I'm a postgraduate M.Sc. student at a university studying math. Currently I need to write some essay/assignment (about 10 pages) for a seminar where we revisit already published work and describe it in more detail.

By asking other students about their essay I noticed a great difference in the amount of cited literature. While I use over 30 different resources, most of my fellow students only cite a handful of resources besides their main resource.

Now, it is clear that the quality of literature might vary, and that 30 redundant resources and/or unreviewed resources can be considered as 'bad' resources and sloppy research. But that's not exactly what I mean.

In fact, half of my literature comes from an extensive research on the problem's history and related work (and almost all the literature had been published and reviewed in some way or the other). The other half mainly consists of my 'main' resource for the seminar and some books explaining some higher Matrix calculus and other basics (like the volume of a d-Sphere) which I used to explain the 'main' resource in detail.

My questions are:

  1. Is the amount of literature even noticed by teachers? Do they care as much as I think or do they generally just peek into the literature section and see if it makes sense?

  2. Some of the literature I use has been cited in my original 'main' resource. Is it common practice to just cite them again (which leads to drastically more literature)? Or do I only refer to my main resource even if the statement comes from some other paper?

  3. Does it make a good impression to have a long literature section (with useful and non redundant literature)?

  4. While I love knowledge about the history and related work to a problem it is also much easier than explaining the core of the problem. Do teachers find this stuff interesting at all? I believe teachers are normally very familiar with the problem. My concern is that they are only interested in theory and proofs and might find literature reviews boring. (I did explain the core of the problem as it is important, but I would have done it in more detail if I had spared about a page of history and review.)

3 Answers 3


The quick answer is yes. Pertinent literature is meant to support your position and build your story. The amount of literature cited usually reflects how deeply and how comprehensively a topic was examined. However, I should say that the literature cited must be highly relevant to be considered as a valid one. It will not be a good practice to pad the cited works to simply give an impression of in-depth research. Experienced readers of academic work will be able to tell if the amount of literature cited actually helps your cause.


You will, as you say, need to omit redundant sources and severely limit or omit unreviewed sources. With those caveats, more is generally better as more research suggests more learning. Yes, professors notice.

However, your paper must include your own thoughts and analysis. A cut-and-paste paper, where every sentence includes a citation, is not plagiarism, but it's not scholarly work, either. I'd assign such a paper an unsatisfactory grade. Use your sources to establish the background of the problem or topic. Then say what you have analyzed about the problem. So to address your question, you must address the core problem, whatever it is. You can't skip it with a lengthy lit. review.

In general, you must cite, and read the original sources. So, if B cites A, and you want to cite A, you must read A. Your professors are likely familiar with the literature and may ask you about the papers you have cited.


I love it when seminar talks give you a good sense of the line of reasoning in the literature that led to the question at hand, and when their research appears to be in conversation with other work. Though I've seen plenty that don't really do this much (and just give the standard broad intro that doesn't do more than say what all the things they are going to talk about are). Papers tend to have less variation.

Given that, I would say if you put the specific topic of your essay strategically into the conversation of the literature, your essay will be nicer to read.

Though remember that in writing, if you can say what you want to say using fewer words, you should. If the citations or the exploration of history is off-topic or otherwise doesn't serve your purpose, reconsider them.

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