Get it from the source

Why you should avoid secondary citations

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Did you hear what Anna said? I heard from a friend who heard from her boyfriend’s brother that she said she was mad at you…

Sound familiar? We all know how our words can get taken out of context when what we say is told to someone else. That can lead to a misunderstanding or even a fight.

A similar effect can also be seen in the popular children‘s game “telephone”. In this game, one person whispers a complicated sentence in another person’s ear who then whispers it in the next person’s ear, and so on.  The last person then says the sentence out loud for the group – and it almost never matches what the original person said, much to the delight of the children playing it. 

Unfortunately, this “telephone“ effect can happen all-too-easily in your academic writing as well – and if you’re not careful, the effect is not funny at all.

Just like in the “telephone” game, when you write a paper, you’re sharing other people’s words and ideas. Here it becomes very important not only to cite your sources but also to make sure that you don’t falsely represent the ideas of the original author.

Usually, you can double check your source to make sure that you have accurately written about the author’s ideas. But what do you do if you don’t have the original source but just a quotation from another author?

Well, if you were to cite the source quoted in the other source, it would be a secondary citation. 

Secondary citations are citations that you did not take from the source but from another work that cited the source. This other work is known as the secondary source or indirect source. You can think of a secondary citation as a secondhand citation.

For example, if you read an article by Allen published in 2018. Allen’s methodology is taken from an article written by Smith et al. in 2016. You would like to refer to the methodology developed by Smith et al. in your own work. What should you do?

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The ideal solution

The best thing to do is always to obtain the original source. First, check the bibliography in the article by Allen 2018. There you can find the bibliographic details for the study by Smith et al. 2016, which will help you locate it. First, check the relevant databases offered by your library or the library catalog. If you can find it, download it, or, if the study was in a book, check out the book.

If the study isn’t available through your library, use Interlibrary Loan to request it if your library offers this service. If your library uses a link resolver, you should be able to request it directly from there.

Why go to all this trouble?

If you have the original study, you can look at it and make your own assessment. You don’t have to rely on another author’s interpretation of the methodology. You will be working with and citing directly from the source itself. 

This is important because the “telephone“ effect can occur in scholarly works as well. It could very well be the case that Allen misunderstood or misinterpreted Smith et al.’s methodology. If you then cited Smith you would be perpetuating and spreading this incorrect representation of the original work’s methodology.  


Interim solution

Since you sometimes might need to wait until you get a copy of the original source, you need a backup plan. Either your university login isn’t working so you can’t access your university’s databases or you’re waiting to receive the article from interlibrary loan. 

If you need to cite the work in the meantime, you can add it temporarily as a secondary citation: 

(Smith et al. 2016 as cited by Allen 2018) 

Reference management programs like Citavi do not offer an out-of-the-box solution for citing secondary citations.  If you want to add a secondary citation, you should add both works to Citavi: the original source and the secondary source in which you found the citation.  

You will need to use a workaround when adding the contents of the secondary quotation to a knowledge item: 

  1. Add the quotation to the original source and not to the secondary source in which you found it. Use quotation marks if you add the exact words from the secondary source. After the closing quotation marks add parentheses with the following text (as cited by [Citavi short title for the secondary source], page numbers). You can find the Citavi short title for the secondary source in the record you created for the secondary source.
  2. Add a task to the original source: Check reference information and quotation. (here’s how you can create your own task.
  3. Obtain a copy of the original source. Once you have it, double-check the quotation. Does it match exactly? If so, remove the text in parentheses that you added in Citavi  (as cited by … ). Mark the task as complete. 


If all else fails…

Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to obtain a copy of the original source: 

  • A printed study that is only available in a library in Alaska
  • An unpublished internal company report
  • A foreign-language article that’s not available in your country or in a language you understand

If you can’t get a copy of the original text, you will need to use a secondary citation. Usually, you would mention the information for the original source in the text or in a footnote but not include it in the bibliography, as this would imply that you did actually view a copy of it. Check your citation style requirements for the exact formatting of secondary citations. If no guidance is available check a major style guide, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or APA. Both give examples for how to cite secondary citations.  

But let us stress again, that secondary citations are to be avoided at all costs whenever possible. It’s expected that you put some effort into obtaining the original source. If you use a lot of secondary citations, your readers will ask themselves why you didn’t look at the original. Secondary quotations leave a poor impression. 

As an alternative to using a secondary citation, you could also consider if it might be possible to find another work that offers a similar finding and which is easier to obtain a copy of. 

One final tip: secondary citations also include charts, diagrams, and other images you find in databases, for example, Statista 

Did you ever have difficulty hunting down an original source? Was there ever a source you couldn’t get a copy of and where you had to use a secondary citation? We look forward to hearing from you on the Citavi Facebook page!  


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Originally published April 12 2018, updated January 18 2022

Created by: Jana Behrendt – Published on: 1/18/2022

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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