Surprisingly, I have not found a similar question to mine - all I found was a question about the maximum number of citations per sentence.

However, I am more interested in the total number of citations that is considered normal for a paper (to be more specific, a Master Thesis, which in my case will be around 60 pages of content.)

I heard that about 1 - 1.5 multiplied with page count would be a good number of sources cited.

I am asking because I am a little worried that I might have cited too many sources.

  • 2
    What is your field?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 8, 2014 at 11:07
  • 15
    Cite as many as you have to. Some papers have referred to no references and some have referred to more than fifty or sixty. There is no general rule.
    – enthu
    Aug 8, 2014 at 11:31
  • 3
    Swedish has a very appropriate word for it: lagom. Just the right amount.
    – Davidmh
    Aug 8, 2014 at 12:41
  • 1
    A simple example to show why this is not possible to answer: Compare a paper about some original research to a survey about a new field of research. Both of those are perfectly fine to write about, both will get accepted by journals and to some degree you can write master theses about both (well you can, I don't say you should). But the number of citations you'll have for both of those will be at opposite sides of a rather large spectrum.
    – Voo
    Aug 8, 2014 at 16:04
  • 4
    I might have cited too many sources. — This is simply not possible. The only possible point of concern is whether you've cited each of those sources appropriately.
    – JeffE
    Aug 10, 2014 at 22:24

4 Answers 4


There is no definite answer. It really depends on how much previous literature exists, how much of it you have reviewed and cited appropriately, and (loosely) what the word count of the document is. Page count can misleading, as some theses have many more figures and tables than others.

No one is going to skip to the bibliography, think negative thoughts, and say "you have too many references!" without reading the document. If no individual part of the thesis could be considered as having too many citations, then the thesis as a whole has an appropriate number of citations.

These related questions have answers as to how you can decide if a particular part of the thesis has too many citations.


In addition to the other answer, this question is based on some slightly questionable premises, as seen in the sentence "the total number of citations that is considered normal for a paper (to be more specific, a Master Thesis, which in my case will be around 60 pages of content.)":

  • In the communities of CS that I am familiar with, a Master Thesis of some 60 pages is not a paper. A paper is usually a document that concisely describes something on typically 5 to 15 pages (depending both on the paper type (short, full, journal, poster abstract, ...) and the layout. Hence, a Master Thesis is not comparable to a paper.
  • Papers published in conferences (and maybe to a somewhat lesser extent, in journals) are usually bound to a very strict upper page count limit. When you have lots of interesting stuff to tell, there is only so much space left for references and you often have to skip citing some sources that you would have liked to include. Such a restriction usually doesn't exist in graduation theses such as Bachelor or Master theses. There may be a rough guideline for the expected number of pages, but exceeding that by a moderate amount (in the case you presented, I'd frankly say 80 pages instead of 60 is ok) if the content is worth it is not necessarily a problem - least of all if the extra length is caused by "additional info" such as the appendix or references rather than the core document.
  • Lastly, there is no normal number of references because each topic is different. For some Master Thesis tasks, there may be a number of default works that should always be listed in the initial exposition of the general topic, which in itself already fill a page of references, whereas other Master Thesis tasks might not have such a "default list"; the general exposition is done with very few or without any references.

The number should be N, where N is the exact number of papers that you have really read, understood and (mostly) relevant to your thesis.


I just completed an M.A. thesis in English literature, and I mean just. I tend to be light on the number of sources I use and I like to have favored sources and work it to exhaustion.

My thesis is about 30,000 words, about 50 percent more than the minimum at my institution. I have 27 secondary sources and six primary sources. The institution requires 20 sources, I don't if that's 20 secondary or 20 total, but what I did will give you and idea what you need to do.

I'm not just out college. In fact, I am senior citizen age. My writing ability is equal to that the people who write the journal article and equal to that of a professional historian too. Reading the journal articles I have had to read to do my seminar papers and my thesis, I have seen many that are excessively heavy on sources. Some are light on sources but seem nevertheless to be good articles.

How you primary sources you cite might depend on your topic. It could be only one. Conceivably, it could be none. For a master's thesis in literature, the minimum might be one secondary source for each thousand word. In imagine, in that case, that it might be double than many for a doctoral disseration. In that case, the number secondary sources for doctoral thesis would have to be around 150.

How many source might depend on the individual and how that persons works their sources. But I would still say, expect to be required to have 150 sources or close to it.

My thesis was low on sources in part because I first outlined a theory and then applied that theory to the characters of four novels without much reference to outside sources.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .