Referencing for academic writing

24 Jun

It’s dissertation season, in the UK at least, and so I thought I’d talk a little bit about some topics that are important to students, whether you’re doing your undergraduate dissertation or a postgraduate Master’s dissertation or PhD.  I’ll cover referencing this time, and then something on planning, structuring and handy hints. If you’ve been through the process and have any hints and tips to share, do get in touch so I can weave them together into a useful document.

So: referencing.  We reference (or cite) what we’ve read when writing an essay or thesis in order to avoid plagiarism and demonstrate that we’ve read around the subject and know what we’re talking about.  There are two aspects to referencing:

  • recording what you’ve read and referred to
  • referring to it appropriately in the text and bibliography of your dissertation

Recording what you’ve read

Putting together your references and bibliography is so much simpler if you keep a note of what you’ve read and consulted as you go along.  In the days of my Library and Information Studies post-grad, it was all done on card index cards.  Now there are lots of different options, including software like EndNote and Reference Manager.  For my research project, I’m just keeping a list on a spreadsheet in Excel.

The information you need to note:

  • Author’s full name.  Editor(s) if appropriate
  • For books: full title of the book.  Full publisher information for the book (you can find this on the bottom of the title page, or the back of the title page), including publisher name, location and date published
  • For chapters in books: Full title of the chapter and a full citation for the book, too (see above)
  • For articles in journals: Full title of the article.  Full title of the journal.  Page numbers for the article
  • For everything: page numbers for any direct quotations or sections you are going to refer to heavily
  • For websites: full URL and date you accessed the web page

Obviously, this is easy to do at the time; just note down the details and off you go.  Much, much harder to reconstruct after the event.

Referring to what you’ve read / citing

Now we’re talking about how you refer to what you’ve read and quoted in the text of the document you’re writing. The most important thing to do here is …


This is hugely important.  Get it right first time, and you’ll pop all the references in easily.  Get it wrong, or don’t bother to check, and you’ll be going through and through the thing, fiddling around with the references, when you should be spending your time refining your arguments and putting your thoughts across.  Or you’ll be paying someone like me £x an hour to sort it out for you!

Referencing systems include Harvard Referencing, APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association).  They all differ in how they ask you to present the information you collected above within your text.

For example, you could be expected to add a footnote number to each quotation in the text, with either a full bibliographical citation in the footnote section or a shortened reference there and a full bibliographical citation in the bibliography.  Or you could be expected to put Smith (2001) in the text and supply a full reference in the bibliography.  Or you might be putting a number in the text, referring to a numbered list in the bibliography.

A full bibliographical citation looks something like this:

Smith, J.L. (2001) The correct way to do referencing.  Birmingham: Libro Publications.

Jones, A.B. (2001) “Me and my essay”, in Smith, J.L. The correct way to do referencing.  Birmingham: Libro Publications.

Robinson, X. (2009) The different forms of citation.  American Journal of Footnotes 33 (1): 202-204.

But it doesn’t always, and the citation method does affect how this looks.

Always, though: ALWAYS, the bibliography is in alphabetical order by author’s surname.  It can take ages to sort this out if it isn’t!

How to conform to each referencing system?  That’s a long, long post that no one would want to read! Your academic institution should provide you with links to reference materials about their preferred system, and, if not, the dreaded Wikipedia does do a good summary of most of the common ones.

Good luck – and happy referencing!


Tags: , , , ,

22 responses to “Referencing for academic writing

  1. Gill Rose

    June 24, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    How about a post on the difference between a Reference List and a Bibliography? A common mistake for my students.


  2. Liz at Libro

    June 24, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Feel free to write something about that here in these comments if you’d like, to keep this bit all together!


  3. Arthur

    June 24, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Punctuation is one of the most common errors made in references. In psychology, it would be

    Robinson, X. (2009). The different forms of citation. American Journal of Footnotes, 33, 202-204.

    Note the extra dot behind the year. Also, journal name and volume are often italic, but the most important tip is this. If you are going to submit to a paper, check their guidelines.


    • Liz at Libro

      June 24, 2011 at 3:12 pm

      Indeed – all are different but you’re right – check the journal guidelines if you’re submitting a paper, as well as your institution’s guidelines if you’re submitting a dissertation or PhD. And if you’re using a proof-reader, do tell them what you’re using, as it’s much easier to make sure they conform if you do!!


  4. Transcription Services US

    December 17, 2011 at 7:07 am

    Good Information.

    Thanks for sharing these.


  5. Sandy Millin

    October 21, 2012 at 8:15 am

    Hi Liz,
    People on my course have been asking me whether you have a post about using the automatic referencing function in Word? I’ve never used it. I’ve had a quick look and don’t think ou have a post about it yet. Maybe you could add it to your list?


    • Liz at Libro

      October 21, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      Goodness, I haven’t used it either, but I can certainly have a look and see what I can write up on it. Nice that people have been asking!


      • Arthur

        October 23, 2012 at 2:52 pm

        Haven’t used that either – For my Ph.D. dissertation I used Papers 2 on Mac in combination with LaTeX. Now I mainly use Papers 2 and Scrivener, which I then compile to Word- or Pages-format.


  6. Liz at Libro

    October 23, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks, Arthur, I will have a look at it as more than one person has asked me …


  7. Jon A.

    June 16, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Of course, if you’re based at a University or College, you can ask your library, particularly your Subject Librarian (there should be one) for advice on using referencing software, particularly Endnote, Reference Manager (and RefWorks). Library web pages often have guides to referencing styles too, with useful examples.
    That’s enough library promotion. Really useful post again, Liz, and I keep your business card and web details to pass on to students 🙂


    • Liz at Libro

      June 16, 2013 at 9:07 am

      Indeed – and I’m always happy to promote library services, of course!



I love hearing from my readers - do please leave a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: