Writing a journal article

Who to cite, when and where?

One important aspect of academic work (as opposed to popular writing) is that you need to acknowledge where various ideas came from. As a tutor of mine once said: whatever you don’t wake up just knowing one day, needs to be either referenced or arise directly from your results. But with so many papers out there now – what does this mean? What about citing multiple papers for the one statement? When should you cite how many papers, and which?

One approach to this is to cite a lot of other papers. The idea is (I guess) that you somehow ‘prove’ that you really know the literature. In this school of thought, even relatively obvious statements often get three or even more references to other work. This approach is very common, but I don’t think it’s very elegant.

An alternative approach is to focus on the most important citations. A good choice is to focus on the ‘classic’ papers on a given topic, as well as the most recent, high-impact papers on that topic. A good way of finding the ‘classics’ on a given topic is to search in online databases, and sort the findings by the number of times a paper has been cited. The ‘classics’ tend to be highly cited.

In addition to the classics, the latest ‘high impact’ papers make for good sources to cite. Those are basically the ones that will be relatively highly cited in the future, but are not highly cited yet – it typically takes about 1-2 years for a paper to get cited after it is published. To find the latest important papers in your discipline, you need to be aware of which are the most important journals in your field, and it’s a good idea to (regularly) read the table of contents of these journals, so that you’re up to date.

Key parts of a paper where most of the citations end up are the introduction (where you demonstrate how your work fits in with others, and that you know who else publishes in your domain), and the discussion (where you relate your findings to other people’s findings). Note that with very few exceptions, there are no citations in the abstract.


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