I'm writing my first paper for a conference about an issue enquired just by think tank, investigative journalism, ONG and United Nation Agencies but not directly from academic research.

So, is it correct to present that paper with only collateral academic writing?

  • I'm not sure I understand, are you saying there exists no research at all on this topic?
    – nengel
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 13:49
  • Not that directly concerns the issue
    – MarioRed
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 14:27
  • Well, if it doesn't exist you can't cite it. Someone has to be the first. Just make sure it really is you.
    – nengel
    Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 1:48
  • everything can be put in scientific or social science perspective.
    – SSimon
    Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 2:35

2 Answers 2


If your research concerns a specific subject for which all presently published material comes from think-tanks and news articles, then it is perfectly legitimate to cite those sources as your main source of literature. However, while this may be true of the specific issue you are investigating, it would be extremely unusual for that issue to be so unique that it cannot be put into any broader scholarly context in any field of academic inquiry.

For example, suppose you take some extremely specific topic -- e.g., you want to investigate the effect of fluctuating prices of bananas on the eating habits of rural families in Peru. Perhaps there is not yet any academic literature on that topic, but there might be news articles from time to time that talk about farmers when banana prices go up or down. Even so, if you were writing about that topic, you would probably discuss the specifics within a broader academic context with some economic theory, social science, etc. So you might augment your discussion of the specific topic by noting that shortages of bananas in other parts of the world cause consumer prices to increase, and this increases profits to banana growers, which gives them more disposable income, etc. There would be plenty of general academic literature (e.g., general economics literature) on those phenomena that are not specific to banana-growing in Peru. By citing literature on these general phenomena you would augment your specific topic by placing it in a broader context.

If you are unable to find any scholarly literature that could put your issue into an academic context, you are implicitly telling your reader that your issue falls outside the scope of all historic scientific and academic inquiry, and there is no avenue of academic research that could shed any light on your topic. Are you sure that is the case?

  • 1
    +1 for your excellent example. When I read the question my main thought was that I don't think I could come up with ANYTHING that one could write about and for which no reasonable literature references could be given. (Perhaps someone else might be able to do this, but it'd probably be in a general field that I know nothing about. But I doubt someone else could do this in mathematics (my general field), even areas which I know next to nothing about.) Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 13:37

It it okay? My answer is "Yes, but..."

Yes: The purpose of citations is to point the the information you used in creating your own work, to source your ideas and link your work with the larger body of thought on a topic. For example, it's entirely possible that your paper will primarily/exclusively have citations to non-academic literature. To use one of my papers as an example, in it's 11 citations it has:

  • One Blog
  • One National Public Radio transcript
  • Two popular press articles
  • One fan-maintained Wiki
  • One fan-maintained data scraping website
  • One software documentation document
  • One semi-popular press book
  • Three academic citations, three of which appear at the end of the document

Clearly that's not exclusively non-academic citations, but there's a lot there that's not a conventional citation, and that's okay.

But... : It is highly unusual for there to be nothing that touches on your topic, even in the broadest form - a review, a paper that suggests this as a way forward, a paper identifying a gap that might be filled with your work, etc.

I would take a long, hard look at your paper and topic and make sure you haven't missed anything. But if the answer, after that self-examination, is "No, this is it" then that is what it is.

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