I am writing my thesis in computer science and I am looking to include some references. I need to include though the researchers who first wrote about a specific subject and not others who expanded the original ideas.

I use Google Scholar for searches but there isn't an option to search for this criteria.

How can I find the first researcher who wrote about a specific subject?


I'm a little unclear about why you might want the very first, but at least in CS you have a limited history to work with.

The most detailed way to find this is to start with current papers (maybe a good review article) on the subject and to track back the references until you find the first one, paper-by-paper. If you already have a few early papers, obviously looking at their references is a better place to start. You haven't given us the topic area, but you might just ask for the earliest papers on the CS Theory Stackexchange. You might also try searching on Google by year if you are certain that you know the right keywords--binary searching the years back to 1900 or so will probably be most efficient.

Finding the right paper might be a little challenging, especially if the topic has changed names a few times since it started.

Edited to add: If you are at a university with a good library system, you might find a research librarian who does this kind of thing for a living and ask them for help.

  • 5
    This is the best strategy without a hint of the author's name or a keyword of the original topic (often names of topics change with time or are coined later than when first observed). Web of science might be useful to you because it can generate citation webs that can speed up the process of citation chasing.
    – user479
    Jul 5 '14 at 17:46
  • Better still start with a book on the subject (or parent subject - e.g. if you are writing about decision trees, you can find a book about Artificial Intelligence or Data Mining useful). Many books give a short historical overview mentioning the scientist(s) who first developed the subject. The bibliography sections in a book are also useful as there are short descriptions instead of just a list of references. Jul 8 '14 at 13:54

While your question was already anwered by Bill Barth, I want to try and answer the question that you should have asked:

How to find the right paper to cite for well established facts / problems / theorems / etc.

If this is what you actually intended, than the first paper ever published on the topic is only one possibility. Often a better option is to look for a good review paper on the topic and cite that. A reader is much more likely to gain knowledge from a good review than a (probably decades old) first publication.

Have a look around, how others cite this specific subject and immitate them if you want to make sure not to violate unwritten etiquette. There are basically three possibilities

  • No citation: The subject is assumed common knowledge and can probably be found in any standard textbook.
  • citing the original paper: this is what you intended. Even if the first publication on the subject will likely not include all of the knowledge on the subject that you have and the reader might thus need to look at other publications as well, this is often done to acknowledge the work that the original author put into this. Make sure that you reference any further work that is needed to understand your work, e.g. during your own summary of the subject.
  • citing a recent paper or review article: a) The subject is likely already well established and almost assumed common knowledge. The citation helps the reader to either catch up on some recent developments (paper) or to get a general overview (review). b) The subject has a long and active history. The subject in the formulation that you use probably has no clear first author. Due to numerous modifications / the natural evolution of notation etc. the original publication on the topic is probably of no use to the reader. In this case either a paper with a good introduction or a review can be cited.

Of course combinations of the above are possible as well. E.g. citing the original paper to acknowledge the first author as well as a review article such that the reader might catch up on any results that are already available prior to your work.

Unless you are currently writing a review though, you are not required to dig through generations of publications to find the first paper on a subject. If nobody in your field cites it, you can safely stick with one of the other two options.

  • 1
    The OP was quite clear in the fact that he wanted to find the first paper on a subject. This does nothing to answer the question. If an idea exists in the literature, there is always a "first time" that it is mentioned.
    – Moriarty
    Jul 6 '14 at 13:40
  • @Moriarty yes, that is what he said. But I got the impression that he only asked that because he is of the firm believe, that he should cite the first paper on every subject in his thesis instead of any later papers. I simply wanted to give an alternative view in case this is actually his motivation.
    – example
    Jul 6 '14 at 14:13

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