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A Guide to Academic Referencing

Many A-level students develop good essay writing skills but don’t tend to know about academic referencing. When young undergraduates begin their courses in higher education, it can cause something of a problem. During the first term of study, the necessary skill is usually rapidly acquired but it is better to have a good understanding of the different methods of academic referencing, in advance. This, it should be pointed out, is equally as true for science and arts based students.

Even for the general reader of academic works, understanding the referencing system used can be informative. For example, many academic works, including history books aimed at the general reader, will include references of other works. They may also cite the use of quotations, particularly when the source is an original source. For many years in the UK, a system of end notes and foot notes was used. A small number appears after the relevant snippet of information. This number corresponds to a note at the bottom of the page, a foot note, or at the end of the work, a so-called end note. Although this system is still in use by publishers for general works – principally because it does not interrupt the readers’ flow that much – it is now regarded as outdated by many academic institutions. However, the Oxford system of referencing, which relies exclusively on numbered footnotes, is still used in many places of education around the world.

As such, all undergraduate students should at least be familiar with the commonest referencing systems now in use. Most institutions of higher education will opt for one form of referencing, although this can vary from faculty to faculty. You would be unlucky to have two tutors who demanded that you make your referencing using two different systems. Having said that, it is not difficult to learn more than one method.

When you are being assessed in writing, perhaps because of an essay you have handed in to a tutor, it is important that you demonstrate what you have read. This means that anything you cite or assert should be appropriately referenced so that it cannot be misconstrued as plagiarism. It is important that you cite the source of any direct or indirect quotation. For example, “According to Marx, the workers hold the power in modern economies,” is an indirect quotation that you need to reference. Equally the sentence, “Marx said, ‘Workers of the world unite!’” is a direct quotation that needs to be cited. This is so that it can be established that he genuinely said it and, crucially, in which publication this can be found. If you are paraphrasing a concept or an argument this needs to be cited, too. For instance, if you wrote something like, “The concept of class conflict between the bourgeoisie and proletariat was developed by revolutionary German social theorists,” you might need to cite the Communist Manifesto as a source. In science, if you are building on a concept that is already known but adding something new, always reference the work or works your writing is based upon.

Harvard referencing

As mentioned, there are different systems used for academic referencing. Nowadays, one of the commonest in use both in UK and US universities is the Harvard referencing system. In this approach, the name of the author cited, the date of the publication used to cite and the page number is given within the main body of the text. So, for example if you need to reference a learned journal or a book you do so like this (Engels, 1848, p 12). If you are citing several pages in one go you do so like this (Engels, 1848, pp 12-28). If there is more than one author add both names. This system can also sometimes require you to add the title of the publication – parenthetically - within the body of the text. An example, under the Harvard method, would be (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848, pp12-28). Nevertheless, citing the publication like this is quite rare.

A problem exists with certain types of studies which are being referenced under this system. Many scientific papers have lots of contributors and it is nigh on impossible to list all the names you may require, particularly if you cite them more than once in your work. If this is the case, use the Latin phrase “et al” to overcome the problem. For example, you would write something like, “According to many neuro-surgeons (Phillips et al, 1999, pp 60-72), the problems associated with anaesthetics and brain function are seldom studied.” When you are paraphrasing an entire piece of work, place the reference at the end of you last sentence in the relevant section.

APA referencing

If your essay does not include the publication within the body of the text, make a list of those works cited at the end. This is the system favoured by the APA method, the American Psychological Association, as well as many who use Harvard. List each of the references cited within the body of the text in alphabetical order by the leading author’s surname. Then give the year of publication, the title of the work, the location of publication, for example London, then the publisher. An example of an APA style reference, therefore, would be, “Hobsbawm, 1995, The Age Of Extremes, London, Abacus”. If the source you are referencing is from a website rather than a paper source, simply give the URL, starting with www.

Oscola referencing

If you are studying law you will probably need to be familiar with the Oscola referencing method, which is widely used around the globe. This method relies on footnotes at the bottom of each page where the reference is used, as opposed to the more common parenthetical systems. When citing a case, you list the names of the parties, the year and the court. After this you list the legal tome where the case is listed by year, the volume, the report abbreviation and the page number. All of the footnotes should be in standard text except the names of the parties which should be italicised. The year of the case and the report are placed within hard brackets, so an Oscola reference typically looks like this, “R v Y [2012] UKHL 50, [2013] 1 AC 30”. Like the Oxford referencing method, Oscola relies on a number placed at the end of the sentence that requires a reference. The number should correspond to the relevant footnote, placed at the bottom of the page.

MHRA referencing

Another footnote based approach is the MHRA style. In MHRA, you use a footnote to reference any direct quotation. You would also use it when you have mentioned the authors in passing. A footnote is also required if you continue to make points raised by those authors but don’t give their names again in subsequent sentences. Each footnote must be laid out in a prescribed way. Firstly, give the author, then the title, then – in brackets – the location of the publisher and the publisher’s name. Lastly, and outside of brackets give the page number, or numbers, in the same way as you would with the Harvard system. If you use multiple footnotes for one source, then it is acceptable to write ibid, so you don’t have to type this information out again. However, you must always give the relevant page number each time. An example of an MHRA footnote would be, “4 Stephen Hawking, A Brief History Of Time, (New York: Bantam Dell, 1988) p. 56”.

MLA referencing

MLA is another American referencing system which is a bit like a simplified Harvard system. Unlike Harvard, the concept is to cite parenthetically, but with the least interruption to reader flow as possible. Usually, only the author and the relevant page number are given. An MLA reference would therefore look something like this, “(Brown 223-224)”. Note that no p or pp is used to denote pages, nor is the year of publication given. Where two authors are cited to make the same point, the reference is given like this, “(Brown 224; White 6)”. The system is particularly useful when referencing corporate authorship, for example, “(United Nations, World Health Authority 51-63)”.