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Context: As I am writing my first paper, I cannot determine what, when and how I should cite scientific literature. It is because I don't know why I should cite (or not cite) other work.

My fist 'newbie' approach was "Every assertion you write should be proven by a relevant citation, so that other can believe you". Given that "I know nothing", no one would then take my word for it and thus I must prove that what I'm saying is true. However, this lead to overcitation (and, I must admit, over-generalization of results), and frustration since I must find a paper corroborating what I want to say for every sentence, or so*

Then if I'm leaving this strict rule, I tend to think I am writing triviality, or affirming things I am not 100% sure. I also fear to unintentionally plagiarize, when I say something someone else already stated.

Question: In a scientific writing, why do we [have to/need to/should] cite?

Clarifying this might help answering corollary questions: what to cite? and when should we cite?

  • What to cite? Should I cite a paper (i.e. give credit) for ideas that are in its literature review, and that are totally not related to the core/added value of the paper? Should I cite every paper related to one field? Can I cite only not-that-much-cited source and not classic ones? etc.

  • When to cite? If I am writing an assertion that is general (e.g. "Polar bears have mostly white fur"), should I justify it?(!) Which is the criteria to determine when an assertion need to be proven by a citation, and when it is admited? When I define a key term for my paper, should I always rely on past definitions?


Disclaimer: Of course, I am aware of some obvious reasons for why we cite, such as giving credit and proving assertion, and I've read Arno's answer (who lists giving credit, for proof/evidence, and providing context as reasons) on a similar question. The originality of this question would be, to detail the link between the theory (why) and the practice (what, and when) of citing.

Furthermore, I am conscious that there are multiple questions in this post, especially in the bullet point list. However, these are just here for explanation purpose, and should of course be asked separately to get a specific and detailed answer.


* I know this should be done the other way (i.e. basing what I want to say on literature, and not looking for someone who could corroborate what I want to say)

  • 1
    Given Dave's answer, I should specify that - even technical - my research field does not lies in exact sciences (natural or logical science), but rather social sciences. I.e. there is no such thing as "if you put A + B in a test tube, C will always happen" (that is more or less binary truth), but -imho- a "correctness level" where an assertion is more or less correct and where two correct assertions can be contradictory... – ebosi Mar 18 '16 at 10:10
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I recommend that you discuss these issues with an academic mentor who understands your discipline. You may also find it useful to visit the writing/tutoring center at your institution.

That said, I've provided some short answers below. My answers are not intended to be complete because many of the questions that you are asking cannot be answered by people who are not experts in your discipline.

Should I cite a paper (i.e. give credit) for ideas that are in its literature review, and that are totally not related to the core/added value of the paper?

Generally, no. If you encounter something that you want to cite in a literature review, track down the original source. This should not be difficult, assuming that the paper you are reading cited the original source properly.

Should I cite every paper related to one field?

No. Unless you are defining "field" extremely narrowly, it will be neither possible nor desirable to cite everything.

Can I cite only not-that-much-cited source and not classic ones?

There is no universal answer to this question. The answer depends on your purposes for the paper and the disciplinary expectations in your field. Talk to a mentor.

If I am writing an assertion that is general (e.g. "Polar bears have mostly white fur"), should I justify it?(!)

You do not have to cite things that are considered common knowledge, but the question is this: What exactly gets to be considered common knowledge? There's no universal answer. It depends who you are writing for and what you are writing about. Here are some rules of thumb that should generally serve you well in American academic writing situations:

  • If you would expect any given high school graduate to know something (like the color of polar bear fur), then you probably don't have to cite it.
  • If you aren't sure whether you need to cite something, cite it, or at least mark it as a problem. You can always read back through the paper later with a mentor, colleague, or tutor who can help you to identify unnecessary citations.

Which is the criteria to determine when an assertion need to be proven by a citation, and when it is admited?

Again, there are no universal criteria for this. You'll learn the criteria that writers in your discipline go by as you continue to read and study in your discipline.

When I define a key term for my paper, should I always rely on past definitions?

In general, you should rely on past definitions if those definitions are (1) technical and specific and (2) an important issue in your paper. If you wish to break away from established definitions, you should explain why and make an argument for the new definition. Finally, a tip: It is practically never necessary to cite a dictionary definition in an academic paper.

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You are telling me whatever you wrote is your pure thoughts and based on nothing else? If then, bravo! You don't need to cite and you shouldn't. However, if it is based on some other people contribution, the reviewer will easily reject your paper based on your title/abstract and not have any citation.

Think about it as a simple logical sentence. Assume that A, B, C are others people work, so you have:

A && B && C => True

Now you add your publication D which is based on A, B, and C, and you think your contribution is true:

A && BB && C && D => True

Then the reviewer finds out, yes it holds. So from now on your research community know about D; and if other people want to keep adding publications they need to cite D.

Confusion on Citations Is Curable By Reading More Publications

Yes we cannot just cite everything, however, it is always goes back to lack of reading. That is why you see academics need to keep reading all other papers if they want to keep publishing. So I would recommend you to read more and see what other people in your field are citing and contributing.

"Giants" Are Shifting

Same as a kid sees a red balloon and thinks it is the best invention, when you start your research, every little thing impresses you and you really do not have a solid foundation and understanding on who is the real giant in your field. This goes back to reading again. So, after reading more and more you will see who is the real "giant(s)" in your research topic; which then you need to cite for your work.

  • What I'm saying is that I'm standing on shoulders of giants: should I cite every giant I'm standing on? When I'm saying "most polar bear mostly have white fur", it is an (commonly accepted) assertion. Is it my own thougts? I don't know. But I am sure someone proved that. Should I find him/her and cite him/her? – ebosi Mar 17 '16 at 16:48
  • @ebo For a very specific topic "giants" are always under 5 citations not more! Common knowledge information like humans have two ears is not a research contribution. You need to go back and read more before writing in my opinion. – o-0 Mar 17 '16 at 17:17
  • I do agree with the fact that "exhaustive" reading helps to better determine which are the major contributions, that is what really matters and on what does my work relies on. Thank you for that. However, I do not consider your answer satisfactory, since I'm looking for types of reasons for citing, and related practical advices (what, and when - i.e. is citing one popularization work ok when you want to give a scientific background ? Eg in "My topic have been impacted by the rise of XX [?]: reason 1 [paper1,2], etc.") -> need to cite a source that broadly introduce what XX is? – ebosi Mar 18 '16 at 10:27

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