The invention of Retrieval-augmented generation (RAG) has dramatically changed how complicated an AI's response can be, and how much more visibility a user can have into its logic.

Now, instead of simply summarizing a topic or a primary source, AI can collect information from multiple sources and aggregate it into a single response. Citations help users trace the information contained in a response back to its original material.

This can be within a single source, the way that Adobe PDF and other document summarizers point to different sections, or across multiple references, akin to Wikipedia-like footnotes.

Adobe PDF (Left) highlights specific passages from the PDF file, so the user can use the summary to go deeper into the file. Perplexity (Right) takes a similar visual approach, but in this case the citations related to multiple external sources.

The details differ a bit from platform to platform. shows the full url of the reference and no preview. Perplexity highlights the top references (users can also edit the primary references to regenerate the response). Because adobe only references a single source in its summary, it's actions all point to paragraphs within the document itself.

Citations help users go deeper into a topic, whether tracing through internal documentation, conducting discovery during research, or trying to verify certain information. They offer a mechanism to cover the mundane work of aggregation so users can focus on editing and understanding.

Citations are commonly found in summaries (e.g. timestamps on summarized video transcripts) and in synthesized responses (like Perplexity's multi-reference responses). AI Chatbots and Agents may also provide references to show what information they are referencing as they work through their tasks.

As AI aggregation is increasingly relied upon by consumers for discovery and research, citations provide a tie back to the original content, benefitting content creators with traffic to their site and benefitting consumers with footprints of information.

Details and variations

  • Citations are placed within the text. Text may be broken up into sections with references for each section or placed as inline footnotes
  • The references related to the citations should be listed nearby
  • Make citations interactive. For single-reference citations like PDFs, let citations take you directly to the relevant section
  • Let users add or remove references and then regenerate the response and the citations to give the user full control
  • Consider combining this pattern with controls upfront like filters to ensure that the cited materials are all a specific type (like academic articles) or from a specific source (like an internal knowledge repository)



See the source

Citations help users verify that the referenced material is relevant and valid. This way users don't cede control over the accuracy of their content to the AI's search engine.

Discovery tools

Citations can operate like a living bibliography, helping users dive into a topic and find relevant material to use in their search. Combined with filters, this allows AI to operate as an advanced, interactive search engine.

Potential risks

Use when:
The AI combines multiple resources to generate a single response, and different parts of the response relate to different sources.


Dovetail summarizes multiple highlights into topic overviews with citations to different conversations and highlight reels
Perplexity lists citations inline. Multiple references can be assigned to each point has a slightly different style to their citations
Adobe's inline assistant sits next to the document, and includes references to different places in the document it used to summarize the overall content and synthesize key points
Adobe's layout allows interactivity between the chat and the document. Clicking a citation takes you to the location in the PDF
Notion Q&A directions you to different documents in your workspace that it used to retrieve its response
Google has played with using inline citations, but has recently moved to a pattern of blocking its response into paragraphs with different references cited for each
Fin takes a similar approach to google and provides its citations as footnotes
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