So I've been instructed to write an essay that has citations for research that must be within the last 5 years. The exact phrasing is "Minimum of 20-30 up to date (within 5 years) references". One of the key and major concepts was defined in the 70s and simply can't be avoided in the discussion. Is it cheating to cite a paper from recent times, which discusses another research article from that older time?

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    What kind of teacher tells a student to forget about ideas created many years ago? You might as well invent Calculus and say it is new because no one invented it five years ago.
    – VitaminE
    Sep 19 at 8:17
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    Only the person who gave you that assignment can answer your question. We have no idea what the instructions and the intentions of the assignment are.
    – Louic
    Sep 19 at 8:38
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    I think you misunderstand the instructions. The instructor wants you to be sure to include recent research, not exclude older papers.
    – Buffy
    Sep 19 at 10:19
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    @AlexB. You could comply with the letter of that instruction by, e.g., citing 31 references from within the last 5 years, and another 400 references from longer ago. Do you have any reason to suppose that the person to whom you're submitting the essay would be unhappy with that? Sep 19 at 11:14
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    Incidentally, the Google search "up to date (within 5 years) references" reveals that exact phrase in the customer's specifications for an attempt at contract cheating. Sep 19 at 11:26

The function of this essay (as I gather) is for you to get familiar with recent literature and show your instructor that you read & understood it.

Minimum of 20-30 up to date (within 5 years) references

It does not mean only use refs from last 5 years. It means "don't copy-paste from textbooks many of which references papers that were published 10+ years ago".

In science there are usually couple of very old foundational papers, few important ones, but only the most recent present modern view on concepts and experiments. So it makes more sense to read few old papers, and many more very recent ones. It makes no sense to read the mediocre papers from 15 years ago, better read mediocre papers from 1-5 years ago.

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    “better read mediocre papers from 1-5 years ago.” Or to put it another way: Read lots of papers from the last five years, because we’re not so sure yet which of them are mediocre and which may be important.
    – PLL
    Sep 19 at 16:50

Did the instructor say all references must be from the last five years, or just some?

If it is the former, then that is not a sensible instruction, but I would cite the recent paper and also say "this is a recent description but actually the concept was first defined in the 1970s".

If it is the latter, cite the 1970s paper, and also the recent one if you want.

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