You’ve worked hard on your essay for days. Whether you finished two pages ago and then had to cram in every extra word you could think of, or whether you had to try and reduce two extra pages into a single sentence, you’ve finally reached the word count. The only problem is, you’ve still got the references to write, and the guidelines in your course textbook are so complicated, they come with their own two-page bibliography. Here we offer our advice from a former undergraduate essay tutor at the University of York.
What referencing system do I use?
Okay. Here’s what you really need to know from the start. What kind of referencing system does your department use? Do they use Harvard? Do they use Vancouver? Chicago? There are quite a few styles out there, so you need to know which one is right for your essay. Hopefully, somewhere in your course guidebook, you’ll find something that tells you which one you should use. If not, ask your lecturer, or your supervisor, and if you really can’t find a definitive answer, then just be consistent: pick a referencing system, and stick with it.
How many references do I need?
This is a really common question, and the answer varies a little, depending on your university and your lecturer, but as a general rule of thumb to get you started, it’s a good idea to have somewhere between four and six valuable references per 1000 words that you write. Don’t just include them anywhere you can, though; they should demonstrate that you know what’s being said about your subject, and should either back up or provide a counterpoint to your argument. It’s about striking a rough balance between your own work and the references that support it so have a read through the essay: does it seem like references are few and far between, or like you can’t see the essay for the quotes? Try to redraft and even it out if you can. The important thing is that your references are useful; not just there to tick a box.
Once you’ve worked out which referencing system to use, it’s time to make it happen. Thankfully, there are people out there who’ve written very thorough guides, so use them where you can. These styles are consistent across academia, so if you’re using Harvard, for instance, then you’re safe to use another university’s guide to the same style. If you’re using the Harvard referencing system, which is one of the more common styles, then Anglia Ruskin University is your new best friend: their Harvard guide is very thorough and accurate, other universities direct their students to it too. If you’re using Chicago, there’s a brilliant style manual here, direct from the University of Chicago. For the Vancouver style, check out this lovely guide from Imperial College London, and for IEEE – or Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; unsurprisingly common in Computer Science and Engineering – you can use the University of York’s drop down menu to pick what kind of resource you want to reference and find out more about it. If you study a language, you might well use MLA, and you can find more on that from Cornell University.
What’s the difference between a reference list and a bibliography?
This depends on your university and your reference style, but generally, there’s a clear distinction, and it’s important that you find out which is expected. A reference list is a specific list of only the sources you actually referred to, or quoted, in your essay. A bibliography, on the other hand, is a list of all the sources you studied at all in preparation, even if you didn’t even talk about them in the text. Be careful about this, and find out which one you should use. Generally, you’ll only be expected to provide a reference list, but again, check with your supervisor or your lecturer if you’re unsure.
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