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In a published research paper, the author has cited a thesis/paper, which is not available online. The question is, when I'm writing my paper and I need to cite the corresponding unavailable paper/thesis, what should I do? Should I cite the original material even though I haven't read it? Or the paper that cited the unavailable material, say in its literature review section?

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    Have you tried emailing the author or the author's PI? I've had to do that before. I had a funny feeling about citing something unseen. Aug 30, 2016 at 16:50
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    In the body of your question, you say it's "not available online", which is very different from "not available". Have you talked with a librarian about ways you could try to get it offline? Aug 30, 2016 at 17:05
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    Indeed, the librarian of Whatever University is the way forward here. Especially for a PhD thesis. Otherwise search for a national repo of theses in that country, if it exists. Aug 30, 2016 at 17:11
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    For what it's worth, a 1919 paper by Besicovitch --- Sur deux questions d'intégrabilité des fonctions --- has been cited numerous times (even by Terence Tao), but I suspect no one alive has seen a copy of this paper. Aug 30, 2016 at 19:13
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Assuming X is citing the reference Y whose content is unavailable, it is fine to cite Y just as done in X. It is better to mention it as a secondary source by stating that the concept mentioned in Y is as claimed in X. @jakebeal's answer to this post is most apt solution for this problem.

Some sources may inaccessible or totally unavailable (as in your situation) but they are cited nonetheless in the conjecture that the content they are assumed to provide are true. For instance, if an important method was proposed long ago and you wish develop on it, you ought to cite the original author of the paper (in addition to the standard books you refer), even if you couldn't access the paper yourself.

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