Referencing – the word that brings looks of horror and doom to many a student. Don’t worry though, this extremely important part of good academic practice becomes second nature eventually, I promise. When you are just starting out, I know it can feel overwhelming. Just remember, we have all been there.

In academia, it is not enough to just demonstrate your knowledge, reading and research in your writing – you have to show where it has come from. Whenever you make a statement or include information or a quote you should reference the source and give credit for the work of others and their contribution to your text. Whilst this can feel like a frustrating process (even once you have the hang of it), is really is an important skill for academic life.

The key to stress-free writing and referencing is to keep good records of what you are reading. Keep a diary and/or record what you have read and where you can find it (even if you think you will never need it again). Make notes on what the source had to say, what was important and what was good or bad about it. Identify keywords that are relevant to your work and then link your reading to them. Take advantage of the wider reading that the author(s) themselves have done and identify from their citations and references any sources that you need to follow up on and read too. Make this process a habit and referencing will be easy because you will have all the information you need to hand.


So what does referencing do?

References make your writing more persuasive and help you show off your knowledge. They provide evidence for your ideas, build your credibility in the field and allow others to verify your work and also to expand upon it. Good referencing makes comparing and contrasting evidence in your text easy. It shows that you are not just making things up and that you are not stealing or plagiarising someone else’s ideas.


How does referencing work?

Depending on your academic level, the type of document you are writing and who you are submitting your work to, there are several different ways to reference your work. You may be asked to provide a bibliography; to provide in-text citations and then a final reference list; or to provide footnotes with or without full references in. All of that is before you even get to how those references and citations should be formatted – although that at least follows a formula. It is no wonder it can all feel so complicated.

Luckily, unless you are going to become an editor or some other cross-subject specialist, you will likely only have to learn certain styles for your academic field of interest. Over the next few blog posts, I will look in more detail at five common referencing styles:


  • MLA (Modern Language Association): an author-page referencing style that is generally used in the arts and humanities.
  • APA (American Psychological Association): an author-date referencing style and one of the most widely used methods, from psychology to social sciences.
  • Harvard: a referencing style that is very similar to APA referencing, but more commonly used in the UK and Australia.
  • Chicago/CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style): a footnote or author-date referencing style that is most widely used for history and economics.
  • Vancouver: an author-number referencing style that is most commonly used in medical and scientific papers.


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Referencing – why is it so important?