When referencing to another work in a scientific paper, do we cite the paper or its author(s)?

This question is intended to clarify the conjugation of the verb that follows the reference -- especially in these cases:

  • One author, two papers:

    Jane Doe (2015a, 2015b) list-s the very specific conditions under which...

    -> lists (singular: referencing to Jane Doe) or list (plural: referencing to both papers)

  • Several authors, one paper:

    John Doe, et al. (2015) claim-s this and that.

    -> claim (plural: referencing to the multiple authors of the paper) or claims (singular: referencing to the single paper).

  • I've never seen any discussion of this, so I'll leave it as a comment rather than an answer, but given that citing the paper, rather than authors, can lead to text which is ungrammatical, I would always cite the author. Scientific papers should be as clear as possible, and littering them with (number) agreement errors seems to run counter to this ambition. – Ian_Fin Aug 30 '16 at 8:54
  • 4
    @Ian_Fin: "citing the paper, rather than authors, can lead to text which is ungrammatical" - how so? Doesn't it completely depend on how you read out the sentence? – O. R. Mapper Aug 30 '16 at 10:38
  • @O.R.Mapper If read out as written then it seems ungrammatical to me. Perhaps inserting "and" between the years reduces the effect, but the citation style that the OP uses in the question doesn't do that. – Ian_Fin Aug 30 '16 at 10:51
  • @Ian_Fin: In that case, I guess it comes down to whether you perceive "2015, 2016 are good years." as ungrammatical (leaving aside the stylistic issue that the last two elements of an enumeration are indeed typically separated by "and"), implying that "2015, 2016 is a good year." would be less ungrammatical. – O. R. Mapper Aug 30 '16 at 10:57
  • 1
    At least as far as the APA goes, the suggestion seems to be to cite the author. Note the tenth comment on this APA blog post – Ian_Fin Aug 30 '16 at 14:00

I would say that it depends of the citation format, and the point is to look what is the subject of the sentence. In the examples you present, the conjugacy would be with the authors and the parenthesis only provides a precision about which paper is concerned.

In math we usually cite like that:

It is proved in [Doe15] that ...


[Doe15] Jane Doe, "paper name" Journal name, 2015

Therefore, we tend to cite the papers. However I often write

In [Doe15], Jane Doe proves that...

where the conjugacy is obvious.


Personally, I would always cite the paper, for two reasons:

  1. If a paper was written by 5 people and you only reference 1 of them (First Author et al., Last Author et al.) then I feel that is somewhat unethical. You cannot possibly know which author deserves to be named specifically, so there is no fair way to do this. It is particularly upsetting when people reference the last author because they are somewhat famous in the field. Many papers are conceived, carried out and written up by PhD students who had little to no help from their supervisor over a 4+ year period. To cite the supervisor in that instance could do significant damage to the perceived fairness of Science as a whole in the mind of that young scientist.

  2. Following on from point 1, people often cite an author rather than the paper itself as a (typically) subconscious appeal to authority, and again this is particularly true for papers published by big names in the field. This is obviously not what Science stands for. Point to the paper, the work, the methods, the result. Not the fleshy sacks of carbohydrate and protein that claim they knew it first.

  • 3
    If you have a citation with many authors you don't choose to do First Author et al. because you think the first author is the most important. You do it because that's what the style guide tells you to do. And if you cite the author then in the et al. case you'd be treating them as a group, so nobody would be being ignored. – Ian_Fin Aug 30 '16 at 13:35
  • If there was only 1 style guide allowed and it dictated what the OP must do, then this question would not exist as the OP has no choice. You cannot be ethical without free choice. As the question assumes a choice exists, some outcomes of that choice can be more ethical than others. – Wetlab Walter Aug 30 '16 at 13:50
  • I see nothing in the question to suggest that the author has one style guide saying "cite the author" and another saying "cite the paper", and they're in a moral quandary over which to follow. – Ian_Fin Aug 30 '16 at 13:58
  • I see nothing in the question to suggest a style guide at all. – Wetlab Walter Aug 30 '16 at 14:06
  • 1
    people often cite an author rather than the paper itself as a (typically) subconscious appeal to authority — That's funny. I think people cite papers as mere appeal to authority ("It's published, so it must be good"), and cite authors to give proper credit. Yes, point to the result above all else, but give the ugly bags of mostly water the credit they deserve. Also, unless you're referring to the tabloid, "science" is spelled with a small s. – JeffE Aug 31 '16 at 1:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.