Footnotes and referencing are some of the most common problems students struggle with when preparing an essay or dissertation. You’ve written a fantastic piece of work, all your ideas are in order and you’ve referred to a great variety of relevant sources. Yet you face the frustration of losing vital marks if you fail to accurately and correctly reference your work, whether using the Oxford or Harvard referencing system. This simple guide helps to explain how to reference your essay or dissertation in either style.

What is referencing?

Referencing is the practice of ensuring that every time you cite a book or study (or indeed any piece of work) by another writer, you accurately inform your reader of your source. This prevents plagiarism or the idea that you might try to pass off other peoples’ theories as your own. It also shows a reader or examiner the extent of the research that exists to support your work and allows them to consult it themselves.

Different referencing methods

The first thing to be aware of is that there are several different accepted referencing methods, all of which have slight variations in format. This often causes a great deal of confusion, but the most important thing is to be consistent. You may well find that a specific referencing system is prescribed for a piece of work, but if not just make sure that whichever form you choose, you are consistent in using it throughout and keeping all your references uniform in format. Once you have decided how to reference, stick with that system throughout your essay.

Oxford and Harvard referencing – what's the difference ?

Two of the most well-known and commonly used referencing methods are Oxford and Harvard referencing. These are the systems you are most likely to be asked to use for an essay or thesis and also the most widely recognised, so it is advisable to use one of these if you are choosing your own reference system.

The main difference between these two systems is that the Oxford method uses footnotes to place references at the end of each page, whilst the Harvard method includes certain information within the text.

There are many complex details involved in using these styles of referencing, which would be too numerous to list here, so it is highly advisable to consult an in-depth guide to how to reference correctly. The information below is intended to give an overview of the main points and some helpful advice to bear in mind when using them.

The Oxford referencing system

This form of referencing uses footnotes to present referencing information unobtrusively at the bottom of each page of text. A small number called a note identifier (usually formatted in superscript) follows any quote you use and refers to the number at the bottom of the page beside which the citation for that reference may be found.

Most computers have helpful functions to enable you to do this automatically without having to enter the numbers yourself, so if you go back to add an extra reference, the numbering will automatically adjust to take this into account. On any Microsoft Word document, simply click on the ‘Insert’ menu and select ‘Footnote’ (or ‘Reference’ and then choose ‘Footnote’ from the drop-down list).

Tip: Make sure you use a ‘footnote’ to place the reference at the bottom of the page, rather than an ‘endnote’, which will place it at the end of your essay.

What information should a footnote include?

A footnote should contain the following information, with the title of the book or work in italics and all other text in normal font: author initial and surname, title, publisher name, place of publication, date, page number. For example:

J.M. Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K, Vintage, London, 1998, p.47

Tip: You can usually find the publication date and place on the reverse of the title page inside the book.

If you use further references to the same text later on you can abbreviate subsequent footnotes to simply: author, page number.

The Harvard referencing system

The Harvard referencing system includes the author, the date of the work and the page number in brackets in the body of the text, immediately following the quote or reference. For example:

Depending on a company's goals, there are a variety of reasons top management may decide to undertake cost controls; it could be for proven cost reduction (Corbridge, 1998, p.27) or to "improve corporate image in the environmental area" (Bozena, et al, 2003, p.45).

In the Harvard style, a bibliography of the all references is included as a separate section at the end of the piece of work to give full details of each text, including its title, publisher and place of publication.

Tip: If you have already used the author’s name as part of your reference, it is not necessary to repeat it in the brackets. For example:

As Corbridge (1998, p.27) suggests…

A final note...

This is by no means a complete guide to the intricacies of how to reference, but it is hopefully a helpful introduction to clear up the common confusion between the two main referencing styles. There are myriad possible tiny variants – for example in instances when a book has more than one author – so it is advisable to consult a guide or your editor or supervisor for clarification. Using the Oxford referencing system does not necessarily mean you will not also be required to include a bibliography. But there is always a bibliography in the Harvard referencing system.

Remember, the most important thing is to make sure that whatever stylistic decisions you make about your footnotes and references, they remain completely uniform and consistent throughout your essay or dissertation writing.