In an article I'm writing, I work on a problem/conjecture first raised a few years ago. The publication date for the article that asked the question is 2014, but the question first appears in a preprint by some of the authors in 2011.

In the abstract, I want to write something along the lines of "This solves a problem question first posed by X et al. (YEAR) about ...". Which year do I write?

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    This is close to a duplicate of A specific term was first coined in a preprint but publication took many years. What to cite?, but the fact that you're asking about the abstract might change things. I know I would be less comfortable following the advice to cite both preprint and published version in the abstract than in the main text. – Anyon May 9 at 17:15
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    I usually avoid bibliographic citations in abstracts, because the abstract may appear in places where it's separated from the rest of the paper. So I'd write "first posed by X et al. in 2011" in the abstract. In the paper itself, I'd have a genuine reference like [7], where item 7 in the bibliography includes the publication data with the year 2014 and also mentions the 2011 preprint. Alternatively, I could have two separate bibliography entries, one for the paper and one for the preprint, and cite both in the text. – Andreas Blass May 9 at 18:24
  • Carefully consider if this is information that really needs to be in the abstract. It feels unnecessary to me. – Anonymous Physicist May 12 at 11:25

Consider the purpose of citation. It is more than just avoiding plagiarism. The reader of your work may require background provided in the previous work (the complete context) rather than just a note about who had priority.

In the case you cite, I'd suggest that you list both, unless they are essentially identical. Especially if you want to give the date it first appeared in public. I assume the formally published paper has more (including its own wider bibliography). I would cite it by listing the published paper first and adding a note "first appeared as ... in 2011".

Completeness is probably more important than trying to avoid a bit of clumsiness.

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  • +1 always better to provide access to more information. – deckeresq May 10 at 0:04

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