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I sometimes find an article published in several conferences.

If similar material is published in different conference proceedings, how do I choose which one to cite?

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Can you give a real-world example? I realize you might have to put some care into choosing the example if you want to preserve anonymity, but it would be much easier to answer the question if we could see the sort of situation you are facing. – Anonymous Mathematician Dec 27 '12 at 23:02
Publishing similar material at different conferences is usually forbidden. Perhaps you mean publishing a short-version at a conference and publishing a longer-version in a journal. Or maybe you mean publishing papers with a common underlying theory. – user2768 Oct 18 '14 at 19:50
@user2768 that is a rule in CS, where conferences are the main way of transmitting information. In other fields it is very common to repeat content in conferences. – Davidmh Oct 19 '14 at 14:57
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Normally you should cite the most recent version, which is probably also the most prestigious venue (normally republication is done while ideas are working their way up the prestige ladder). It's possible that only the earlier version contains the material you want to cite though, but unless that's substantially longer than a later version, then I would assume that means the author(s) have recanted that part, and you should probably mention that in your article e.g. "Bryson (1986) claims fish can fly (p. 253), though note later work does not reiterate this claim (Bryson 1991; Bryson 1993)."

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I have a paper that I had to cut in length by a factor of two, and I often recommend looking at the tech report/working paper version of the journal publication as it contains more interesting results. – StasK Dec 28 '12 at 16:31

It's a little unusual to have the same or even similar material published in different venues. First of all, you didn't say whether your area uses conferences as primary publication venues or not - I'm assuming it does, otherwise why even cite a conference publication.

In that case, what exactly are you citing in the article ? If it's a specific result (empirical, theoretical etc), then probably the oldest venue where it appears is the first occurrence of that result, and should be cited. If you're citing background material or motivation, then either the first paper that discusses the relevant motivation, or maybe a survey article ?

At any rate, the key is to understand exactly what you're citing the article for, and find the oldest occurrence of that concept.

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I don't think this is unusual at all. Many people put drafts online e.g. arxiv, or "publish" in workshops before conferences, and conferences before journals. Also, material may appear in papers before or after it appears in a dissertation. Looking for the most archival version of a paper is a skill I always teach my research students. – Joanna Bryson Dec 28 '12 at 14:27
Yes that's true. I was just a little surprised by the "difference conference proceedings" which I interpreted as "multiple conferences" as opposed to "workshop, conference, arxiv" which as you point out is quite normal. – Suresh Dec 28 '12 at 16:24

You should have two goals in mind when choosing what to cite:

  1. Give credit, by citing the first person to discover the result, in the form in which it was originally found

  2. Helping the reader interested in looking the result up and learn it in more depth.

Either one of them can be more important than the other, depending on the type of your paper and of the context of the specific citation.

The two goals are often conflicting; for instance, #1 might tell you to use an obscure conference proceeding with a clumsy first version of the result, and #2 might suggest to use a clear exposition in a book by another author instead. You might want to go for a tradeoff instead and cite a newer paper by the first author with a better version of the result.

In any case, if your choice is backed up by either of these two rationales, or by a suitably weighted linear combination of them, then in my opinion no one can blame you.

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On a number of occasions, I found myself knowing the author personally pretty closely, and would ask them which version they want me to cite. On other occasions, I would cite whichever source I read first, and just stick to that. People should not be cited five times for one idea; it is little of my business to untangle their political games of publishing the same stuff in different journals (a very common thing in the social sciences I mingle with), and I would do whatever works for me, not for them.

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Cite all versions! I find this practice useful, because it gives me all the information that the author has. Ideally, you should explain the distinctions between different versions too.

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This is not always a realistic option when you are under a strong page limit (and references are counted in the page limit). – a3nm Oct 19 '14 at 9:00
@a3nm, individual citations can be condensed and/or merged, i.e., a single citation can include all versions. – user2768 Oct 26 '14 at 17:25

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