It is common practice - at least in mathematics - to refer to people one cites in the paper simply by a surname. Hence, one could see sentences like "This awesome theorem is due to Smith.".

However, occasionally the initial is added, and so the above might turn into "This awesome theorem is due to J. Smith". The obvious reason might be that there is also a A. Smith who could be mixed up with J. Smith, but the phenomenon also occurs for people with unique surnames (within the field). Why? (In particular: When should I add the initial, if ever?)

3 Answers 3


I've recently come to think that one should always add an initial or two, just to reduce potential confusion. Also, doing so consistently is some push-back against the pop mythology that some people are in the special category that everyone knows who they are, and are referred-to in a different, more heroic style. (The simplistic, so-called "Great Man" theory of history of science and everything-else makes it harder to understand what actually happened and happens...)

  • Isn't this essentially as good as (consistently) not adding the initials at all? Confusion is hardly ever possible, and if it is, one can always take a look at the references. Oct 6, 2015 at 22:49
  • @Feanor, maybe so, sure. However, to my perception, in my context, to refer to a person as "X. Smith" is far more mundane than the far-more-heroic-sounding "Smith". Perhaps it's just something in my own experience. The "X. Smith" seems more prosaic, more business-like, more modest. Heaven forbid that language subtleties should change with time! :) Oct 6, 2015 at 23:17

I think you can stick to using only the author's surname (without the initial) as long as your citation number, in that particular document, is written alongside the (first) mention of the author, depending of course on your citation method.

The important thing to remember here is that your reader needs to be able to identify the source from your references.

In my work, I usually only mention the author where necessary. I mostly use the number (corresponding to my list of references) at the end of an idea or sentence where credit is due.


Question: What if there are two authors, namely, Jack Smith and a John Smith both published their papers in the same year?

Including initial and even year of the publication does not solve that problem. That is why I prefer to cite the publisher just after his name appears.

This awesome theorem is due to Smith [8].


Smith [5] disagrees with Smith [8] in his paper.

Of course the sentence written above is bad practice. There should be another way to express the same thing better. I just wanted to give an example to dissolve ambiguity.

  • Sure, quoting a relevant paper is a must, so probably my example sentence should actually look like what you suggest, i.e. "This awesome theorem is due to Smith [8]." (unless the reference to bibliography was given earlier, which I implicitily assumed). What I'm curious about is whether it should be "... due to Smith [8]. or "... due to J. Smith [8]. Oct 4, 2015 at 22:12
  • 2
    In that case, I would use only the surname (Smith). I don't think using only the initial serves a purpose.
    – padawan
    Oct 4, 2015 at 22:16
  • I also don't think that - that's why I'm surprised at the initials popping up, seemingly at random! Oct 4, 2015 at 22:19

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .