Monday, March 26, 2018

Why do we give citations? How should we give citations?

Why do we cite past work? There are many reasons and they lead to advice on how we should cite past work

  1. Give credit where credit it due. Some people over cite and that diminishes any one citation. I once saw a paper that had in the first paragraph: ''Similar work in this field has been done by [list of 20 citations].'' One of the papers in that list was extremely relevent, the rest much less so. This is not really helpful. There should be less citations and more about each one.
  2. If you are using a result in a prior paper the user should be able to read that paper. For that reason I try to give the websites of where the paper is. (this might be  less crucial now then it used to be since if a paper is on lnie someplace for free its usually easy to find). Some students ask me if its okay to cite papers on arXiv. Of course it is, especially if it's to guide the reader to a place to read the result. Note also that papers on arXiv are not behind paywalls.
  3. At some point a result is so well known that it does not need a citation. It's not clear when this is. I think people write `by the Cook-Levin theorem' without citing the original source. Nor do people ever cite Ramsey's original paper either. See next item for why this might be a mistake.
  4. A reader might want to know WHEN a result was discovered. For this reason, perhaps people should give references for Cook-Levin or for Ramsey. The original source is often NOT a good place to read a result so I often do  ``by a theorem of Curly [1] (see also Moe's simplification [2] or Larry's survey [3])'' so I give the reader WHO did it first, when they did it, but also an alternative place to read it. However, when does it end? `By the Pythagorean theorem [1] (also see [2])'
  5. A reader should know the context of the result.  Is the problem new? Is the problem related to other problems? Has there been much work in this field? Inquiring minds want to know!


  1. 6. So the referees don't complain that we don't know the proper literature.

    7. Because there's a good chance the author will be a referee and we know if we don't cite something they wrote that they'll mark our paper down.

  2. 1. which paper ? why don't u highlight the example with a specific paper. perhaps the author that we all know tried to historically trace some development ?

  3. I disagree that batch citations (point 1.) are a problem. In fact, I believe they are a
    good idea:

    - As a reader, I like batch citations. They often point me to articles which would be
    hard or tedious to find otherwise. (Especially when I'm not working in the field

    - Since we are all judged based on how many citations we have, batch citations are
    a good way to emphasize that other people's research is interesting and relevant.
    (Especially since other communities are much more generous when citing other

    Of course, one shouldn't only have batch citations and discuss the highly related
    work somewhere in the paper in more detail.

  4. I heard that oxford press urges/asks authors to cite
    only sources in english language. In natural sciences this
    might be doable, but in the humanities probably not.