Specifically, in a scholarly paper on philosophy of math I want to mention Mo Yan’s novel Red Sorghum Clan. It is just as an example of literature, not quoted and not used for any specific purpose.

Suppose I were to say:

Think of any famous play, say Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

would I need a citation to some edition of that play?

Of course if I wanted to refer to a particular edition of any novel or play I would have to cite it. And if I were offering a statistical analysis of language in the novel I would have to cite a particular edition. But I am not doing those things.

When I look at the text, saying “Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum Clan (1986)” looks ridiculously stuffy to me. This is no journal article or even an academic book. And as far as the practical issue of readers who want to find it, the title by itself will be far more helpful than any reference to a particular edition which the reader might or might not have any way of finding.

Or am I being ridiculous? Should I just make the citation?

  • 4
    If you aren't using it for any specific purpose, why are you mentioning it? If you are using it for a purpose, yes you should cite it properly according to the relevant journal format for a book.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 18:05
  • 28
    Just FYI, "red sor" on Google gives me mostly "red sores on [body part]," not your book. Google is informed by your search history, after all. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 18:25
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    Also, before anyone thinks I'm covered in red sores, I did that in an incognito window on a computer I don't use Google on. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 22:57
  • Do you just want to casually refer to the work itself, or do you want to discuss its contents?
    – Bergi
    Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 10:40

5 Answers 5


To the revised and clarified question, I think the answer is clearly no. We give citations so that readers can, in principle, compare what we saying about a text to what's actually written there, or to send them somewhere for more information. In the kind of situation you describe, the mentioned text plays a fundamentally different role. It's more closely analogous to saying, "Think of any famous building, say the cathedral of Notre Dame." You wouldn't give a citation to the building.

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    I think this is probably the correct way to think about reference to a "thing", if the thing is not itself part of the scholarly literature, nor even popular exposition of something that does admit scholarly discussion. That is, unless a novel is the object of the scholarly discussion, it can reasonably be "just a thing", like the cathedral of Notre Dame. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 22:00
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    But I would never give a citation to a building, so the comparison is not really useful. Or is there some mechanism to cite architecture that I missed? The book is something that could be cited and it seems from the clarified question that it is this specific book (not "a" book) that OP wants to mention. So there is probably a reason or a connection between the book and the publication which would be a reason to cite it. (What if another book or publication with the same title exists?)
    – skymningen
    Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 10:32
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    But which Cathedral of Notre Dame? (And that's just a few in France...) Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 12:14
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    @skymningen: The point is that in this situation you wouldn't even think something was missing if there were no citation for the building. There's simply no reason for it. And similarly, even though the book could be cited, there's no reason for it in the situation described by the OP. Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 13:33
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    Cathedral of Notre Dame, 48.853011, 2.349720. Accessed 22 Nov. 2017 Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 19:49

When I published a paper on statistical analysis of various texts, which included really famous works, I gave full references. Why I think they are deserved:

  • what you consider a famous work may be in fact unknown to a reader and she may become genuinely interested in the work - in that case the more bibliographical data, the better (e.g. call me simple-minded, but I have never heard of Red Sorghum Clan);

  • you may be implicitly referring to a passage that was present in particular edition, but was not present in others;

  • where do you draw a line between a scientific work and a work of art that does not require a citation?

  • in your example you are not citing an original work (which, according to wikipedia is titled 红高粱家族), but a certain derivative work, a translation, done by a certain translator, who - inter alia - came with the English version of the title. I think one should then give precise pointers to this translation.

Also, check whether your manual of style says anything on the matter.

  • 11
    Another possible good reason: you used a translation of the text.
    – Emilie
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 19:02
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    Another reason: some classic works of literature are published with interpretative annotations from the editor, which could differ from one edition to another. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 19:12
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    To me, the second bullet point is enough, really: what edition did you looked at?. That's critical to know.
    – Clément
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 19:13
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    @lukeg Comments exist primarily for the purpose of improving posts. If you think a comment's content should be part of your answer, add it. That is usually the outcome a commenter is hoping for. (Feel free to give credit to the user if you feel it is needed or appropriate.)
    – jpmc26
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 23:57
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    Your situation sounds a bit different from the OP’s. In your case, performing a scientific analysis of the texts, the precise full text is scientifically relevant to your work. In the OP’s, the book seems to be used more generically as an illustration of some point — as suggested in @MarkMeckes’ answer.
    – PLL
    Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 11:29

If I refer to a specific work, I would cite it.

However, in some fields is common to read articles that name work without citing the original paper. For example, recent hydraulics papers will refer to "Saint-Venant equations" or "Manning formula" without citing the original publication, because those are very well-known and over a century old.

  • 4
    And, as with @Mark Meckes' answer, "Saint-Venant equations" are "things", not scholarly literature. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 22:14
  • +1 No reference is necessary for textbook knowledge.
    – Karl
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 20:15

To improve the chances that your reader will be able to know exactly what you're talking about, I would include as much information as possible: the name of the creator and the year of a creation at a minimum, and a full citation if reading the work is crucial to understanding your argument. It's hard to predict how well an artistic work will be known over time, how easy it will be to find in a different country, or how accurately the name will be translated.

An example of this might be a well-known comic book such as The Dark Knight or The Watchman, both of which would have been unambiguous in comic book circles before movies based on them were created. The same might be true of Red Sorghum -- are you referring to the 1986 novel by Mo Yan, the (much more famous!) 1987 movie by Zhang Yimou, or the 1993 English translation (which I love) by Howard Goldblatt? Even just saying "Red Sorghum (1986)" can help disambiguate this.


If you make a fleeting reference to something, you generally don't need to cite it unless you actually quote from it, or reference an obscure part of it.

In Spanish literature, for instance, we can reference the Quijote without including a bibliographic citation unless we are actually quoting the text or if we reference a particular less well known scene. That is, a fleeting reference or to the the windmill scene need not a citation, but one where Don Quijote calls a given book crap might.

A common occurrence of this might be when we talk about books that an author has written. To continue with my Cervantes example, if I'm studying the Quijote then I'll cite the book beginning generally with my first quotation, but not necessarily the first reference to the book. But if I mentioned that his first novel was a pastoral work called La Galatea, but otherwise didn't cite or talk about the book, I wouldn't expect there to be a citation provided. If I also said that he expected Persiles y Segismundo to be his masterpiece, I would cite an article to that fact (maybe, since that's well known amongst Cervantistas), but I'd definitely not cite the book itself (again, unless I actually quoted the book).

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