Rethinking referencing for the modern age

Part of the duty of a librarian is to reflect critically on what we do in education and as an information society as a whole and question whether everything we do is still fit for purpose, and suggest what new things we should be doing, what we should arguably stop doing because it is not longer useful or when a once efficient process has become so mired in the trappings of tradition that it warrants a comprehensive revision to make it once again fit for purpose in the modern world.

In this blog post, a summary of which first appeared on the CLA Schools blog, I consider how referencing systems have become cluttered with conventions that have come to hinder more than they help education, analyse what has gone wrong with referencing, and put forward both the case for and an attempt at a simpler, future-proofed referencing system for use in education and even across scholarly publishing.


The increasing complexity and diversity of referencing systems confuses, distresses and distracts students from the content of their assignments, that is the proper focus of their attention, and complicates access to the scholarly literature.  An increasing pace of change, diversification and convergence in online publishing formats together has increased the complexity of existing referencing systems to the point where the referencing tail is beginning to wag the scholarly dog.  A new approach to referencing is needed that combines a single simple and intuitive format for references that is infinitely flexible, can be reproduced clearly and with the same formatting in handwritten and typed records, and which is as simple as logically possible.  This blog post explores the problems that face traditional referencing systems, argues for a new and simpler approach, at least within educational establishments, and attempts a first draft of such a system.


Where referencing went wrong

Referencing is an essential part of scholarly communication, crediting sources used in research with existing works on which new research is based.  Referencing systems are traditionally formatted primarily to distinguish between different publishing formats.  Until recently, this was useful for readers because there were only a limited number of printed publishing formats for academic content, and format was believed to correspond reliably with the relative publication types.  Peer-reviewed articles have long been regarded as the publication format indicating the highest academic quality and prestige, recording the near cutting edge of research and ostensibly always being subject to rigorous scrutiny.  Articles appearing in peer-reviewed journals are therefore be assumed to be both of a certain standard and currency.

The increasing pace of change in scholarly publishing has seen the form and representations of scholarly output change increasingly quickly, taking on an increasingly diverse range formats.  Under pressure from a citation-based scholarly economy, where visibility and early publication are essential to success, articles are often now published online immediately following peer-review, before they can be assigned volume, part and page numbers.  This means that there may be several versions of a functionally identical work – the open access post-print, in press copy posted by the publisher, and the final version with full bibliographic description, that will all be referenced differently, leaving the reader to check whether different references point to the same work.  Other forms of content have in some cases converged to become almost indistinguishable from one another.  The explosion in the diversity and convergence of online publishing formats has overtaken the rate at which committees can update traditional referencing systems.

The convergent development of information on the web where sources no longer always have obvious authors, titles, recognisable publishing formats with a place in the established hierarchy of scholarly value have begun to render such systems redundant.  The Harvard Business Review information hub is a good example.  What appear to be scholarly magazine articles, blog posts and other content, traditionally thought of as having very different levels of scholarly value, are deliberately collated and presented in ways that make them indistinguishable from one another as equivalent sources forming part of a single information hub.  The pace of change in publication formats has caused inconsistencies to be introduced into the formatting rules in traditional referencing systems, so that many are no longer logically consistent.

Peer-reviewed journals aside, the value of much of the internet requires careful evaluation by individual researchers.  Blogs, reports, web pages and ebooks often vary only by publication format, with publication formats arbitrarily being associated with quality.  Reports are often similar in quality to web pages but tend to be seen as having greater standing by students because their pdf format is closer to that typically used by academic journal articles.  Ebooks are similarly seen as a more trustworthy source, except that the only certain differences between an ebook and a website is only that an ebook is in pdf format and the author has paid to purchase an ISBN.  In the modern age, everything must be scrutinised: with even peer review coming under widespread criticism,1,2 format is no longer a guarantee of quality and so should no longer be the focus of any referencing system.

The cost to academics

Students are not the only when academics and other researchers seek to have their work published, they must reformat their submissions with different formatting and referencing styles peculiar to each journal to which they submit their research. Until the very recent arrival of referencing management software, the use of specific referencing systems by different journals meant academics were forced to waste valuable time reformatting journal submissions to match the referencing style of every journal to which they wished to submit.  This avoidable cost has been meekly born by universities and other research institutions researchers for decades, being eased only very recently by the introduction of reference management software.  It is a sign of how powerful tradition is as a motivating force.  While referencing management software has made this easier for many journals, it remains an avoidable distraction and time sink that academia could happily lose by adopting the same universal referencing system across all publication platforms and titles.

Inconsistency and unnecessary complication

Referencing systems have reacted to the increasing complexity of publication formats and the changing needs of researchers by adding elements with their own formatting rules, creating over time an overly rules-heavy system with wild inconsistencies both within the system at any one time and unpredictable changes over time.3-5  In one system, dates moved from the end of references to immediately follow the author entries, to replicate the in-text citations; journal part numbers were added comparatively recently as the rate of publication increased to make this necessary, and certain source types were given their own unique formatting rules, different from every other source type.  Referencing using such systems requires looking up or memorising an entire rules system every time a reference is to be used.

The adverse impact on students

Experience at the library enquiry desk quickly reveals that many students arrive at university with little or no understanding of referencing, who when confronted on arrival at university with the horrible consequences of of the terrible crime of ‘plagiarism’ become somewhat obsessed with this aspect of their work.  Trying to understand why they need to reference sources at the same time they must master the intricacies of a specific referencing system just starting their academic courses is an unnecessary burden on students.  It’s impact on students is worrying.  Many students do not understand how citations and reference lists relate.  Most have never seen a printed journal and cannot understand the concept of a serial publication being bound into volumes, parts and pages.  The structure of the literature, knowledge of which is required to know how to reference any particular source, is alien to them.  For journals that are now only published online there is no longer any reason to retain a serial format: everything could and should be published in chronological order.

The overarching layers of complexity and idiosyncratic, inconsistently applied rules that have accumulated as traditional referencing systems have developed over the years are a source of considerable anxiety for students.  As a result, there is a growing trend towards devoting a disproportionate effort to formulating grammatically and typographically perfect references.  Some students fear that even minor punctuation errors in the formatting of references might comprise plagiarism and academic misconduct.  Many students clearly invest more time, effort and worry in the referencing an assignment correctly than on the body of the assignment itself.  It was never the intention of referencing systems to be burdensome or to complicate retrieval of the information sources listed in bibliographies, yet the referencing tail now threatens to wag the scholarly dog.

Only connect… the challenge of broken links

Except perhaps for established publication formats and sources, electronic source are often ephemeral.  Traditional referencing systems often insist on the retrieval date being recorded, yet knowing when an information source was retrieved is of little value unless the source can still be retrieved in the same form as the original source cited.  Otherwise readers unable to check the original are forced to accept the account given in the available work.

Students and researchers would both benefit from re-examining the purpose of referencing.  What is needed is for the theoretically simplest referencing system possible to be devised: one that works the same way in handwritten notes as in type and that can be modified in a predictable manner to encompass any conceivable new source type or publishing format; a system based not on specific rules but only principles, so that unlike traditional prescriptive referencing systems, its formats would be infinitely extensible and flexible and its subsequent development would need very little controlling oversight.  I have drafted a starting point for the conversation over what this system might look like and how it could function.  I suggest that since institutions are unlikely willingly to adopt a system they did not have a hand in creating, that such a system should be designed collaboratively by schools, colleges and HEIs and then adopted on as wide a scale as possible and at all levels of education, so that students learn to reference in increasing detail as they grow and develop as learners.  By adopting the system for all preprint drafts, institutional presses and repositories, academic staff could save time re-formatting references for submission to each journal, perhaps eventually leading to calls for a standard submission format.

Adopting such a system across the education sector would allow students to focus on the content of their assignments, confident that referencing is intuitive and not a stressful process.  Agreement on and adoption of such a system across academia and scholarly publishing would simplify the academic submission process and save a great deal of work reformulating references on submission to different publications and checking that the strictures of each different referencing standard have been met.



Uniref (outlined below and in this leaflet) is an attempt to conceptualise and prototype what a simple, logically extensible referencing system might look like.  For want of a better name, I have euphemistically dubbed this attempt at a new referencing system “Uniref”: a euphemistic corruption of “University referencing” and “Universal referencing”.  I have here attempted to outline what such a system might look like.  I refer here on to any identifiable discrete package of information that someone can be pointed to directly as an “information object”.

Two versions of this system are proposed: “Full Uniref” and a simplified version for student use called “Simple Uniref”.  Full Uniref provides sufficient detail to recover a source after an extended period of time, in particular after the information object referenced has from where it was originally discovered.  For draft work, most internal documents and for student work, where references have to work only for a short the time, Simple Uniref should be sufficient.


Simplifying assumptions

  • Authors may safely be trusted meaningfully and sensibly to extend the basic reference structure with other information using their best judgement. This relieves the pressure on students to format their references to a standard beyond that needed for clarity.
  • Only an initiative common structure identifying the essential fields and providing a predictable and familiar order of elements is necessary to create a clearly understandable reference.
  • References should include all names and titles as they appear in the source, except to change capitalisation to sentence case and start each subdivision of a reference with a capital letter to make them stand out clearly.
  • Giving the retrieved from dates against items in a reference list for each source is largely unnecessary. If it is suspected that information objects might be changed or removed, it is clearer for readers if authors check all sources before submission and give the one date (range) on which all sources were checked.
  • It is better simply to omit fields from a reference where the information is unavailable, e.g. no author, no date, than to formulate a placeholder.
  • If footnote citations are used, the order of references in the text dictates the order of the reference list, so the elements will all file in the same order each time. If inline citations are used in the text, it would be necessary to move the date behind the title, so the citations all retain the same format and the references can be listed in alphabetical order by author/title. For this reason, footnote citations are simpler and therefore preferred.
  • Only two marks of punctuation need to be added: full stops to mark a change in information in the reference and commas that identify the introduction of more specific information within a field, e.g. an author’s first name(s) or the titles/numbers of different levels of a source (e.g. journal volume, part and page numbers). Start each field and subfield with a capital letter to make references as easy to read as possible. Give (only) as much detail as is useful.
  • References are easiest to read and relate to the source described when the information in the reference and in the source are the same. Since footnotes and not some part of the reference itself determines the filing order of references in the reference list/bibliography, unknown information may simply be omitted from references.

Elements of references


Name of the person, body corporate, or other entity that appears to have created the work in direct order as it appears on the source.


Publication date or the best estimate of this, e.g. copyright date. Give the level of detail considered necessary in the order year month day.


Title, including subtitle(s). Use sentence case, copy punctuation as it appears on the original source.


Included if there is the source is part of a larger resource or collection.

Additional notes believed germane to identifying the source used. Optional. Examples include details for particular editions, manifestations or copies of a work, where there are insertions, manual changes such as marginal annotations, or where a copy is suspected otherwise different in some important regard from most copies in circulation. The date the source was last checked may be included here if it is suspected the source is likely to be altered or removed.

For printed sources, the Origin field is optional.  It might describe where items consulted were held at the time of use, e.g. “Held in the British Library, King George III Collection.”. It can be as simple as a link or instructions as complex as required to identify from where the source might be acquired. For online sources, this would most likely be a digital object identifier (doi), permalink or some other link to or file address for the source.

Notes on Uniref formatting

There are only two marks of punctuation added used in Uniref: full stops are used to mark a change of every information field (except the end of the reference, because this is often a hyperlink), and commas that identify the introduction of more specific information within a field, e.g. an author’s first name(s) or the titles/numbers of different levels of a resource (e.g. journal volume, part and page numbers).  Authors should consider starting each field and subfield with a capital letter to make the references easier to read.

If inline citations are used, the author names have to be included surname first in the reference list and the sources list in alphabetical order, ignoring “a, an and the” where these start a title.  If footnotes are used, the reference list uses the same order as the footnotes in the body text.  In this way, using footnotes make the system simpler still and could be used to exclude citations from the word count of assignments.

Omit fields where information is unknown.


Simple Uniref 

Where long term retrieval of information sources is not expected to be necessary, such as in student work, an even simpler form of references may be used instead.

Creator(s). Date. Title. Origin (link to or description of location).



Cronin. 2005. The hand of science. Scarecrow Press


Sundling. 2017. The many hands of science.


Flint. 2018. How films tackled the issue of men’s mental health in 2018. article

Blog post

Knight. 2018. How to talk to your boss when you’re underperforming.

Noticeboard post

Collinson. 2018. Why make it hard?.

Chapter in an edited ebook

Marsden. 2011. In conversation with Sindre Bangstad and Kristian Berg Harpviken about lived Islam in the frontier regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

UK Statutory Instrument (passed into law but not yet come into force)

Merchant Shipping (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Amendments etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018/1221, Schedule 1, Para. 6, Amendment of the Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection: Large Ships) Regulations 1998.  Westlaw

Web page

CILIP. Be part of your profession.

Image embedded in a web page

CILIP. We are here for you.


Full Uniref

Creator(s).  Date in reverse order.  Title, Subtitle(s).  Parent resource, showing levels of organisation down to the information object used, separated by commas.  Notes (if needed).  Origin (link to or description of location).



Blaise Cronin. 2005. The hand of science: academic writing and its rewards. Scarecrow Press

Journal article

Pär Sundling. 2017. The many hands of science: commonalities and differences in the research contributions of authors and subauthors.  Aslib journal of information management, 69, 5, 591-606.

Magazine article

Hanna Flint. 2018 December 17. How films tackled the issue of men’s mental health in 2018. Dazed, Film & TV opinion. article

Blog post

Rebecca Knight. 2018 December 14. How to talk to your boss when you’re underperforming. Harvard business review, Difficult conversations.

Online noticeboard post

Timothy Collinson. 2018 February 1. Confessions of a newbie referee, #15, Why make it hard? Article originally published July 2015 in Freelance Traveller at

Chapter in an edited ebook

Magnus Marsden. 2011 April 28. In conversation with Sindre Bangstad and Kristian Berg Harpviken about lived Islam in the frontier regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. House of Literature, April 28, 2011. Sindre Bangstad, 2017, Anthropology of our times: an edited anthology in public anthropology, Palgrave Macmillan.

UK Statutory Instrument (passed into law but not yet come into force)

Merchant Shipping (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Amendments etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018/1221, Schedule 1, Para. 6, Amendment of the Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection: Large Ships) Regulations 1998. Westlaw UK, Legislation. UK Statutory Instrument.  Read on 2018 December 17, when this revision of the regulations was scheduled to come into force on 29 March 2019.  Westlaw, Legislation

In-text citation

The Merchant Shipping (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Amendments etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018/1221 [MSRA 2018/1221], show…

and then later

… which will be brought into force under the MSRA (2018/1221).

Web page

CILIP. Getting qualified. CILIP website.

Image embedded in a web page

CILIP. We are here for you, Banner image. CILIP website.


Statutory Instrument

This reference was simply copied verbatim from Westlaw, treating the hierarchy of page sections as if they were a web page.  The same reference might therefore appear slightly differently if taken from another source, such as Lexis Library.  In common with good academic style, acronyms chosen for names should be unique, distinctive, not easily confused with other well known acronyms, and must be indicated the first time they are used using an established convention, such as the use of square brackets as in the above example or with “(henceforth MSRA 2018/1221)” or a clear explanation in plain words following the first full citation.

Chapter in an edited book

Marsden (2011) above highlights an interesting challenge, where the title unusually includes a full stop.  Since it is known that the reference can include only five elements: Name, Date, Title, Source and Link, I think it is still clear which part is the source.


Citing sources in the text

Footnotes are preferred to inline citations because they allow all elements to be copied as they are found in sources.  Using inline citations necessitates rearranging surnames and moving the title to the start of the reference for sources with no author in order to produce an alphabetical reference list.

This has already been proven.1

with footnote:     1 Author(s) date

This has already been proven.1

with footnote:     1 Title date


For example:

This has already been proven.1

with footnote:     1 Barnaby 2011, 414

This has already been argued.1

with footnote:     1 The tradition of pleasure and pain that is conventional referencing 2018, 11

Works with three or more authors should normally be cited as “(First author surname et al. date)” each time, including the first.


Final word

The author is the final arbiter of clarity and proper form under Uniref.  Authors are expected to treat the system as guidelines that can be altered as required to amend content and formatting as they deem necessary to ensure clear exposition.  When doing this, authors should hold in mind in strict decreasing order the overriding priorities of clarity, simplicity, brevity, and internal consistency.



  1. Lyndon V. Hernandez. 2017 April. How robust is our peer-review system? A review of emerging models. Gastrointestinal endoscopy, 85, 4, 830-832.
  2. Misha Teplitskiy, Daniel Acuna, Aïda Elamrani-Raoult, Konrad Körding, James Evans. 2018 November. The sociology of scientific validity: how professional networks shape judgement in peer review. Research policy, 49, 9, 1825-1841.
  3. American Psychological Association. 2010. Publication manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth edition. American Psychological Association
  4. Madison Bentley, C. A. Peerenboom, F. W. Hodge, Edward B. Passano, H. C. Warren, M. F. Washburn. 1929 February. Instructions in regard to preparation of manuscript. Psychological bulletin, 26, 2, 57-63.
  5. Sharon Bittner. 2018 December 11.  Your winter holiday oddity: APA, why capitalization? Email communication


~ David E Bennett

 Disclaimer: All views expressed are the author's professional opinion and are not necessarily those of his employer or any other party.

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

2 comments on “Rethinking referencing for the modern age
  1. It’s all very well producing unified or simpler referencing schemes but if our graduates move on to other institutions they may well find themselves faced with having to reference in full-fat Harvard, Vancouver, APA, Chicago etc. Learning to use these styles is surely part of being an academic, and referencing software can help the learning process too. And saying this, yes, I do remember from my days as Science Librarian at Portsmouth that referencing caused a lot of worry, but I have to mention the D word, Discipline.

  2. It is interesting as we have progressed down a similar route of stripping referencing back – we called ours a modified Harvard. I also agree about the stress it seems to cause – even with our modifications.

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