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Academic Referencing: An Essential Guide For Students

Many students underestimate the importance of referencing but from an academic perspective, referencing is vitally important.

The cornerstone of any academic writing be it a term paper, essay, research project or dissertation is the dissemination of ideas. References, i.e., source material based on the views, opinions and research findings of others provide the conceptual framework necessary to engage in analytical debate.


In addition to highlighting the importance of referencing, this article also highlights the most common referencing mistakes and where students can access the best free referencing resources.

Imagine you had to write an academic answer to the following question without references.

Criminal profiling is unscientific: discuss

Impossible. However, passionate or valid your personal view on the topic is e.g. "I disagree, I actually think criminal profiling is scientific because..."

I'm afraid from an academic perspective an unsubstantiated personal opinion is not worth the paper it's written on. This is why the convention within academia is to write in the third person?

A key aspect of referencing that students tend to overlook is the fact that they allow the reader to identify, access and use the material themselves.

It also crucial to reference properly so that there can no possible suggestion of plagiarism i.e. taking and using the writings of others and passing it off as ones own. Plagiarism is an extremely serious offence and can result in a student been expelled if found guilty.

When you begin your school, college or University course you should at some point (usually in the first week) be given specific guidelines on the standard referencing style required. In most cases this will be the APA referencing format, although many UK institutions favor the Harvard system.

Make sure you have these guidelines to hand whenever you do any form of academic writing. It's the best form of referencing quality control you can have, so use the guidelines as intended.

Most Common Referencing Mistakes

Without doubt the most common referencing format mistakes relate to the increasing popular practice of obtaining source material via electronic means e.g. the Internet.

Most Internet references will have been accessed via a specific web page, however, remember there are other Internet sources e.g. newsletters, online newspapers, e-books etc.

APA style referencing guidelines suggest that an Internet source should provide a document title or description, a date (either the date of publication or update or the date of retrieval), an Internet address (URL) and Whenever possible, the author(s) of the source material as well.

Number One Referencing Tip

Whenever you do an academic assignment make sure you write down the full reference of each source as you find it. Many students, including myself in the past, fail to do this.

Taking notes from the source for possible inclusion in the written assignment is fine but if you do decide to use the material, you can find yourself wasting hours of your valuable time trying to remember the name of the book you returned to the library etc.

This problem is particularly acute when students are doing a thesis or dissertation, involving literally hundreds of references.

Writing a dissertation as you go along may mean you record a host of references that you don't actually end up using, however, the time wasted doing this pales into significance compared with the alternative.

You can get more information on referencing and the best free student resources available on the topic by visiting

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