What is the best strategy to determine common knowledge in an unfamiliar field? I have provided an example below, but I am not looking for an answer specific to that example.

We have an answered question that addresses whether and how common knowledge should be cited. A more difficult problem is determining what is common knowledge in an unfamiliar field. In my answer to the question linked, I provide one strategy, examining introductory textbooks in that field. However, as was mentioned in the comments, not all fields have introductory texts.

As an example, I am working on an institutional grant proposal. The proposed activities have to do with increasing retention rates of freshmen students, particularly in the sciences. We are looking at targeting pedagogical reform in introductory classes and increasing engagement through more and better co-curricular experiences.

My background is in chemistry. I do not know what is common knowledge in the worlds of pedagogy and student engagement/retention. I have been reading books and articles on the subjects, and citation practices have been inconsistent. Some authors provide citations for everything, including broad generalizations and common sense, like:

  • There are many reasons why an undergraduate student may choose to leave college.

And then others provide very few citations, including for statements that seem like they should have been based on a study:

  • More than half of all students who withdraw from college are freshmen.
  • Less than half of the students who declare science majors will graduate with a degree in a science field.

I realize that the former case may be from overzealous paranoia about plagiarism, and the latter case may be an example of poor scholarship, but this is difficult to assess as an outsider.

EDIT: For clarification, I am asking about determining when something requires a citation if I am writing in a field that I do not normally participate in. I know that I should always cite things that are new, obscure, or counter to prevailing thought. I wouldn't necessarily need to cite things that are "well-established" or "agreed-upon". After a certain point, if enough studies have reaffirmed the same result, or if the result has been so widely cited that it becomes well-known, it is pointless to cite it. It is currently silly to provide a citation for "The structure of DNA is a double helix formed by two complimentary strands held together by hydrogen-bonding between the base pairs." At one point, however, it was not silly, because this idea was new.

How can I quickly determine where a finding is on the continuum between new/obscure and well established?

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    My interpretation of the first sort of citation isn't that it is providing evidence that there are many reasons, but that it is pointing the readers towards further reading on this topic if they are interested. Commented Jul 27, 2012 at 17:29
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    I would recommend placing citations even for "common sense statements" especially for fields that are in the "soft sciences." For example, statements such as "smoking can lead to lung cancer" and "proportional reasoning skills are not dependent on gender" would require citations to actual studies.
    – JRN
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 4:38

2 Answers 2


By far the simplest way to get around this problem is to simply give it to a colleague who is more well-versed in the field and have them judge which statements need to be backed up by citations and which don't.

The next simplest way is to read papers on a very similar topic to yours (which, no doubt, do exist) and see what they cite.

On a related note, my advisor gave me the advice of "when in doubt, cite." His point was that the only real downside of an unnecessary reference is added length to the paper. If you get to that point, and the only thing left to cut is citations, then you can start to worry.

  • So maybe "common knowledge" in not the best term for what I am asking about. Your answer seems to be more about "best practices". I am certainly interested in "best practices" insofar as the example I gave is concerned. My question is really more about what needs a citation, and what doesn't. I can answer that very clearly for chemistry because I have a decade of experience in the field.
    – Ben Norris
    Commented Jul 27, 2012 at 19:02
  • @BenNorris - Sorry, I didn't read the context. Answer completely revised.
    – eykanal
    Commented Jul 27, 2012 at 19:40

There is no easy criterium saying where you should cite, when - a review article or a book, and when - you can safely skip citing anything.

Anyway, ask 2-3 guys within that field. If for any of them it's not 'obvious' - you should cite. If it is old enough that there is a book on it - it's fine to cite it. (Alternatively, you can try asking on a respective StackExchange site.)

Moreover, if for you something is not obvious, you should cite it as well (the chances are a reader of you paper won't know more than you). Note that many well-known results (e.g. results of integration or summation) are referenced for the reader's convenience (and to make it obvious that it is not a novel discovery).

Also, one sanity-check may be if there is a well-written Wikipedia page on the subject. If there is, perhaps you don't need to cite it.

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