For many students, one of the most difficult elements of transitioning from secondary/high school to university is learning how to reference. Unless you’ve taken the IB, chances are, you may not have been taught how to reference until you start university. This is a travesty in itself! Referencing is a fundamental skill necessary to write academic papers, and it really should be taught in schools before it is thrust upon you at degree level. And even at degree level, students are often expected to learn how to reference on their own with little guidance from their lecturers and tutors.

This post is intended for people who have not yet had to encompass referencing into their academic work, and for those who are struggling to do so. And for those curious readers who have no idea what referencing is — I hope this will be an insightful introduction to the expansive world of referencing.

There are many referencing systems used within and across different disciplines within academia. In this post, I will cover the basics of how to reference, including all the necessary terminology you will need to understand. In my next post, I will introduce four of the most popular of these systems, namely: Harvard, APA, MLA AND MHRA.

What is referencing?

Referencing is the formatting system we use to cite sources of information we have used within written pieces of work. It allows us to avoid plagiarising ideas, narratives and analyses we have used within our own work from other sources by acknowledging them through references. Referencing also allows the reader to trace ideas cited or paraphrased within written work back to their original sources in order to verify the validity of your arguments. Referencing is an important element to producing high quality academic work. Through referencing the works and arguments of established theorists within your subject area, you can both add weight to your own arguments and prove that you have read widely as part of your research process.

Remember: it is important to reference all quotes, paraphrases and sources you have used in your written work to avoid plagiarism. Make sure you keep a note of all sources you use while you are researching and writing your work.

The basics

The basics of how you reference depends heavily on the referencing system you need to use. This usually depends on your subject, but remember to check with your department, just in case. The first thing to know about referencing, is the difference between a reference and a citation – something many students find confusing.

Citations are essentially an abbreviated version of your references that provide information about the sources used when quoting or paraphrasing in your work. Citations that appear next to a quote or paraphrase are called in-text citations. Again, depending on the reference system you are using, you may or may not need to include in-text citations.

For author-date referencing systems like the Harvard style, references usually appear as a list at the end of a written piece of work separate from your bibliography. This reference list gives the full details of each source cited within your work. Author-date referencing systems do not usually, however, use footnotes and endnotes, which I will explain next.

Footnotes and endnotes are alternative citation systems to in-text citations. In non-author-date systems, it is common to use EITHER footnotes OR endnotes rather than in-text citations. Footnotes are citations that appear at the bottom of each page, while endnotes appear at the end of a written piece of work. To link a quote or paraphrase to a foot/endnote, a chronological series of small numbers will appear next to the text where you want to add a citation. For instance, when making your first foot/endnote in your written work, a small ‘1’ will appear next to your quote or paraphrased sentence. Simultaneously, a foot/endnote will also appear with a small ‘1’ (where you then write the details of the source used), so that the reader can link the corresponding numbers.

Remember to reference:

Direct quotations – when you write a copy of another author’s material word-for-word.

Paraphrases – when you take the idea of another author, but write it in your own words.


This all may sound rather complicated, but in the next post on referencing, I will run through each of the main referencing systems, and you’ll see how each of these basic elements are used.






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