Suppose that I am doing a literature review on a topic, and I read paper A, which makes an interesting claim and references paper B as its source. Naturally, as paper B is then the primary source, I will look up B and possibly cite it in my own paper if it seems relevant. And suppose that it turns out that paper A says nothing else that's relevant for my topic, so I say nothing about paper A.

And this seems fine if I only discovered one citation from paper A. But if I find several useful citations in the same paper, it starts to feel like plagiarism if I just ruthlessly harvest it for citations without never citing itself.

Sometimes it's easy to work in a citation in such a case. For example, if it's a review paper I'm reading, I might be able to just write in my own paper something like:

Qwerty (2009) reviews a number of a results in this field, such as the finding that over 99% of the people who contract cancer wear shoes (Keyes 1999), that pink aliens from the sixteenth dimension dislike chocolate (Pinker 2001), ...

But often there isn't really any reasonable way to work in a citation, especially not if you wish the citation to make it clear that this is where you found useful sources from. I could include a footnote or a thanks in the acknowledgements, but I've never seen anyone do that for such a reason. Are there any rules of thumb regarding the correct etiquette in such situations?

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    Related, but not duplicate: “What's the correct way to cite a paper cited by another paper?”
    – F'x
    Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 12:07
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    I recommend removing plagiarism tag, as it's NOT plagiarism to 'harvest' citations from a paper. Good papers will be cited a lot, and it simply makes no sense if we have to credit all the authors who cited them. Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 14:00
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    Shouldn't questions about whether or not something is considered plagiarism carry the plagiarism tag, even if the answer is "no, this is fine"?
    – Kaj_Sotala
    Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 14:13

2 Answers 2


The quoted you wrote is actually a pretty good way to include that citation.

It all comes down to the fundamental reason you are citing the paper. Citations are used to refer the reader to papers that contain useful information pertaining to your discussion. As such, “because it includes a good citation” is not a good reason for citing paper A in itself: there are plenty of other ways you could have found paper B (other citations, web or database search, bumping into its author at a meeting, etc.). Unless paper A adds relevant information to paper B, it should simply not be cited. One way it can add information is by performing a review of the literature, or by commenting on the results in paper B… In the first case, your quote is a good way to acknowledge that fact; in the second case, you could simply write that:

Qwerty discussed in [21] the original results of Doe [22], showing how the data wasn't corrected to account for the phase of the moon at the time of measurement.

In conclusion, I'd say: determine whether paper A brings additional information, then either cite it or do not cite it. It is not common practice (and I don't think it should be) to acknowledge a paper without citing it.

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    +1 for citing A only if it adds something. Practical reasons include saving space in your paper (bib references are usually 2 lines). Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 13:57

I think "telling the truth" is a good guide: if one finds a source via another source, it is reasonable to say so. It is true that there is a tradition of a more formal pose, something in the direction that "oh, we knew this all along", even when this is not so.

Yes, there is an issue of wording, for which we lack good precedents, because such acknowledgements are not typical.

Another reason to be sure to acknowledge all sources is to communicate to the community that this is a reasonable thing to do.

Note that the distinction between "citation" and "acknowledgement" is less intellectual/scientific than it is a score-keeping thresh-hold.

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    It's all a matter of “where do you stop?”. Do you acknowledge the coffee where you read the paper? Or the search engine through which you found the paper? Not really… unless it added value to the paper itself. Same thing should be true for papers you read. It's not so much that “oh, we knew this all along”, but more that “do you really care where I heard about this?” :)
    – F'x
    Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 15:25
  • If it indicates methodology, I think it should be explained. The looming example is using Wikipedia to find more-primary sources whether or not we may trust Wiki's accuracy itself. A similar comment might apply to "secondary sources" generally, which, truth-be-told, are often more helpful than "primary" sources. Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 17:54

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