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Open any research article and it is littered with citations. I’ve recently been wondering what is expected of us when citing the literature:

  1. Are we expected to cite every reference relevant to our research article?

  2. Are we expected to cite only the “best” references relevant to our research article, where best can be defined as the papers which have appeared in the best journals or papers that are most cited?

  3. Do neither of the above apply? Are we simply expected to cite any paper relevant to our research article, just as long as we have cited something that supports/is related to our argument?

  • If you define best as most relevant to the point you're making, you may get a different answer to defining it as most cited. Defining best journals is a big question in its own right. – Chris H Apr 28 '15 at 18:48
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There are (in rough approximation) three reasons for citations:

1. Giving credit

If our paper builds on other papers, if we have taken any ideas from anywhere else, if anyone did something we are doing before, etc, we have to cite them. Questions such as "Is this peer-reviewed?" or "Is this accessible?" do not matter in this category.

2. For proof/evidence

Often we will claim that something is true without establishing its truth within our paper. Then we need to refer to other work for this.

Here, selectitivity makes sense: Citing someones blogpost claiming that X causes Y is not going to me particularly impressive. Citing a mathematical proof written in English available online in a journal is better than referring to a thesis written in an obscure language only availbale in hardcopy at some particular university (although do not forget 1.: if the thesis is prior, we may have to cite both). In sciences, it makes sense to some extent to cite multiple independent sources, less so in mathematics.

3. Providing context

We also cite to provide the broader context our research fits into. Some citations may have a "If you liked this paper, you may also like the following"-flavour. Here we have more or less full freedom what we want to cite. Pointing to one well-written survey article may be much better than citing 25 individual paper without much comment.

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    "If our paper builds on other papers, if we have taken any ideas from anywhere else" is spot-on for item 1, but "if anyone did something we are doing before" alone is not, strictly speaking, unless you want to specifically point out what a feat it is to achieve something at a particular early time. – O. R. Mapper Apr 28 '15 at 8:27
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    Also, concerning item 2, your text sounds a bit as if information provided in a language other than English were less reliable as evidence for a claim than information provided in English. Maybe that item should be split up into two aspects, soundness of claims on the one hand, and ease of accessibility of background information on the other hand. Otherwise, it would strike me as quite an "arrogant" way of looking at claims, similar to a judge dismissing the accounts of a witness just because the witness does not speak the judge's native language. – O. R. Mapper Apr 28 '15 at 8:32
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    @O.R.Mapper "better than referring to a thesis written in an obscure language" - I took that as English being more accessible than, say, Romansh. – earthling Apr 28 '15 at 9:51
  • @earthling: Yes, I fully understood that. Which is why I commented that reliability should be considered unrelated to accessibility, and conversely, that it would be inappropriate to consider a reference unreliable just because the source document is not perfectly accessible (but otherwise sound research). Especially if that accessibility is not based on any true obstacles for obtaining the document in question, but simply on a lack of knowledge on how to interpret it. – O. R. Mapper Apr 28 '15 at 10:58
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    @O.R.Mapper re 2.: A claim backed up with a reference to an English source would appear more reliable to me than a claim backed up with a Romansh source - not because I would consider the latter source themself less reliable, but because I cannot read it and see for myself whether it really says what the claimant says it is saying. – Arno Apr 28 '15 at 18:01
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Your references should allow the reader to understand the state of the field you are making a contribution to, as well as to place your contribution in the wider context. So you can't really give hard-and-fast rules. It will very much depend on your particular field and your paper itself.

Of course, you should cite everything that is relevant... but the question is how you define "relevance". Don't cite everything that has appeared in your field. But do cite references that specifically pertain to your specific question - these are certainly relevant.

The "best" references will probably correlate with having appeared in good journals and having been heavily cited. But you need to find a good balance between the relevance of the content and the impact of a potential reference. If you find a very pertinent article in an obscure journal, by all means cite it.

And of course, if you have taken ideas from the literature, you need to give credit where it is due.

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    Another important point: Whenever you cite something, you're expected to have actually read it yourself. – JeffE Apr 28 '15 at 11:03
  • @JeffE This is not true in math. Some people do think you should understand the proof of everything you use, but this is not practical for every result. (E.g, the 4-color theorem, classification of finite simple groups, etc.) Though I agree you should generally at least look at the works you cite. – Kimball Apr 28 '15 at 12:09
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    @Kimball Nope, math is not exempt. You don't need to fully understand every paper you cite. But you do need to verify with your own eyes that the result you are quoting actually appears in the paper you are citing, not some weaker/stronger/closely-related-but-actually-incompatible result. – JeffE Apr 28 '15 at 19:25
  • @JeffE In that case, I think we just differ in word choice. What you're talking about is what I call "looking at a paper." I only say I've "read a paper" if I pore over it and grok each step. – Kimball Apr 29 '15 at 1:02
  • @JeffE: I would imagine a stronger result should be fine... – Mehrdad Apr 29 '15 at 7:07
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References are there to provide a clear path to the sources for the information you use in your article, nothing else. One of the criteria we put on scientific output is reproducibility and in order to be able to verify statements you need to provide the sources clearly. This means that it should be possible to double check your use, or misuse, of earlier work in building towards your new findings.

There are ways in which the system is misused. Some people refer mostly to their own work. It is possible that ones own work is important but it is rather an exception for most. Along the same lines, it is possible that people excessively use particular authors as reference where other references would be just as good or better. The list can go on.

In the end, the knowledgeable scientist will have a fair grasp of the field and quite quickly see if key work is missing in a manuscript, during, for example, review and thus spot potential weaknesses in the structure of arguments. So the references are there to provide a clear trace of information used so that the use of the information can be verified.

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    Suggestion: I suggest deleting the "nothing else" from your first sentence (other answers give other reasonable purposes for references). – D.W. Apr 28 '15 at 23:26
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There are a few quality answers already (I specifically second Peter Jansson's answer), but I wanted to give a more practical perspective.

Are we expected to cite every reference relevant to our research article?

This would not be practical, or realistic, in many fields. I for instance work with data analysis in cancer research. The amount of "relevant" work published every month is absurdly large, so much so that even if I read and only read, everyday I would not be able to maintain a thorough grasp of the literature.

In some other field, where the problem formulation is well-framed, and the boundaries more clear-cut, this might be a more feasible expectation.

Are we expected to cite only the “best” references relevant to our research article, where best can be defined as the papers which have appeared in the best journals or papers that are most cited?

Interesting you take up this question of "best articles" vs articles in "best journals". There is some selection bias here, also known as "rich get richer" phenomenon, giving rise to a Power Law distribution among citations.

Articles published in high impact journals usually reach more people, tend to be written by more renowned scientists in the field. Also people have a tendency to find new reading material based on the number of citation an article gets. Alternatively, the chance of "finding" an article is increased by the number of other articles citing that paper. So the more renowned a particular study, the more renowned it will get.

There's little you (or I) can do about that, sadly.

Do neither of the above apply? Are we simply expected to cite any paper relevant to our research article, just as long as we have cited something that supports/is related to our argument?

You should cite the papers where you get your prior information from. Simply put; you use a particular finding from another article, you cite them. Using prior knowledge might be (and usually is) applicable in multiple scenarios (note that below is not an exhaustive list):

  • You help make a case in your introduction: e.g. by giving statistics, or portraying the current state of the field (a.k.a paying your dues)
  • You refer to a particular method, protocol, instrument etc in your Materials & Methods
  • You back up your findings, or their implications, by citing similar findings by independent researches supporting your findings (or interpretation of them), typically in Discussion part of your paper.
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Contrary to Arno, I would say that the primary purpose for citations is to give readers links to papers and books that your work builds on, depends on, or contradicts. This is related to Arno's #3 "Context", but sharper. It is not just that these papers and books provide context for your work. These other works provide details or foundations that your work does not. These other works provide theoretical or empirical foundations that your work does not. These other works examine cases or conditions that your work does not. Or maybe these other works present an alternative method, an alternative formulation, or a different theory.

Properly done, citations in the text provide the reader with all the links to related literature that allows them to understand and judge your paper, both the specifics and the general topics and questions. Without these citations, readers will not be able to judge the merit or significance of your paper.

Besides this purpose: yes, context is important. Yes, giving due credit is important. Yes, providing proof or evidence is important. Just not as important as what I just described.

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    I disagree with this assessment. If you are missing a reference for context, that might seem bad. But if you are missing a reference for credit, you are potentially committing plagiarism. – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 28 '15 at 11:24
  • @TobiasKildetoft -- plagiarism is not the same as giving credit. If I submit a paper proposing a Helios-centric theory of the solar system but never cite Copernicus and others, I am not guilty of plagiarism. Instead, I am guilty of hubris, irrelevance, and maybe solipsism. If, instead, my text is copied or paraphrased from the works of Copernicus but never cite his works, then I am guilty of plagiarism. – MrMeritology Apr 28 '15 at 11:54

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