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I know that typically, unpublished references (i.e. references not published in some journal, especially online resources) are highly discouraged. I'm working on a paper regarding Bluetooth LE implementations, and most of the materials relevant to my paper are either online (i.e. on mailing lists discussing implementation of Bluetooth LE on Linux, or manufacturers documenting limitations of their Bluetooth LE chips) or in the Bluetooth 4.0 standard itself.

Is it appropriate to use these online references? They're pretty much my only source of information, as my paper is mostly on real-world implementations of Bluetooth LE.

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The real question is not, "Can I reference this source?" If you use it, of course you must reference it. The question is "Can I use this as a source of information?" –  ff524 Apr 25 at 20:52
    
@ff524: Yeah, that's a more correct wording of the question. I'll update it. –  Cornstalks Apr 25 at 20:52
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up vote 3 down vote accepted

If your paper is on "real-world implementations of Bluetooth LE" then mailing lists on implementations of Bluetooth LE and manufacturers' documentation of Bluetooth LE products are your primary sources. This is akin to e.g., a historian using Napoleon's informal personal correspondence as a source for information on his world.

Of course, you should consider where these sources come from in how you use them. If you read on a mailing list or forum,

Bluetooth LE is the worst thing ever. Mine never works!

you would not use it as a factual source to conclude that Bluetooth LE is terrible. You certainly could use it as a source to indicate that some users have experienced frustration with early implementations of Bluetooth LE. (I cite bug tickets often in my own papers.)

Bad use of informal source:

Bluetooth LE is not a good technology [1].

[1] "Let's all complain about Bluetooth LE here," Bluetooth User Forum, posted April 1 2104, http:/bluetoothforum/lets-complain, retrieved April 25 2014.

Good use of informal source as a primary source:

Bluetooth LE users have expressed frustration with the technology [1].

[1] "Let's all complain about Bluetooth LE here," Bluetooth User Forum, posted April 1 2104, http:/bluetoothforum/lets-complain, retrieved April 25 2014.

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Is it appropriate to refer to these online references? They're pretty much my only source of information, as my paper is mostly on real-world implementations of Bluetooth LE.

Referencing web-pages whose content can change (and that are not explicitly versioned) is far from ideal. What you are citing the web-page for may disappear today, tomorrow, the next day: you don't know. Furthermore, you may not know who authored the content, or how reliable the claims made in the content are.

However, particularly in applied areas of Computer Science, it can often be necessary to reference online material.

My personal rules for this are as follows:

  • If the web-page refers to a versioned standard of some sort (e.g., a W3C or ISO standard), with a clear author and/or editor list, use a bibliographic citation. (You can always use Google Scholar to check for precedent of the page in question having been previously cited; Bluetooth 4.0 has been cited 20 times)
  • For other web-pages (whose authorship is not clear or that may not be versioned), reference it with a footnote and the date you accessed it.

I have seen papers use the bibliography for URLs without explicit authors, but for me, it's poor style (as well as being incompatible with a lot of citation systems).

The second option should be used sparingly in my opinion.

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