Throwback Thursday: Why you should use older references in your thesis

This post by Dr. Julia Hallas first appeared on Thesislink in May 2016.

“Never use references that are older than three years” was the advice given by a journal article reviewer I went along to hear recently. Yet a postgraduate supervisor who was sitting next to me whispered, “except for seminal papers”. I have heard a number of conflicting opinions about date ranges and types of references to use in a thesis or journal article. Yet such advice can limit one’s thinking and creative capacity, so I think that it’s worthwhile thinking through a strategy and a rationale for the references you decide to include in your research project. Let’s think about how we might define papers as seminal, and if we should ever use references that are older than three years.

Photograph by Matt Brown, licenced under CC BY 2.0

Cite influential theories

Seminal papers are those that explain well-known theoretical frameworks and concepts. Such a theory will have been influential in developing a field of study and will be well cited in the literature. For example, I am drawing on Vygotsky’s (1978) ‘zone of proximal development’ theory in my thesis. Many researchers have studied this significant concept over past decades, and I could cite one of those papers, however it would be as a secondary source. Much better for me to build my academic knowledge and integrity by reading Vygotsky and citing him as the original source.

Cite the latest empirical studies

What kind of date range should we be looking at when searching for empirical studies? Do you know how literature is selected in your discipline? I looked for advice in three useful texts on research. In describing how to undertake a literature search, Creswell (2009) did not mention a date range at all; while Merriam (2008) and Cohen, Manion & Morrison (2011) both suggested that only the most recent work in the area should be included in a literature review. There are so many journals and publications today, it would be very difficult for anyone to read all the research on a subject. Therefore common sense must prevail. A sensible strategy would be to discuss with your supervisors a date range that would provide the most up to date work for your study. However once the date range is determined, there is no need to stick rigidly to this. For example, if you notice an older reference that is often cited often in the articles you are reading, check it out. If you still think it’s worth including, cite it as a primary source.

So there you have it. Older articles have their place in thesis writing, as do the most up-to-date empirical studies. Think about the approach you might take and discuss it with your supervisors. They will be pleased to see that you are thinking about this important element of research: how to deal with older and newer references in your thesis writing.



Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2011). Research methods in education (7th ed.). Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (3rd ed.). California, CA: Sage.

Merriam, S. B. (2009). Qualitative Research: A guide to design and implementation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About Julia Hallas

Julia Hallas contributes to Thesislink posts in the hope of overcoming her procrastination and worry about completing the PhD so that she can develop some sound research skills. She enjoyed worked with Jennie Billot on Thesislink’s inception and continues her role as advisor to the team. Julia is a Teaching Consultant at the Centre for Learning and Teaching.

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