Q: What does a comprehensive citation list include?

Detailed Question -

Hi, I always find it difficult to choose which previous research papers should be cited. For example, if my research is about a particular gene in a certain disease, should I include all the past works regarding the gene in this disease? Some of the past works are those published in the 1970s, and others have less convincing data due to the small sample size and/or poor study design. Is it ok to pick the most scientifically convincing and pertinent papers and ignore and not cite the others? Or do I cite a well-written review article for the subject, instead of citing original articles?

1 Answer to this question

First of all, you should read your target journal's author instructions to find out if there are any specifications about the number and nature of citations. Some journals specify the maximum number of references, and this usually varies depending on the article type. For example, reviews and original articles may require a large number of references, while letters to the editor or opinion pieces would have very few.

Secondly, for a reference list to be comprehensive, you need not cite each and every work that is related to your topic. You should use your discretion and select only the works that are relevant and pertinent to a clear understanding of the research question. In your introduction, you should explain what is already known about the topic and use citations to support your explanation. Make sure that every idea that you have mentioned has been supported with at least one citation. This will ensure that you have a comprehensive reference list.

Additionally, you should use a mix of both old and current publications, depending upon their importance. The reviewer should know that you are familiar with all the works on the topic, and not just the latest ones. To answer your last two questions, it is absolutely fine to use only pertinent papers; it is not possible to cite every single paper in the field. However, it is best to use more of primary sources, rather than secondary ones. Thus, while there is no harm in citing a review paper, you should cite it only if you are using an observation of the author of the review article. For ideas taken from other sources, you should cite the original, that is, the primary source.