For example,

An explicit formula for ___ has been derived in [1].

[1]: Alice and Bob, Journal of Academia StackExchange, Vol 1 Iss 1, 2016

Problem is, the paper cited could very well include lots and lots of formulas. The desired formula might just be one of many results presented, and it might not be the central one.

Why don't authors write the reference as Alice and Bob, ... 2016, Equation 12? Even just giving the section name helps identify the relevant part of the reference, and it'd be a great time saver. However, I don't think I've ever seen anyone try this in formal publications. Why?

  • 4
    Journal articles are much shorter than books (usually) so there is less to look through. I have occasionally seen specific equation references, but it is uncommon in physics...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 22:26
  • 7
    I've seen more specific references, especially in the context you mention of particular equations, though it's uncommon in part because it's rare that any one result in a paper stands on its own, typically the whole paper is necessary and you are citing the whole paper. In fields where direct quotation is common (e.g., in referencing literature or historical documents), it is also more typical to see more specific references. I guess overall I feel like the premise of your question is incorrect.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 22:28
  • I personally don't think this level of specificity is necessary. Even if just a datapoint is cited (e.g. a physical property of a compound), it is not hard for a researcher to skim the paper and check the value. And in general, you want to glance at the whole paper to get some idea of its strength and/or to see if there is something else good about it. Note this a different purpose for citation than the nitpicky Wikipedia citing of all facts, where just checking validity is the main point and less to call people's attention to literature.
    – guest
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 2:47
  • 1
    I also find it odd when such information is missing, at least those places where it is really needed (mainly when cited as part of a proof). I mean, when writing in LaTeX, there is a build-in feature of the \cite command to include this by putting it inside square brackets. As a referee, I point out if I think such should be added, and it usually is. Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 8:03
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    @Alchimista The result of that is that rather than going through your paper and looking for small and unimportant changes to make to remove those characters, you will ask each reader who wishes to follow your argument to go through a paper (presumably of a similar length) in order to make sure they know which result is meant. Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 8:10

3 Answers 3


I looked through my copy of the American Institute of Physics Style Manual (Fourth Edition, 1990, perhaps dated but I have it at hand). In the section on "Footnotes and references" I find no mention at all of specifying specific parts of a reference (i.e. equation, table, specific page) within the reference itself (footnotes, endnotes, ...).

The only mention of page numbers is "Some AIP and Member Society editors may permit inclusive page numbers (first and last)...", and this restriction relates to the page numbers for the article as a whole (either journal or part of a book).

Now, this in no way prevents an author from pointing out, in the text, a specific equation or table or figure. However, this is not commonplace in my experience (but does occur).


In the introduction section of a paper, such specificity might be considered out of place, since the goal is to provide an overview of what has been done without getting too bogged down in particular details.

In the methodology or main section of a paper (depending on the field), such references might be more appropriate, and I have seen papers that specify individual equations, tables, or figures. There's no reason they couldn't do so; I don't believe that there is any stylistic justification that would preclude it.


I decided my comment might as well be an answer...

I think the premise is wrong, despite your personal experience: I have seen more specific references in papers. Typically this is done in the text directly rather than in the citation list, as in:

An explicit formula for ____ has been derived as Equation 12 in [1]

In fields where direct quotation or references to literature or historical documents are common, I have most often seen more specific references in footnotes, though footnotes are somewhere between rare and non-existent in my own field.

Overall, however, I would say that it is simply atypical that a specific result stands on its own; rather, the entire paper is required to support a given result, so the citation is to the entire paper. Even if you want to point a reader to a specific equation in a work, it is appropriate to cite the entire work as the source of that equation.

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