How to Reference in an Essay

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In the world of academia, names and dates are important! Just look at your lecture slides. Whenever your lecturer introduces a new theory, they’ll tell you who came up with the theory and when.

So, it’s no surprise that you’d need to do this in your essays, too. Indeed, whenever you refer to someone else’s ideas in your essays, you should cite the author’s surname and the publication date. In some cases, you should cite the page number, too.

The rules of referencing can be confusing, especially if you’re new to higher education. That said, let’s explore the ins-and-outs-of how to reference in an essay provided by experts from our writing service.

Why is referencing important?

Referencing other people’s ideas is important because it:

  1. Demonstrates you have done wider reading – In turn, this enhances your credibility as a student and as a writer.
  2. Provides context – More specifically, if you reference the key theories and debates that relate to your essay topic, your tutor will be convinced that you understand the wider contextual issues.
  3. Helps you think critically – When you reference other people’s work, this encourages you to critically evaluate their findings. Critical evaluation is key to achieving first-class grades.
  4. Helps you develop an argument – Building upon other people’s ideas helps you to develop a strong argument.
  5. Prevents plagiarism – Perhaps most importantly, referencing other people’s ideas (rather than copying them) prevents you from being accused of the worst academic sin.

In essence, referencing (when done well), gets you better grades!

Is referencing the same as quoting?

Strictly speaking, whenever you refer to another person’s idea in your essay, this is classed as ‘referencing’. However, it’s important to distinguish between:

  • Direct quotes – this is when you quote another person’s ideas verbatim (word-for-word).
  • Paraphrasing – this is when you rephrase another person’s ideas in your own words.

This article refers to paraphrasing, though we do offer specific guidance on how to quote in an essay.

What will happen if I don’t reference in my essays?

If you hand in an essay that has no (or very few) references, it’ll look as if you haven’t tried very hard. After all, at degree level, lecturers expect you to be able to do your own research and develop your own arguments.

So, a poorly referenced essay shows that you have not ‘done your homework’. Worse still, if you copy/paraphrase someone else’s ideas without referencing them, you risk being accused of plagiarism.

Having said that, from time-to-time you may be asked to write an assignment without references, such as a reflective report. But these types of assignments are few-and-far-between.

Therefore, it’s best to hone your referencing skills as early as possible. You’ll find this skill particularly useful when it comes to writing your dissertation.

Where should the references go?

Often, students worry about putting the references in the wrong place. But try not to worry too much as the rules of referencing can be learnt.

First and foremost, find out which referencing style your faculty uses. Although there are many different referencing styles, they all fall into two main categories:

  1. In-text referencing styles
  2. Footnote referencing styles

Check the tables below for detailed guidance!

In-text referencing styleGuidelinesExamples
HarvardThe author’s surname and the date of the publication should be provided. They can either both be provided in parentheses, or the date can be placed in parentheses after the author’s surname.

Page numbers are generally not required for paraphrased information, though check your university’s style guide.

It has been said that corporate social responsibility enhances organisational performance (Smith 2011).

OR

According to Smith (2011), corporate social responsibility enhances organisational performance.

APAThe author’s surname and the date of the publication should be provided. They can either both be provided in parentheses, or the date can be placed in parentheses after the author’s surname.

Additionally, a page number is recommended if you are paraphrasing a particular passage from a long text.

According to Smith (2011) corporate social responsibility enhances organisational performance.

OR

According to Smith (2011, p. 115), corporate social responsibility enhances organisational performance.

ASAThe author’s surname and the date of the publication should be provided. They can either both be provided in parentheses, or the date can be placed in parentheses after the author’s surname.

Also, cite the page number if you’re referring to a specific passage from a long text. According to the ASA style guide, you should use the colon format as specified in the example.

According to Smith (2011), corporate social responsibility enhances organisational performance.

OR

According to Smith, corporate social responsibility enhances organisational performance (2011:15).

MLAThe author’s surname and the date of the publication should be provided. They can either both be provided in parentheses, or the date can be placed in parentheses after the author’s surname.

Uniquely, you should always include the page number even when paraphrasing, unless there is no page number in the source you are citing.

According to Smith (2011 115), corporate social responsibility enhances organisational performance.
Chicago (in-text version)
*There is also a footnote version of the Chicago referencing style. *
The author’s surname and the date of the publication should be provided. They can either both be provided in parentheses, or the date can be placed in parentheses after the author’s surname.

Page numbers are recommended if you are citing a particular passage within a long text.

According to Smith (2011) corporate social responsibility enhances organisational performance.

OR

According to Smith (2011, p. 115), corporate social responsibility enhances organisational performance.

Footnotes ref. styleGuidelinesExample
OSCOLAPut a superscript (small) number after the closing punctuation of the sentence. Then, in the footnote at the bottom of the page, provide:

Author’s first name and surname, source title, (publisher, date), page number.

If you are paraphrasing an author’s idea (as opposed to quoting it) the page number is optional.

According to Smith, corporate social responsibility enhances organisational
performance. 12

12 Robert Smith, CSR in Business, (Routledge, 2019).

OR

12 Robert Smith, CSR in Business, (Routledge, 2019), 115.

Chicago (footnotes style)
*There is also an in-text version of Chicago referencing*.
Place a superscript number at the end of the sentence.
Then, in the footnote, include:

Author’s last name, “Title of the source”, and page number if applicable.

It’s only necessary to include a page number if you are citing a particular passage from a long text.

According to Smith, corporate social responsibility enhances organisational
performance. 12

12 Smith, “CSR in Business”.

OR

12 Smith, “CSR in Business”, 115.

Regardless of which style you use, you must provide a ‘reference list’ at the end of your essay. Need some help with this? Learn how to write a reference list for an essay.

Top tips for referencing in an essay

Once you’ve got the hang of the basics, it’s time to hone your referencing skills! Here are some pointers to get you started:

  • Strike a balance – A good essay will include a good range of references, but it won’t be stuffed full of names and dates. If you include too many references, you run the risk of producing a list rather than an essay. So, make sure you clearly explain and/or critically evaluate every reference you include in your essay.
  • Credibility is key – When selecting materials to include in your essay, make sure they are credible. Journals, academic books, and policy documents tend to be the most credible resources. Some web resources are also acceptable, but these should not feature too heavily in your essay.
  • Critically evaluate – As previously mentioned, you should critically evaluate some of the references you use in your essay. This does not mean that you have to rip the author’s ideas to shreds. Rather, you could propose a new application for the author’s theory, or consider their findings from a novel perspective.
  • Check your university’s referencing guide – It has been said before, but it’s worth saying again – check your university’s referencing requirements! Many UK universities adopt a variant of Harvard style, with ‘variant’ being the operative word. That’s why it’s so important to check your handbook for specific guidance.

Common mistakes to avoid

Finally, try to avoid the following mistakes when referencing in your essays:

  • Referencing the same source many times throughout your essay.
  • Including too many citations in the same sentence, thereby making it unclear who said what.
  • Paraphrasing half-heartedly, thereby risking plagiarism.
  • Forgetting to include necessary information such as the date of the publication or the page number (where applicable).

Typically, referencing is worth between 5 and 15% of your overall marks, so it’s worth getting it right. Plus, in theory, bad referencing could cost you 100% of your marks if you’re accused of plagiarism!

That said, time spent on referencing is time well-spent!

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