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When I reference something, I take myself to be responsible to know the thing well enough to substantiate the kind of reference I made. But that's very different from carefully going over the entire article.

If I want to say that author X is one of the people that have made objection Y, I find the objection and I cite the page where they made it, for instance. And I might read the whole paper, especially in a superficial way, but also don't think I've done something wrong if I haven't read the whole paper.

The purpose of the reference list is to back up the claims you make about the literature, not to project a certain image of how well-read you are, or something along those lines.

David Kinney

I'm of the opinion that one of the central functions of an abstract is that it allows other researchers to cite a paper without reading the whole thing, especially if the citation is one where you are not making any substantive claim about the details of an author's argument, but are instead saying something like "Here are a whole bunch of people that have advanced similar theses to the main one that I am criticizing...". In the natural sciences, where I believe that citation practices are generally better (i.e. more people get cited more often), there is no pretense that one has read every paper in one's bibliography (at least in my experience).

early modernist

I work in the history of philosophy, and I just looked over a paper I just submitted. It has 45 references. I've read 43 of them quite carefully, with detailed notes. The two I have not read thoroughly are quite long French books, but I have read what I believe are the relevant chapters. I haven't thought much about this before, but my attitude has always been: If I'm going to read a paper at all, I'm going to read a paper carefully enough to try to get something out of it.

Overseas TT

I have read every article and book chapter that I cite at least once, not necessarily super-carefully but also not by just merely skimming them. Many (most) of them I read much more carefully. With complete books it's different, I often cite books that I haven't read cover to cover. My impression is that the norms I'm following are more or less standard.

(One reason I force myself to read every paper I cite at least once is that I frequently referee papers that incorrectly attribute views to authors, including to me when they cite my work. It's often immediately obvious when someone sloppily cites a paper that based on its abstract appears to defend view X, but in fact doesn't. I never rejected a paper for that reason, but I think it's pretty embarrassing nonetheless.)


It's basically the same for me. I've definitely read everything I cite (or, if it's a book chapter, that chapter at the very least), but the amount of critical attention I've given each item varies depending on its importance to my project.

a philosopher

To balance things out, I definitely cite plenty of stuff that I *haven't* completely read. I'm Marcus on this one, and would just parrot what he said, so I won't bother with repeating it.

Regarding the whole embarrassing incorrect citation thing: yeah, it happens. As a journal referee, I've caught people citing stuff incorrectly, e.g. attributing to author's views they don't defend in a given paper. I've also had journal referees catch these sorts of mistakes in my own work. I've certainly read published papers which make these mistakes as well. Is that less than optimal? Sure, of course. But as Marcus correctly points out, we're all balancing competing and incompatible goals: being thorough and careful scholars, vs being productive professionals who don't undercite but still get stuff published.

A final thought: as a graduate student searching for that first publication, I would err on the side of being slower and reading more, rather than being fast and reading less. Someone who's worked in an area for 5-10 years (as opposed to your 2-3 years) has, by virtue of their career stage, read more than you and has gotten a better overall handle on the field. I'm confident in my ability to quickly size up an unread article based on its abstract, introduction, and skimming its reference list. But I've also read a lot of stuff and am able to quickly contextualize the key words and references of an author. I certainly wasn't able to do this sort of contextualization nearly as well when I was just starting out, and I very much doubt that the average grad student is any better at it than I was. I'm not saying you should fall into the trap of never writing anything because there's too much to read. Perhaps a better strategy is just to accept that you won't have a 50-item reference list on your first publication.

Here's another thought: my reference lists grow organically. They never start as 50+ items, but often by publication time they're at that length. They start shorter, and grow as they go through the process of conference presentations, journal rejections, and R&Rs. Maybe at first I had read well like 15-20 articles around which the paper is based. Referees suggest I look at new articles, I stumble upon new articles on my own while waiting for decisions, these get incorporated and cited in the next iteration, etc. If a paper takes 1-3 years to get published, start to finish, you can see how a reference list that starts with 20 items could easily grow to 50. And 1-3 years is a lot of time to read new stuff.

... I know grad students don't want to hear that it takes 1-3 years to publish a paper, but that's pretty normal. As many people note, this is a discipline of impossible co-constraints (publish now! and fast! for a job! but also: be prepared for lots of rejections and a steep learning curve).


I would also say that my practice is pretty similar to Marcus, and also echoes David's point about the sciences. I work in moral psychology and cite a lot of empirical lit and you quickly find that citation practices are very different in different fields.

I will say the one thing that can pad my (and other's) bibs is the practice of using citations from other articles. I also cite these as "cited in" to be clear that I am NOT claiming to have pulled this directly from the primary course, but then both sources (the original source and the source its cited in) gets listed in the bib, which does pad it a bit...

citer and reader

I think we should realize that there are different academic cultures around citation and reading. I work in a few areas. One is a historical area, and we are expected to read a lot and cite a lot. And as such a scholar, my sense is we really do read the 40+ sources we cite - or the 210 sources we cite in a book, even the books we cite. But I also publish in systematic philosophy. I have published papers that cite 10 sources, and I have read them all as well, but I knew there was a mountain of other literature on the topic, but I was under no obligation to read it.

Marcus Arvan

citer and reader: I think that's exactly right. I was thinking after reading early modernist's comment that reading things in full is probably in general much more important than in the history of philosophy than some other areas.

Wasting time

History of philosophy researcher here. I have read every secondary source that I have ever cited thoroughly at least once. If the source is a book, I have thoroughly read at least the chapter I am citing at least once. To tell you the truth, I don't think I ever considered the alternative--now I fear I have been wasting my time.

citer and reader

Wasting time
This is citer and reader again. You are not wasting your time. You are behaving like someone who is in it for the long haul ... I think you stand a better chance of producing solid and resilient scholarship.
Keep up the good work


I do empirically engaged philosophy. I'm like Marcus when it comes to philosophy papers. My papers also often involve empirical claims that require substantiation by reference to empirical papers. In those cases, what I do is I just skim in order to find the relevant info, which typically can be found in the abstract (example: % of kids with diagnosis x in the US vs. in France). The exception is empirical papers that I find philosophically interesting and explore in depth ("what does that finding mean?") -- those get multiple close readings and, if the data set is available online, I will take a look at that as well.

I asked the question

Given what a lot of the responses have been, especially from history folks, now I find myself wondering when you find the time to write...


I read enough to be able to substantiate the claim I'm making about the work cited. I don't trust other people claiming that "Philosopher A argues X", that is, I won't think, "Oh great, now I don't need to read A, because I've heard from Philosopher B that A argues X." I've seen cases in which it's become "common knowledge" that A argues X, and then when I look at A I realize that they have argued for something significantly different.

I also wouldn't rely on an abstract alone unless I were, I guess, just citing someone as talking about some issue; I wouldn't rely on it just to tell me what claim someone was defending (most interesting claims involve technical terms whose meaning *you can't get from the abstract alone*; never trust that the author of the abstract is using the term in what you think is the conventional way) or what argument they were making (among other things people often say bold things in abstracts they qualify the sh*t out of in their actual papers).

A harder issue for me is if I'm reading something, maybe reading it multiple times, and still not sure I *understand* it.

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