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Referencing in Essays

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 3 Oct 2010 | comments*Discuss
Referencing Bibliography Citation Essay

Whether you're writing an academic essay or an important literary article, proper referencing can be vital to success. Referencing proves that you've really done your research and know what you're talking about. It also makes it easier for a marker or editor to be sure you're not plagiarising the work of others. So how should you go about it?

When to Reference

We are all a product of the many ideas we encounter during our lifetimes, even if we then remould those ideas in our own unique ways. Most people pick up some ideas from books and other sources and then remember the ideas but forget the sources, especially if they encountered them a long time ago. With this in mind, how can you make sure you always reference other people's ideas appropriately?

The important thing, when referencing, is simply to attribute all those ideas you can clearly identify as belonging to someone else (even if that someone is anonymous). This means not only direct quotations but also specific theories or suggestions. If you paraphrase what somebody else has said, you must still give them credit. If you're not sure don't mention it, it's usually best to be on the safe side.

Systems of Referencing

There are many different systems used for referencing. Sometimes you'll be asked to use a particular one, but often it will be up to you to choose the one most appropriate to the particular piece of work you're doing. In this case it's usually best to choose a well known referencing system such as those below.

  • Harvard Style - This system uses in-text referencing. Parentheses are inserted into the text, containing the name of the author, the year of publication and the page number; this refers to a bibliography at the end of the essay, containing more complete information. This system can be bulky and is occasionally confusing if you're using a lot of parentheses for other purposes.
  • Number Referencing - This system involves inserting a number in the text (usually in a smaller typeface) and providing a list of numbers at the end, each one with a note of the author, publication and page number being referenced. It's simple to use but can easily result in errors if you're putting together your essay in a non linear order.
Unusual ReferencesNo matter what system you use, you are likely to run into situations where you're trying to reference something that falls outside its traditional rules. This is increasingly common in the modern age, as web pages, ebooks and even podcasts become increasingly relevant academically. You may also encounter material you want to quote or paraphrase on television, in email, or simply in the course of conversation.

When this happens, you should stick to the basic rule of the system you're using but you shouldn't be afraid to adapt it to your needs. You priorities should be to name the individual communicator (though references listed as 'Anonymous' can be acceptable in some circumstances, such as with older texts), to list the publication (where it exists - use a URL in the case of an untitled web page) and to list the date of publication (the date of last updating is acceptable for online sources).


A bibliography is your opportunity to provide the most thorough information available and make sure that none of your references can be misidentified. If you're using the numbers system, keep your bibliography in linear order; otherwise, use chronological order by publication (even if it means that you end up quoting somebody as saying something after they were dead).

No serious essay is complete without a bibliography. Checking the length of your reference list here can give you a good idea of whether or not you've been thorough enough with your research. Unless otherwise advised, make sure your bibliography starts on a fresh page, and start each individual entry on a fresh line, keeping it as clear as possible. Careful referencing can require quite a bit of effort, but it will create a much more impressive essay.

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