How to use references in academic writing

Referencing is often one of the most confusing aspects of academic writing, especially if English isn’t your first language. Referencing correctly is vital. It shows that you haven’t plagiarised (an offence for which you can be asked to resit your course!) and if you don’t reference correctly, you will probably lose marks on an assignment or can have papers rejected by journals. Here are some tips to help you get it right!

1 - There is no “correct” way to reference. There are multiple different styles, e.g. Harvard, Chicago, etc. Even within each style, e.g. Harvard, there may be variations. So the best way to check if you are referencing correctly is get hold of your departmental guidelines or guidelines for the journal you want to publish in, and follow them exactly. That means every comma, capital letter etc. is exactly the same as the guidelines tell you!

2 - Be exact. Full stops matter. Commas matter. Dates matter. If you miss a comma, some tutors might drop your mark!

3 - Use technology to help you (but be careful…): You can download software that does your referencing for you. Mendeley and EndNote are some examples of programmes that do this, and they can make life a lot easier. Another route is to use the “cite” option on Google Scholar, and copy and paste the reference. However, be careful: you need to check each of your references to make sure they conform to your style guidelines.

How to user references in academic writing

4- Use a range of reporting verbs and citation styles. When reporting what someone has said, use different expressions. The following examples use a Harvard referencing style:

Smith (2016) reported that plagiarism is a significant problem in universities in the UK.

Smith (2016) noted that plagiarism is a significant problem in universities in the UK.

“Plagiarism has become more and more problematic in UK universities” (Smith 2016, p. 216).

According to Smith (2016), plagiarism is a significant problem in universities in the UK.

Plagiarism is a significant problem in universities in the UK (Smith 2016).

Notice that direct quotes (example iii) need a page number and quotation marks, and that the full top (period) goes outside of the brackets.

For some examples of different reporting verbs (e.g. said, noted, reported), see here:

5 - Don’t copy the author’s words (unless you quote). Ever. You need to fully paraphrase (use your own words). If you use the author’s exact words, you need to use a quotation (see above). Many universities and journals now use software to check this.

6 - Don’t try to use your memory! No-one can remember how to cite and reference correctly, especially for more complex items like book chapters or interviews – always refer back to your style guidelines, and if you get stuck, have a look at some other resources for help:

7- Have your work checked. Inconsistent referencing is something that a proofreader will be able to spot. At mrproofread, all our proofreaders and editors will be able to point this out to you so that you can change it before you submit your work.

Good luck!


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