As you're supposed to do, I looked up the original source of a citation that I wanted to work with. Only the original paper never mentions what I was hoping to find!

Do I cite the first paper then, since it must be something that the first author came up with?

Also, what do you call this phenomenon? Anti-plagiarism or something in that direction?

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    If the paper does not contain what you were hoping for, how do you know where the content came from? Didi you get it from a subsequent paper? Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 20:45
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    This is not a good situation. The fake citation is potentially dangerous to you, if you treat the fake-citing paper as legitimate. Maybe it was some sort of mis-statement, but maybe it was deliberate falsification. No easy way to know. If deliberate, it is very dishonest. Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 20:58
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    Could you give any more details? Sometimes, in my field at least, this kind of thing is done when the original paper has the desired result "in spirit", so that the authors of the later paper do not want to claim that what they did was original, although the original paper may not literally include the fact that is cited. For example, if new terminology has been developed, older papers can't use that terminology, even if their work would clearly be expressible in the new terminology. So sometimes the citations really are an effort to give appropriate credit, or not claim inappropriate credit. Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 21:16
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    Great question; I've run into this several times at this point. Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 21:26
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    @OswaldVeblen: Sadly that does not seem to be the case, I'm thinking it was either deliberate falsification or a referencing error.
    – vpgcloud
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 22:27

1 Answer 1


One honest way to deal with it is to write something like that it is "attributed by X to Y", where X is the author who made the unclear citation and Y is the cited paper that does not seem to you to contain this information. That casts some doubt on the attribution, since you are not endorsing it yourself, while giving the reader all the information you have.

One possibility is that the information really is there, but it takes some digging to extract it. In that case, flatly saying that it's not there would be awkward. On the other hand, you don't want to perpetuate a mistaken or dishonest citation without any warning for the reader. (Of course, you could simply replace it with a correct citation if you have the relevant expertise to do that, but then you wouldn't be asking this question.)

If X is still active, you could write and ask whether he/she accidentally cited the wrong paper, or whether you are missing something. That's the best way to find out what's behind this citation, since nobody else can really say for sure. If you can't contact the author, you can try asking other researchers you know.

Sometimes it's a random error, and sometimes it comes from copying incorrect citations from elsewhere. Occasionally there's a defensible historical reason for a confusing citation. For example, maybe the original author had an idea and but didn't explain it clearly at all, and later authors expressed it more clearly but cited the original paper (since it contained the key idea).

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    On asking X for clarification: she should do that. But hopes should not be high; in my experience, it is unlikely to be productive. Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 21:28
  • If I use the "attributed by X to Y" method, do I then add both of them to my references or just X?
    – vpgcloud
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 22:24
  • Not really, the information OP has is that "X attributed A to Y, but Y doesn't state (or imply) A". In any case, X should be contacted (and perhaps the result added).
    – vonbrand
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 1:10

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