Recently I wrote a course paper on a subject connecting my major to my current major. In the background section, I listed quite a bit of essential information I think is information that is readily available, and which I can confirm through many years of life and work experience, but which my instructor knows nothing about. The instructor has accused me of not providing references for this information.

Do I need to fill my paper with citations to people who wrote books saying the same thing? How do I know where to draw the line between what gets a reference and what does not?


Here is the general principle for citations: anything that is not considered "elementary knowledge" to the community reading the paper must have a citation. This means that different communities need citations for different things. For example, when I write for a biology community, I often end up including citations to basic computer science textbooks, to give a grounding for things that are simple undergraduate information in my background, but that would be highly unintuitive to an experimental biologist. The reverse applies as well, for a biologist writing to a computer science audience.

Something that you know through experience definitely needs to be backed up with citation. One of the critical values of the scientific method is that it lets us separate statements supportable by facts from myths based on cognitive biases. We humans are very, very bad at learning from experience, in the sense that we draw many conclusions that are simply not true. Folklore is full of these types of experience-grounded myths, some of which turn out to be true (willow bark does help with pain: that's the basis for aspirin), and some of which turn out to be false (mercury turns out to be terrible as a medicine).

If you can find things backing up your experience in reliable literature, you can cite them. If not, perhaps you have a good subject for study, if you can figure out how to design an appropriate experiment...


The standard rule of thumb in this situation is not whether the information is readily available, but whether it is common knowledge. If the majority of people on the street (or beginners in your field) will know the information, then you probably don't need to cite a source for that information. However, if it is information specific to your subspecialty, you do need to cite a source, even when this is 'common knowledge' to you and others in your sub-specialty. The rest of the world--and in this case, your instructor--do not simply know this information, and thus you need to provide them a way to evaluate the validity of your claims.

Where this really gets tricky is when you are writing for a specialty audience. You do not need to provide a source for background information that your audience already knows and has known since beginning their studies. For example, I would not expect to need to provide a definition of, or citation for, third spacing to an audience of healthcare professionals, but if my audience may include other disciplines then I need to address this because third spacing can mean more than one thing.

  • "you need to provide them a way to evaluate the validity of your claims" - does this imply that claims without source are invalid by definition? That is to say that no "new" claims can be made by the author of the derivative paper, as they can not back them up. Wouldn't that constrain research greatly? – aevitas Nov 25 '14 at 15:50
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    @aevitas A citation is one way to back up a claim. Others include experimental data, simulations, mathematical analysis, and the rest of the "meat" of scientific papers. – jakebeal Nov 25 '14 at 15:55
  • @aevitas - welcome to Academia, where referencing has become more important than validity, research or original thought. – Jon Story Nov 25 '14 at 16:01
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    @JonStory if you base a valid argument on false premises, the outcome is likely to be wrong. That is why you need to back up your claims, be it by experiment, citation, or others. – Davidmh Nov 25 '14 at 16:04

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