The big deal around referencing…that isn’t all that big actually!


Now one of the biggest riddles when you enter higher education is the mystery of referencing. What is it for and why is it needed? And most importantly how does it work in practice?

Well the most important thing to say upfront is that referencing is key to producing successful academic work. So you better start learning how to do it right as soon as possible. I myself struggled with this then unknown world of Harvard, APA, ASA, etc. just to name a few options you could use, and had to find my way through this jungle of in-text and bibliography referencing options as well. The thing about referencing styles is that they can seem VERY similar but still have tiny differences. The good news is, that you don’t have to learn them all and often (especially as an undergrad) what exact style to use is left for you to decide, as long as you use your chosen style correctly and coherently. The one I started with and mainly stuck to until today is the well known Harvard style of referencing. So in order to answer the last but most important question of how to reference and for those who are only very superficially interested in finding out quickly how to do it, go to a website that shows you every step of how to reference from all sorts of different sources. A fantastic website that explains to you in detail how to use Harvard correctly is available from the Anglia Ruskin University Library website. But before you go off to look there, bear with me a little longer as such websites may not help you become clearer when to use what kind of reference.

So, the first basic thing you should know about referencing is that they are there to back up any claim you make in your written academic work, firstly to show you have done your homework and have read widely and secondly to ensure that you are not plagiarizing. Though coming from a social sciences background, I am pretty sure that this applies to all academic disciplines out there. The second bit may be slightly confusing and scary for many, especially those who are not coming from a Western country, as rules and expectations of what constitutes plagiarism greatly vary from culture to culture (for those who are interested see a great article by Introna and Hayes (2011) on plagiarism detection software and Greek students in the UK HE system). But even more important is it then for these students to quickly get a hang of how to do it properly.

There is a difference between in-text references and the bibliography. In-text references are the things you know from or about other people that you write about in your actual essay/paper/etc. The Introna & Hayes paper I refer to above is an example of such an in-text reference. Here are two things to look out for: First of all, when using Harvard or similar you always need the authors’ last names and the year of publication. If it is two authors connect them with an ‘and’ as demonstrated above, if you have three authors you can start using et al. instead of citing all authors’ last names. This would look like this: (Author 1 et al., year). So basically, you only use the first author’s last name and stick an ‘et al.’ in as a place holder for the remaining authors’ names. Some only start to do this after it is more than 3 authors, some write the ‘et al.’ in italics, others don’t. I usually don’t. Some require you to spell out each author with last name the first time you cite them in a paper and use et al. thereafter. The thing here is that there is lots of flexibility, but again only as long as you do it COHERENTLY throughout your paper.

Secondly going back to the Introna and Hayes example above there is another possible point for confusion here. There are four types of in-text references each of which require a slightly different approach.

  1. Direct reference to authors using indirect quote:

Since I refer to them directly in my above example, I only wrote the year of publication in brackets. So basically, as soon as you say author XX said you do it as follows: Author XX said (year) and then you go on to cite indirectly by paraphrasing what they have said. If it is more than two authors you can go back to using “Author XX et al. said” or sometimes people also write “Author XX and colleagues.” This is a matter of taste and you should check with papers in your discipline what is more common.

  1. Direct reference to authors using direct quotes:

This is very similar to the above except for that you are directly copying a sentence or more from their work. Both approaches are totally fine and usually you will find a mix of both direct and indirect quotes in academic papers. A little thing to remember though is that if you use a direct quote you HAVE TO provide the exact page number, meaning that Author XX said (year) will change to Author XX said (year: page) or alternatively Author XX said (year, page). Again, there is flexibility here how to do it but do it and do it coherently.

  1. Indirect reference to author using indirect quote:

Here you just paraphrase what the author(s) said and reference at the end of the sentence (but prior to the punctuation mark as the reference belongs to the sentence!) putting both author(s) and year in brackets like so (Author XX, year). Same rules for ‘et al.’ apply.

  1. Indirect reference to author using direct quote:

Here it is exactly the same as above just that you don’t paraphrase but use the direct words of the authors’ you are citing and putting them in quotation marks like so. “…” (AuthorXX, year: page). As you notice, you need the exact page number again. Again same rules apply for ‘et al.’.

Now you already know a lot about in-text referencing and this is probably the most important thing to get right early on, as this is where the plagiarism detection software will pick up whether you have copied stuff without referencing properly or whether all the relevant references are there. Make sure that sufficient evidence is there to back up your claims and check with journal articles in your field to get a feel for how many references per paragraph are common.

The bibliography (or reference list) is also very important and shouldn’t be forgotten. I have myself felt the frustration on many occasions when you think you found a good reference by reading a text and then it is not there in the bibliography. So make sure you are not causing this kind of frustration to others! Not much can be said about reference lists other than choose your style, follow it (there is an abundance of websites out there explaining you how to do it, most likely also on your university’s library website) and put references in alphabetical order!!! You wouldn’t believe how many essays I have already marked in my still extremely short research career, that have not done this. And to be honest, in my first year as an undergrad I did not, until I got feedback from my first essay where points had gotten deducted for this, I then thought, minor issue. Back then I was furious that points would get deducted for such a little thing. But really, it can be very annoying if you are looking for a reference and then the reference list is not in alphabetical order. True, if it is an electronic document, a simple search will do, if it is on paper it won’t. And even if it is digital, still do it! It is just a standard thing to do.

A final point to add about referencing is that the question how many is enough cannot be answered generically. Speak to your course teachers; they will give you an idea of what is expected.

Last but not least, there is one more thing to tell. There is digital help out there in form of citation management software like Endnote, Mendeley or Zotero. These tools can be very helpful if you have to write large documents and I will dedicate another blog post to these in the future. Why do I only mention them now? I guess because I am a bit old-fashioned and I think it is better to first learn how to do it yourself and then you can get some digital support. The reason for this is that these tools can mess up and then you end up with a flawed reference list without noticing and if worse comes worst, with all your references gone and you don’t know how to get them back

Now, I would say you are well equipped to get an essay written with correct referencing. It is really not that big of a deal anymore, once you get the hang of it.


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