I am writing a scientific research paper and one of the sources I am using introduced a concept which I am using within the paper. The source I read (published in 1969) credits this concept as being coined by a different source (published in 1944). I do not have access to the original source. Would there be a problem if I do not cite the original source because I do not have access to it? Or do I have to include the original author since everyone else credits the 1944 source?


5 Answers 5


It depends on your audience and/or publisher.

If this is a paper for a class, you're probably fine. But if this is your thesis/dissertation or something you're going to publish, you need to see that earlier work.

It would be one thing if you were just alluding to the concept. Listing it as one you've dismissed, for example. But you're actually using the concept in your paper. You need to have a full understanding of where it comes from. You may decide you like the original version better, or you might prefer the later one. It may also turn out that the 1969 author was being thorough but really the 1944 idea didn't do the same thing.

What worries me most though is when you say "everyone else credits the 1944 source." That's a sign that it's important. There is no getting around it; you need to see the 1944 work.

To be clear, I'm not saying just that you need to cite the 1944 author, but that you have to read the 1944 work.


Ideally you should not only cite both sources (and others like the 1969 a one that credit the 1944 source), but also acknowledge and defend being your discussion in the 1969 explanation. After all, the paper that invented the idea often didn't explain it in the way people find most pedagogically useful today. You could go with something like this (if the last example is a meta-analysis, textbook or other kind of general review, that's even better):

X means Y. X is attributed in many sources (Johnson 1969, Timson 1984, Reynolds 2003) to Allman 1944. We will follow the notational conventions of Johnson 1969.

I suck at inventing surnames, but you get the point.


In scientific academic settings, the original article should be preferred, read and cited, and an effort should be made to do so. It is however acceptable to refer to a more recent one under certain circumstances. For instance, you may cite the recent article if:

  • the recent article offers a complete analysis of the idea you refer to. It is still fine if the idea originated elsewhere but the authors provide an extensive analysis.
  • you have no way to verify the content of the older article, e.g. If it is written in a language you don't understand
  • the recent article is a review and discusses many articles that are relevant to your work. To cite as "for a review on the topic see X"

Note that you don't need to justify your choice. If you're writing an article, you may be requested by the reviewers to add references.


It might depend on the institution, but often times it's fine because it's your personal source for information, and if your reviewer looks at the source they will see where it comes from. I had a similar issue in an essay once, but it ended up being fine.


There are only two scientifically viable opinions on this:

  1. Cite the reference as citing a reference
  2. Cite the original reference after looking that up if possible.

The easy style is to say "In Alice essay ABC she cites Bob using the term DEF in his Essay GHI" and then providing the reference where Alice says so.

The better scientific way is to try to acquire the referenced work by Bob, read it yourself, then cite the original.

Don't cite a reference that you have not read yourself, some authors deliberately pervert the original author by misquoting them. Others change the whole meaning of a paragraph by not quoting all the relevant parts.

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