In my Master's thesis I use a theorem that is recent enough that I could find the article where it is proved, but I've actually learned the theorem and its proof in two books by other authors. Is it necessary to cite the original article, knowing that I haven't actually read it?

  • 1
    Why not citing all three?you offer the reader a trackback of the theorem. If you are citing in a MSc thesis you can cite also the books, but for journal papers the referee would have some objections when citing textbooks.
    – Nikey Mike
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 22:08
  • 22
    Why don't you read the article so then you can cite it after having read it? You don't need to give it a thorough read - just enough so that you can cite it while responsibly knowing what you're pointing your readers to.
    – Kevin
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 3:46

3 Answers 3


It depends how well-known and wide-spread the result is. If by now it is a very well-known result and the publication already happened quite some time ago, it may not be necessary to quote the original paper. In doubt I'd quote the article and the books, or at least one of the books. A possible formulation could be:

The result below is due to Paul [reference to article]; we recall it in the form given in a monograph by Miller [reference to book].

I do not think it is necessary to have read the original paper to be entitled to write this. If it is not too much work to track it down, it could still make sense to at least take a peek at the article you quote.

  • 20
    Though if you cite a paper, you should try to at least look at it, just to verify that it contains what you think it does (you do not need to read it in detail).
    – Kimball
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 23:20
  • 4
    I like the double citation, it also makes it a tad more reliable: not only it passed peer review, the book authors also trusted it.
    – Davidmh
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 8:23
  • @Kimball yes, which is about what I said in the last sentence. Yet, in the context set up in OP that the result in question is included in at least two books by (it seems) two different authors, I would still maintain it is not a necessity. Also note that my proposed formulation makes explicit that "the form" of the result is taken from the book (not the article). Say, somebody credit's van der Waerden's theorem to van der Waerden, do they have to track down that 1927 volume of Nieuw Archief voor Wiskunde to check if the paper "Beweis einer Baudetschen Vermutung" really contains that result?
    – quid
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 11:38
  • @Davidmh It's also very helpful in the case that the original form of a theorm isn't the most commonly present version anymore. Often times, the original author still gets the most credit, even though later authors have figured out how to make the topic much more comprehensible. Commented May 20, 2016 at 14:11
  • 1
    @Kimball I agree, although in some cases this may be prohibitive or even impossible to do. Commented May 20, 2016 at 16:37

When I cite a theorem, I typically have three goals.

  1. To point the reader to a precise statement and proof of the result.

To accomplish this goal, I cite the clearest source I know of, or the one best-suited to the way I'm using the theorem. In my experience, the clearest source is often not the original one. As people use a result, they often notice places where the statement or proof can be clarified. As a result, the presentation of a theorem often improves with age, even if its mathematical content remains the same.

  1. To point the reader to a trusted statement and proof of the result.

I must admit that I've cited many theorems whose proofs I don't fully understand—especially considering that, to really understand a proof, you also need to understand the results it depends on, and the results those results depend on... If you have read and understood a proof of the theorem you want, though, I might encourage you to cite that proof, on the principle that the best proof is a trusted proof. As a bonus, since clear proofs are by definition easier to read than confusing ones (in most circumstances, at least), this tends to support goal 1.

  1. To give the prover credit for the result, if necessary.

In some cases, the attribution of a theorem is already carried in its name, so there's no need to use a citation to give credit. In other cases, however, the history of a theorem can be hard to track down, so it's nice to cite a proof by the people the theorem is attributed to. Unfortunately, this often conflicts with goal 1, since the first way something was done is rarely the best way it can be done. A nice solution, if available, is to cite a later, cleaned-up proof written by the result's original authors. Another solution is to cite the clearest reference up front, but add an attribution citation later in the sentence, or in a footnote.

  • I think this is a very nice answer, in the way that it separates out the various purposes of citation, and acknowledges the tension between goals 1 and 3
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 10:21
  • 1
    Somewhat on a tangent, but writing my thesis, I really enjoyed tracking down 100+ year old papers (and one even from the 18th century) to give a citation to something, that can be considered common knowledge by now (Drude-Lorentz model), just so it would be easier for the reader to track down these hard-to-find papers. Not sure, whether that falls into category 1, 2, or 3.
    – LLlAMnYP
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 10:50
  • @LLlAMnYP, same here! While referencing my thesis, I got to look up some cool and surprisingly hard-to-find papers related to the Erlangen program, and I had fun tracking down the history of a folklore version of the uniform ergodic theorem in an attempt at goal 3. I think the citations you describe could serve either goal 1 or goal 3, depending on what the "common knowledge" consists of. If the common knowledge is that a certain fact is true, but the original paper is the only reference with a precise statement or a complete proof, that's goal 1.
    – Vectornaut
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 19:02

You should read the original paper and then cite it.

Citations exist for many reasons.

  1. You should cite articles to show that you've done your due-diligence in learning the background information. Like the infamous Van Halen brown M&Ms, this is a quick way for your readers and reviewers to check that you actually know what you're talking about.

  2. You cite other articles to allow readers to find the relevant background material. Research papers create a web of information and providing signs pointing to the important previous work is important for those not immersed in your paper's field.

  3. Finally, you cite other work to give recognition and "props" to those who have done important work in the past. This is especially important to any work that you're actively building off of.

All three reasons I mention above are relevant to your question. This is your Master's thesis. You need to show that you've down the background reading, give an overview for future readers, and cover the important previous work. Sure you can cover secondary sources, but primary sources are better. If you're already familiar with the theorem and its proof, skimming the original paper shouldn't take much time and citing it is the more correct thing to do. Doubly so for a thesis.

  • 6
    Reading the original paper seems unnecessary (possibly a waste of time), particularly if you already know a proof of the result you're using.
    – Kimball
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 23:22

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