An introduction to referencing

Referencing means acknowledging the sources you have used in your writing. Including references helps you support your claims and ensures that you avoid plagiarism.

There are many referencing styles, but they usually consist of two things:

  • A citation wherever you refer to a source in your text.
  • A reference list or bibliography at the end listing full details of all your sources.

The most common method of referencing in UK universities is Harvard style, which uses author-date citations in the text.

Harvard referencing example
In-text citation(Smith, 2013)
Reference listSmith, J. (2013) Statistical analysis. 2nd ed. London: Penguin.

Referencing styles

Each referencing style has different rules for presenting source information. For in-text citations, some use footnotes or endnotes, while others include the author’s surname and date of publication in brackets in the text.

The reference list or bibliography is presented differently in each style, with different rules for things like capitalisation, italics, and quotation marks in references.

Your university will usually tell you which referencing style to use; they may even have their own unique style. Always follow your university’s guidelines, and ask your tutor if you are unsure. The most common styles are summarised below.

Harvard referencing, the most commonly used style at UK universities, uses author–date in-text citations corresponding to an alphabetical bibliography or reference list at the end.

In-text citationSources should always be cited properly (Pears and Shields, 2019).
Reference listPears, R. and Shields, G. (2019) Cite them right: The essential referencing guide. 11th edn. London: MacMillan.

Harvard Referencing Guide

Vancouver referencing, used in biomedicine and other sciences, uses reference numbers in the text corresponding to a numbered reference list at the end.

In-text citationSources should always be cited properly (1).
Reference list1. Pears R, Shields G. Cite them right: The essential referencing guide. 11th ed. London: MacMillan; 2019.

Vancouver Referencing Guide

APA referencing, used in the social and behavioural sciences, uses author–date in-text citations corresponding to an alphabetical reference list at the end.

In-text citationSources should always be cited properly (Pears & Shields, 2019).
Reference listPears, R., & Shields, G. (2019). Cite them right: The essential referencing guide (11th ed.). London, England: MacMillan.

APA Referencing Guide APA Reference Generator

MHRA referencing, used in the humanities, uses footnotes in the text with source information, in addition to an alphabetised bibliography at the end.

In-text citationSources should always be cited properly.1
Footnote1. Richard Pears and Graham Shields, Cite Them Right: The Essential Referencing Guide, 11th edn (London: MacMillan, 2019).
BibliographyPears, Richard and Graham Shields, Cite Them Right: The Essential Referencing Guide, 11th edn (London: MacMillan, 2019).

MHRA Referencing Guide

OSCOLA referencing, used in law, uses footnotes in the text with source information, and an alphabetical bibliography at the end in longer texts.

In-text citationSources should always be cited properly.1
Footnote1. Richard Pears and Graham Shields, Cite Them Right: The Essential Referencing Guide (11th edn, MacMillan 2019).
BibliographyPears R and Shields G, Cite Them Right: The Essential Referencing Guide (11th edn, MacMillan 2019).

OSCOLA Referencing Guide

Citing your sources with in-text citations

In-text citations should be used whenever you quote, paraphrase, or refer to information from a source (e.g. a book, article, image, website, or video).

Quoting and paraphrasing

Quoting is when you directly copy some text from a source and enclose it in quotation marks to indicate that it is not your own writing.

Quotation example
Smith states that ‘the data is ambiguous on this point’ (2013, p. 151).

Paraphrasing is when you rephrase the original source into your own words. In this case, you don’t use quotation marks, but you still need to include a citation.

Paraphrase example
In his conclusion, Smith stresses the unreliability of the data (2013, p. 151).

In most referencing styles, page numbers are included when you’re quoting or paraphrasing a particular passage. If you are referring to the text as a whole, no page number is needed.

In-text citations

In-text citations are quick references to your sources. In Harvard referencing, you use the author’s surname and the date of publication in brackets.

Up to three authors are included in a Harvard in-text citation. If the source has more than three authors, include the first author followed by ‘et al.

Number of authorsHarvard in-text citation example
1 author(Jones, 2017)
2 authors(Jones and Singh, 2017)
3 authors(Jones, Singh and Smith, 2017)
4+ authors(Jones et al., 2017)

The point of these citations is to direct your reader to the alphabetised reference list, where you give full information about each source. For example, to find the source cited above, the reader would look under ‘J’ in your reference list to find the title and publication details of the source.

Placement of in-text citations

In-text citations should be placed directly after the quotation or information they refer to, usually before a comma or full stop. If a sentence is supported by multiple sources, you can combine them in one set of brackets, separated by a semicolon.

If you mention the author’s name in the text already, you don’t include it in the citation, and you can place the citation immediately after the name.

  • Another researcher warns that the results of this method are ‘inconsistent’ (Singh, 2018, p. 13).
  • Previous research has frequently illustrated the pitfalls of this method (Singh, 2018; Jones, 2016).
  • Singh (2018, p. 13) warns that the results of this method are ‘inconsistent’.

Creating your reference list or bibliography

The terms ‘bibliography’ and ‘reference list’ are sometimes used interchangeably. Both refer to a list that contains full information on all the sources cited in your text. Sometimes ‘bibliography’ is used to mean a more extensive list, also containing sources that you consulted but did not cite in the text.

A reference list or bibliography is usually mandatory, since in-text citations typically don’t provide full source information. For styles that already include full source information in footnotes (e.g. OSCOLA and Chicago Style), the bibliography is optional, although your university may still require you to include one.

Format of the reference list

Reference lists are usually alphabetised by authors’ last names. Each entry in the list appears on a new line, and a hanging indent is applied if an entry extends onto multiple lines.

Harvard reference list example

Harvard reference list example

Different source information is included for different source types. Each style provides detailed guidelines for exactly what information should be included and how it should be presented.

Harvard referencing examples

Below are some examples of reference list entries for common source types in Harvard style.

Harvard book citation
FormatAuthor surname, initial. (Year) Book title. City: Publisher.
ExampleSaunders, G. (2017) Lincoln in the bardo. New York: Random House.
Harvard book chapter citation
FormatAuthor surname, initial. (Year) ‘Chapter title’, in Editor name (ed(s).) Book title. City: Publisher, page range.
ExampleBerman, R. A. (2004) ‘Modernism and the bildungsroman: Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain’, in Bartram, G. (ed.) The Cambridge companion to the modern German novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 77–92.
Harvard journal article citation
FormatAuthor surname, initial. (Year) ‘Article title’, Journal Name, Volume(Issue), page range.
ExampleAdair, W. (1989) ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Magic Mountain: Hemingway’s debt to Thomas Mann’, Twentieth Century Literature, 35(4), pp. 429–444.
Harvard web page citation
FormatAuthor surname, initial. (Year) Page title. Available at: URL (Accessed: Day Month Year).
ExampleGoogle (2019) Google terms of service. Available at: https://policies.google.com/terms?hl=en-US (Accessed: 2 April 2020).

Frequently asked questions about referencing

Which referencing style should I use?

Your university should tell you which referencing style to follow. If you’re unsure, check with a supervisor. Commonly used styles include:

Your university may have its own referencing style guide.

If you are allowed to choose which style to follow, we recommend Harvard referencing, as it is a straightforward and widely used style.

When do I need to include references?

References should be included in your text whenever you use words, ideas, or information from a source. A source can be anything from a book or journal article to a website or YouTube video.

If you don’t acknowledge your sources, you can get in trouble for plagiarism.

How can I avoid plagiarism?

To avoid plagiarism, always include a reference when you use words, ideas or information from a source. This shows that you are not trying to pass the work of others off as your own.

You must also properly quote or paraphrase the source. If you’re not sure whether you’ve done this correctly, you can use the Scribbr Plagiarism Checker to find and correct any mistakes.

What’s the difference between Harvard and Vancouver referencing styles?

Harvard referencing uses an author–date system. Sources are cited by the author’s last name and the publication year in brackets. Each Harvard in-text citation corresponds to an entry in the alphabetised reference list at the end of the paper.

Vancouver referencing uses a numerical system. Sources are cited by a number in parentheses or superscript. Each number corresponds to a full reference at the end of the paper.

Harvard styleVancouver style
In-text citationEach referencing style has different rules (Pears and Shields, 2019).Each referencing style has different rules (1).
Reference listPears, R. and Shields, G. (2019). Cite them right: The essential referencing guide. 11th edn. London: MacMillan.1. Pears R, Shields G. Cite them right: The essential referencing guide. 11th ed. London: MacMillan; 2019.
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