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This is a hypothetical question, but I am assuming that if there is a research field out there that has not been discovered, it will, in theory, be possible for an article to be written without containing any references.

The reason I ask this question is because I see that a good number of published articles seem to cite other works just to cite them and less often is it the case that the cited works add anything to the paper.

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  • 12
    If I see a paper with no (or few) references, my first thought is that the author is a crank. What is more likely - a paper so novel that there is no related work or an author who hasn't read the related work?
    – Thomas
    Jan 28, 2016 at 2:08
  • Is it possible? I guess. Is it desirable? I don't think so. Part of a research paper is the introduction, to establish your topic, your problem you discuss and position your solution. Even if it is a new field, it seems to me much better and thought practice if you actually have specifics to say in your intro - which mean you most probably will have references on the problem, on analogous or related research field etc. If not, it may suggest you yourself don't know much what you are doing.
    – Greg
    Jan 29, 2016 at 3:42

4 Answers 4

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I know of exactly one peer-reviewed research paper with no references at all.

Mark H. Overmars and Emo Welzl. The complexity of cutting paper. Proceedings of the [First Annual] Symposium on Computational Geometry, 316–321, 1985.

Here is a screenshot of the references section:

No references on this topic seem to exist and no useful results could be found.

According to Google Scholar, this paper has been cited 29 times.

So yes, it is possible, for the right value of "ground-breaking", but extremely rare.

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  • That is a fantastic answer. Just a random question, how did you come across that paper? Did you search for "article with 0 references" or did you encounter it in your "relaxed paper reading time"?
    – ZanCoul
    Jan 28, 2016 at 2:12
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    The paper is rather famous in my field, because it has no references.
    – JeffE
    Jan 28, 2016 at 2:24
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Are you asking for a paper that cites nothing else, or more broadly doesn't even acknowledge that anyone earlier had worked on related ideas?

A famous example of the first case is Einstein's "Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper," the paper in which he introduced special relativity. An English translation is at https://www.fourmilab.ch/etexts/einstein/specrel/www/. It has no bibliography. The first footnote suggests a work by Lorentz could have been a reference, but it was not.

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  • While the answer is true, I am not sure 100 years ago publications were much similar today standards. I am always puzzled when read how 50-100 years ago people wrote those papers, collected and organized citations, how fast they were accepted and so on.
    – Greg
    Jan 29, 2016 at 3:47
  • In math, papers from that vintage had citations, but the citation details usually appeared in footnotes on the page where they were mentioned, not collected into a single list at the end like they are today.
    – KCd
    Jan 29, 2016 at 4:20
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It is very rare. Because chances are there are similar works, at least on some abstract level. A similar approach on another field, a similar problem solved in another way, similar methods for a different problem...

Remember that one item in every review form relates to the adequacy of the literature review....

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  • 1
    What is a "review form"? It sounds like some kind of document with preassigned questions which are to be filled out be reviewers...but I have reviewed many papers and never seen such a document. Jan 28, 2016 at 22:24
  • you never filled an online form where you grade from X - Y the paper in different aspects (and the last part is general comments)? Difference from CS to math maybe? I don't remember doing a review that didn't have that tbh... Jan 29, 2016 at 1:10
  • No, never. A referee report is a document prepared by the referee that contains whatever information the referee feels is appropriate. In fact, I don't really know what a "literature review" is either, except what I have gleaned from participation in this site. Jan 29, 2016 at 1:54
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No, it is not possible to be coherent without citing prior work which gives the context. And, specifically, might give progress toward whatever goal. Nothing makes sense in a vacuum. Indeed, a great part of "expert-ness" or "expertise" is understanding of the state-of-the-art, the context, that we human beings have arrived-at, have managed, by a given date. To be ignorant of this, or to ignore it, is a sort of professional incompetence.

EDIT: apparently some fraction of the people here interpret my remarks as "commercial". I can only guess that this refers to the impact-factor game, but I did not at all mean that. Rather, as reader, I would be unhappy if a writer gave no indication of prior work of a similar nature. Also, regarding "context", I do not mean "application to marketable products", for example, but scientific or intellectual context. How did the situation arise, and why might I care?

(The notion that "in mathematics, many theories [sic] exist for years without any use..." I think is misleading. Namely, people had reasons for doing what they were doing, in the first place, whether those reasons were tangible or not. And "use" can be tangible or not. I would claim that claiming that context doesn't matter is just a form of obliviousness to context. But tastes vary, I hear...)

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  • So does it also mean that going in other direction (citing other articles just for the purpose of citing) is sign of professional incompetence? And so an article shouldn't be judged by the amount of work it is citing.
    – ZanCoul
    Jan 28, 2016 at 1:50
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    @ZanCoul An article should cite enough relevant work to place its results clearly in context. There's a wide range of what "enough" means, but excesses in either direction indicate problems. Excessive citations, however, seems to me to more often be a sign of sloppy writing, politicization, or lack of confidence, rather than incompetence.
    – jakebeal
    Jan 28, 2016 at 3:06
  • @paul garrett: "it is not possible to be coherent without citing prior work which gives the context" this sound like utter and complete commercial nonsense to me. There are enough aspects in research that are interesting in themselves. There is no inheren need for "context". "This is an observation, this are the mechanics" works equally well. And if you look at mathematics, many theories will exist without any use which then is found years later. If anything, prior to reading, one might question whether the author(s) have done a thorough literature search if a paper has no references.
    – DetlevCM
    Jan 28, 2016 at 9:29

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