I am writing a paper that relies heavily upon some important work done some 10 years ago. The paper was well received gathering well over a 100 citations and is a must mention within my niche field. I would like to reference the paper as seminal as in "so and so, et. al., in a seminal paper..." but am not sure that would be appropriate. I recognize 100 citations isn't a lot in the scheme of things but at the same time this paper was very important within my niche field.

Under what circumstances can one decide a paper is seminal? Must the person citing it be well renowned? Must the author of the considered paper be well renowned? Is there a citation # that should be exceeded (I really don't like that one, it seems too inflexible)?

Neither I nor my professor are especially well established in the field we are publishing in (this will be my first publication and my professor mainly publishes in another field). Are we qualified to refer to a publication in this field as "seminal"?

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    Maybe the answer is different if your field is urology...? Commented May 3, 2016 at 19:19
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    "100 citations isn't a lot in the scheme of things" — depends on the field, the topic, and the age of the paper. Commented May 3, 2016 at 20:14
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    Why would you like to reference the paper as seminal?
    – Ghanima
    Commented May 3, 2016 at 21:33

5 Answers 5


I would understand "seminal" to indicate that (a) the paper was the the first in some sense, and (b) that it led to a lot of subsequent research. For example, a paper proposes and tests a theoretical idea, and then lots of other people come along and test that idea building on the original study.

It doesn't matter that you are not established in a field. Anyone can use the word "seminal". It's just that using it correctly requires a good understanding of your field and the interconnections of research papers.

Having a lot of citations is necessary but not sufficient to show that a paper has led to subsequent research. Some citations don't mean much on its own.


From the Merriam Webster dictionary:

[2] containing or contributing the seeds of later development : creative, original

More specifically, I would call an article seminal if it was the start of a new field/trend/idea, the work that inspired everything that came after, a starting point.

Therefore, if that article fulfills this criterion, you can say that, regardless of how many citations it has, or who are the authors. For instance, recent seminal work will not have a lot of citations :)

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    Well, if it really doesn't have many citations yet, it's too early to be called seminal.
    – Kimball
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 0:19
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    The first article in a specific field, would be, by definition, seminal. If the field is worthless and nobody would do anything on it, it would still be seminal.... Commented May 4, 2016 at 2:04
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    How can it "contribute the seeds of later development" if there is no later development? Calling any recent paper seminal will get you laughed at, and rightly so.
    – user37208
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 4:01
  • I was just saying that, by the definition you quote, something is not seminal unless things issue forth from it (which should be interpreted in a non-vacuous sense).
    – Kimball
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 4:01
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    Upvoting for getting to the definition of the word; but as others comment, if this paper sows the seeds of a new field, the citations will bear this out. The quality, not quantity, of citations should support this. Did the paper indeed "start a new thing?". If that "thing" is a way to translate 5000 year old Sumerian clay tablets using a Machine Learning approach, it may only have 15 citations (from you and the one other guy in the world that does Sumerian clay tablets) and yet be absolutely seminal.
    – Floris
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 13:54

The question is: why should you mention seminal paper altogether?

I would refrain from giving an adjective to the paper.

Firstly, because "seminal" is subjective. Secondly, because it does really add anything relevant. Thirdly, because it may piss off other people that don't find the paper seminal.

There are better ways of recognising the paper's "seminality", e.g. publishing in the field and giving the due credit to the paper.

In any case, the only occasion I would write "seminal" is if I am pretty sure the work is seminal, which does not seem the case here.

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    Indeed. For that matter, unless the declarer of seminality is themself a big-shot expert, people may think that the declaration itself is pompous and inappropriate. Until one is an authority, perhaps more than a "mere expert", it might be hasty to declare something "seminal". Commented May 3, 2016 at 21:39

I have learned one thing how to identify a seminal work is using Google Scholar search engine result showing that the article is cited by another author(s) to support the insights or theories of study. For example, Halperin (2017) uses the social theory within the study employing the structuration theory of Giddens (1984).


Halperin, R. (2017). Learning practice and technology: Extending the structurational practice lens to educational technology research. Learning, Media and Technology, 42(3), 279-294. doi:10.1080/17439884.2016.1182925

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration.


Never, because it will make many of your readers think about semen and wonder whether you're sexist. Pick a word that doesn't have as much baggage and which also more specific to whatever you mean. For example you could say it was influential, foundational, or fundamental.

Note that all the above is true even if seminal doesn't have that connotation to you, and even if you think that it's not sexist language. These are points where reasonable people can and do disagree. But either way you're going to distract some nontrivial number of your readers from the actual point you're trying to make, and that's not effective writing.

Update: I just want to point out that this is not a new issue that I made up. Here's the British Sociological Association including it among a dozen or so words it recommends sociologists avoid (most of the others are chairman and the like). Here are some other people complaining about this usage of seminal. I've certainly heard people at the Joint Meetings grumble about the unfortunately named "Steele prize for seminal contributions to research." Anyway, as I said I don't think this is as clear a case of sexist language as say chairman, but it is a usage that many people don't like and which has few advantages. It's easier just not to use it.

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    For anyone who doesn't think seminal has that connotation, I point to the very first comment, which has more upvotes than any of the answers. Commented May 3, 2016 at 22:53
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    Does this mean I should also avoid the term "seminar"? Commented May 4, 2016 at 5:28
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    I respectfully disagree. There's nothing inherently sexist about seeds, germination, growth, or semen for that matter. While there is certainly a place for courtesy and eschewing controversy to promote discourse, I think the argument that "someone somewhere might be sensitive" because the word shares a root with words that seem "male", is really a stretch.
    – dionys
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 9:01
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    @NoahSnyder: For what it's worth, my comment was really just a sophomoric joke. I think educated readers will be sufficiently familiar with both senses of the word "seminal" that it will be clear which sense was intended, and they likely won't even think about the other meaning unless, as in my comment, someone points out the humorous potential. When urologists write about "seminal vesicles", do their readers get confused into thinking they are referring to organs which are influential or foundational? I doubt it. Commented May 4, 2016 at 14:42
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    To stretch an analogy, it's like saying that mathematicians should stop using the term "Wiener process" because it sounds naughty. People giggle the first time they hear it, but then they get used to it. It's not a reason to stop using it. Commented May 4, 2016 at 14:46

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