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I want to write: "A recent study ...",

The particular study I want to cite was published two years ago. I don't think that this is very recent in terms of journal appearances. But it is the most recent I could find compared to similar studies, which is what I want to emphasize.

But what are the general semantics of "recent" when referencing sources?

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10  
If the date of the study matters, why not "A study from 2014...."? – mdiener Mar 9 at 0:44
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It is an ineffective way of saying "This is important!" As a reviewer I would probably tolerate descriptions of anything from the past ten years as "recent." – Anonymous Physicist Mar 9 at 1:32
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In my mind recent is anything that is new enough that it hasn't been fully absorbed (worked its way into later research, publications and into people's minds). That might depend on recent to whom -- a 20 year-old mathematical theory might well be too recent to have fully worked its way into engineering practice, so if you're writing to the engineering audience it could be appropriate to call it recent. – Owen Mar 9 at 3:40
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Redundancy is not a bad thing in academic writing. – Dirk Mar 9 at 5:23
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Keep in mind that recent to you may not be recent to a future reader. If you have something more specific to convey ("most recent at the time of writing", "unsettled", "currently the hip and trendy thing that gets grants"), you'd be best served being more specific. Otherwise, your reader will have to look at your paper's publication date and try to work out what you meant from context. – Jeffrey Bosboom Mar 9 at 10:26
up vote 16 down vote accepted

Good question. The semantics of the word "recent", in general, and in academic writing, in particular, is not clearly defined (that is, fuzzy), which makes its practical use quite tricky, as evidenced by your question.

While @vonbrand's answer offers some valuable insights, such as considering the fluidity of a particular scientific field or domain, I would suggest a more practical solution to this problem, as follows. Consider literature that you reference in a particular paper. What is the temporal range of the sources? I think that this aspect could guide you in to where the word "recent" is appropriate and where not so much.

For example, if you cite sources from the current century as well as 1930s, then a paper from 2010 should be considered recent, but not one from 1950. If, on the other hand, your temporal range of references is rather narrow, say, recent 20 years, then you should refer to as "recent" for sources that are from approximately last 4-5 years. You can come up with your own rule of thumb (10-20% of the total range sounds pretty reasonable). The most important aspect would be not the actual value (for the rule of thumb), but rather your consistency in applying it throughout the paper.

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1  
Thank you, so far the best answer! – thrau Mar 10 at 12:45
    
@thrau: My pleasure! Thank you for kind words and accepting. – Aleksandr Blekh Mar 10 at 20:45

It depends on the area. If you are talking about slow moving areas, "recent" could be a decade ago; for something that moves fast, what was published last year is old hat.

Perhaps the easiest way out is to be more specific, "a study three years back..." (besides, the study might be several years back, or be a decade long study, but the journal issue just came out, so the publication date isn't necessarily telling).

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As previously mentioned, the meaning of 'recent' depends on the topic of study. What is considered recent in mathematics may not be considered recent enough for computer science. My computer science professors have generally stuck with anything five years old as being the 'oldest' an article can be. Two to three years is generally better, especially in the tech field as things progress at a much higher rate. A good thing to look out for is when an article might pass the 5 year mark, someone will most likely have adapted the methodology or research findings in a more recent article. Best of luck!

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It depends.

If you refer to something that has a precise date, you should be precise. I see no advantage in writing "A recent study showed..." over "The study X from 2010 showed..." The latter contains more information and reads as least as good (in my opinion even better, because it's more precise). A similar case is "The problem posed by X at the meeting Y in 2010..." (better than "The recently posed problem...").

One case in which "recent" could make sense is "The field X has attracted much attention recently" because usually one can not pin down an exact date for this event. However, in most cases this reads more like a self-perpetuating empty statement (if there is a simple reason why the reader should care about the field X then give that!). I have to admit that I myself also wrote sentences like this, but looking back it reads a bit weird. Nowadays, if I read "this field has attracted much attention recently" I really read that the authors do not know a good reason why their problem is interesting but feel that they should.

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On a slightly related note, how would you feel about "This field has attracted much attention recently because reasons"? – svavil Mar 9 at 22:40
    
I would say, the more precise the better. Probably in such a sentence just giving the reason that you feel that make the field exciting is enough. The additional information that these exciting facts resulted in "much attention recently" seems not so important. I would find it even better if the sentence would tell that the field is relevant and not that its fancy right now. – Dirk Mar 10 at 10:51

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