What to cite?

This question comes from a comment on another post:

I’ve seen authors citing as many references as possible to try to please potential referees. Many of those references are low quality papers though. Any general guidance about a typical length for the reference section?

It depends on the subject and style of the paper. I’ve written a paper with over 900 citations, but that was a review of time series forecasting over a 25 year period, and so it had to include a lot of references.

I’ve also written a paper with just four citations. As it was a commentary, it did not need a lot of contextual information.

Rather than provide guidance on the length of the reference section, I think it is better to follow some general principles of citation in research.

1.Cite what is relevant

Think about the purpose of citations: they are there to provide support for statements that you make or to provide context for your own research. They are not there just to keep an editor or a reviewer happy.

In particular, a literature review is meant to provide context — showing the development of ideas that led to your paper, and showing the connection between your paper and related ideas. You are telling a story, and the references you cite are those that are important to your story. If your story cannot be told without referring to many papers, then do it. But if the citations involve tangents or irrelevant details, leave them out.

2. Cite what is important

Missing important papers, especially if they are recent, demonstrates a lack of awareness of the research context in which you are working.

At least make sure you’ve searched on Google scholar for any related work, and cite anything that looks important to the context and development of your own ideas.

If you know of a seminal paper, but it is a few years old, track its citations on Google scholar to find if there has been any important follow-up work.

Check if the journal you are submitting to has published any related work in the last five years and make sure you cite the most important of those papers. (If there is nothing in the journal related to your work, perhaps you are submitting to the wrong journal.)

3. Sight what you cite.

I’ve written on this elsewhere on this blog, so I won’t repeat myself again. But please make sure you check everything you cite, and don’t just copy references from other papers.

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