I have been reading a paper and in the Background section the author said something like:

Recent studies suggest that...

and then gave a citation.

I went to that references section, took the name of the other paper and downloaded it.

what was a surprise for me is that this paper also in the literature review section refer to the same studies.

I thought that the first paper refer to this second paper. So, is this allowed on literature review without considering secondary citation?

  • Just to clarify - the citation in the background section, was from another background section so to speak?
    – user7130
    Sep 17, 2013 at 20:01
  • Yes, that's right!
    – sali
    Sep 17, 2013 at 20:04
  • I guess it is okay if the citation was to the synthesis made in the other paper, but to me at least - it is a little bit odd (my supervisor would never let me do that).
    – user7130
    Sep 17, 2013 at 20:06

3 Answers 3


I don't think there's anything too unseemly going on here, unless the cited paper that also lists the other papers does not actually produce the results that follow "Recent studies show." In that case, there's a problem.

Otherwise, however, you do have to give some deference to the fact that there are only so many papers out there on a given topic.


I agree with aeismail in that there is not anything out of the ordinary going. On. To have two chronologically separated papers citing the same material and the later also citing the older is perfectly fine, in fact I would say necessary. What is not ok, is if the author of the later paper read the older paper and simply took the references from that without actually reading the original papers. This is far from unheard of and the main problem is that the later author relies entirely on the formers judgement and interpretation. The risk is that errors in interpretations propagate without proper critical scrutiny of original studies. So one question you should ask is whether the later author have cited everything with or without such critical review. If the papers are separated by years and you know more papers have been published but are not referenced by the later author, then there is a chance (but not a certainty) the later author may have been just lazy. But if more papers are added then it is less clear. To make the case even worse, that two authors cite the same sources for the same conclusion(s) can also be seen as sound, that both have found and read the pertinent literature.

So, what you should do is to make sure you have critically read all the papers so that you can judge if the formers interpretations are sound. If they are sound then none of them have contributed anything negative to science. If they are not sound then you have the opportunity to rectify a problem by doing better or in this case suggest improvements in the review. The problem is tricky and requires quite a lot of work from a reviewer to possibly rectify if a problem really exists. this is likely why some errors propagate through scientific literature for sometimes quite a while.


I wouldn't say that this is wrong per se, but I think it's bad form.

What I try to do is to cite either the first paper to show a particular result, or at least a seminal paper in that area, then then point to the review explicitly. For example:

Then people were like, hey, maybe timing matters?
STDP was born (Bi & Poo, 1998; see Sjöström & Gerstner, 2010 for a review).

If the paper's already been published, well, not much you can do. If you're reviewing a paper, I might suggest they change it.

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