“Do I really have to reference this?”

reference photoIt’s at this time of year that I’m reminded most frequently not only how many students find referencing difficult, but also how many students don’t fully understand why their essays and dissertations need to be referenced in the first place. Given that up to 80%* of the enquiries we’re currently dealing with on the information desks are related to referencing, I thought it might be an appropriate time to reflect on both the theory and practice of this most dreaded academic practice, and ask “how can we make this easier”? In the first of two blog posts about this, I’m going to ponder why we need to reference, and how much.

Given that referencing seems so daunting, it may be tempting for students to avoid the use of other people’s work altogether. However, even though they will have their own ideas and opinions, it is important for them to back these up with facts and research by experts. With correct referencing in place, anyone having doubts about the claims in an essay can refer easily to the original material to verify its accuracy. Quoting existing content in essays also proves to markers that the topic has been researched effectively and that the key concepts and arguments have been understood.

Anyone who has carried out a piece of research or written about an original idea deserves to be credited for this, and this isn’t just true within academic writing. However, it’s especially important to acknowledge the work of others in essays, not just because it’s morally right, but because it assists in avoiding any accusations of plagiarism, which is a serious academic offence.

Theoretical questions I am asked at the information desk can range from the simple to the complex. Here are a few, with a reflection on how I’d answer them… (bearing in mind we’re mostly using APA 6th)

question photo“What do I need to reference?”

I’m often asked this by students who are worried that their reference lists are too long, or too short. The most important thing to bear in mind is that everything that’s cited in an essay, whether as a direct quote or a paraphrased idea, MUST be in the reference list. The citation points the reader/marker to the reference, so it needs to be there if they look for it. Material read but not directly mentioned in the essay shouldn’t be included. If the essay had a bibliography, this would be the place for peripheral reading to be listed, but APA referencing doesn’t ask for a bibliography, so all those articles that didn’t really add to the essay shouldn’t be mentioned. Of course, depending on whether the student has too many or too few items on their reference list, this will come as either very good or very bad news…

“How many references should I have?”question photo

I guess it might seem like a great idea at first glance, for tutors to specify how many references they would like to see at the end of an essay or dissertation. Then the students would know how many to include. However, stop and think about that for a moment. What if you’ve just finished the best essay you’ve ever written. You know it’s going to get a great mark. And then you realise you’re three references short. What do you do? Throw in three random sources that don’t add anything to your argument, and some direct quotes from them that mess up the flow of your writing? And what if you reach that same point but have five references too many? Do you start taking important quotes out, and deleting articles from the list that were actually really interesting?

I’ve heard some people say that at school or college, or even in first essays at University, their tutors have given them this sort of guidance. I think I remember a teacher during my A levels (many many moons ago) saying something about the number of references they wanted “per 500 words”. This might be intended to encourage students using too few sources to find more, I don’t know. But when it comes to academic writing in higher education, it isn’t a practice that really fits.

Instead of asking how many references they should have, the questions students really need to ask are whether they have read and cited enough to show an understanding of the ideas and themes, and whether they’ve shown how what they’ve read supports or opposes their argument. In the end, this is something they will have to judge for themselves.

question photo“How many marks will incorrect referencing cost me?”

I’m sure all students would love us to say none! Unfortunately this is never going to be the case. Part of academic writing is knowing how to correctly reference, and as such it will always carry some element of marking. Exactly how much varies between departments. Students should be able to find out from their student handbooks or Moodle pages exactly what weight referencing carries for them.

So we’ve established that we need to reference. We know we need to give credit to authors, and to demonstrate that we’ve researched effectively. Here’s where the second stumbling block arises. Referencing is complicated. Isn’t it? To those unfamiliar with the format, it can appear to be. In fact, it’s probably easier than students fear.

Remembering that what referencing is intended to do is point a reader/marker to the source material, it should be logical that a reference needs to contain specific elements, or pieces of information. All references will need an authors name, a title, and a date of publication. What other information you need depends very much on what the source material is. Some will be obvious – a website will need a URL, for example.

It’s a bit late in the day to advise students finishing projects, essays and dissertations now to keep this information noted down from the start, so in my next blog, I’ll keep thinking about referencing, talk about how to locate those forgotten source elements,  and bring together advice based on the most commonly asked questions and problems that our current students have asked about…


*OK, I made this statistic up based on the questions I’ve had in the past few weeks…

First Photo by found_drama

Question marks by guilaine (Pixabay)


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