Most nonfiction works and books include some kind of citations to other research articles. That’s because nowadays, you can’t really come up with anything new. Most of the time, even when a writer discovers something fresh, his findings are still based or come from the works of previous researchers in the field. However, some works that are based on extensive research have a pretty large collection of cited materials in them. And it is only valid to ask the question: do these authors read fully through every single article they incorporate or use for the writing of their own?

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Key Takeaways

  • In the humanities, researchers do not necessarily read every cited source cover to cover. Instead, they often turn to selective reading strategies, focusing on specific sections or chapters relevant to their research.
  • It is generally considered irresponsible to cite a source without having read it. While the depth of reading may vary, researchers are expected to at least skim or read the relevant parts of a source to make sure it’s accurate and relevant to their work.
  • Citations serve multiple purposes, including attributing ideas correctly and guiding readers to the original sources for further exploration.

If you love non-fiction as much as this one Redditor we found on the platform, then you will most probably understand where his following question is coming from.

Indeed, we decided to check out this “Ancient Maya” work and found quite an extensive selection of sources that became integral to this book. This reminded us of the book by Judith Lewis Herman “Trauma and Recovery.” When reading a work like that, you will inevitably stumble upon references to other sources (commonly mentioned in the footnotes of the book pages). You, of course, might not initially question the writer’s familiarity with the source when reading. Yet, you can’t disagree that it would be interesting to know how deeply great minds like those of Arthur Demarest and Judith Herman dive into the research of others (especially when they don’t necessarily need to know all the details to create the work of their own).

What do Redditors Think?

As the question was posted on Reddit, users from all over decided to share their opinions on the matter. Most people seem to agree that reading books cover to cover isn’t particularly needed for most works. For example, in fields like history, if you read one biography on a specific subject, it is most likely that you will see the same information being presented in other works on the same topic. This is because most of our historical knowledge is cumulative, meaning it just combines the already existing facts together. Thus, in the end, you will end up looking through books just to find that particular piece of information that you don’t know yet.

“Not all of these books (or even articles) are read “cover to cover.” One might only be using a book for a specific section, or, sometimes, as a citation for a specific fact. There are also many books (at least in the field of history) that can be “mined” effectively using techniques learned in graduate school — e.g., read the introduction (which for works of academic history usually has a summary of each chapter in it), read the conclusion, skim the other chapters to get a sense of the general argument, read deeply the parts that you actually care about, read several reviews of the book. One can get through even a rather dull tome in about 90 minutes using that technique, and if you take good notes, have a basic “cheat sheet” for talking about that book that can be used over the course of a career (and serve as a reference for later use of the book as well — one can always go back to a book later if one wants or needs to look at it again).”

However, it was also said that the research process and its organization largely depend on the individual, as well as on the field and the source in particular. For example, some users agreed that they would read something like a research article, but wouldn’t dive deep into reading a whole book. After all, it takes a lot of time to get to know someone’s writing well enough to be able to navigate through the nets of information. Finding a specific fact or opinion as a piece of supporting evidence to your particular question takes much less effort (especially if we are talking about digital materials – just press Ctrl+F and look up the needed term).

It’s Not the Question of “Whether” They Read but “How” They Read

As we scrolled through the conversation further, we saw that many Redditors also noted that the initial question wasn’t stated correctly. So, they took it upon themselves to clarify it. As it turns out, the main query should have been “How did researchers read the cited material”.

We don’t read all the books identically. Let’s agree: you will be reading the Harry Potter series and “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” differently. The same goes for sources used for research. One user put it into words rather eloquently:

“You don’t read every single source in the same way—some stuff is read cover to cover, some stuff you read the chapters you need, some stuff is skimmed through—but everything gets read. In my opinion and experience at least, citing something you haven’t read is irresponsible and asking for problems, related to plagiarism or misreading at least. People saying no they don’t read everything they cite are very clever or very not clever.”

It also largely depends on what you constitute as reading. Sometimes, as a researcher, you only need to read through one chapter to get the needed information – there’s no need to spend time on the whole book if it doesn’t contribute to your field of study in its entirety. We should also take into consideration what type of research we are talking about. If you think about it, basically any statement that isn’t your own conclusion or a result of your findings should be tracked down to its original source and properly cited.

byu/fantasiavhs from discussion

Probably, this is a place that can confuse a lot of people outside academia. Some of you may think “Aren’t citations used, like, just to attribute the ideas you use correctly and not just to show what you read?” And even though there’s is some truth to that (props to you, citations ARE indeed used to attribute ideas that don’t belong to you), this perception births misconceptions. One Redditor actually managed to put very clearly why this is NOT how citing actually works (especially in research), so we will include their explanation below:

“You should never cite something you have not read. Consider if Author A cites Author B, saying that Author B claims X. But actually, B claims Y (or worse, not X). If you cite B, skipping A, you’ll be made a fool.
If you cannot read B, you should cite B as detailed in A (e.g. “B says X (B qtd. in A)”, style guides will differ on treatment). This is NOT a theoretical situation: people in the sciences are notorious for this and can result in some bad information quickly being regularly cited due to laziness.
I myself tracked down a multiple repeated assertion of the position that the author I was studying had held. Took me to an archive overseas, and found everyone had been incorrectly listing his position, and the original source (a 500+-year-old tome) had something different! But A cited B who cited C who cited D who actually never cited E. They were all wrong.”

What’s Our Point?

What we gathered from this little research of ours, is that if any author cites sources in their work, they probably read it. And it doesn’t matter, whether they’ve read it from cover to cover or not (most likely they didn’t go through it in that great of a detail). What matters is that the author included a fact, that didn’t belong to them, and showed you (in the footnote) where that fact came from. This gives you an opportunity to explore the original idea yourself and see, whether the writer presented it correctly.

The other idea we drew from this conversation is that you can’t cite anything without reading it first. In any case, you need to know that the book or article you use for your work is relevant or has the facts that you want to discuss. Either way, you will at least read one chapter or an abstract to make sure of that.

To draw the line, if you find yourself reading through a book with a lot of sources, you may a) believe that the author read the information they presented in their work in this particular source; b) look up the cited material and see for yourself whether the writer said everything correctly. We also have a message to those of you crafting your own research: Cite (properly!) everything you talk about in your papers, and read everything you want to reference in your work.


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