For background, I'm working on my master's dissertation for a data science project regarding COVID and want to reference some background information about health disparities. I've done some academic writing before but mostly for classes which aren't anywhere near as demanding in terms of research and citation accuracy. I've been using the citation lists in existing articles to generate new sources to read since I know that in humanities, it's important to cite primary sources if possible (and I am assuming citing the source of a study tends to be better than citing a literature review, for example). However, one of the books I'm reading is somewhat tangential to my topic and still has studies referenced within that (according to the rule I set for myself) I would need to cite as well.

Is there a rule of thumb for when you can "cut off" your research notes and avoid adding sources that barely relate to your subject?

1 Answer 1


Research papers need not contain a comprehensive review of all of the literature plausibly related to their content - it's neither possible nor desirable.

While you should avoid "through citations" where you cite Jones et al for saying "Baker et al found", it's perfectly reasonable to cite review articles for their overall conclusions and summaries about an area of research.

Don't discuss content that is barely related to your subject, and then you won't need to cite any barely related sources for that discussion. If you find yourself going out on tangents, I'd start by organizing the introduction/discussion of your paper first. Think about what things you need to say to frame your paper and make this into an outline, then start fleshing out the statements in each section. If you start to venture outside your outline, you've probably gone too far and should reel it in.

It's difficult to summarize into general rules that will let you decide for each case whether a paper should be "in" or "out" of your reference list. My advice would be to a) read, read, read papers in your area. Get familiar with how other people do things, and b) consult your advisor. At the research level, you're beyond the undergraduate stage where you mostly write papers by yourself and then have an instructor grade you. You should be conversing back and forth with your advisor about the progress of your research, including writing.

  • Thanks! This addresses my concerns perfectly!
    – Sarah Good
    Commented Jun 30, 2021 at 22:07

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