In the introduction to my thesis, I cite a lot of classical results from the 19th and early 20th century. Should I try and cite the original source for these results, or does that look like I am trying to bloat my list of references to look smart and I should rather find a good monograph/survey on the topic? If I do go with the second option though, does it suffice to mention the book at some point in the beginning and then say things like "Bernstein showed" pages later without further citing a reference for where or when Bernstein showed that? It feels wrong to have "Bernstein [1] showed" when [1] is not by Bernstein.

(One answer could be: I cite where I have it from. But those classical things I read mostly on Wikipedia or in lecture notes and then go and look for appropriate sources)

  • $\begingroup$ This might possibly be a better fit for mathoverflow, where the users have a lot more experience dealing with this. $\endgroup$ – Arthur Jul 21 '15 at 8:42
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    $\begingroup$ It's a thesis, so you can cite as much as you want. Thus, why not both? Not citing readable modern sources is a disservice to the reader. $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Jul 21 '15 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ It is good put the bibliography at the end of the article because everyone can have references, not only to credit something, it is important because is information, it is a reference. But it depends of the "generality" of what you are writing, definitions, theorems, examples, notation, etc... $\endgroup$ – Masacroso Jul 21 '15 at 11:40
  • $\begingroup$ This post at academia.SE seems related: How should I cite something learned second-hand (eg, from Wikipedia) when I haven't seen the primary source? $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Jul 23 '15 at 7:33

Your question is important. My answer is that it really depends on the nature of the item you are writing (I know you are writing a thesis, but let's forget about this for a while).

If you are writing a book, then you should try to cite the original source. Although really old papers are hardly accessible in an easy way, the author of a book should always point out to the reader who proved an important result for the first time, and possibly where the reader can read the first proof.

If you are writing a research paper, then a recent textbook where statements and proofs in contemporary language can be found is more helpful than old-fashioned manuscripts. Accessibility is really important to those who study a new research paper, and if you cite a book from 1902 that nobody will ever manage to read, then you will be criticized.

My opinion is that a thesis (master thesis? Ph.D. thesis?) is closer to a book than to a research paper, and my advice to you is to cite the original sources as much as you can. This is just my humble opinion, anyway.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree strongly with your position here. If the thesis is an undergrad or master’s thesis, then it might be more expository, and I think in this case OP should mention the original sources. If it’s a doctoral thesis, then I think it’s most appropriate to cite the clearest, shortest treatment of the material. For my own part, I would never have thought to put “ancient history” into my doctoral thesis—just the most modern good references. $\endgroup$ – Lubin Apr 23 '17 at 3:29

If you are citing because the book added information that is pertinent to your reference that wasn't in the original paper, cite the book.

If you are 100% sure that a) that's not the case and b) the source you think is the original is actually the original one, then you are OK with citing the original source.

In general, I'd say the former is preferable as it's always OK, while the second is a bit "more risky" because of the two preconditions.


If the book you want to cite is by the same author, then cite the book (it's common that decades worth of work on a particular field gets condensed into a book form). The same goes if the author wrote a review paper: it's more helpful to the reader, if you cite a source that touches the wider subject. No sense of citing 20 old papers if you can cite a more modern reformulation that probably also cleaned up notation and replaced clumsy derivation with more elegant solutions.

If the book is by someone else, it depends on the context. If you are specifically referring to the original research (in the sense of describing the exact circumstances, or maybe referring to the history of discovery or the original author's involvement), then cite the paper (and possibly the book as well, no harm in including an additional source for readers who want to know more). If you are referring to the general topic mentioned in the article/book, then just include the book.


There are several reasons for making a citation.

  1. You wish to give credit to the author of what you think is an important contribution
  2. You want to help the reader get necessary information from a source that is easy to access
  3. You want to place the subject in a historical perspective.
  4. You want to tell the story of recent developments.

Rules that apply to one motive may not apply to another


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