In the context of my thesis research I have recovered the data of some important old papers whose data is sometimes referred by the name of its authors, but that are never explicitly cited.

I though it important to refer all the data of these papers somewhere, but if were to I include them in the bibliography/references section, I may be giving the impression that I have read them.

How should I point to these works that I do not need to read, but that some readers of my work might be interested in reading? I know the answer might depend on the citation format I'm using or the type of publication. But I haven't seen any explicit indications for doing this kind of citation.

Thanks in advance for your help.

  • How did you get to know the data without reading them?
    – Alchimista
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 10:41
  • Thanks for the question, @Alchimista. The data is referred by other authors as "X's equations", "Y's proof" or "Z's axiomatisation", and then an equation, proof, or axiomatisation is provided without referring to the original source. It looked as if everybody knew what the source is, or as if everybody forgot it. I know several cases of this and I've been able to track the original source in some cases. However, when I found the source material, I could often tell that I didn't need to read it myself.
    – lfba
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 10:45
  • 3
    Ok, you likely refer to well established facts or even pillars in your field. You won't necessarily cite Newton all the times. Adopting the same method of the authors from which you got the information seems legitimate. Or just cite a few if you can be sure. Once a finding came to surprise in my field. When I looked at the first really seminal paper of it, everything was there! Just everyone cited the paper for more then a decade without actually reading it :) as it was established. But some info were "lost".
    – Alchimista
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 10:53
  • 3
    By the way, the word "data" usually refers to empirical data, gathered by some sort of observation or experiment. It's not usually used to refer to facts or statements of a theoretical nature (equations / proofs / axiomatizations). So that choice of words may be misleading answerers a little bit. Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:35

3 Answers 3


You skim those papers to verify that the data is indeed there and then you cite them as a source of the data. If you have the time or they are otherwise relevant, read the papers to figure out that the data is suitable for your purposes and there are no glaring problems there.

Sometimes, everyone cites something because everyone else has been doing so, but the citation might be wrong (in detail or completely).

  1. An explicit citation is useful, because it lets you and others verify the result.

  2. Checking that the cited paper includes what you suppose it includes is even more helpful, since it might just be a rumour that the thing is included there.

  3. Reading more of the paper would be even more useful, since it might have qualifications that have been omitted by the citing literature, or methodological issues, or whatever else. Mentioning these with the citation would be good.

  4. Some papers that cite the original might contain errata, important qualifications, etc. Hence, it might be worthwhile to check what cites the classical papers, especially if there is something by the same author(s) on the same idea.

I think all of the steps above increase the value of the work, but all of them also take time. Up to you to decide where to cut off the process and how far to go in vetting the data-to-be-used.

But consider also the next new (PhD) student who would like to use the same data? What would you like to have known or had when using it? If it was non-trivial to track down the data, then certainly provide a reference, for example, so that the next generation will have an easier time.


No one standard has been set for citing data sources. However, a quick search shows that citing data sources is generally done the same way you cite a paper. See here, here or here.

These links provide guidelines and examples. The following quote is from the first link:

Remember that the purpose is to help your reader re-trace your steps -- more information is better than less!

Which I think is a good guide line.

In order to ensure that you do not give the impression that you fully read a paper, you can simply do something like:

The used data is obtained from [citation] and has be preprocessed...

A further discussion on whether or not you should cite a paper you did not read can be found here, but that does not go into using the data from the paper only.


Essentially you cite the sources you use, something like: "...Jones's equation, as described by Smith[1]..." if you only read Smith's textbook.

However for important results, it's worth really trying to track down the original, skimming it, and citing it properly. It may well take some tracking down; don't leave it until the last minute in case you need an interlibrary loan of a paper copy.

As an example, a couple of the results referred to in my thesis were published in German. My German isn't up to fully reading poorly scanned papers, but I can check that a figure caption is what it claims to be, or decipher the context and terms of an equation. I therefore cited both the German paper and one that explained and applied it nicely in English. If you can possibly get your hands on a copy of the original I suggest you do something similar.

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