By Gordon Rugg

So what is referencing anyway, and why should anyone care about it? What’s the difference between the Harvard system and the Vancouver system and the assorted other systems? How do you choose references that send out the right signal about you?

The answers to these and numerous other questions are in the article below. Short spoiler: If you do your referencing right, it gets you better marks, and you come across as an honest, capable individual who is highly employable and promotable. Why does it do this? Find out below…

What is referencing?

Referencing is that thing where there’s a number or a name and a date in a sentence, looking something like this.

85% of Internet references are fictitious [1].

Or like this:

85% of Internet references are fictitious (Abraham Lincoln, 1866).

It comes in various formats; for instance, the numbered format usually has the numbers in square brackets and the name-and-date format usually has the name and date in rounded parentheses. And yes, people really do pay attention to whether you mix up brackets and parentheses, for reasons that are covered below.

References versus bibliography

With references, every reference that you include in the text that you’re writing will also appear in the reference section at the end of the text; every reference in the reference section will appear somewhere in the text before the reference section.

This is different from a bibliography, which is essentially a section that lists relevant documents, without saying which documents are relevant to which parts of the text. (The full story is longer, but I’ve focused on this feature because it makes more sense of the purpose of references.)

This distinction matters for two main reasons. The first, sordidly practical, reason is that any idiot can copy-and-paste a vaguely relevant bibliography that they found somewhere on the Interwebs, to give the impression that they’ve done a huge amount of relevant work. This is lying, and most markers and employers take a dim view of lies, for understandable reasons.

The second reason is that references are actually practical tools of the trade for researchers. References are there so that the reader can check each of the key assertions that you’re making. This is extremely useful when it’s done right, and extremely irritating when it’s done wrong, or not done at all.

Suppose, for instance, that you’re trying to solve a problem, and you read an article which mentions in passing that there’s a simple, cheap solution to the problem. If that statement is followed by a reference, you can then track down the book or article in the reference, read it, and find out about that simple, cheap solution. If the statement isn’t followed by a reference, you’re going to have strong feelings about people who don’t reference properly.

This is a significant practical issue for bibliographies. They don’t have the detailed, easily traced links between assertions and source documents that are at the heart of references. This is why most universities focus on students learning how to use references, rather than bibliographies. There are some situations where bibliographies are more appropriate than references, but those situations are typically ones such as writing a textbook, which are unlikely to apply to students.

Different formats: The big picture

There are two main formats for references. One uses numbers in brackets, like this [42]. The other uses surnames and dates in parentheses, like this (Adams, 1978).

The numbers and brackets version has the advantage of being short. This is useful for situations where you need to keep documents short, or where you don’t want to interrupt the flow of a chain of reasoning. For most other situations, though, the numbers and brackets version is a pain. It’s a pain for the writer, because if you suddenly realise that you’ve missed a key reference early in the document, you then need to re-number everything that comes after it. Yes, there’s software that does the re-numbering for you, but do you really want to buy that software and spend time learning to use it?

It’s also a pain for the reader, because you need to flip to the end of the document every time you want to check a reference. An experienced reader can tell a huge amount from an author’s choice of references, and the number and brackets system makes this reading between the lines much more effort than the name plus date format.

Here’s an example of how that works.

85% of Internet references are fictitious (Katz & Friedman, 2016).

85% of Internet references are fictitious (Young, Gifted & Black, 2016).

85% of Internet references are fictitious (Abraham Lincoln, 1866).

85% of Internet references are fictitious [1].

The Katz & Friedman version looks plausible; the date is recent, and the names don’t ring any alarm bells. The Young, Gifted & Black version looks plausible in terms of date, but the authors’ names look suspicious; some checking online soon finds that there’s an Aretha Franklin classic song with that title, which strongly suggests that someone is having their little joke with that reference, but in a way that could easily be misinterpreted as a genuine reference. The Abraham Lincoln version is clearly a joke. The numbered version, however, doesn’t tell you anything; it’s just a number. If you want to assess its plausibility, you need to flip to the reference section at the end of the article. The novelty of flipping back and forward wears off pretty fast.

Different formats: Details

It would be nice if there was a single, universally agreed, sensible format for name and date referencing. Unfortunately, the world isn’t always nice and sensible. Just about every journal and publisher has their own house style for how references should be formatted. Some want the authors’ surnames in uppercase; others don’t. Some want the authors’ full names; others want surname plus initials. It’s a pain, but it’s deeply entrenched in The System, so you just have to deal with it.

Does it matter in practical terms? Yes, it does. Just about every self-respecting organisation pays a lot of attention to the details in anything it publishes, and if you depart from your organisation’s house style, someone will have to change your document into house style, which costs time and money. This applies just as much in industry as it does in academia.

The people who enforce house style pay scrupulous attention to detail, down to the level of whether you have a comma where you should have a semi-colon. Again, this applies just as much in industry as in academia. A major reason for this is that minor differences in punctuation can have major differences in meaning and in legal implications. Nobody wants to lose huge amounts of money or to end up in court because of a punctuation error, so if you’re planning to be in a role which involves writing documents that go outside the organisation, you need to be prepared for paying a lot of attention to this sort of detail.

Sending out the right signals via your choice of references

There are various signals that you’ll probably want to send out via your references. Here are some of the main ones.

You know a good range of sources of information. People on the street know about books, magazines, and the Internet. They don’t know about most of the standard academic tools of the trade, such as journals and conference proceedings, or about the grey literature, such as technical reports. Even if you only include one reference to a journal article and one reference to a set of conference proceedings, that’s still enough to show the reader that you know about those sources of information.

You know which sources of information to use for which purposes. Different sources of information are good for different purposes. For example, conference proceedings are useful for recent research findings that have gone through peer review; the Internet can be useful for up-to-date technical information. If you’re using a range of sources of information, and using them appropriately, then that shows that you know how to use the tools of your trade.

You’ve done your background reading properly. Your literature review is where you show that you’ve checked what’s been tried before, and that you’re not re-inventing the wheel out of ignorance. You need to show that you’ve read the key previous publications about the problem that you’re tackling; you do that by referencing them. You also need to show wherever possible that you’ve actually read them, rather than reading someone else’s description of them. Other people’s descriptions are often weirdly, wonderfully different from what the original document actually said. This means that your references will need to range from very recent ones (to show that you know what’s happening now) back to the original ones where a problem was first described (to show that you’ve traced the literature on the problem back to the start).

You’re careful about attention to detail. Attention to detail is viewed as important in most fields. If your references are neatly and accurately laid out, this implies that you’ll also be paying attention to detail in other areas.

You’re honest. Honesty is viewed as extremely important almost everywhere. This is one of the signals that you send out as a side-effect of being attentive to detail. It’s horribly tempting to copy and paste the reference for an article that you’ve read into your reference section. The problem with this approach is that the copy-and-paste section will almost certainly be in a different format from the other references, so it will stick out like a sore thumb to a cynical reader (such as the lecturer marking your coursework, if you’re a student). Will they give you the benefit of the doubt? If you believe that, you might want to buy some gold bricks that I’ve acquired completely honestly… When a reader sees different formats within your references, they’ll assume that you’re at least slovenly, and at worst dishonest, and they’ll start looking harder at the other things you’ve written. So, be attentive to detail, and slog through the reformatting. It does make a difference.

You’re discerning. Sometimes you have to cite an article from a low-credibility source because it’s all that you’ve got, or because you want to criticise it. For instance, you might need to discuss technical problems with an AE-35 Unit, which isn’t the sort of thing that you’ll find in journals, but which you might find in an online forum. In such cases, you can use a double-pronged strategy. One prong is to make sure you have some high-credibility references for other points that you make, so show the reader that you know about journal articles, etc. The other prong is to use phrasing which makes it clear to the reader that you’re using the low-credibility source because there’s nothing better available, and that you’re treating it with a healthy dose of scepticism; for instance, “A post in an online forum claims that…” where the word “claims” makes it clear that you’re treating that post with caution.

Nuts and bolts

How do you actually format references? Fortunately, there are lots of resources available, both online and in hard copy documents, that will guide you through referencing systems in as much detail as you could possibly desire. For the Harvard system, which is one of the most widely used, there are numerous guides which show you how to reference everything from books to journal articles to anonymous online forum postings. If you have trouble understanding anything, librarians and lecturers are usually very supportive, because students who want to get their referencing right are rare and much-valued.

On which encouraging note, I’ll end.




1 thought on “Referencing

  1. Gordon

    A very interesting and useful summary. If I may I will use this with my students as an accessible guide.

    I would raise a single issue however. As one who was very much alive when the song Young, Gifted and Black was written and first performed I feel I should point out that it was first performed by Nina Simone. The melody was also composed by Nina Simone I believe.

    I do understand that more recently it was covered by Aretha Franklin and although you did not actually indicate that the Aretha Franklin was the originator of the song, I feel this misunderstanding could easily arise.

    As a big Nina Simone fan, in the context of a blogpost on referencing, I felt I just had to chip in. I believe the recorded version by Aretha Franklin did in fact credit Nina Simone which fascinatingly is another example of referencing.

    My comment is of course intended to be light hearted, in the same spirit as the post.


Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter 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.