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Referencing made easy

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Reference, citation, source, bibliography: all these terms can strike fear into the heart of students. Correct referencing is essential in academic writing and research, not only to guard against plagiarism but to acknowledge your sources, demonstrate your knowledge about a topic, give your argument authority, and enable your readers to find out more. Let’s clear up some confusion over what it is and how to do it, with these top tips and tools to make referencing assignments easy.

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Tip #1: Understand what referencing is…

Referencing is a way of acknowledging other people’s work. It's also a way of getting the grades you should be getting: not referencing will lose you marks or even get you in trouble for claiming other people’s work as your own. Good referencing shows you’ve done the reading and know the key ideas you should refer to.

When we present evidence from our reading or research we must reference it. Referencing is a broad term – here is Alex Osmond's definition, from Academic Writing and Grammar for Students:

"Referencing is a system used to make clear to the reader when you are bringing ideas, words, quotes, illustrations, concepts or anything from other sources into your own assignments."

There are many referencing systems or styles, so, whether you mention a radio interview, a computer game or a journal article, you’ll have to reference these sources in a certain way.

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Tip #2: …and what referencing isn’t!

Did you know that there’s a difference between a references section and a bibliography?

A bibliography is all the references you have consulted when researching your assignment – whether or not they have been referred to in the text of your assignment. A references section should only contain those references actually cited in the text. Most assignments will only require you to list the references you cited in the text.

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Tip #3: Get familiar with different referencing styles

There is a wide range of referencing systems and it's important to know which to use. These can range from subject to subject, institution to institution, tutor to tutor, so make sure you know which system you’re using for that particular assignment (don't be afraid to ask!).

In this free chapter, Alex Osmond dives a bit deeper into the topic and helps you get to grips with the referencing styles you'll come across most often. 


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Tip #4: How to reference online sources

The convention for listing online sources is different in different referencing styles, with some – like Harvard – requiring a notation that the source was found online, and others allowing the citation of a URL or DOI (Digital Object Identifier) to suffice.

Although most word-processing software automatically creates hyperlinks for URLs, you should always check that your hyperlinks are live and accurate (that is, link to the right place). 

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Tip #5: Steer clear of plagiarism

In this super quick video, Thomas Lancaster, author of Avoid Plagiarism, reminds you what plagiarism is, and how it happens and shares his top tip to avoid it – even if it's accidental.

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Tip #6: Use digital tools to help with referencing

How do you even begin to organise all your study and research materials? Of course, you can keep files in a folder but this is a fairly static reference management technique. Dedicated reference management services such as Zotero and Mendeley, on the other hand, allow you to:

  • Collect and store PDFs
  • Tag, annotate, highlight, and take notes on articles 
  • Search your collection 
  • Create bibliographies and reference lists 
  • Generally organise your reading materials.

If you sync your collection across your devices you can build repositories of journal articles, websites, and useful references that you can access anywhere. Finally, you can share your collection if you wish and you can search others’ collections for materials related to your interests and projects.

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