blacklivesmatter movement,” an article on “the evolving role of social media,” another on “mass struggle,” a commentary on racism and public health, and a piece on environmental justice. Other widely cited works study news coverage of the movement, youth activism, and the “migrant crisis” in Europe. Judging by their titles, none of the twenty most cited articles or chapters on Black Lives Matter directly seek ways to reduce police killings of black civilians.
Similarly, as of May 5, 2022, there was just one Web of Science citation for Franklin Zimring’s 2017 When Police Kill,a serious empirical analysis suggesting ways to reduce civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement. This (mis)allocation of research effort reflects the takeover of large sections of the social sciences by critical theory supporting activists seeking power (and grant funding), who are relatively uninterested in seeking to understand and ameliorate social problems like violent crime and police brutality.
Here we repeat the June 2020 Wall Street Journal analysis in a somewhat different way, focusing not on titles but, instead, on generating rankings by conducting a general keyword search on the Web of Science Core Collection for “black lives matter” and sorting by publications with the most citations as of April 20, 2022.The Web of Science is more restrictive than Google Scholar, yielding far fewer citations, in our experience over 95% fewer.
The 25 most cited works listed in the above table have a combined total of 1,704 citations. As in the 2020 search using Google Scholar, the vast majority of the Web of Science citations seemingly have little to do with either studies or commentary likely to save black lives. At least from their titles, the top five works, those with 98 or more Web of Science citations, resemble, and often are, the most influential publications of 2020 using Google Scholar, involving public health, millennial activism, and the migrant crisis in Europe. In addition, the second most widely cited piece discusses how political science as a field treats marginalized communities of color.As its authors explain: “Focusing on policing, we seek to unsettle the mainstream of a subfield that rarely inquires into governmental practices of social control and the ways ‘race-class subjugated communities’ are governed through coercion, containment, repression, surveillance, regulation, predation, discipline, and violence.” Such analyses seem unlikely to decrease either homicide or police violence against civilians. They are unlikely to help make black lives matter on this planet in any foreseeable time frame.
Generally, the highly cited articles listed in the table explore social media use and activism (4, including one piece involving Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and BLM), racial activism and white attitudes (3), immigration and migrants (2), anti-Blackness in higher education, “democratic repair,” radically re-imagining law, anti-Blackness of global capital, urban geography, counseling psychology, research on K-12 schools, BLM and “technoscientific expertise amid solar transitions,” BLM and “evidence based outrage in obstetrics and gynecology,” and BLM and differential mortality in the electorate. Again, we see little evidence of author (or citer) intent to save black lives in the works that frequently get cited.
Of the 25 most cited scholarly articles, only one, ranked 19th, from Public Administration Review, presents research that has the potential to save black and other lives in ways that are relatively immediate and related to law enforcement. It is titled “Preventing the Use of Deadly Force: The Relationship between Police Agency Policies and Rates of Officer-Involved Gun Deaths.”This fascinating article uses cross sectional data from 1,107 law enforcement agencies over 15 years, standardized by population. The authors, Jennings and Rubado, find no evidence that either community policing or having police officers who demographically resemble their cities reduces the number of fatal police shootings of civilians. In contrast, roughly half of departments require that officers file a report whenever they point their guns without shooting. (Virtually all require such reports when weapons are discharged.) Empirical evidence indicates that this simple reporting requirement substantially reduces police shootings of civilians, while managing not to increase shooting deaths of officers.
Most proper science is tentative, and sometimes reforms have unintended consequences. That said, the paper empirically evaluates practical ways to save lives, prescribing a reform with the potential to do so. This article accounts for just 44 (2.6%) of the 1,704 Web of Science citations of the 25 most cited articles found in the “black lives matter” keyword search. The Bearfield, Maranto, and Wolfranking of large police departments to identify those most successful at preserving life was cited just twice by Google Scholar as of May 2022 and not at all in the Web of Science. We doubt this article will ever rank among the top 1,000 cited BLM-related publications.
One force that sets a positive example other cities could follow is the aforementioned NYPD. Each year, its internal affairs division pushes dozens of officers to resign, retire early, or move to routine administrative duties like vehicle impoundment in which they are unarmed. Others are prosecuted, as longtime NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau Chief Charles Campisi documented in his lively Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops.An NYPD source indicates that about 300 officers, nearly 1% of the force, are on internal watch lists. When told that NYPD should feel satisfied having so few problematic officers, the source retorted that they had trouble sleeping at night since every one of those officers presented a “potential” George Floyd or Freddie Gray “situation.” In retrospect, Minneapolis and Baltimore might have been better off had more of their police administrators thought this way. Two years after the Floyd murder, observers believed that, along with civil service rules, the Minneapolis police union contract still posed undue burdens on police managers who wanted to hold their officers accountable.
In short, much can be done to improve policing in ways that would make all lives, but especially black lives, matter. Alas, currently, we cannot much rely on academia to help. If anyone intends research to save black lives rather than merely to promote radical causes and the careers of professors, then we need a major reorientation of social science research, and arguably, of the whole higher education enterprise.
Domonic Bearfield, Robert Maranto, and Patrick J. Wolf. 2020. “Making Violence Transparent: Ranking Police Departments in Major US Cities to Make Black Lives Matter.” Public Integrity, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10999922.2020.181060.
Robert Maranto. “Academia Fails to Improve Police Practices.” June 11, 2020, A17, and at https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-academia-failed-to-improve-police-practices-11591807543?mod=opinion_lead_pos5.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. In fairness, by May 2022 the work had 197 Google Scholar citations. As we note below, the Web of Science is far more restrictive than Google Scholar, though this varies considerably by field, in part since Google Scholar counts far more citations coming from non-journal sources like books and conference papers. See Alberto Martín-Martín, Enrique Orduna-Malea , Mike Thelwall, Emilio Delgado-López-Cózar. 2019. “Google Scholar, Web of Science, and Scopus: Which is best for me.” LSE Impact Blog.
On the rise of Critical Theory generally, see Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. 2020. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity. Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing.
See https://www.webofscience.com/wos/woscc/summary/f4d6c225-76bc-419a-8d14-eb663ae236e4-326fa58f/times-cited-descending/1. We thank then research assistant James Paul for undertaking this task.
Joe Soss and Vesla Weaver. 2017. “Police Are Our Government: Politics, Political Science, and the Policing of Race–Class Subjugated Communities.” Annual Review of Political Science 20(1): 565-591.
Jay T. Jennings and Meghan E. Rubado. 2017. “Preventing the Use of Deadly Force: The Relationship between Police Agency Policies and Rates of Officer-Involved Gun Deaths.” Public Administration Review 77: 2, 2017-226.
Op. cit., Footnote 1.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019.
Liz Navratil. “New Minneapolis Police Union Contract Makes Few Discipline Tweaks, Months After Election Focusing on Calls for Change.” Minneapolis Star-Tribune. March 19, 2022, retrieved June 9, 2023.