Referencing & Citation Styles

28.04.20 Academic writing Time to read: 8min

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Definition: Referencing Styles

Referencing styles are a set of rules that tell you how you should acknowledge the intellectual works of people that you use in your research. Referencing is an important part of successful academic writing. It helps you avoid plagiarism while doing your assignments. Referencing contains two crucial elements:
• An in-text citation
• An entry in the reference list at the end of your assignment
The citation will contain enough details for the reader to identify the source listed in the reference list. In most cases, this is the name of the author and the year in which the source of your data was published. The reference list is usually alphabetized by author names. Other details in the reference list are the name of the author, year of publication, and the title of your source.


There are different referencing styles, which use different formats to provide the same information. Referencing is a method of giving credit to people whose intellectual work you have used to support any research you have carried out. It can also be used to locate sources and avoid plagiarism. Referencing styles dictate the information needed for the citation and how it is ordered, including punctuation.
There are many citation styles but these are the most common:
APA (American Psychological Association)
This style is used by in the fields of psychology, science, and education
• MLA (Modern Language Association)
The style is used in the field of humanities
• Chicago/Turabian
The style is mainly used in the fields of history, business, and fine arts.

There is no easy or simple style. You do not usually have a say in the style you use, as most educational institutions adhere to a certain style, which can also vary depending on the faculty. As with anything, you will become accustomed to the style required or stipulate for your academic writing purposes.

Both APA and MLA are common formatting styles. They both use 12-point font, double spaced pages, and 1-inch margins. In APA referencing, the paper has four parts as follows: title page, abstract, main body, and references. In MLA referencing on the other hand, there is no separate title page or abstract page. MLA usually has just two main parts: the body and works cited page.

In-text citations are nescessary when you’re quoting, referring to or paraphrasing another author’s works. How exactly the citations are formatted, depends on the formatting style. However, in-text citations often include the last name of the author, the year of publication and sometimes page numbers.

For example, Harvard referencing in-text citations look like: (Smith 2010, p. 75)

Footnotes are explanations, comments, or most commonly references that are placed at the bottom, below the text on each page. A footnote is denoted by a number so that the reader can easily follow along. Footnotes are mostly seen in Chicago referencing because the use of footnotes is discouraged in APA and MLA referencing.

Author-Year Systems

The author-year citation system is used more for undergraduate assignments than at the graduate level. Fields with ties to the liberal arts, such as human development, political science, and geography tend to prefer this system. When using this system, your job is to indicate, in brackets, the author and the year of publication of the material you cited. Since citation becomes part of the sentence, punctuation comes after the brackets.

Most writers will acknowledge the source as soon as they start the reference, including the name of the author as part of the text. Only the year is placed in brackets. Many writers identify the source as soon as they begin the reference, including the author’s name directly in the text and indicating only the year in brackets. If you use more than one source by the same author in the same year, you can differentiate the documents you cite by using the “a, b, c” system, which means placing an identifying letter after the year of publication.

GOOD TO KNOW: Read our article about the APA Title Page!

Citation Styles: APA

APA is one of the most common citation styles in academic work. Developed by the American Psychological Association, it is one of the citation styles that uses the author-date system.

Sources are cited in two ways: by inserting a short citation within the text and by including a full citation in the References list.
The in-text citation will include the author’s name and the publication year, inserted at the appropriate point in your text.

John (1997) suggests that…
A discussion on the data analysis (John, 1997)
When you paraphrase or refer to an idea by somaeone else, you should provide a page or paragraph number, especially when it can help the reader locate the passaged used. (p. 134)

Direct quotes in-text:

The page number is always included in the text for direct quotes. (John, 1997, p.34)
Direct quotes of 40 words or less need to be enclosed in double quotation marks.

Using images in your assignment has a major impact, but you must determine if they serve the right purpose. “The use of images needs to be carefully assessed to ensure it has the right impact” (John, 1999 p. 127)
Direct quotes exceeding 40 words have to be included in their own paragraph, be indented form the left margin, and not be enclosed in quotation marks.

References have to be at the end of the paper

The reference list contains information about the sources, including the author name, publication date, title, place of publication, publisher, in addition to other details, depending on the source.

The reference list is on a separate page and is arranged alphabetically by last name of the author.

Reference lists are double-spaced with the second and subsequent lines of every reference indented. Only use references that were used in the writing of the paper. The title of your reference list, labelled References, must be centered.

GOOD TO KNOW: Read our article about the APA Cover Page!

Harvard Style

Another common referencing style is Harvard style. Like other referencing styles, it contains two essential elements: the in-text citation and the reference list. Harvard is one of the citation styles that uses the author-date system. Therefore, the citation contains the name of the author and when the date of publication.

In this style, there is no punctuation between the author’s surname and the publication year. If you quote directly, you must include the page name of the passage or quote in the in-text citation.

It has been asserted that “the aim of management is to utilize and allocate the resources of an organisation in a manner that helps the organisation reach its goals” (John et. al. 1998, p. 176)

If you wish to quote data cited by somaeone else, you have to refer to the source of your information and not the original source.

Jane read an article by Alex John in the American Library Journal which cites a statement made by Tom Marks on his site at http://examplesite. Jane wants to refer to a statement by Marks in her work. Jane will acknowledge Marks but reference it to the source where she got the information. She would thus write: (Marks, cited in John 2007)

In the reference list, Jane will write a reference to the article by John, since that is where she got her data. There reference list entry will be: John, A 200, “Example Title” The American Library Journal, vol. 45 no. 4, pp. 345-367.

If more than one work from different authors is cited in the text, a semi-colon will separate them: (John 2008; Marcus 1995)

When citing work by two or three authors, the names are cited in the order in which they appear in the title page: (John, Marchs & Miller 1994)

When quoting a block of text that is 30 words or longer, the quote needs to be in a slightly smaller font size and left-indented to distinguish it from the other text. An in-text citation can then follow.

Chicago Style

This is one of the most common referencing styles in the field of history, since it uses endnotes in addition to a bibliography to emphasize the data sources, which is important in historiography. At its most basic, there is a number assigned to a fact in the text and a footnote with the corresponding number at the bottom of the page, which lists the source of text.

At the end of your paper, you will have a bibliography that lists authors alphabetically by surname, showing all the sources cited in the document that were consulted but not cited directly. No page numbers are given in the bibliography. For the location of articles, the beginning and end number of the article or chapter are given instead. Elements are separated using commas in the endnote, whereas periods are used to separate elements in the bibliography.

MLA Citation Style

MLA is one of the most common referencing styles used in papers to cite sources in the humanities and liberal arts. This style uses a two-part system.

  • In-text citations
  • Works cited list

In-text citations are short citations in brackets within the essay text.
The Works Cited is a list that follows up these references with more details about the sources. They are listed alphabetically. The list includes the primary and secondary texts used in writing the assignment. These entries must correspond to works cited in the text. All titles of books, films, artwork, and plays have to be in italics. The titles of articles, chapters, essays, and poems must in quotation marks without italics.

Referencing Styles: Comparison

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In a Nutshell

In summary, no matter which style you use:

  • Consistency is key – there variations within each style but you must be consistent
  • Two styles may not be used in the same work
  • Always follow the style your professor requests no matter your discipline
  • Ensure that you use genuine sources at all times
  • If you did not use a source, do not quote it in-text or in the reference list