I am trying to replicate a certain paper, which derived an important formula based on five other papers.

In order to do a correct replication with insight into sources of error, I need to gather all five papers. However, ALL the methods I have used have resulted in nothing.

A typical answer would be "ask your librarian" or "ask the authors," however my librarian is famously incompetent (can't even speak English, and given the exact bibliographical data, found a completely irrelevant paper), and also it is realistic to assume all the authors are dead.

Now, in my replication work I have to say something like "I cannot estimate the source of error, because the original papers are lost."

How should I do this? I checked Academia StackExchange, but the closest search result asks about phrasing negative search results for papers on a particular topic, whereas I am sure that the papers exist. There is also this question about how to continue my literature search, but I am asking about how to proceed if the search fails.

  • 5
    How old are these papers? Jul 18, 2022 at 15:56
  • 6
    @Oliver882 - perhaps, but if the question is "how do I find the paper?" then it is a duplicate of our canonical question. That said, I agree that the answer to this question will probably involve detailing a painstaking and meticulous search, which has not yet been conducted.
    – cag51
    Jul 18, 2022 at 18:29
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    I'm not sure why you defer to an "incompetent" librarian. There are a lot of libraries and librarians in the world. A query to a major academic or governmental library might help you find an existing paper. If the publisher is known from the reference, have you contacted them? If you can discover the affiliation of an author you can write to that institution, its department or its library. I fear you have given up too easily.
    – Buffy
    Jul 18, 2022 at 18:42
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    @user46147 In scholarly writing you cannot state that "the original papers are lost" until you have done a really painstaking and thorough search. Saying they are "lost" means they are lost to humanity, like some manuscripts from hundreds of years ago.
    – Oliver882
    Jul 18, 2022 at 18:56
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    In the case of a genuinely lost reference you could of course say so. "The last known copy was lost in the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria" would certainly be acceptable if true. But like others have said, in your case the real solution may be to find a competent librarian.
    – Anyon
    Jul 18, 2022 at 19:00

4 Answers 4


The answer is still "ask your librarian". You say your librarian is famously incompetent, but that shouldn't be disqualifying - you can still ask a different librarian. If your library only has one librarian, you can still ask a librarian from another library, or the publishers of the article if they're still around.

Don't underestimate the extent of what librarians have access to, e.g. the British Library has a copy of every single book ever published in the UK, comprising hundreds of millions of books, plus several hundred thousand journals. Someone will almost surely be able to find the articles for you.

  • 16
    Yes, it's really not fair to expect reviewers and readers of the paper to just accept that it's missing a big piece because the authors didn't like their librarian... It would be really embarrassing if the author writes that the paper is lost and a reviewer thinks uh, no it isn't, and finds it themself...what would that make them think about the quality of the rest of the manuscript?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 19, 2022 at 4:42
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    Asking the publishers of the articles is a very good idea, might cost a bit, but they should definitely still have a copy
    – Hobbamok
    Jul 19, 2022 at 11:08

As a partial answer, you might need to cite secondary source.

For example, under APA style this is:

An indirect citation or secondary source is when the ideas of one author are published in another author’s text but you have not read or accessed the original author’s work.

Include both the original author and year and the author and year of the work where quote/idea was found in the in-text reference. Add "as cited in" before the author in the in-text reference. For example - (Harris, 2009, as cited in Lewis, 2019). In the reference list, provide the details of the work in which you found the quotation or idea.

However, this does not help you verify the original equations. Maybe look up more papers that cite the original papers?


Just state exactly what the problem you encountered was and what you tried.

Something like

"an attempt was made to procure the paper by XYZ in order to estimate the error. Although database X, database, Y, and database Z, were searched, and the library services of ABC were consulted, we were unsucessful at obtaining a copy of this paper. Therefore, error analysis of the original paper could not be performed".

BTW, I wouldn't be so fast at assuming someone is incompetent. It sounds more like a lack of patience on your part.


If you have a goal to reach and to reach that goal you rely on a single incompetent professional figure, I wonder if it is more incompetent that figure or the way you follow to get that goal accomplished.

As @Allure answered, there are more libraries to ask to. Write a nice email to some other libraries that are even tangentially involved in the topic or that share the authors affiliations. If I have to cite a paper from an author that performed some research at the University of Aganawawa, there is a non-zero probability that the library of the University of Aganawawa has some interests (and duties) in helping you find the results of that research.

  • 1
    This seems to presume that one of the parties actually is incompetent. Perhaps one of them is, but we can't be sure of that, or even which one might actually be incompetent.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 19, 2022 at 14:38
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    @JonCuster Yes, absolutely, since one of the parties mentioned the other is incompetent, I am 100% sure at least one of the two is incompetent. I do not know which one
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 19, 2022 at 14:39

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