Research Survival Guide Part 3: References and bibliographies

This post follows on from Part 1: The Literature Search and Part 2: Evaluating Resources

Once you are starting to find sources to support your dissertation, you need to think about how you are going to credit these sources in your work.

In this post we will explain why referencing is important, how to go about it, and show you some tools that will make it all a lot easier.

In a Varsity survey, 49% of students admitted to plagiarising while at Cambridge. Some of the reasons given included heavy workloads and pressure to meet deadlines, but many of the people responding to the survey said it hadn’t been made clear to them what counted as plagiarism and what was okay. 13% did not know that failing to cite their sources would be considered plagiarism. If you use someone else’s ideas or argument, whether it is directly quoted or paraphrased in your own words, whether the other person is an author or one of your friends that you have collaborated with, you must give a proper acknowledgement to that person.

The reason for this is that all academic writing is a dialogue. Your arguments will have more weight if they are supported by other authors. You are building on other people’s work so you must give them credit, and give enough information that your reader could follow up the reference to find out more. In turn, you would expect to get recognition for the hard work you’ve done yourself. One day in the not too distant future your dissertation, thesis or articles you write may be being quoted by others, including students.

There are lots of different referencing styles you can use, which will differ in how the references are laid out on the page, the punctuation and so on. Whichever style you use the purpose is the same, to acknowledge wherever in your essay you are using someone else’s ideas. However most departments will have a preferred referencing style. Check with your departmental secretary or department library if you are not sure.

Referencing requires two things. Firstly, you need in-text references. These can either be in brackets in the text itself, or you can use footnotes or endnotes.

In-text referencesFootnotes and endnotes are pretty much the same thing, footnotes come at the bottom of each page and endnotes all come together at the end of the document.

As well as in-text references whenever you cite a source, you will also need a list of all the sources you used when researching the essay. This is called a bibliography, and it will usually come right at the end of the essay with any appendices.

BibliographyA lot of people leave referencing and the bibliography until last, doing it right before they hand in their essay. But it is so much easier if you keep track of references as you go along. When you’re making notes, every time you write down a quote or jot down a paraphrase of the author’s argument, also make a note of where it came from and the page number. Every time you read a new article or book on your topic, make a note of all the details you will need to cite this source in your essay. This is the information you need to jot down:

  • For books… author/editor, full title, page numbers, publisher, date and location of publication, edition
  • For essays/chapters in an edited work… author and title of the essay/chapter, editor of whole book, full title of the book, page numbers, publisher, date and location of publication, edition.
  • For articles… author, article title, page numbers, journal title, date, volume/issue/number of the journal.
  • For websites… author, date of publication, website title, full web address, date accessed.

As you can see, you are giving your reader enough information to find the exact passage you are referring to if they want to read more. The exact format of your references will depend on what style you are using, so find out what your department’s preferred style is. You can then have a look at a style guide to see what the exact format should be for each different type of source.

You can keep track of your references manually, and you may find this template useful for recording your references. Other methods for keeping track of references manually include index cards, or a spreadsheet or word document. If you’re keeping your list in electronic form I’d recommend keeping it in cloud storage for example Dropbox or Google Drive, so that you can view it and add to it whenever you like, from any computer.

However another option is to use a reference management app that will do all of the hard work for you. It will even create your bibliographies automatically. There are lots of tools available, all of which do a similar thing with various bells and whistles. At a basic level, a reference manager is a database of your references, which will allow you to easily export them into bibliographies. Zotero and Mendeley are two of the most popular free options, and they’re quite powerful little programmes.

Both Zotero and Mendeley have the following features in common:

  • Desktop application – Windows/Mac/Linux
  • ‘Cite while you write’ plug-ins for the most popular word-processing programmes
  • Ability to create groups to share references, PDFs, comments etc. with peers
  • Back-up and synchronisation across different devices

The main difference between these two is the interface, and you’ll probably naturally prefer one over the other. However these other feature differences are worth noting:

  • Zotero is alternatively available as a Firefox extension (data is still stored locally)
  • Mendeley has an official iPad/iPhone app, with 3rd party apps available for Android. No official Zotero apps, but 3rd party available for both Android and iOS.
  • Mendeley has a PDF annotation feature.

This table gives a detailed comparison of 5 different reference managers, including Zotero and Mendeley.

We have made a screencast of Zotero in action, so you can get an idea of how easy it is to drop references into your essay and create a bibliography at the end. (This is the Firefox add-on version of Zotero with the Microsoft Word plug-in. Other versions will look slightly different but do the same thing.) For best results view full-screen and in HD (click on the settings wheel in the bottom right and select 720p or higher).

Clicking on the Zotero icon in the bottom right corner of the browser window opens up your reference database. Every reference you’ve ever saved is stored in your library, and you can also sort them into collections, which allows you to group references for a particular essay together.

When you are on a webpage which has information that you might want to cite, an icon will appear in the address bar. For example when you are looking at a book on LibrarySearch or Amazon, a blue book icon will appear. When you are looking at a journal article on JSTOR or reading an article on the Guardian website, an article icon will appear. Clicking on the icon will add the reference to Zotero. You will now find it in your unfiled items, and you can drag it into a collection.

There are cite-while-you-write plug-ins for all of the common word-processing programs, which allow you to drop the references into your essay while you’re typing it. Whenever you want to insert a citation you just click a button in the toolbar and a window will pop up with options for choosing the referencing style you want. Then you can search for the reference you want within your library, and in seconds the reference is there in your essay.

At the end of your essay you need to include a bibliography with all of the sources you used. Again, Zotero makes this very easy. As you’ve grouped your references into collections for each essay, you can just right click on the collection folder and generate a bibliography of everything in that collection. You can choose the referencing style, and you have the option to save the bibliography as a new file, print it, or copy and paste it directly into your essay.


About homlib

The Library of Homerton College, University of Cambridge.
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4 Responses to Research Survival Guide Part 3: References and bibliographies

  1. Pingback: Research Survival Guide: Slides, links and resources | Homerton College Library weblog

  2. Pingback: Research Survival Guide Part 2: Evaluating Resources | Homerton College Library weblog

  3. adam3smith says:

    This: “Zotero is alternatively available in an online only version as a Firefox extension” is incorrect. The Zotero Firefox add-on is no more “online” than the standalone version. It stores data locally and works when you aren’t connected to the internet.

  4. homlib says:

    Thank you for the correction Adam, I’ve amended the post to make that clear.

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