While doing literature review towards my Master's dissertation I noticed that many recent papers in my field (robotics/computer vision) frequently cite publications produced a decade or even more ago.

Now, that would not surprise me so much if those were, say, about fundamental algorithm which we still use (even if in modified and updated form). However, often the papers in question are of high-level systems designed to tackle a problem using technology available at the time. If the same problem were to be tackled in the present day, with current technology, the solution offered in such citation would make little sense.

It seems to me that referring to such work in a publication introduces very little (if any) value to the paper and mostly serves as a show-off-y way to generate more words and populate the reference list. And yet, it seems like nobody minds that, because the vast majority of the publications I've been reading have a number of obsolete / pointless references in them.

Is there something I'm missing there? What value, if any, is there in citing a clearly obsolete work? If it is really as pointless as it seems to me, what is the reason for the practice being commonplace in contemporary academic writing?

  • 6
    So, nothing a decade old is worth anything? The concepts, the solutions, tracing developments through time. I guess I’m an old fogey now...
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 9, 2018 at 0:38
  • Answers for philosophy and software engineering are going to differ. Feb 9, 2018 at 17:09

2 Answers 2


Coming from the same field as you, I know what you mean. I also wondered the same thing at first. Note that in other fields, citing papers that are 100 years old is the norm so saying a paper is old because it is a decade old might not resonate for them :).

  • There is much to take from an old paper. Even if the problem was solved with "obsolete" technology for an obsolete problem, the method employed, the problem tackled, the method used to test the results, ..., all this might still be relevant to your problem.

  • You might also use related works to show that a research direction was taken as to explain why you don't have to do it yourself. But at least you will show that you know it has been searched and your reader will also know.

  • The last reason you might want to cite those paper is to put your own work in contrast to those present there. You say the works are obsolete and old ? Perfect, explain how your research tackles a problem they have not resolved. This is something especially important in robotics where everything is new and shiny and cool and changes so fast. Make yourself unique by citing close related work but showing how you differ from them. And those similar work might be those older highly specialized work:

    This method solve very specific problem 1. However, it cannot solve novel situation while the method we present in our work can.

There is more to a paper than meets the eye.

  1. Academic writing is a genre of literature. It is a convention of this genre to include a little history lesson on the ideas and past work that lead up to your present contributions.
  2. Readers from your field appreciate you indicating the foundation you are building on, rather than having to assume that you and they have the same understanding of the concepts and the terminology. They must be sure that there is a shared pool of knowledge between you. You not only cite, but summarize your sources and how they are relevant; because not only they must know where your concepts and terminology are coming from, but they must also be convinced that you know what you are talking about.
  3. Readers unfamiliar with your field appreciate the little history lesson. You have already done the work of researching it. Don't make them do it again.
  4. Citations are a form of currency in academia. Citing an old paper shows your appreciation of it. It is a form of payback, a "thank you" note, a show of respect for the researchers who did the work before you. (A political aspect of this is that these people may be the ones reviewing your paper and deciding on its fate.)
  5. While a specific "technology" may be obsolete, there are numerous surrounding issues discussed in academic papers - process, implementation details, evaluation, insights, methodology, etc. It is likely that there is a lot that is relevant for you in old papers.
  6. My personal experience is that many older papers are more understandable and "literary," more readable, than recent ones. For novice readers it may be easier to start there to get a handle on things.

There is no such thing as "obsolete work" in academia. A particular device or technology that is the subject of research may be obsolete, but never every single aspect of the research done around it. In fact, by design, by virtue of the scientific process, such "obsoletion" is desirable and even necessary in research; because it shows that progress has been made in the field.

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