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Referencing explained

Making sure your essays and other work are properly referenced is essential at university. But what does it mean and how do you do it right?

What is a reference?

A reference – sometimes called a citation - is a note which shows the sources you have used when writing an essay or other piece of academic work. These sources could be books, journals or websites, or sometimes TV programmes or films. If you have quoted directly or used ideas found in any source, then you must reference it properly, otherwise you could be accused of plagiarism.

NB. This kind of reference is completely different from the ‘references’ you might need for a job application or your UCAS form, which are the contact details of someone like a teacher or employer.

How to make a reference

There are two main ways of listing your references – a numeric system (sometimes called endnotes or footnotes) and in-text (sometimes called the Harvard system). Check with your university department which one they want you to use, since doing your references incorrectly will lose you marks.

Most students add their references after they’ve written the rest of the essay, which is the easiest way to do it, but make sure you note down the details for all the sources you use as you go along.

Numeric system

In the numeric system you put a number next to the words you want to reference. You then put all the details of your reference in a note at either the bottom of the page (a footnote) or at the end of the essay (an endnote). You won’t have to use both footnotes and endnotes, so you need to know which your tutor expects.

Say, for example, you’d found some research in a book called Why Referencing Is Important written by Mark Taylor and Paul Clarke that you use in an essay.  You might write the following sentence:

Research has shown that 50% of students do not understand how to write a reference.

To reference this, you would first put a number next to the sentence, like this:

Research has shown that 50% of students do not understand how to write a reference. (1)

The number refers to the endnote or footnote, where you will give the author, title and other details of the research. These details need to be written in a specific style and order, and are slightly different depending on whether you’re referring a book, journal, website, or something that was broadcast. See how to list your references below.

If you’re using endnotes, you need to number every reference in the essay in order and list all the notes at the back. So, if you have 27 references in total you will number them (1) through to (27) and list all the notes at the back.

If you’re using footnotes, you need to number the references on each individual page and list the details at the bottom of that page. So if you have four references on one page and three on another, you would number them (1) to (4) on the first page, and then (1) to (3) on the next, listing the notes at the bottom of the relevant page.

In-text system

In the in-text system, you put the author and the date of the research in brackets next to the sentence, instead of a number. For example:

Research has shown that 50% of students do not understand how to write a reference. (Taylor, M & Clarke, P. 2011)

You would then list all the details in a list of references at the end of the essay. However, rather than write them out in the order you used them, as with footnotes and endnotes, you would list them alphabetically by author. The actual format in which you write your list of references is normally the same as the numeric system. See how to list your references below.

How to list your references

The information you need and the order you put it in for your list of references depends on what type of source it is.

Books are one of the most common sources, and you would need to include the information below in your note in your list of references.

You will be able to find most of these details in the publishing history at the front of the book. 

  • Author(s). This should be written as the author’s surname in full, followed by their initials e.g Taylor, M. If a book has more than one author, write their names in the order they are written on the book, not alphabetically e.g Taylor, M & Clarke, P
  • Year of publication.
  • Title.
  • Publisher. This is the name of the company that published the book, and where they are based.
  • Page numbers. These are the pages in the book where the research you’re referencing is discussed.

In the numeric system, your footnote or endnote would look like this:

(1)   Taylor, M. & Clarke, P. (2011) Why Referencing Is Important London: Bright Knowledge 99-101

In the in-text system, your reference would look like this:

Taylor, M. & Clarke, P. (2011) Why Referencing Is Important London: Bright Knowledge 99-101

Find examples of how to reference other sources like academic journals and websites here.

NB Your university might have a slightly different way of setting out your references (some prefer bold type to italics for titles for instance) than the examples above. Ask if they have a guide you can use so you know you’re setting them out correctly.

What’s the difference between a bibliography and a list of references?

You may also have to write a bibliography as well as a list of references.

A list of references is the exact details of all the sources you have quoted directly, or specifically mentioned in your essay, and must be written out according to either the numeric system or the in-text system.

A bibliography is a list of all the books, journals and other materials you used when researching your essay, even if you don’t quote from them or mention them specifically. If you do have to write a bibliography, it will go at the very back of the essay after your list of references. You will need to put most of the same details such as author, title, publishers and date that you would in a list of references into a bibliography, but can normally leave out specific page numbers. Ask your tutor if you’re unsure about this.

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