I have a paper in linguistic which was written when I was in high school. I would like to mention it in my SOP. When I ask if I should mention it, xLeitix has raise this question:

What is the hypothesis that you proposed?

The hypothesis I proposed is in sociology, which I had when reading the book The Human Zoo. The problem is, it is a pop science book, and the hypothesis only bases on this reference (number of total references is 7). However, since the author is reputable (he is listed as a notable English-language popularizers of science by Wiki), I think I have cited a reliable source. More importantly, if the PhD committees are interested in the ability of research, does this paper satiate them because I made it when I was in high school without any guidance? Does citing on pop science books make my paper less value in the eyes of:

  • linguists?
  • biologists?
  • other scientists?
  • 4
    "The hypothesis in linguistics I proposed..." Is your hypothesis (and the necessary experiments, proofs etc) accepted in a good, peer-reviewed journal? If not, it is simply your idea(and as someone else suggested ideas are dime-a-dozen). PHD committees are not interested in your ideas that came to your mind but in your ability to do research. In this sense, it is better to keep those ideas to yourself, until you prove that those ideas have a scientific value. If you have published such an idea, if you referenced a pop science book will be irrelevant.
    – Alexandros
    Feb 2, 2015 at 16:04
  • If the phd committees are interested in the ability of research, will this paper satiate them because I made it when I was in high school without any guidance?
    – Ooker
    Feb 3, 2015 at 0:43

2 Answers 2


There are really two entirely separate questions tangled together here:

  1. Should a mature scientific writer cite a "pop science" book?
  2. Does citing a "pop science" book degrade the value of a work produced in high school?

Let me start with the second, since I think that's the one you really want an answer to. I think that citing a pop science book will have little effect on an admission committee's evaluation of your high school work. You are not expected to have been doing well-supervised scientific research in high school. If your paper is actually published in a (credible) peer-reviewed venue, then that's a major mark in your favor, and clearly the peers had no objection to the citation. If your paper hasn't been published, then it's going to weigh much less in any case, and again the nature of one citation won't make a significant difference.

Turning back now to the first question, citing a pop science book can sometimes be appropriate, even for a mature scientific writer. Something that is not often well acknowledged is that scientists are effectively just other members of the general public when it comes to evaluating material far outside of their domain. From a scientific perspective, then, it is best to think of a pop science book as a large survey paper that is written for very broad accessibility. Thus, a high-quality pop science book can be entirely appropriate to cite, if a broad survey paper is what is needed. Survey papers are always secondary sources, and yet they are quite scientifically valuable and highly cited (to the degree that they are often a focus of gaming in publication statistics).

Some popular science books are very highly cited in just this way; to take a few recent examples, at the time of this writing, Google Scholar shows "Guns, Germs, and Steel" having 7000+ citations, "The black swan" has 4000+ citations, and "A Random Walk down Wall Street" has 2000+. Your example of "The Human Zoo" has about 300, so it has clearly been well appreciated, even if it is now quite old.

The real distinction is this: if you want to refer to aspects of the synthesis constructed in the survey paper, you should cite the survey paper (or pop science book). If you want to refer to a specific fact or conclusion repeated in the survey paper from elsewhere, then you should find, verify, and cite the primary source that they survey paper drew from instead. Be sure to verify, because some survey paper and pop science books take dreadful liberties with their primary sources...

  • 1
    Wow, you know my question better than I know :D. Thank you so much
    – Ooker
    Feb 7, 2015 at 16:37
  • Also, this is the first time I heard about survey paper. Is this different from literature review?
    – Ooker
    Feb 7, 2015 at 17:22
  • 1
    @Ooker Survey papers and literature reviews are fairly synonymous. The terms might have slightly different implications to different communities, but the basic sense is the same: a secondary paper whose primary value is from the synthesis of results into a larger picture.
    – jakebeal
    Feb 7, 2015 at 17:33

The main problem with citing a popular science book is that it is a secondary source. Almost certainly, the author isn't reporting on original research that he conducted himself; he's discussing research previously discussed and published by others (and possibly his own as well), and putting it in context for a general audience. He is one or more steps removed from the original work itself, and especially in a popular science book, there won't be complete details about how the results were obtained, which would be necessary to satisfy an expert.

So if you want to support your own arguments using some statement claimed in Morris's book (e.g. "baboons can use toothbrushes"), you don't want to cite this book as your only evidence for that statement. Rather, you need to find the primary sources. You should look for who Morris cites, and if necessary, trace back a chain of citations until you find the original paper where this result was reported. This will be a paper written by the people who actually conducted the study that is claimed to show that baboons can use toothbrushes (call them Jones). Read Jones's paper, and make your own decision about exactly what hypothesis they tested, whether their methods were appropriate, whether their data is good evidence for their hypothesis, and in general whether their work convinces you that baboons can use toothbrushes. Then search for other papers citing Jones that may offer criticism of their work, reproduce their results, and so on. Take them into account in your decision as to whether to depend on this fact. If you decide it's reliable, then cite Jones and any other paper that offers something helpful to evaluating their work.

(And if you decide it's not reliable, don't fall into the trap of "But Morris believes it, and he's reputable, so I'll just cite him." Reputable people make mistakes too, and propagating mistakes like this is a major cause of bad science. Instead, look for other evidence to support or refute your argument.)

You can also cite Morris, if you feel that he adds something to the discussion, or that the reader will find it useful to read his book. But a scholarly paper can't rely solely on secondary sources. A paper that does so will certainly be taken less seriously, by anyone.

Edit: To address your comment, nobody here can really tell to what extent a PhD committee would view your paper as evidence of research ability; it will depend on how good they think it is, and only they know that. But citing popular science texts instead of primary sources is probably not a good sign, since it doesn't seem to show a familiarity with proper research practices. I wouldn't really expect a committee to be extra impressed because it was done in high school. They don't really care how advanced you were in high school, they want to know whether you are prepared for grad school now, and that decision will be based much more on what you have done in your undergraduate work. So unless the paper you wrote in high school was incredibly spectacular, I don't think it will affect graduate admissions one way or the other.

  • Thanks for your answer. The reason I make a bounty to this question is because the question in my comment hasn't been answered. I want to know if I had the ability of research or not when I was in high school. I have already known that it has less scientific value.
    – Ooker
    Feb 4, 2015 at 22:15
  • @Ooker: I added some text to address it, even though it's getting pretty close to a "too localized" question that can't help anyone but you. Also, it's kind of frowned upon to redirect a question to a different subject as you did; in the future it would be better to open a new question if you want to ask something different. Feb 4, 2015 at 23:45
  • 2
    @Ooker I understand you are applying for a PhD in Biology. You can safely bet the admission board would have no idea about linguistics, and thus, will not be able to judge the quality of your paper (for all they know, it could be a rehash of some well known facts, or utterly nonsense). What they can do is check for standard practices, like citing primary sources and so on.
    – Davidmh
    Feb 5, 2015 at 8:20
  • @Davidmh Your comment really convinces me. Make it an answer and I'll accept you.
    – Ooker
    Feb 6, 2015 at 3:19

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