14

Naturally I would say "of course", but my current situation makes me doubt.

In my paper I'm briefly covering various alternative cryptographic constructions. I am (of course) familiar with all of them, but I have not (nor have the time to) read the full papers I'm actually referencing. The reason for this is that they contain lengthy specifications complemented with cryptanalysis.

I'm in doubt whether it's acceptable to reference said papers without having actually read them. Is it acceptable to do so?

20

Let me answer your question by means of an example. In my on-going research I am using a notion called "Schlichting completion" which is originated from a paper written in German by a mathematician called Schlichting. I can't read German, but using a dictionary, I've found some clues about this notion in his paper. So I cited this paper, even though I have only read about one page of it. The reason is sometimes we have to cite a paper, because some fundamental notion has originated from that paper and we have to give credit to the person who invented that notion. Other reasons for citing papers are:

  1. They have a nice review of the subject and/or contain relatively a comprehensive list of references related to the work.

  2. They have done some parallel or complementary works.

  3. They have some results which are used in my papers.

  4. They contain reasons which motivate my work. For example, they ask or suggest a problem which is addressed in my work.

  5. They give more examples, applications and/or ideas related to my work.

etc.

So you do not have to read all contents of a paper before citing it. But make sure it is relevant, useful, some how necessary, interesting and/or important paper with respect to the work you are presenting in your paper. As a final remark, it is always nice to point out where in the paper you are citing is related to the discussion, for example specify the theorem number, the page number, etc.

  • 4
    Unfortunately it may also happen that a reviewer insisted on their remotely related paper being mentioned despite the author never having heard of it before... – Tobias Kienzler Oct 10 '13 at 9:50
  • @TobiasKienzler - This is an unfortunate, and I suspect rather common, occurance in academia. I know many researchers who will add references for the sole reason that the author of the cited paper will likely be one of their reviewers, and they want to make them feel important. – eykanal Oct 10 '13 at 20:05
  • 1
    @eykanal Indeed - I really wish there were at least some honest splitting into two sections of references à la "works without which we probably never would have made it" vs "also related if you want to learn more, but not essential" – Tobias Kienzler Oct 11 '13 at 7:27
  • ...actually the five points of this very answer would make pretty good categories (maybe merging 2&5 and 3&4, i.e. "Over/re-view", "Requirements" and "Related work / further reading") – Tobias Kienzler Oct 11 '13 at 7:35
  • @TobiasKienzler: doesn't the citation location typically describe the relation anyway? Or is this discipline-dependant? – Blaisorblade Oct 11 '13 at 21:16
7

When you reference a paper within whatever your context may be, you are possibly doing several things. First, you may make claims and use other authors names and reputation in support. Second, you may take "facts" from a paper and propagate these facts through yours.

Nothing wrong with that? Not generally. But, what happens if a paper makes a claim that is not at all well supported by the study? You run the risk of propagating errors so that when somebody uses your paper as a reference the original paper is still further away and after a few such iterations the source may be completely forgotten. There are many instances where either errors have been propagated or where "truths" have slowly been misquoted so that they turn into errors. This is clearly not what we want in our papers.

I would therefore say that one needs to (critically) read a paper enough to make oneself sure that the facts can be trusted and that no misinterpretation has occurred in the paper to be referenced or earlier. Hence relying on, for example, other authors references is a very weak link in the chain. One has to try to back-trace vital information as much as possible. Misunderstandings may not necessarily be born out of malice but just by oversight, but the end result is still the same. To therefore, for example, simply gloss over the abstract and use whatever seems to support some idea or vice versa is far from satisfactory.

  • 2
    I'd agree, this is an ideal to be aimed-for, in any case. But it's surely subject-dependent. In mathematics, chains of back-reference can be both wide and deep, and involve nearly-inaccessible sources, so that often it'd be infeasible to check everything personally. That said, indeed, if people don't check, things can get out of control... as they are, to some degree. – paul garrett Oct 10 '13 at 17:21
  • Good point, reminds me of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult_science – Tobias Kienzler Oct 11 '13 at 7:28
2

Here is my take. This is not high school and nobody is going to check whether you've read the papers. The idea is to provide references for the readers for further research not to show that you've read all the literature. Naturally, of course, you don't want to cite a paper that has nothing to do with the subject at hand so you need to have a grasp on its content but nobody expects you to be an expert on every detail in the 100 publications that you reference. Sometimes I only read an abstract to decide if I want to reference the paper or not.

  • Hm, I don't 100% agree with you, as Peter Jansson stated by citing a paper you basically attest "the statement due to which I cite that paper is true" - if you only read the abstract which usually merely describes the result you may end up vouching for a big error. If you really cite 100 publications, please have the decency to sort them either by importance or put them into two or more sections so one does not have to read 100 abstracts just to figure out only 13 papers are actually important – Tobias Kienzler Oct 11 '13 at 7:32

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