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Medieval scholarship and postmodern science

We have inherited a great deal from early medieval scholars, including the way we refer to the work of other scientists in our writing. The hegemony of privileged men crediting the work of other privileged men started in the academies and cloisters – “secundum quod Averroes dicit...” or “as Averroes* said…”  – but we can see the echoes today, and not only in standard APA citation systems.

Why does this matter? Well, just possibly, this is both the origins and the visible legacy of our tendency for power and influence within academic and professional circles to bounce between members of friendship circles.

White, Oxbridge-educated, heterosexual, men tend to make reference to the work of their friends – other White, Oxbridge-educated, heterosexual, males. We cite our friends (or, too often, ourselves).

One of the achievements of which I’m most proud, from my time in a leadership position at the University of Liverpool, was helping secure an Athena Swan Silver Award, recognising our commitment to equity and opportunity and specifically in supporting and advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths, and medicine in higher education and research. Although women frequently lead team science, their contribution is often erased.

As with many areas of academic life, psychology cannot claim to be perfect here. I’m a heterosexual, White, Oxbridge-educated, UK-born male professor, President of a Society with a much more diverse membership.

The statistics – in academia and in practitioner experiences – is that it is hugely more difficult for my female colleagues (constituting the majority of the profession and discipline) to progress. Equally, we are less than perfect in promoting colleagues from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

I don’t think our legacy from medieval scholarship is the only reason for this unfortunate state of affairs… but it’s a useful focus for me to introduce the issues.

We don't have to carry on doing things as they’ve always been done. I love medieval history, but sometimes its good to move forward. We could cite scientific advances in other ways. My Vice Chancellor would probably be pleased if we switched to crediting the institution supporting the research, but we could also cite the funder.

More to the point, in the era of doi’s and digital metadata, we may soon see significant reform of the systems of scientific citation. I love international conferences, but maybe that’s because I enjoy consolidating my (potentially biased) network of collaborators.

We could think about organising conferences differently. The SciFoo conference I recently attended in California was organised on a completely different basis to conventional academic conferences, for example, and we probably benefited from it.

Traditionally, academics have avoided speaking to the mass media and the general public, and I, for one, would welcome more inclusive dissemination of our research.

Perhaps we could do more to reward scientific collaboration as well as individual scientific success. More widely… we need to ensure that we are fully prepared to challenge received practices and make radical changes to enable greater equity and equality of opportunity.


* This is a quote from Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus, where he cited the work of Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rushd and Latinised his Islamic Andalusian name to ‘Averroes’.