Let's say I'm writing a report about sociological consideration of Aurora borealis in hipster communities. I want to support the value of my paper by showing that the way in which people consider Aurora borealis is a major and recurrent question.

I have found a paper saying in its literature review: "Aurora borealis have been written about for at least 4000 years, starting with Chronicles of a Minoan watching the sky by Ithurts Myneck (~ 2100BC)". So this is a perfect example of an information I want to report in my paper.

However, this paper turns out to deal with the physics of charged particles in solar wind - that means neither the scope of this paper, nor the scientific discipline it belongs to are related to my topic. Moreover, the reality of the book Chronicles of a Minoan watching the sky is evidenced by other means (i.e. this paper is not the only one that is talking about the book). But I cannot access the book to read it.

Question: I want to write in my report that Aurora borealis has been a concern for a long time, and prove this assertion by giving the example of the Chronicles of a Minoan watching the sky. Should I credit (i.e. cite) the paper where I found this information, even if it is not related to the core/added of the paper?

I want to give credit for the information I found, however, it is sometimes said: "When you cite a paper, you will be citing from [result] section. If you find yourself citing a paper based on something in the Intro [= literature review?] , you're just citing another citation."

5 Answers 5


There is more controversy on this topic than I expected, so I've done some further digging. The results of this surprised me!

Institution, Program, and Journal requirements

The rules of your neighborhood may differ, so you'll want to follow whatever more specific rules are given to you in your program. For example, Columbia College demands secondary source citation:


You must cite any text you read that helped you think about your paper even if you do not reference it directly in the text of your paper.

However, the OWL APA style reference gives differing advice:

Work Discussed in a Secondary Source

NOTE: Give the secondary source in the references list; in the text, name the original work, and give a citation for the secondary source. For example, if Seidenberg and McClelland's work is cited in Coltheart et al. and you did not read the original work [emphasis mine], list the Coltheart et al. reference in the References. In the text, use the following citation...

So if you merely were directed to the original work, but then attained the original work and read it, there is not necessarily any need to cite the secondary source - but the guide doesn't prohibit it.

However, the IEEE has a stance as strong as Columbia, but in the opposite direction! As noted by York University in their IEEE style guide (page 5 of the pdf):

Should I use secondary references?

A secondary reference is given when you are referring to a source which you have not read yourself, but have read about in another source, for example referring to Jones’ work that you have read about in Smith. You should avoid using secondary references and locate the original source and reference that.

Murdoch University has an even stronger interpretation:

• IEEE style does not allow for the use of secondary source.

• Locate the original source of information which is cited in a work which you have read.

• If an original source cannot be located, it should not be cited.

Jeeze, no wonder there are so many different answers!

So it would seem there cannot be a one-size fits all answer - it depends. What is required in one field and style is forbidden in another, and optional in a third (and apparently even then people differ).

  • True, as the last paragraph, there is a question of what the norm may be, since there may be strong motivations to conform to it. On the other hand, "conformity to norm" is only a particular, potentially limited sort of virtue. Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 22:26
  • 1
    @paulgarrett I actually re-wrote my entire answer, as I was surprised at how many different answers there were - and I think I've located some of the sources of disagreement. While I do agree that conformity is not necessarily a worthy goal or virtue, it notes a difference in fundamental philosophy. In tech the attitude tends to be, "we don't really care where you heard about it or who you are, we want the facts" - and in-text citations do not contain names or dates (just numbers). Yet in the APA style the name of the researchers are considered important. I don't think one is more right.
    – BrianH
    Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 22:53
  • Selected answer, since it presents (and cite) several point of view. Of course, first answer is "comply to the rules that apply", but it is sometime not clearly defined (hence, my question). Thx for the various solutions you suggested. In a dissertation, what do you think about a section in appendix in which secondary sources are credited? E.g., "Following work have more or less directly influenced previous work, but have not been cited befor. We however want to give their author due credit: # [Ref 1] for this reason; # [Ref 2] for that reason; etc."
    – ebosi
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 9:32

Of course you should cite the paper.

The content of the paper should be focussed on your topic and its field. But, this does not apply to the citations within the content. There is no such rule stating that the papers you cite should be within the scope of your topic.

Anything you refer in any domain deserves to be cited as long as you utilise its information within your publication (be it paper or thesis).

  • 2
    While I agree with this in principle, a pg. number should be provided if you are citing something based on a sentence that is not a major point in their paper, so the reader of your paper knows where to find the statement and how to evaluate it in it's proper context. You should also make it clear in your paper whether their sentence was based on an opinion, or a previous study. Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 3:47
  • @WetLabStudent: Isn't that obvious? You have to include chapter and the pp. ref. in the reference section of the citation.
    – Ébe Isaac
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 4:25
  • @ÉbeIsaac I do agree. After reading answers, I think my questioning arose because what is quoted is a fact (i.e. only stating "That book deals with such topic"). You wouldn't quote a history book if you write "Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492", would you? So for what kind of facts is there a need to cite? // If several contemporary papers refers to Chronicles of a Minoan watching the sky, which one should I cite?
    – ebosi
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 8:22
  • 1
    @ebo: It would be up to your own preference. Cite what you think is closest to the original source or more valuable. This is not particular for just your case, but applies to many places. In general you may find many good sources that would describe about a topic or fact under discussion. For instance when discussing artificial neural networks, one may cite the paper of the inventor, while I may prefer to cite a standard textbook where it is more clearly explained. No one can question why you preferred one reference over another as long as the concerned fact is included in the ref. you cite.
    – Ébe Isaac
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 8:31
  • @ÉbeIsaac I'm saying put the single pg number of the exact quote (in the inline citation, or the ref section). This is not obvious, most people just put the pg numbers for the chapter in which the quote came from. Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 1:25

As witnessed by the varying answers, there are varying opinions on questions such as this. My opinion is that one should be honest about one's methodology and sources, including intermediate sources. In particular, acknowledgement of the sort of sources that have been helpful in finding more-primary sources. One sort of extreme case is acknowledgement that one has used Wikipedia in various way, e.g., to get started looking for things in a possibly somewhat-unfamiliar direction. No, wikipedia is not a primary, and maybe not even secondary, source, but to acknowledge its use serves several positive purposes. More modestly, but similarly, to acknowledge the helpfulness of survey/review/expository parts of papers is to acknowledge the utility of such things to the scholarly community. This is in contrast to the general editorial and stylistic pressure to not give context, not give too many external pointers, etc. It seems to me highly desirable to encourage/legitimize a broader scholarly writing style in STEM (science, tech, engineering, math, the latter my field) in contrast to a narrow technician's writing style that is nevertheless often adequate for "publishability". In summary, honesty both in sources and in methodology.


Absolutely cite it. If reference is second you can check maybe check this site which gives an example based on Harvard Guide for referencing and in the example second referencing.

If possible and if it is from another author try to find original work, if not or if original is the one you are looking cite this one.

But in short, absolutely yes, it gave you information you are using and no matter the genre it is part of your project and your genre since it is relevant to you.


I'd cite it, noting that this paper on a different subject mentions in passing that...

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