Citations: How Much Is Enough?


16 January 2015

History researchers frequently ask how much needs to be cited to support an assertion. If, say, we find an assertion in a journal article, a monograph on our topic, a generally reliable website, and a couple of original documents, do we have to cite them all?

The answer is easy enough if we focus on quality. Doing so usually leads to these mental reminders:

  • Always, our evidence should be drawn from the best sources possible.
  • Anytime we find an assertion in a derivative source that is intrinsic to a point we are trying to prove, we should track that assertion back to the original source.
  • If we use an original source, we cite it; if we don't personally use, we don't cite it.
  • If we use an original source, citing umpteen derivatives that synthesize the original would add little value—especially given that synthesizing frequently results in the addition of nuances not in the original.
  • If we use a derivative that provides great insight into the original by adding contrasts, comparisons, or context, then we would logically cite the derivative for that insight—in addition to the original—and then explain what "value added" the derivative gave us.
  • If we use a derivative that led us to an original we did not know about or enabled our use of an original set—as with, say, a published index to original records that do not have their own index, then we would logically cite the helpful derivative.
  • If a derivative that is commonly used makes problematic or erroneous assertions that are attributed to the original, it is prudent for us to cite the derivative and explain why it may not be reliable.



PHOTOCREDIT: "How Much Is Enough Concept," CanStockPhoto ( : downloaded 5 December 2014), uploaded 13 February 2013 by AnsonLu; used under license.