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While this Mathematics SE answer might (or might not) be a straightforward exercise to a number theorist, to an experimental surface scientist it seems new, as-yet unpublished (in this field) and really helpful and enabling.

Queries in comments don't seem to indicate that the author has a keen interest in recognition for it (it's hard to ask direct personal questions of users in SE) but nonetheless I would like to cite it in a paper that might be destined for Physical Review B or Review of Scientific Instruments or similar in the scientific modeling/computing field, depending on how the paper finally fleshes out.

I'm curious how often SE answer posts are cited in scientific journal articles, and if there are (perhaps notable) precedents in the Physical sciences I could cite in an effort to put an editor (or reviewer) at ease who might otherwise balk at such a nonstandard reference format.

Question: Can I use a Stack Exchange answer post as references in journal articles in the physical sciences? Should I a priori include a mention of precedent along with the submission so that the editor doesn't balk?


Q: Why not just do as the post author suggests "Maybe their authors would know some good text for you to cite?" and avoid citing Stack Exchange

  1. I'll be implementing this specific algorithm exactly as written, hints and caveats and all. (go have a look - it's quite complete and rigorous!) Other references will be less complete and applicable.
  2. This is like a standard, named "private communication" except that it's public and less-named. We do this in the academe - we give credit where credit is due, we acknowledge the individuals who contribute even when not at the author level.
  3. Personal reason: I'm a Stack Exchange enthusiast, and raising awareness that solid, useful, and yes citable material is available in mathematics and the sciences is good for the academe.
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  • @BryanKrause Thanks, hopefully someone will and post it as an answer so that each future reader of my question won't have to repeat the same process. However some folks here are pretty close tot he editorial and review processes and many have some personal experience to draw from as well.
    – uhoh
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 22:06
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    I've had the same kind of experience (mathy result that seems somewhat easy for mathematicians but that I could not have come up with by myself). I ended up citing the post in my J Stat Mech article without issue. See doi.org/10.1088/1742-5468/ab0c12 I did not write anything to the editor, who did not seem to care
    – Adam
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 22:23
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    I just did a quick Google search for stackexchange site:journals.aps.org and found out that one of my answers on the physics site has been cited in a Physical Review B paper.
    – Anyon
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 23:10
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    Interestingly enough, pubs.aip.org has more hits than aps.org...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 10, 2023 at 13:24
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    @Anyon: I just did a quick Google search ... --- Being curious, I tried this google scholar search and found 3 papers that cite answers by me on the math site (I looked at each paper to make sure), although none of the papers rises to the level of yours. For that matter, none of my cited answers are anywhere near what I would consider to among my best written and/or most most mathematically significant answers. Commented Aug 10, 2023 at 17:23

2 Answers 2

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Can I use a Stack Exchange answer post as reference...

"Can" is not the right way to phrase this. You must credit sources for the intellectual content you use in a paper.

I think you should do some due diligence to make sure anything you use on Stack Exchange is actually original. It's not too hard to plagiarize here, and though there's rules against it, it isn't easy to enforce systematically. You really want to cite the original source and not a plagiarized copy (of course, this is relevant for things published in other places, too). You also need to be diligent that the content is correct: for math, hopefully you understand the content well enough to feel confident it is correct and verify any proofs the way you would if you were a peer reviewer. For other content, it may be more tricky and depend on how you intend to use the content and also whether the Stack Exchange post is itself drawing on cited sources.

Generally, I would say academics are more familiar with other sources, so if the same author has posted the same content in a preprint or paper, I'd prefer citing those. But, if not, you have to credit where you got the idea.

If you want to look for precedent in your research area, Google indexes the full text of papers, including references; if you search "stackexchange.com" you would discover papers that have cited something on Stack Exchange (likely also other uses, of course). Don't forget some content is on other domains like mathoverflow.net. But, if you've used content from any of these cites, you need to cite it, whether or not your colleagues have done so.

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As the other answer mentions, as a matter of principle, you must cite your sources.

There is no need to mention to the editor that you cite Stack Exchange. They do not care.

As a matter of personal experience (not the same thing as a matter of principle or good practice), if you submit your manuscript to Physical Review, the editor and referees will not check your reference list (unless I am the referee). I usually observe that authors forget to cite important sources even if they are written by the same authors. The other referees do not notice, though it can be discovered with a brief Google Scholar search.

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