If you have ever had to write an academic essay, the chances are that you have had to use some kind of referencing system. These show where your information came from – most importantly so that you avoid being penalised for plagiarism.

Different institutions use different systems, and within each system are different specifications. One might use a reference list at the end of the text, which includes only the sources used within the essay or thesis, whilst another might use a bibliography, which includes all sources consulted during research. Then there is the case of footnotes versus endnotes, as well as the in-text reference.

Referencing can be a real headache, and many will dismiss it as a formatting formality only to be faced with it at the last minute – resulting in a blind panic over the placement of a comma, what needs to be in italics, if one should use pp or p, or whether the place of publication is required.

When embarking on your research, it is vital to firstly record all sources that you use – including page numbers – in order to avoid that worry at the end. However, you should also ensure that you are familiar with which system you are expected to use. Aside from presenting it correctly, this will also help you to ensure that you make a note of the exact information that you need.

What are the main systems?

Of course there are many different systems – and within each there are individual variations, and therefore it is vital that you check with your institution first. That said, there are five main guides that the majority will use:

  • Harvard – a generic term for the author-date referencing system, and used by many institutions
  • APA – the American Psychology Association, used mostly (but not exclusively) in social and behavioural science
  • MLA – Modern Languages Association for use in humanities
  • Chicago – Chicago Manual of Style, which recommends two ways of citing sources: parenthetical author-date citations (normally in science) and footnotes and a bibliography (normally in humanities)
  • IEEE – Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and normally used in technical fields.

There are also a number of systems that are associated with a specific subject or discipline, a few examples include:

  • Vancouver – similar to IEEE
  • MHRA – footnote and bibliography system by Modern Humanities Research Association
  • ASA – similar to APA and often used in sociology research
  • AMA – American Medical Association and normally in medical research papers.
  • OSCOLA – one of the most common systems for legal texts in the UK
  • The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation and ALWD Citation Manual – one of the most common for legal texts in the USA.

I understand the pain of the academic reference. I spent many years in academia and remember the hours spent collating my bibliographies and footnotes, only to be constantly infuriated when my supervisors spotted a missing full stop. Now I am on the other side, and I regularly proofread and edit many academic texts, and 95% of the time I have to allocate a nice chunk of my editing time to the dreaded reference list. My advice is to get hold of a copy of whichever system you are expected to use ahead of time, familiarise yourself with the format, and make a list of the information that you must include. This will make your life much easier at deadline time…. one less thing to worry about when you are already facing printer malfunctions and Microsoft Word being anything but cooperative…

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