This is a problem that I figured lately. Say that you reference a text that references other texts.

How far must a new reference check that the earlier references are "accurate in information"? Is it possible that "lousy referencing" leads to "webs" of referencing that "blurs" some of the more original results there due to ambiguous referencing?

When does one know that one can rely on a reference?

  • Do you mean "do the references point to the correct places?" or "do the referenced materials contain accurate results?"? – Buffy Jun 15 '20 at 15:00
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    Does this answer your question? Referencing the reference? – GoodDeeds Jun 15 '20 at 15:04
  • @Buffy How deep does one need to check for the accuracy of results. Because if one e.g. checks only the one that one references, and it turns out to be erroneous, due to earlier references, then one simply adds up to "erroneous papers". Yet, one should be able to trust sources at some level, because "checking everything" would be tedious. – mavavilj Jun 15 '20 at 15:21
  • Not checking everything leads to erroneous results. – Solar Mike Jun 15 '20 at 15:29
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    If a paper has 50 refrerences, even just checking the first order citations becomes difficult. If you were to check the references of those references, you'd have 2500 references to check. – Ian Sudbery Jun 15 '20 at 15:44

While the system isn't perfect, the purpose of the reviews done by publishers prior to publication is to assure readers that what is said in a paper can be trusted. Some reviews take a long time and some papers require several iterations to reach this point.

So, in general, you should be able to trust what you read in reputable journals. Other journals, not so much.

But, mistakes happen and sometimes group think can interfere. If you have a reason to doubt something, then investigate it further. Perhaps that is by following references, and perhaps it is by looking at orthogonal sources. But the judgement is yours to make.

For a student, getting in to the game, however, the judgement can be in favor of deeper study rather than trust. If you don't understand something in a paper it is probably a bad idea to quote it in another. If you misunderstand something, you may also misunderstand its implications. So you look deeper until you begin to get the insight(s) that the chain of authors had earlier developed.

Trust, but verify.

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