I have come across a few times in research papers or in books, where the authors refer a past (mostly an old) research paper as classic paper. For example, in a book Bratko refers the following:

The procedural meaning of Prolog is based on the resolution principle for mechanical theorem proving introduced by Robinson in his classic paper (1965). [1]

In another example, the author mention such a statement in the abstract itself,

Notes that the stimulation from a classic paper in the heuristics and biases tradition does not come only from the insights provided into processes of judgment and decision making; ... [2]

What is a classic work? Can we say a work as 'classic work', if it cited more number of times? Or, it is a breakthrough work? Then, how do we define a breakthrough work?

[1] Bratko, Ivan. Prolog programming for artificial intelligence. Pearson education, 2001.

[2] Sloman, S. A. (2002). Two systems of reasoning. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment (pp. 379-396).

  • 1
    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/5369/…
    – Coder
    Sep 5, 2017 at 19:06
  • 5
    For me, I think it probably has something to do with if it is regularly read in a graduate level class.
    – StrongBad
    Sep 5, 2017 at 19:08
  • @StrongBad Okay, so can we claim that all the works that are published and cited more often are 'classic'?
    – Coder
    Sep 5, 2017 at 19:09
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    Related: When to refer to a paper as “seminal”
    – Wrzlprmft
    Sep 5, 2017 at 19:15
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    Whenever we feel like it can bolster the prestige of our own work ("we answer the following question posed in the classic paper by ..."). Sep 5, 2017 at 19:55

3 Answers 3


This isn't something that is decided based on objective measures - it's a statement of the author's opinion that history has shown the paper to be very important.

If you, in your professional opinion, believe that the paper has had a major influence on an area of research, for a considerable period of time, then you could call it "classic". If you don't believe that, or you're not sure, or you don't think you have enough experience to judge, then don't use the word.

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    This is a classic answer.
    – JiK
    Sep 6, 2017 at 16:00
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    @JiK It's too new! Maybe someday. =p
    – jpmc26
    Sep 6, 2017 at 17:32

I don't think there really is any one definition of a 'classic' paper, but I think features that might contribute to the label include:

  • being an old paper that still gets used (or just referenced) a lot;
  • introducing a big new idea;
  • having been built on substantially (in a good way);
  • being well known as a good survey/suitable for learning the area from;
  • dating from and using methods from before a paradigm shift took place.

Note that some of these use the word 'classic' with slightly different meanings.

  • 4
    Your last bullet is "classical" rather than "classic". For example, in physics, "classical mechanics" refers to mechanics prior to the paradigm shift of quantum mechanics. There are many humdrum papers about classical mechanics and many classic papers about quantum mechanics. Sep 6, 2017 at 9:28

It is really just a mild expression of reverence by the author. It has no set meaning beyond that.

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