For a bit of background, I'm a non-academic, so I'm not familiar with the process of submitting a paper for peer-review or anything technical (I have learned that non-academics can submit papers but have a higher hurdle to overcome).

I've often been told by various people that when presenting informal arguments or research, that what I write seems to be 'well researched'. For me, citations are often a mixture of either appropriate news articles or references to abstracts from studies for appropriate claims within a given body of text, however I feel that a research paper for submission to a peer reviewed journal is likely expecting a higher quality, EG citations to studies only.

What are acceptable citations within a research paper for a peer-review journal? If it's variable, how can I determine if a citation is suitable enough quality for use in a research paper?

  • 6
    Just as a general comment, before you consider writing a paper for a peer-reviewed journal, you will want to have read a large number of such papers (to develop the necessary expertise, to understand the writing style, to be aware of prior work on your topic). By the time you have done so, you should have a good sense of what kind of citations are typical. So, if you have to rely on the advice of others to answer this question, it might suggest that you're getting ahead of yourself. Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 0:40
  • @NateEldredge Similar advice to get familiar with the technical language is offered in the question referenced (+1 for consistency), however I'm curious to see if I can even meet the basic standard (EG quality of citations) before I seriously consider the huge time investment involved. The research before the research, you might say. Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 1:05
  • @SSight3 I think if you are uncertain about whether it is worth it to spend the time researching the field before publishing your work, then the answer is no, it isn't worth it. If your work is worth publishing, it is definitely worth understanding the state of the field first.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 20:44

4 Answers 4


The general rule is that the reference you cite must be authoritative and provide strong evidence for the claim that you are making based on it. Readers should be able to follow the citation and see for themselves the evidence supporting the claim.

For example, if the claim is "80% of basket weavers prefer to work with Australian reeds", then the citation should be to an article which describes a rigorous survey of basket weavers, including the details of the methodology and statistical analysis. Such a study would most likely be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Suppose you read an article in Basket Weaving Weekly Magazine that makes the same claim. Can you cite it as the source of the claim? Well, there are a few possibilities:

  • The article got this claim from study in the peer-reviewed journal. In this case, you should cite the original study (not the magazine article), crediting the authors who actually did the study. (You should also read the study and make sure it actually makes that claim, and that it provides strong evidence for it!)
  • Basket Weaving Weekly Magazine did a survey of its own readers, and the claim is based on the results of that survey. In this case, the article may or may not describe the methodology and details of the statistical analysis, and those may or may not be sound (up to the standards of rigorous scientific research). In this case, you'll have to determine whether the claim is even supported by strong evidence - but if it is, and the evidence and supporting details are in the magazine article, you can cite it.
  • Basket Weaving Weekly Online makes the claim, but doesn't give any details about where it came from. In this case, you are lacking strong evidence for the claim and you should not state this claim as fact in your paper.

Citations are most often to peer-reviewed research articles, because most of the time, these are authoritative and include strong evidence to support whatever is being cited. But there are certainly occasions where it may be appropriate to cite something that isn't a peer-reviewed research article. (See for example this answer, or this answer.)

This is just a general rule - specific fields and specific publication venues may have written or unwritten conventions, which you should learn and follow.


(This is a case where I don't know whether to add a comment or write an answer. My apologies if I made the wrong choice.)

I like @NateEldridge's comment but I'm not sure it goes far enough. As he said, never submit a paper to a journal you have not read papers in. More specifically to your question, the answer may be affected by the field and the journal. I think in STEM journals, the general expectation is that you cite peer-reviewed publications as much as possible. Some journals consider it acceptable to cite articles published in magazines regarded as high professional quality--ACM and IEEE magazines normally are in that category (although take care to see if the article is a popularization based on a paper in a journal). It is not uncommon to cite (i.e., quote) a written or perhaps even verbal statement by a highly regarded person, including a link to where it appeared. On this Academia Stack Exchange page you will find discussions about citing material from the Internet. I am not going to repeat any of that except to note that some journals permit it (and have rules) and others do not. Most of what you wish to cite seems to me not to fall into any of the normally acceptable categories for a scholarly journal. Maybe you should be considering a magazine published by a technical society in your field of interest.


Go to the source

In general, you'll be citing a specific claim or a specific idea. In both these cases you'd need to cite the source of that claim. Using the examples you give ("news articles or references to abstracts from studies"):

  • News articles will often contain original reporting about events in the world, or original opinion pieces - if your research (e.g. in political or social sciences) relies on claims contained in a particular article, then yes, citing news articles would be appropriate. Also, I've seen major news providers cited in the introductory section of more technical papers as justification for why the task is considered relevant (i.e. because here's a list of mass media that are saying that this is a social problem).
  • There will also be news articles reporting on e.g. scientific discoveries. Those aren't the original sources of any claims - they're reporting about what someone else did. In this case, it's not acceptable to cite the news articles, you must cite the person who first published that claim, you need to go to the source of the claim, read it (often the actual claim will be slightly but meaningfully different than what's reported in the news article), and cite that source.

  • Abstracts from studies usually aren't appropriate to cite. In general, you'd need to cite the original study; it's important to assign credit where it's due. In some cases you may want to cite metastudies - i.e. instead of saying "foo causes bar [Smith 2011, Weaver 2012, etc]" you might say "a meta-analysis of studies about the effects of foo [Summmarizer 2018] confirms that foo causes bar" without going to detail of each individual study.

Reliability of sources

Your sources need to be convincing. In general, that'll mean peer-reviewed studies. In some fields (e.g. history) it may mean primary sources e.g. documental evidence that you've seen and used. Unreliable sources (including e.g. personal correspondence) are sometimes used, but that's generally an exception when there's no other reasonable option.



"For me, citations are often a mixture of either appropriate news articles...I feel that a research paper for submission to a peer reviewed journal is likely expecting a higher quality. What are acceptable citations within a research paper for a peer-review journal? If it's variable, how can I determine if a citation is suitable enough quality for use in a research paper?"

Read some papers and see how things are done there. You are coming in from a different background. Fine. But go see what the normal practice is. I would do the same if I was figuring out how to practice religion with the Hottentots. Go observe. Analyze. Learn.

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