Sometimes it happens that a published paper refers to an unpublished paper for a result used.
In this case, if we want to check this result by ourselves, we need to access to this unpublished paper.

Question: What is the usual process for accessing to an unpublished paper?
Is it the duty of the author (citing it in his published paper) to send it to anyone requiring it?
Or is it the duty of the editor, or of the author of the unpublished paper?

What to do if we can not get it through these means?

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    $\begingroup$ I'm against this question being closed. To quote the Help Center, MO questions should be "the sorts of questions you come across when you're writing or reading articles or graduate level books" and "well-defined," which perfectly applies here. $\endgroup$ Jun 3 '15 at 5:45
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    $\begingroup$ These days there's little excuse for authors to not make the article available on the internet in some form. It's not like it's the 70s and there's a paper version floating around and you have a friend of a friend who has a photocopy. I would encourage the author to upload it somewhere public, since journals these days realise they can't stop this behaviour, though they lobby against it. If the author doesn't want to make it more widely available, why are they in the business? $\endgroup$ Jun 3 '15 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ This can often cause problems - in many cases an author asserts a result, perhaps in a conference talk, when they are convinced that they have a proof, but before it is fully written up. As time goes by, the expected paper fails to materialize for one of many possible reasons - the author loses interest, or can't quite nail down the details or leaves mathematics or dies etc. These non-papers can be a real stumbling block because everyone "knows" that X has proved this, so nobody else writes down the details and so on. $\endgroup$ Jun 3 '15 at 8:03
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRoberts If the author doesn't want to make it more widely available, why are the in the business? Perhaps because they joined the business, and were proving difficult or valuable theorems, long before the 56k modem, let alone modern mores? Not everything in maths that some of us need to use is as sparkly and new and enfused with the OS spirit as the Brave New World $\endgroup$
    – Yemon Choi
    Jun 3 '15 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ There is a famous example of the sort you mention, who proved many things in seminars in the 70s-90s, and published none of them. This person then complains when people publish on these topics without citing them, or using their approach. I find this attitude curious, since many of these results are, by the circumstances, known to a select few, and now this person is practically unwilling to share their work. $\endgroup$ Jun 3 '15 at 23:04
  1. I think this is a duty of the author to refer only on those results which are available. (Perhaps not published, but posted somewhere on the Internet). I think it is a duty of the editor and referee to make sure that the authors follow this rule. A result which uses a reference which is not available cannot be considered as proved.

  2. In the case when there is an unpublished reference, which I need, I search on the internet, Google scholar, author's web page, etc. If not found I write to the author and ask her to send me a copy. In pre-computer era, I would write a letter to the author in the case I am really interested in the result.


In a broader context, this is the problem of the role of "grey literature" in the progress of science. Wikipedia has quite an extensive overview of this issue, and there is even an academic journal devoted entirely to it. (The Grey Journal, ironically enough itself part of the grey literature.)

I would think that the access part of this issue is the least interesting in these days of the internet (if it's a recent document that is not online somewhere, it might as well not exist); the real issue is the role of unrefereed research in the progress of science: can you rely on an unrefereed result, whether it is the proof of a theorem or the outcome of a clinical trial?

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    $\begingroup$ Usually, if you cite a result, or a paper, you have access to it, and you can check the proof of the result to see if it is right or not. $\endgroup$ Jun 3 '15 at 6:55
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with the sentiment that access is not nearly as important as correctness, but question the assertion that correctness is synonymous with "refereed". Refereed or unrefereed, I would be very hesitant to rely on a new result unless I either understood the proof myself or was convinced that the community felt certain about it. $\endgroup$ Jun 3 '15 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ There is a great difference between a theorem and a result of a clinical trial. A theorem, when stated, you can try to prove yourself. The good rule is to use ONLY the results whose proof you know, no matter published or not. $\endgroup$ Jun 6 '15 at 6:24
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko: You know the proofs of all the results you've ever used? I find that quite hard to believe. $\endgroup$
    – cody
    Jun 8 '15 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko: you mean it's bad practise to use any "big theorem" as a black-box unless you understand its proof? That sounds rather restrictive, the "biggest" theorems usually have very hard and complicated proofs. (To clarify: I agree with your sentiment, but not encoding it as a rule.) $\endgroup$ Jun 10 '15 at 9:54

I did write such a unpublished-but-cited paper. My co-author did not answer to my questions about the journal where to publish it, and then left mathematics. This happened before internet time. It is still cited, usually with the caption Available from D. S. under request. Perhaps I should post the scan on ArXiv. I must confess that I began using ArXiv only a few month ago...

Of course, every member of the PDE community knows about an unpublished paper by (P.-L.) Lions, Papanicolaou & Varadhan. We refer to it as the eternal preprint, a terminology seemingly due to PLL.

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    $\begingroup$ Dear Denis: it seems I am unfortunately excluded by your arguments from being a member of the PDE community, and I want to rectify that. So can you tell me a bit about the "eternal preprint"? (Probably a reference to paper in which this particular pre-print is cited will be good enough.) $\endgroup$ Jun 4 '15 at 7:51
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    $\begingroup$ @WillieWong I suspect it is "Lions, P. L., Papanicolaou, G., & Varadhan, S. R. Homogenization of Hamilton-Jacobi equations. 1986. Unpublished paper." At least this is a "pure" citation in Google Scholar by these authors. (You can find papers citing it there too.) // To be clear, I have no idea what is in that preprint, the point of my comment is mainly that Google Scholar contains the titles of papers that in the official literature only exist as citations (which can be generally useful). $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Jun 4 '15 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Willie. Quid got it. As you can see, Google Schollar list 360 citations of this paper ! It was a seminal paper in weak KAM theory, as well as in homogenization theory. $\endgroup$ Jun 4 '15 at 10:04
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    $\begingroup$ At the very least, host the paper on your website! The arXiv is a bit picky about scans. $\endgroup$ Jun 5 '15 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ My field also has at least one 'eternal preprint', although perhaps I won't name drop. I would be surprised if it's not a very common phenomenon. $\endgroup$
    – LSpice
    Mar 24 '17 at 16:35

As the reader, you can also ask mathoverflow for help finding the paper. There have been some very interesting MO questions along this line. In particular, this record helps others to also track down the same paper (or discover it never existed in the first place). Feel free to add to this list since this is CW:


"What to do if we can not get it through these means?"...

Ask all the people you know. Someone might have a copy. Once you get a copy, and if you find the pre-paper useful, don't forget to advertise that you have a copy, so that others can benefit too.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree, but if the authors do not send me a copy, perhaps they don't want their pre-preprint to be diffused. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 '15 at 15:23

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