In papers or books, citation to another book usually doesn't contain the specific page, section, chapter of where a result is borrowed. If the book is really thick, and the readers may have different knowledge levels and familiarity with the book, some readers may find it not easy to locate the borrowed result within the reference book. So why don't people specify the source of a citation as detailed as possible in books?

BTW, it is good to specify as detail as possible for citation to a paper. But since a paper is usually much shorter than a book and it is usually in a searchable electronic form, it may be much easier to find the source in a paper than in a book.

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    some citation styles are so needlessly compact that they don't have space for specific page numbers; I'm looking at you Nature and Science. – Artem Kaznatcheev Jul 8 '12 at 3:44
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    From efficiency point of view, if it takes the author of a paper 5 minutes to specify the page number of a result and it also takes the readers at least 5 minutes to find that result. If there are 100 readers of the paper, it means 500 minutes are wasted. The next questions, how many papers are read? How many minutes are wasted? To me, this is one of the most serious problems in academia. – scaaahu Jul 8 '12 at 3:48
  • @ArtemKaznatcheev: Thanks for sharing the same feeling. I don't know about Nature and Science. But page number doesn't take up much space. It is a matter of either the citing paper/book format or the author's attitude towards making his citations serious and convenient to his readers. – StackExchange for All Jul 8 '12 at 4:08
  • @scaaahu: I agree with you. As Anonymous points out, some authors are too lazy to do so, or even don't bother to check if the cited book is actually what his citation comes from. That potentially leads to big problems. – StackExchange for All Jul 8 '12 at 4:11
  • Some citation styles also allow for citing chapters. – gerrit Oct 20 '12 at 21:53

It's always good practice to cite as closely as possible, especially in a book. LaTeX makes it easy to do this with the \cite[]{} form. For a paper, it's often not necessary since one typically cites the main result of a paper. But even with a paper, if what you're citing is a lemma buried inside (and that is not obvious from the abstract) it's good to say [23, Lemma 3.1] or something like that.

As to why people don't do it, AnonymousMathematician already answered that above.

  • Thanks! "LaTeX makes it easy to do this with the \cite[]{} form. " How is that done? – StackExchange for All Jul 8 '12 at 4:47
  • For example, the above example would be cited as \cite[Lemma 3.1]{some-citation} – Suresh Jul 8 '12 at 4:50
  • Thanks! By [23, Lemma 3.1], do you mean \cite[23, Lemma 3.1]{some-citation}? What does 23 mean? – StackExchange for All Jul 8 '12 at 4:55
  • @Tim it sounds like you're not entirely familiar with LaTeX ? [23] is just one way to render the citation: the point is that you can annotate it with more specific information. – Suresh Jul 8 '12 at 6:57
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    @Tim: The LaTeX source says \cite[Lemma~3.1]{argy-bargy}, where argy-bargy is the internal bibtex citation key for the book. The PDF output says “[23, Lemma 3.1]“, assuming BibTeX automatically put the book in the 23rd slot in the bibliography and you're using a bibliography style like abbrv that labels references by number. Most BibTeX styles automatically sort references by author (and year) and generate human-readable labels, so you don't have to. – JeffE Jul 8 '12 at 17:05

So why don't people specify the source of a citation as detailed as possible in books?

Well, sometimes they haven't thought about this issue. Sometimes they know something is in a certain book but don't have a copy handy to figure out exactly where. Sometimes they do have a copy handy, and they know they should look it up, but they are too lazy.

In many cases one can easily locate the right section using the table of contents or index, but when this fails it's really annoying.

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    In many cases it's not easy for me to locate the right section and page number if I am not familiar with the book. The index would usually tell me where the first occurance of a term. The table of contenets would tell me which chapter to look and that chapter could be 100 pages long. – scaaahu Jul 8 '12 at 3:17
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    Anonymous, thanks! It is not often easy for me to find the sources of citations by just looking at books' toc and index. – StackExchange for All Jul 8 '12 at 4:13
  • Sometimes it is also spread throughout the book (I expect that particularly where the citation is (compare [23]) or see also [23]. – cbeleites supports Monica Dec 22 '19 at 21:40

There is also often a good positive reason to cite a book without reference to specific chapters or subsections, and that is if one is pointing the reader to a source of review or introductory material. I personally often find it much better to point to a comprehensive survey (which is equally often a book rather than a journal paper), rather than a giant and certainly incomplete list of individual references, especially in formats where the number of pages or reference counts is limited.

This is especially the case when doing cross-disciplinary research. For example, I recently had a reviewer query how our paper could assert something that is such common knowledge in my field that I wouldn't have even thought to cite it. Thus, in the revised paper we cite an appropriate undergraduate textbook. Pointing to a specific element inside the book wouldn't have made sense, since you really need the whole foundation. It would be absolutely inappropriate, however, for us to attempt to reproduce an undergraduate class in the text of our paper.


One reason to not cite a specific page is if the information isn't on a specific page. Books, far more than papers, can communicate not only facts or single points of information, but ideas presented as a coherent whole.

For example, a paper I wrote cited Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery when talking about the process of scientific reasoning. There's not a page where that takes place - it's the whole book.

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