Recently I was researching for a paper, but the results of my research got me reflecting on my habits:

Is is at all appropriate for me to use Google (partly also Google Scholar) for academic research, just because I have good experiences with it in my personal, non-professional environment? I noticed I feel slightly too comfortable in sourcing material via Google. As expected, the quality of the resulting materials is "bad", in the sense that the sources I happen to find are rarely journal articles and often chronically difficult to cite. Of course for many topics this is a non-issue, but for my current topic, a lot of government, international institution and NGO content was "on-topic" and needed, so that is how the situation came about in the first place.

While I definitely won't use Wikipedia or (online) newspapers, but I also came across e.g. OECD content: while the content itself is strong and academically valid, by now I sadly had to discard a significant part of it, also because I initially didn't (exclusively) use their "iLibrary". Specifically: The amount of time I had to spend trying to find e.g. the author of such non-journal content (and other source-data), trying to decide if I should invest my time into reading and citing the content vs. discarding it and that I have to enter bibliographic data by hand for such content make me tired.

Thus my thought is: Should I intentionally, sternly refrain/refuse to use (and of course cite) any materials that doesn't carry a DOI, ISBN or ISSN? There is still a lot of grey literature, manuscripts, working papers etc. and web content out there... My current frustration is so large that I seriously consider such a strict stance going forward, but I fear that I might miss out on crucial facts and that omitting such publication will affect the credibility and well-roundedness of my paper(s)?

In the age of Google I am very happy that academic standards are in place, compared to the lack of cite-ability etc. in documents published by NGO's, think tanks, policy institutes and some governments.

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    What a strange question. There's a ton of utterly unreliable crap with a DOI/ISBN, and a ton of excellent material without. An ArXiv preprint that's received (and been revised in response to) lots of community eyeballs is a far more reliable source than, say A New Kind of Science or a typical El Naschie journal article.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 14:42
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    Can you please edit the question to clarify if you mean "Should I simply not use material from other sources?" OR "Should I simply not bother to CITE material from other sources?" I believe you will get better answers, or, at least let us vote more intelligibly.
    – user568
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 20:14
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    If you use it, then you must cite it, and you must give the reader enough information to find it in principle. So if you use a PDF that you downloaded from the World Bank's web site, then yes, cite the paper and include the URL. Similarly, if you use a document in the rare documents archive of the Vatican library, then you must cite that document and point to the Vatican.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 21:19
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    why not wikipedia? :) search for the "Mn3+ in Trigonal Bipyramidal Coordination: A New Blue Chromophore" (I don't have free access to it) and see that a very important discovery about blue pigments cites wikipedia... Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 1:55
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    Forgive me if I got this wrong, but it sounds like you are asking if you should limit your research to sources that are convenient to cite. I think you will find yourself missing out on significant sources and risk making anything you produce likewise irrelevant for not considering it.
    – Mr.Mindor
    Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 6:35

4 Answers 4


If you build your work upon other people's work, whether it be a blog post or postage stamp, then you should cite it, otherwise that's plagiarism. This is especially the case if the work is a primary source of the research (which can even be the case for blog posts).

That said, there are some guidelines you can follow to get the best version of the work to cite.

  • Find the most recent or most authoritative/official version of the work. If the paper is an unpublished workshop paper, is there a corresponding conference or journal paper that was later published? Or is the work perhaps written up in a masters or PhD thesis?
  • Find the primary source. Is the blog post (secondary source) a distillation of some other paper (primary source)? If so, go for that primary source. Is the Wikipedia article (tertiary source) based on some well-known book or article (primary source)? If the report from an NGO is original research (primary source) then you should cite it. If not, determine what it is based on an cite that.
  • 2
    Yes, give credit where credit is due, no matter the status/prestige of the source. In some cases I'd cite not only a primary source, but secondary or tertiary if they were (apparently!?!) essential to me in finding the primary source. Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 15:16
  • I'm not sure where you came to the conclusion that the OP simply used the other sources without siting them. Specifically given the phrase "by now I sadly had to discard a significant part of it"
    – user568
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 18:25
  • @JoshuaDrake: I just stated what the rules are, answering the question posed in bold -- at least, the cite version of it. Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 18:49
  • @DaveClarke Sorry for using the word "cite" and no offense, but I couldn't anticipate that everyone gets so hung up on it and assumes that I want to plagiarize (and ask permission for it on SE lol), how silly. (This is not my first post on academia.SE) If you want to answer a question on SE, you should, please, consider to read the whole text I wrote. I wrote it for good reason. The bold text was just my CONCLUSION from everything else I wrote. Aside from that, your tip "find the most recent or most official version of the work." is gold, I was never sure about this, I'll obey this now. :) Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 10:59

From my own personal experience, I have cited non-traditional sources that go far beyond the realm of books and articles, and even repositories like arXiv.org.

In some cases, these included "trade association" documents that cited chemical compositions for blends that we needed to have in order to set up a numerical model. In that case, the document was "official" enough that it could pass muster as a viable source of the data. Similarly, if one wants to cite a source like the NIST Webbook or an online database like the Merck Index, those are clearly curated well enough that one doesn't necessarily have to worry about judging its validity.

For sites that are not so well curated, then you do have to work as an arbiter of the quality of the website. You'll need to verify if there is sufficient data and evidence to back up the claims that you find in the documentation you want to cite, and if the document is suitable for citation, or if you need to dig further back to find better "original" sources. So long as you can "trace back" your work with suitable confidence, it's probably OK to cite a source from the Web. Once the provenance or accuracy becomes nebulous or tenuous, you should look for alternate (or more primary) sources.

To go the other way is, of course, also possible. The challenge will be that if there are very important sources of literature published outside the journal system—for example, government reports or other standard materials that "define" their field, then you will probably be called out if you omit them—and their findings—from your work. Now this may not be true in your field, in which case this won't be a concern. If you get a referee report with such a request and refuse to make the change on the ground that it doesn't have a digital identifier, you may find yourself with a rejection notice at the end of the day.

  • I frequently came across "trade associations" etc. too. But my question was not "if it is appropriate to cite non-traditional sources" (I did that already), but if I could go the other way. (Still, I of course upvoted you.) My question is strange, I know. Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 19:01
  • I've added another paragraph to address your specific concern. For the most part, you're probably OK to ignore such literature. However, you are responsible for knowing the "critical" literature in your field, regardless of its source.
    – aeismail
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 20:20

DOI, ISBN and ISSN are very useful tool for managing citations, but nothing more. You need to cite every material you rely on. Otherwise it is strongly against scientific ethics (i.e. plagiarism or intentional lack of acknowledgement).

Of course, when you use materials without DOI, ISBN or ISSN you need to put special effort to properly identify the cited material and to have any reasonable chance, that it won't disappear.

But for example arXiv ids, or even links to MathOverflow answers are good candidates.

If you point is "I refrain form citing anything without DOI, ISBN or ISSN just because" then, well, someone can pledge not to cite your journal, or just - any of your works, because why not (and it happens on the same moral ground)?

  • 1
    Even though this answer is a bit rhetorical-inflammatory, it does make an entirely legitimate point, namely, that ... "gosh", who decided what the "legitimate" sources were? :) Once again, one might think about the non-identical-ness of "corporation-published with connivance of academics" and "significant scientific/scholarly progress". There is no longer any "academy" in which to have one's papers read out loud to the few dozen savants, as the only way to promulgate one's work, but/and there is an internet which creates difficulties in distinguishing glitter from gold. Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 23:47
  • Dear Piotr, thanks for the provocative ideas. You say "someone can pledge not to cite your journal, or just - any of your works, because why not (and it happens on the same moral ground)?", I say: Sure! BUT that is exactly why I ask here: I don't want to base my actions in this regard on "morals" or my own convenience, but I rather wondered if there are academic, scientific reasons to do so! Because as @paulgarrett said, someone "decided what the "legitimate" sources were". While I would say: No one decided that, at least not in my case, because: I said I cite anything with a DOI or ISBN. i.e. Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 10:45
  • (part 2), i.e. I didn't actually touch the "legitimacy" aspect at all! This is something I have to figure out myself, totally unrelated to the DOI etc. aspect - you bet I will. :) So ACTUALLY I would venture to say that today the "playground" is more level these days, as no one is forbidden to e.g. use an ISSN (free?), it is more that (which is also my criticism) most organizations don't even pay attention! If I have a paper of paid gov. officials in front of me, I expect them that THEY expect others to cite their work and thus make it easy and reliable for me to cite their work results. Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 10:48
  • @grunwald2.0 So there are two issues: is you want to trust/rely on a publication (which is up to your judgement; in particular you should not blindly believe just because of the stamp). BTW: books are typically not peer-reviewed; DOI does not guarantee it either. And looking only at identifiers in not a serious indicator or quality. The second is, if you rely on some result, you need to cite it. Period. (Actually, I meant "ethical grounds"). But still, I don't understand you particular problem. Could you clarify? Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 15:00

Interesting question. I think the answer lies in looking for what purpose you cite "anything but journal articles and books".

In this respect, it is important to distinguish between primary and secondary sources in research reports:

  • Primary sources are all items which were an object of your research, i.e., your research results directly stem from an analysis of these items. An example would be a text where you studied usage of a specific word. Or a telephone book, if you did a statistical analysis of telephone numbers. Primary references are rather rare in the natural sciences and engineering, but they would be more common in social sciences and humanities.
  • Secondary sources are items from which you cite research results in order to support your arguments. For example theories that you base your hypotheses on, reports on the validity of methods that you are using in your research, or other research results which you discuss in relation to yours.

Obviously, for primary sources, it doesn't matter whether they have been produced with academic standards or not. After all, they are the objects of research, and the validity of your research results does (in principle) not depend on the validity of the primary sources.

On the other hand, the validity of secondary sources is crucial for the validity of your research results, or at least your interpretation of the results. That's why you only want to use secondary sources which are up to academic standards, i.e. peer-reviewed scientific publications and books from established authors / publishers.

So the conclusion is that you should in fact try to refrain from using less credible references as secondary sources, while it will be perfectly fine to use anything as a primary source.

  • I said I want to cite ONLY journals and books (or any document type equaling those two formats) and nothing else. I basically want to NOT cite anything that lacks the credibility and "findability" of academic and scientific output that can afford to sport a DOI. ...I know the question is strange, but reading the question first before giving me a "noob-guide" about sources (assuming that I don't know that, sorry I do) would save you time. ;) Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 19:05
  • @grunwald2.0 your question apparently lacks clarity in this regard, please clarify it.
    – user568
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 20:15
  • @JoshuaDrake I did so now. But I don't think " Should I intentionally, sternly refrain/refuse to use any materials that doesn't carry a DOI, ISBN or ISSN?" couldn't be any more direct! That people got hung up on the verb "cite" is not my fault. My question was never "am I allowed to NOT cite a source that I used for my paper?", a question that would as n00b and naive as it gets! Everyone knows they shouldn't do that. This is not my first question here on SE. But half of the answerers still made this assumption instead of reading my question properly! He assumed the OPPOSITE of what I asked. Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 10:54
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    @grunwald2.0 I guess my answer was not clear enough, and I tried to clarify. My previous last sentence didn't focus on the main point of the answer, and I hope this is improved now. I also apologize if the answer contains points which are very elementary to you, but I also try to write for less experienced readers.
    – silvado
    Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 18:57

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