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Recently I submitted my first paper to a philosophy journal and got a rejection. This is of course nothing unusual, but as someone with a STEM background, I was surprised by the reason for the rejection: While there were no complaints regarding contents or correctness, it was felt that the paper failed to cite and engage with the recent literature on the topic.

The latter is indeed true: I did ignore the latest papers in the field and only referenced a handful of "classic" papers from the last century. But I also thought this was okay, as it seemed to me that the recent literature didn't add much to what was already covered by the classic papers, and was in any case not essential to the discussion.

Now, I'm not here to complain about having my paper rejected, or to argue about who's wrong or right. I just would like to know whether the requirement to cite the recent literature is a humanities-specific thing, or whether this is a common requirement in most fields. For instance, I imagine that if I had submitted a maths or computer science paper that referenced only a handful of classic and old, but relevant papers, my own paper, if correct and substantial, would have been accepted.

Note: Since people seem to misunderstand me, a bit of extra clarification: I don't have a problem with citing recent literature, if that's what it takes to get a philosophy paper published. I just want to know if this is more or less the same in most fields, including maths and CS. In the latter, so I believe, it's less of a big deal to cite the latest papers as long as the submitted paper correctly solves some well-known open problem.

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it seemed to me that the recent literature didn't add much — Then you should have argued in your paper that recent literature on the topic is irrelevant, with citations to the recent literature to back up your argument. –  JeffE Jun 27 at 19:43
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One of the most common hallmarks of papers by cranks and kooks is that they don't cite recent work in the field. For example, this happens with anti-relativity kooks who only cite work from 1930 and before. –  Ben Crowell Jun 27 at 22:51

7 Answers 7

up vote 20 down vote accepted

This question seems to be based on a common misconception about the role of citations (see this question for a related issue). Citations aren't just there to list content your work builds on; they're also there to provide the reader with context and motivation.

The reason you should be citing recent work is to help the reader. If you were familiar with various unsuccessful solutions, it's likely that some of them motivated the successful one, even if only by identifying things that couldn't work, and that merits a citation. Even if not, many of your readers are likely to be people who've thought a lot about one or more of those unsuccessful approaches; you're in the best position to explain how your approach differs.

(I'm writing from the perspective of mathematics, by the way.)

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If you were familiar with various unsuccessful solutions, it's likely that some of them motivated the successful one [...]; Reading this part of your answer, remembered me this question: Article that shows the complete publication history of acceptances and rejections of a successful academic –  Enthusiastic Student Jul 16 at 20:55

Your assumption is wrong: The requirement to cite the recent literature is a valid reason for rejection on many fields as well and is certainly not a humanities thing. Why? You give the answer yourself:

my own paper, if correct and substantial, would have been accepted

But how can the reviewer judge that (the substantial contribution at least) if you do not cite the recent papers? Perhaps what you propose, has already been done before and even in a better way that the one you propose in some recent papers. Science is not rebuilt from scratch every year and reading just a classic textbook is not enough to address the state-of-the-art in any field.

Also, not acknowledging the recent works is not only lazy (since you have not done the necessary "homework" regarding your scientific area) but it can also be intentionally misleading (perhaps you hide the recent papers because you know they are much better than yours). At the very best case, it is just ungrateful on those dealing with the same problem as you, since you seem not to consider their work significant enough for citing them on your paper. If you take into account that those reviewing your papers are also moving around the same problem area as you, by ignoring their work, is a sure way to get your paper rejected.

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"But how can the reviewer judge that (the substantial contribution at least) if you do not cite the recent papers?" -- By means of logical reasoning? Also, the problem and solution are well-defined, and those familiar with the field know that problem is substantial and that it has not been solved yet. –  python dude Jun 27 at 18:19
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@pythondude you just prove my point: ..."mostly of unsuccessful attempts at solving the problem". How would the reviewer know that, if you do not cite those attempts? –  Alexandros Jun 27 at 19:23
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I have rejected papers in applied physics journals for not citing recent literature. In those cases, it generally was because the result was not actually new (and in several was actually incorrect). As pointed out by @Alexandros, the proper way would be to summarize at least some recent (failed) attempts, and then establish why your contribution is actually new and novel. If the reviewer can't get a warm fuzzy feeling that you are actually up on the current thinking in the field you will have trouble. –  Jon Custer Jun 27 at 20:22
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Getting recent literature costs a lot of money in some fields. Just saying. –  horse hair Jun 27 at 20:39
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@pythondude if the recent literature consists of mostly of unsuccessful attempts at solving the problem, then your paper must state that and support it with evidence - citing the 'most successful' attempts and explaining why they're not appropriate. The only thing that 'well-known that it hasn't been solved yet' buys you is that you don't have to prove it, but you still must explicitly state it within the paper. If there's some 2013 paper that (on the first sight) claims to have a good solution as well, then it should be clear from reading your paper if you've taken it into account or not. –  Peteris Jun 28 at 13:31

In applied computer science, not citing recent literature (and in this case, "recent" really means "the last couple of years") correlates very strongly with rejection. Essentially, when I review a paper where all references are old according to the standards of the field, the reason can be either that:

  1. there is newer related work, and the author is not aware of it or wilfully ignores it
  2. there is indeed no recent related work; this is at least an indicator that the problem is either solved or deemed irrelevant by the community
  3. the paper has been written a long time ago and has been rejected at multiple previous attempts at publication
  4. the paper author is just a crank, who believes he has redefined (for instance) the concept of object-oriented programming

Points 1 and 4 warrant rejection on their own. Point 2 and 3 are at least a strong indicator that a paper should be rejected. That being said, I cannot remember ever rejecting a paper only for failing to cite recent literature. In all cases that come to my mind, this was just a minor sidenote and the paper actually got rejected for much more fundamental issues.

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I'd modify what you say just slightly: points 1 and 4 warrant rejection on their own, and points 2 and 3 are strong indicators that a paper should be rejected. (Admittedly, I'm coming from the perspective of a different field with quite different publishing practices.) –  Mark Meckes Jun 28 at 8:13
    
@MarkMeckes Agreed. –  xLeitix Jun 28 at 8:30

Citing papers is primarily to provide reference to the source of information gained from sources other than yourself in the study you are writing about. There are some instances where reference is made to works that provide background to the topic, in my field often review papers that summarize knowledge up to a point in time or papers that discusses methods and similar cases that can shorten your own description of some aspect of your manuscript

The main question is not so much if the latest material is cited but rather if the right material has been cited. Most research builds on earlier studies and is located at the cutting edge of knowledge so it seems unlikely that references to new or the latest findings within a subject would not have its place in a paper. That said, I would add that there is often a lack of historical knowledge as well. People (again in my field at least) reference papers from within the last five years for findings that were done half a century or more ago. This lack of knowledge about the origins of ideas can sometimes be problematic since one trusts someone else's interpretation of the original work when referencing new material that builds on the original.

So reference the right material, old as well as new, and be aware what the papers you cite actually say and from where they in turn sourced their information.

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You asked about maths and CS in particular. xLeitix wrote about CS; I am going to write about math from my perspective publishing in the field.

In math, there is much less of a need to cite "recent" work - although there is still some need, as I will explain below. In many areas of math (perhaps not all), the referee really can verify the arguments by logical reasoning, so references are less important to verify that the argument is correct. (Of course, if you use previous results, they will need to be cited.)

For this reason, citation practices in math are well known to be different than other fields. We publish less and have fewer citations on average than some other fields (so our journals have lower impact factors) and our citations are, on average, to "older" papers compared to other fields.

As a perhaps extreme example, I published a paper in 2010 with 14 references, of which 11 were published before the year 2000. The paper is in a respected, selective journal (an "A" journal in the Australian Math Society ranking). This paper is an outlier, though, compared to my other papers. My most recently accepted paper has 8 references: 1 is still a preprint, 2 were published in the last 4 years, 2 are from the 1990s, and 3 are from the 1970s. I don't think that is very far from normal in my area of mathematics.

When I referee papers in math, I look for references that:

  • Provide appropriate links to background material (these are particularly helpful for non-experts who read the paper).

  • Give appropriate credit for previous work.

  • Motivate the new work by showing how it relates to previous work. The 3 "newer" references in the paper from 2010 that I mentioned were exactly for this purpose. They showed how the problem we were studying had been posed by others, and how our work was related to published open questions in another area of mathematics.

When someone submits a paper to a selective math journal, the referees and editors will look for all these things. A paper that is full of brilliant technical results, but for which the editors can't see any motivation or interest, may end up being rejected because there are other papers that also have brilliant technical results, but which have clear motivation and are likely to be of interest to many others. Because journals have space limitations, correctness on its own is often not sufficient for a paper to be accepted.

At less selective math journals, correctness on its own may be the main criterion, but I would still expect a referee to comment on a under-referenced paper.


As for the situation in the question, it helps to remember that philosophy is generally focused on the types of problems that cannot be solved by mere logical reasoning. The same holds for many areas of the humanities, as well. In these fields, one cannot simply prove one's argument from commonly held axioms - the problems being studied are not amenable to simple logical analysis like mathematics problems. Each paper is viewed as a contribution to a discussion about the topic.

This leads to another key difference between citations in math and in some other fields. In mathematics, we usually try to cite the original source of an idea, to give credit to the first person to define or prove something. In other fields, the practice is instead to cite the most recent references on the idea, because they give a better representation on the current state of the discussion about the topic.

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It's dangerous not to cite works from the present. Most reviewers live in the present and have a "frame of reference" there. Your best shot would have been to hope for a bunch of reviewers who are now at least 45-50 years old, who remember "the good old days" of the past century. Apparently that didn't happen to you.

It's possible that there are some fields where, for whatever reason, the work done before the turn of the century was better than the work that was done after it. In that case, you might have to rely heavily on the pre-turn of the century work to critique the more recent work. But at least cite the recent work.

A paper or idea, even if meritorious that is not "modern" already has one strike against it. The damage is "double" or more, if you haven't considered (or at least appeared to have considered) the recent ideas in the field.

I found this out the hard way with my book "A Modern Approach to Graham and Dodd Investing" (Wiley, 2004), that preached that a "modern" version of the (1930s) ideas of Graham and Dodd would be more useful than the ideas that were then in vogue. But at least I couldn't be accused of "ignoring" them.

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I will try to add another perspective (I hope I don't repeat anybody else, if I do, please alarm me).

One of the measures that can be used in pre-review to see if the article is suitable are the references. For example, if your article cites only low-quality journals, it is presumed that it will be cited only in low-quality journals. Similarly, if it doesn't cite anything newer than X years (where X may vary from field to field), it is presumed that it is not interesting for the community and it will maybe not cited ever.

If the editor sees the article, doesn't find it very interesting, and moreover it has this problem, it may get rejected without review.

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