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I'm interested in knowing if/how to properly cite a personal communication within a reference and if credit should be given to the primary source (the personal communication), the secondary source (the reference that cites the personal communication), or both.

Hypothetical example: There is a textbook which has tabular data that I would like to reference. The textbook cites the tabular data as being from a personal communication with another author. I see this as a quandary since:

(1) If I reference the textbook without the personal communication, I am not giving proper credit to the original author (even though they never published the data separately in its own right)

(2) If I reference the personal communication, this would be incorrect and perhaps fraudulent as it was not between myself and the author, I am only a third party, and I would not be giving proper credit to the textbook authors, which is how the data was published.

(3) If I reference both, that is somewhat awkward as that would imply that I found the data from both sources independently, even though I only found it in one.

What is the proper way to reference this?

  • Given how little you know about this data and its provenance, are you comfortable using it in your paper in the first place? If it turns out to be erroneous, what would it mean for your paper? – Nate Eldredge Jan 23 '15 at 23:32
  • @NateEldredge Given that it was published in a very reputable and widely used textbook in my field, I do feel comfortable using it, because should it be wrong, it would look far worse for the textbook than my publication. – iwantmyphd Jan 23 '15 at 23:44
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    That doesn't seem like much comfort if you're forced to retract your paper! "At least this other guy is embarrassed too. Never mind that he has tenure, while I'm on the job market and need as many publications as I can get." – Nate Eldredge Jan 23 '15 at 23:52
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    @NateEldredge I respect your opinion and agree with your concern, but what I'm trying to get at here is finding a means of giving fair credit where credit is due, as a broader issue; I gave this example as a means of illustrating the details. – iwantmyphd Jan 24 '15 at 1:29
  • Ok. My point is that citation serves a dual purpose: giving due credit, and creating a chain so that results used are traceable to their original source and can be appropriately evaluated by the reader. Maybe you are only asking about the first here, but I think in this case there are much deeper concerns about the second, which goes to research integrity. If that is of interest I can try to write an answer accordingly. – Nate Eldredge Jan 24 '15 at 4:25
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This is a very odd situation, and you may want to consider carefully whether to use the source, per Nate Eldredge's comment above. If you do want to use it, however, I would recommend citing the textbook, but mentioning their original source in prose:

blah blah context context, per the table in [citation of Textbook], as attributed to [their source].

This way you give the citation and appropriate credit, but do not assert you have personal communication of your own.

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I would not put the original source ("John Doe, private communication") in my bibliography, because, as you noted, it gives the false impression that I was the direct recipient of the communication. Rather, I would include the textbook ("Jane Roe, "Introduction to Astrology", Predator Press, 2010") in the bibliography and then write in the body of the paper something like "Table 17, due to John Doe and published in [Roe, 2010] ...."

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