There exist review journals that every now and then publish a thematic issue on a given topic. For example, Chemical Reviews does so: one thematic issue (see e.g. this one) includes an editorial and a number of invited review on the main topic.

When writing the introduction of a research paper, one can start by summing up the recent developments in the field, and then explain the reasoning behind the paper being written (“People have looked at application of molecules X and Y to reactions A, B and C, but so far noöne has evidenced any benefit of using them for reaction D. We here show that they lead to a spectacular 270% improvement over current yields”). When writing the broader part of the introduction, one might be tempted to include many references to recent reviews on the topic. However, when many reviews come from the same thematic issue of a journal, it becomes a bit ridiculous. So…

Is it an accepted practice to include a reference to an entire issue of a journal?

Special issue of Chem. Rev. on “Giant molecules for catalysis”, 2010, issue 8.

Alternatively, is it adequate to cite the editorial of the thematic issue? Or do individual papers need to be cited, at the risk of making a long string of citations? Like so:

Lots of research has focused on applications of these molecules to A[1], B[2], C[3], D[4], E[5] and F[6]

where refs. 1-6 are all to sequential papers in the same issue of the same journal.

  • 1
    I expect the answer will have more to do with the policies of individual journals. I have wanted to do what you suggest (and especially with Chem Rev), but have had to choose articles, either the one or two reviews most relevant to my work, or occasionally the editorial if I want to show a growing trend in the field.
    – Ben Norris
    Nov 2, 2012 at 11:43
  • I, for one, would not allow such thing to pass the Copy Editorial stage of publication.
    – yo'
    Jan 14, 2014 at 1:10

3 Answers 3


It seems tempting to cite only the issue of a journal when it contains several articles that you want to refer to from your introduction. Especially so if it is a special issue directly related to your paper. As to your question whether it is an accepted practice, I haven't seen so, but it could depend on the field of research of course.

Personally, I would advise against using such citations for two main reasons:

  • You should always try to cite as specific as possible. If you support a stated fact with a citation, the reader should be directed to this fact as directly as possible. In your example of the giant molecules, a reader may be more interested in application A than in giant molecules in general, so it will be helpful if you cite more specifically.
  • Citations are the basis for many measures of academic impact, and I doubt that citations to journal issues are counted in these measures. The authors of the articles that you intend to cite with a reference to a whole journal issue will certainly not be pleased with this, because you restrain a source of academic reputation for them.
  • 6
    As a side note: I think the bibliometric indicators currently used (number of citations, impact factor, etc.) are definitely ill-conceived when it comes to review articles. Such reviews, by the very nature, attract a lot of citations and gain an unhealthy weight in an individual’s scientific production.
    – F'x
    Nov 2, 2012 at 13:31
  • 2
    On the other hand, if the 'stated fact' is something like "topic X has continued to attract interest", and the citation to support it is a "Topical review of X", then the broad citation could be warranted.
    – E.P.
    Feb 1, 2015 at 12:57

As has been indicated from other answers, it is generally not acceptable, or a good idea. When you reference materials you need to specific so that the reader cane trace your sources. There is, however, one exception that I can think of and it concerns thematic or special issues.

As you say, some journals issue issues devoted to papers adhering to specific topic or theme. This can be a set of invited papers around a specific question, or a selection of papers coming out from a workshop or symposia session. Often such issues are tied together by an editorial explaining the theme and the contributions of the individual papers to that theme.

It is possible to reference such issues rather than the individual papers if the issue can be seen as contributing a collective view. This can, for example, be a state of the art view of the topic. The point is that the issue becomes similar to, for example, an edited book rather than individual papers and the referencing concerns the collective contribution of papers, not the individual. As soon as something needs to be sourced from a paper within the issue the paper needs to be referenced, the issue reference is then not sufficient.

So it is possible to reference entire journal issues but only for very specific (or actually general) purposes, not to replace referencing a bunch of individual paper from which ideas have been gained. This makes the use quite limited and pointing at a source for information rather than the information itself.


Citations along the lines of see X for a review are meaningless in my opinion and should be avoided. I believe, you should only be citing novel and specific findings. I would even steer away from citing the individual articles in a special issue because they tend to rehash old material and you are better off citing the original source.

  • 2
    When you cite a single fact or finding, there usually is a single identifiable source. Otherwise, for citations like “yields in reaction X have improved dramatically over the last 5 years due to the incremental improvement of synthesis conditions”, it is hard to imagine citing one non-review paper. I do agree with you that it is tempting to avoid citations at all in broad introductions, but that is unfortunately not the opinion of the majority (in my field at least).
    – F'x
    Nov 2, 2012 at 13:02
  • @F'x in your case the review paper is doing a meta-analysis (possibly/probably informal) and providing a novel and specific finding. Collections of papers/chapters with no synthesis do not provide that type of meta analysis.
    – StrongBad
    Nov 2, 2012 at 13:48
  • 7
    I don't understand this sentiment. If I'm reading the paper and am not very familiar with the field, being pointed to a good review paper is helpful; and if I don't care about the background I'm grateful that the review is a citation I can skip. Moreover, if the author were to read a review paper, extract all the references, and then cite those without citing the review, it would be intellectually dishonest. I'm struggling to see any downside at all to citing reviews directly.
    – N. Virgo
    Nov 3, 2012 at 11:30
  • I appreciate that my answer is on the extreme side, but the down votes seem a little harsh. You might disagree, but is it clearly and possibly dangerously wrong?
    – StrongBad
    Nov 3, 2012 at 17:45
  • @DanielE.Shub: “clearly wrong”, no — but it’s a provocative and debatable point which (clearly from comments) many people strongly disagree with you on. // For my part, I believe that citations serve multiple purposes — not only to attribute credit to authors, but also to direct readers to relevant background. Review citations are not important for the former purpose, but they can be very good for the latter.
    – PLL
    Jan 14, 2014 at 23:17

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