How to correctly reference a dissertation
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
In academic writing at all levels, referencing is crucial. Knowing how to reference your dissertation correctly will not only give your work the academic finish it needs to pass, but will also support your ideas and arguments so that the person marking it has a clear understanding of your level of knowledge and research on the topic.
In this article, we’ll occasionally use the term ‘scholarly referencing’ – which quite simply means the style of referencing used in the world of academia (as opposed to the references you may include at the end of your CV, for example).
What is scholarly referencing?
Scholarly referencing refers to a series of conventions used to point readers towards sources that you have cited, quoted, or otherwise borrowed from in your work.
There are many different referencing styles (and the three main categories are discussed below), but they all provide the same fundamental pieces of information to enable a reader to go and find a source you've cited in your work and look at it for themselves:
- The author of the work
- The title of the work
- The type of publication (e.g. whole book, book chapter, journal article, webpage)
- The date of publication of the specific edition of the work you're using (if you're using a specific edition of a classic text, it's of more practical use for a reader to know that the edition you're referring to was published in, say, 2000, than that the original was published in 1818, though this information is sometimes provided in square brackets in the bibliography in addition to the year of the current edition)
- The publisher and place of publication
- If applicable, additional details (volume and issue number, page range) to enable your reader to find the specific source
Why and when do I reference?
The first reason most universities will give for why accurate citation is crucial is that it protects you from accusations of plagiarism. You need to provide a reference to any work done by others that you've incorporated into your own work. This does not just refer to direct quotations but also to paraphrases, data, and even broad "schools of thought", or ways of thinking about a topic.
Plagiarism is not always dishonest – you may not be intentionally passing off someone else's work as your own – but if you don't cite any source that may have influenced your thinking you're open to plagiarism accusations.
If you're in any doubt about whether a source has influenced an assertion you're making, cite it!
Beyond covering yourself, though, there are a couple of other reasons why you should practise good citation habits. Specifically, these have to do with your development as a scholar and your participation in the collective creation of knowledge:
- Readers of your work may want to engage with it directly, or it may simply stimulate their own thinking. Either way, it's common scholarly courtesy to make sure anyone who reads your work can trace the influences on your thinking, data, and methodology in a clear and transparent way.
- Citing other scholars extensively helps you to make the implicit rhetorical argument that you're well-read and informed on your subject, and readers are more likely to be convinced by your argument if you identify and cite reputable scholarly work that supports your interpretations.
What referencing system do I use?
In short, you may not have much of a choice. If you're lucky your university will let you choose between their preferred styles of parenthetical referencing and footnote referencing (for Arts or Humanities subjects) or their preferred parenthetical and numerical styles (for Sciences or Social Sciences).
If you do get a choice, read the “usage” sections for each referencing type below, and ask yourself the following questions:
- How many sources am I going to cite?
- Will I engage closely with a lot of my sources, or am I likely to cite briefly and in volume to note general trends in my field or in the literature?
- Will I use direct quotation or paraphrase?
If you're fortunate enough to have a choice in your referencing system, these questions should help you decide between the alternatives before you.
How do I reference my sources effectively and consistently?
If you're referencing a dissertation, you're likely to have many tens if not hundreds of sources. If you think of your bibliography as something separate from the process of researching and writing and plan to leave it till the end, remembering every single source you cited and finding all its bibliographic details is going to be a daunting task, to say the least. You need to develop a systematic way of tracking and organising works you've read and cited, both for your own retrieval later and for use in in-text citations and your bibliography.
Use software to help you
There are various ways to do this: you might prefer to set up a spreadsheet or just keep thorough notes as you research. But by far the most efficient way to store, retrieve, and cite the sources you find – especially if you're working with lots of recent, online sources – is to use reference management software. Universities often have subscriptions to commercial packages like RefWorks and EndNote, but you can still save a lot of time with a freeware package like Zotero (though it has far less sophisticated bibliography-generating tools, and with far fewer citation formats, than the commercial tools).
Reference management software packages typically contain some or all of the following features:
- A database that you can organise into multiple folders (for example, one folder per chapter) to rationalise large numbers of sources
- A comprehensive set of fields corresponding to the information typically required by citation systems
- One or more mechanisms for automatically generating records (for example, web plugins that can grab citation details direct from certain pages; DOI searches that download citation data from the web; the ability to import text or XML files of entire bibliographic database searches)
- Word processor plugins (for Word or LibreOffice/OpenOffice) that allow you to insert in-text citations – both in footnote and parenthetical form
- One or more means of generating bibliographies and reference lists – usually both as a text list directly from the programme or as a set of fields based on the sources cited using the word processor plugin
These software packages can be hugely efficient time savers, allowing you to easily catalogue, retrieve and annotate sources as you research, and generating citations and even a complete bibliography for your project.
Do be aware, though, that auto-generated bibliographies won't always be 100% accurate. You might, for example, have to fill in missing pieces of information like place of publication for certain records, or reformat bibliographies to match your department's requirements.
Parenthetical referencing styles
Parenthetical referencing styles are the most common scholarly styles in use, and are employed across a wide range of academic disciplines, with different formats dominant in different fields.
MLA and Chicago tend to dominate in Arts and Humanities disciplines (especially in North America); APA is very common in the Social Sciences, while one of the many variants of the Harvard system can turn up in any discipline anywhere in the world!
Parenthetical styles generally work on the basis of economy. They allow the reader to quickly and easily locate a source in the reference list at the end of a work (in most parenthetical referencing formats this is labelled "References" or "Works Cited" and includes only sources directly cited in the written work), with a minimal disruption of the flow of the writing in which they appear. Because of their emphasis on economy, parenthetical styles generally mandate that you include the author's name in the parenthetical reference only if it's not clear from the context. So, if you introduce a quote with "Smith says that…" you wouldn't normally repeat Smith's name a few words later in parentheses.
Format and features (author-date systems)
Most parenthetical referencing systems use an "author-date" format. The parenthetical reference includes the author's surname and the year of publication (or just the year of publication if the author's name is clear from the context). So you might see, for example;
Scholars often complain that there are "far too many referencing styles for the young scholar to keep track of" (Smith 2012, p. 6)
Smith argues that "There are far too many referencing styles for the young scholar to keep track of" (2012, p. 6).
The year is always the first piece of information after the author's name in the reference list to allow you to quickly and easily match up a parenthetical reference with a bibliographic entry. Author-date entries must always form a unique identifier for a particular source – if a scholar has been exceptionally busy in a given year and produced multiple papers that are being cited in the present written work, the convention is to refer to them, both in-text and in the reference list, using the convention 2012a, 2012b, etc.
Page referencing conventions can vary considerably from format to format, depending on the discipline in which a referencing style is generally used. APA, for example, is designed for use in Social Sciences contexts and doesn't have a straightforward built-in mechanism for specifying page numbers, since it is expected that the vast majority of the time it will be used to reference paraphrases and summaries rather than direct quotations. When using APA to provide direct page number references it is recommended that the author and date be included when introducing the citation and the page reference be provided in a separate parenthetical note at the end of the citation;
Smith (2012) argues that "There are far too many referencing styles for the young scholar to keep track of" (p. 6).
The Harvard "system"
Harvard deserves a special mention among author-date systems: while it's very likely that your university uses Harvard for referencing in at least some disciplines, it's also equally likely that your university's idea of what Harvard referencing looks like is slightly different from any of its neighbouring universities. Whereas referencing styles like Chicago and MLA form part of detailed style guides that provide explicit rules on many aspects of scholarly writing (not just referencing), Harvard simply defines the types of information that should be included in a reference and some broad principles about formatting.
There are almost as many variations of the Harvard system as there are institutions and publications that use it, and though the variations are generally pretty minor they include things like the following:
- Whether authors' names are capitalised in the references list
- Whether "p." or just a number is used when referring to page numbers
- Whether a comma separates the author and date in the parenthetical reference (Smith 2012 or Smith, 2012)
- The organisation and formatting of various bibliographic elements
Confusingly, you very often won't find universities acknowledging these differences; go to almost any university library's guide to referencing and it will claim to be offering an authoritative guide to the Harvard System, not one variation among many – it's up to you to identify where other referencing guides or software don't agree.
You need to pay particularly close attention to this if you're using reference management software to keep track of your sources and generate your bibliography. If you set it to output a reference list in "Harvard" you can be almost certain that your list won't quite match the format your university expects and you'll have to do some manual formatting to get it right. Some reference managers include several variants of Harvard; you should experiment with these and pick the one that gets as close as possible to your format, but again you'll be lucky to find a 100% match.
Format and features (MLA)
MLA is something of a special case among parenthetical referencing systems as it doesn't use dates to identify works. It aims to be even more economical than author-date systems by identifying sources by author's name only and using minimal punctuation in the parenthetical reference, for example
Scholars often complain that there are "far too many referencing styles for the young scholar to keep track of" (Smith 6).
In the event that a written work contains more than one work by a single author, that work is identified by the shortest possible reference to its title, for example;
Scholars often complain that there are "far too many referencing styles for the young scholar to keep track of" (Smith, Scholar's 6).
Example of use
Note: the examples of sources used here and throughout this post are fictitious.
Scholars often complain that there are "far too many referencing styles for the young scholar to keep track of" (Smith 2012, 6).
In the References list:
Smith, Arnold. 2012. The Scholar's Complete Guide to Referencing. London: Scholar's Press.
Examples of parenthetical styles
- Chicago (author-date)
- MLA (Modern Language Association)
- APA (American Psychological Association)
Footnote / endnote referencing styles
Footnote referencing styles are most common in Arts and Humanities subjects (especially in the UK and Commonwealth countries), where direct quotation of sources – often at length – is commonplace and footnoting is also frequently used as a means of adding additional quotations, context, or clarifying comments. Footnote referencing styles almost always include page numbers when available (the exception being "classic" literary texts that exist in a multitude of editions and are more usually referenced by chapter, line, scene, or stanza number as appropriate). This referencing style works on the assumption that readers may want to go and find the source of specific quotations as they read, possibly to establish the context or to better understand the theory or argument behind the quotation. It's not uncommon in a heavily referenced book or journal article to see footnotes containing bibliographic references and other material take up half a page or more!
Format and features
A number in superscript font (or, more rarely, parentheses, especially for work published online) at the end of a quotation or assertion indicates that the text is supplemented by a note. In most footnoting styles the note will be at the bottom of the page on which its corresponding number appears, or on an adjacent page if the word processing software's text formatting rules dictate that the page footer has become too large. The footer section is usually separated by a horizontal rule to separate it from the body of the page, and the note is found next to its corresponding number. Less common endnote referencing styles – and variations of footnote styles used by certain university departments or publications – collect all notes at the end of the chapter or work.
The level of detail given in the footnote may depend on whether or not the referencing style also uses a bibliography. If a bibliography is used, the footnote may contain only sufficient detail to find the source in the bibliography – for example the work's author and title – and a page reference for the citation. Unlike other referencing formats, footnote referencing styles generally don't restrict bibliographies to containing only sources directly cited in the work; you are free to include all sources you consulted in writing your work, irrespective of whether you cited them or not.
Some footnote referencing styles don't use a separate bibliography at the end of the written work, which means that the entire bibliographic details for the article must be contained in the footnote. However, two of the most common footnote referencing styles, Oxford and MHRA, generally require that the full bibliographic details be given in the footnote and in an alphabetised bibliography (although publications using MHRA in particular may choose to omit the bibliography, universities tend to require it). Generally a shortened note form (author, title, page reference) is permissible for subsequent footnotes after the one in which the source is first introduced.
Example of use
Smith argues that "There are far too many referencing styles for the young scholar to keep track of".1
In the footer:
1 Arnold Smith, The Scholar's Complete Guide to Referencing (London: Scholar's Press, 2012), p. 6.
In the bibliography:
Smith, Arnold, The Scholar's Complete Guide to Referencing (London: Scholar's Press, 2012).
Examples of footnote styles
- MHRA (Modern Humanities Research Association)
- Chicago (footnote style)
Numbered referencing styles
Numbered referencing styles are usually restricted to the sciences. They cater for contexts in which very large numbers of sources are likely to be referenced in brief or in paraphrase, with as many as 5-10 sources used to support a single assertion or argument, but where direct quotation is rarely if even used. The use of numbers as shorthand to refer to bibliographic records is an ideal solution for situations in which sources are referenced in such high volumes that even the briefest parenthetical citation style would still lead to unacceptably long interruptions in the flow of the text.
Format and features
Each source is assigned a unique number, depending on when it first appears in the text. The number is inserted in parentheses in the text (not normally in superscript format, unlike with footnotes) and the same number is used for every subsequent reference to that source. References are listed at the end of the document in numerical (not alphabetical) format for easy retrieval. Numerical references are very well-suited to publications whose sole or primary medium is electronic, as the numerical references to sources can be hyperlinked very unobtrusively to their corresponding entries in the reference list.
Example of use
Scholars often complain about the high number of different referencing systems a university student might have to learn during the course of his or her studies (1-4).
In the references list:
1. Smith A. The Scholar's Complete Guide to Referencing. London: Scholar's Press; 2012.
Examples of numerical styles
By far the most common standardised numerical referencing style is Vancouver. However, many universities just refer in generic terms to "the numeric style" without specifically identifying it as Vancouver style. As with Harvard referencing, the detailed implementation of these styles varies somewhat from university to university and publication to publication, but they are typically close variants of the Vancouver system, and setting your referencing software to output a Vancouver-style bibliography should get you fairly close to the style your department is looking for.
How referencing is changing – electronic sources and the Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
A Digital Object Identifier, or DOI, is an ISO standardised and increasingly commonplace way of referencing online sources. It works like a cross between an ISBN and a URL. Like an ISBN, it's a unique, stable identifier for a particular digital source that allows you to look it up in a database; like a URL it also functions as a type of “address”, helping you identify not only what the object is but where it is.
The overwhelming majority of new articles published in online journals are now assigned a DOI, and the information about that DOI (including the article’s author, title, and publication date, and the name, volume and issue of the journal in which it was published) is stored in a centralised database as metadata.
This is great news if you're using reference management software: simply input an article’s DOI and the software will download the associated metadata and create a full bibliographic record from it!
But best of all, one of the metadata properties that is stored and regularly updated for the DOI is the URL of the article. Enter any object’s DOI into a web browser preceded by http://dx.doi.org/ and it should resolve to the best current place to access the text of the article. If the article is open-access this will generally be a page on which the article’s full text is published; otherwise it's likely to be a login page from which you can gain access via either an institutional or personal account.
To an extent, referencing systems are still playing catchup with DOIs, although the most recent editions of APA and MLA both contain full guidance on citing online sources using DOIs (which are now explicitly preferred to URLs where they're available) and even allow you to omit some other key details about the source if you do provide a DOI.