I'm writing a paper in which I have reviewed a list of reports and have summarized data from each. I have cited each of those original reports. However, I originally located some of those reports because someone else wrote a similar paper years ago in which they listed sources (without summarizing), and I looked up the citations they had used. That is to say, they wrote a paragraph that said something along the lines of "This subject has been examined in the past by W, X, Y, Z" I am unclear on how to cite this secondary source. Do I write my summary, then cite both the original source and the secondary source, i.e.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, curabitur voluptatum nullam sed placerat vestibulum (Original1 1960; Secondary 1990).

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, curabitur voluptatum nullam sed placerat vestibulum (Original2 1971; Secondary 1990).

This seems misleading, because I didn't actually draw the data from the secondary source, just used their list of citations. On the other hand, I really need to make reference to the fact that this secondary author created the list of sources that I used. Would it be better to make a statement that the second author listed the references, and just cite that paper once?

2 Answers 2


I would not cite your secondary source except to note that it was used to obtain the list of reports that you used to actually write the paper. If you are not using any other content, then you wouldn't have anything else to specifically cite. Some would argue that since these primary sources were available independently, then you would only need to cite them. I would suggest that it would be more appropriate to at least acknowledge the secondary source as a matter of courtesy. Also, you never know when someone else may come along and note the similarities and suggest that you simply pilfered the original author's sources and/or information.

Having said that, do you have any other sources aside from the list of reports you obtained from the original author's paper? If a sizable portion of your sources originate from the other paper, then you run the risk of being accused of plagiarism. If you are using different material from these sources and cover a different topic, then it won't be a big deal. However, if your paper covers basically the same topic or area of discussion and uses more than a few of the exact same references, then you may have a problem on your hands!

  • 1
    Thank you for your answer. My problem section is in one chapter of a much larger paper... in this chapter I'm doing a review of previous research on the topic. The secondary source was one of the first I found when starting my research, and I used it to track down the earlier sources. My actual research, which constitutes the bulk of the paper, is original. My goal here of course is to avoid plagiarism; I'm just not sure how to do that appropriately in the situation. Thanks again!
    – rogueduck
    Dec 22, 2011 at 22:51

You can incorporate the secondary source in your narrative. Since your problem section is, most likely, early on in your paper:

Paul Ricoeur (1991), in From Text to Action, posits on Hiedegger's interpretation of language, based on Wittgenstein's initial foray into the phenomenology of language. Heidegger analyzes (cite from Ricoeur) Wittgenstein's interest in understanding language beyond deconstruction, "quote". Ricoeur interprets Wittgenstein's interest in x, as well as Heidegger's understanding of y, as a pivotal moment in the transition of language toward the ontological.

In other words, tell the story of what you read. In your problem section, your purpose is to inform the reader, to offer a path of interpretation toward understanding. You shouldn't, as Steven said, pull secondary as primary; however, you are expected to bring the reader up to speed and can do so by exploring where you and the theorists got to the point where you present your problem section.

If I need to provide another example, I'm baking all day and will check back in :)

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