How do people track down the origin of an idea?!

Is it really just reading, finding references, and more reading until the line ends? I could see that in academic research where you’ll have an obvious path of citations to follow, but not in other contexts. I struggle to understand how people can be confident in knowing that they’ve found an original source. How are you sure it’s not just a dead end from a branch that split long ago and there are even earlier references? Do you just put something out there once you’ve reached a certain confidence level and then wait to be corrected by someone else doing their own research (a variation of Cunningham’s Law)?

Related to the ideas of Research Debt, patents getting credit, parallel discoveries.


On page 133 of How to Take Smart Notes, it talks about the idea of “brainstorming” and how it was described in 1919 by Alex Osborn and more broadly introduced in 1958 in the book “Brainstorming: The Dynamic New Way to Create Successful Ideas” from Charles Hutchinson Clark.

Something I appreciate about this book and those by Cal Newport are the vast amounts of cross references and quotes to support their thinking, but maintaining all of these and pulling them together seems like a huge task.