Academic Referencing

See also: Writing a Dissertation or Thesis

For information on how to reference this website for non-academic purposes, see the SkillsYouNeed referencing guide.

Citing and referencing information can be daunting for students who do not understand the principles.

There are numerous ways to reference. Different institutions, departments or lecturers may require different styles so check with your teacher, lecturer or instructor if you are unsure.

Bad referencing is a common way for students to lose marks in assignments so it is worth taking the time and effort to learn how to reference correctly.

Why Do We Cite and Reference?

When writing any academic essay, paper, report or assignment, you need to highlight your use of other author's ideas and words so that you:

  • Give the original author credit for their own ideas and work
  • Validate your arguments
  • Enable the reader to follow up on the original work if they wish to
  • Enable the reader to see how dated the information might be
  • Prove to your tutors/lecturers that you have read around the subject
  • Avoid plagiarism

Referencing Styles

There are many different styles of referencing, including Harvard, APA (from the American Psychological Association), Chicago and Vancouver. The Harvard referencing system is of the most popular styles and the remainder of this article deals with this system. However, your university may prefer the use of a different system so check with your lecturer or in your course information as to which referencing style to use.

What is Plagiarism?

  • Presenting another's ideas as if they are your own – either directly or indirectly
  • Copying or pasting text and images without saying where they came from
  • Not showing when a quote is a quote
  • Summarising information without showing the original source
  • Changing a few words in a section of text without acknowledging the original author


Plagiarism is a serious academic offence.  You are likely to be awarded 0% for an assignment which has evidence of plagiarism. If you continue to plagiarise then you may be excluded from your course.

Most universities will want a signed declaration with submitted work to say that you have not plagiarised. 

Universities use anti-plagiarism software to quickly find plagiarised work. This software usually draws on huge databases of web sources, books, journals and all previously submitted student work to compare your work to so you will be found out.

Therefore, if you plagiarise, you are likely to be caught so don't take the risk and reference properly.

Be Organised

When writing an essay, report, dissertation or other piece of academic work, the key to referencing is organisation. As you go along, keep notes of the books and journal articles you have read and the websites you have visited as part of your research process.

There are various tools to help here. Your university may be able to provide you with some specialist software (Endnote – or you can simply keep a list in a document or try Zotero ( a free plugin for the Firefox browser.

What Needs to be Recorded?

Record as much information as possible in references to make finding the original work simple.


Include the author/s name/s where possible. You should write the surname (last name) first followed by any initials.  If there are more than three authors then you can cite the first author and use the abbreviation 'et al', meaning 'and all'.


For one, two or three authors:
Jones A, Davies B, Jenkins C

For more than three authors
Jones A et al.

For some sources, especially websites, the name of the author may not be known. In such cases either use the organisation name or the title of the document or webpage.

Example: SkillsYouNeed or What Are Interpersonal Skills.

Date of Publication

You should include the year of publication or a more specific date if appropriate, for journal or newspaper articles/stories. For webpages look for the when the page was last updated. Include dates in brackets (2020) after author information. If no date can be established, then put (no date).

Title of Piece

Include the title of the piece; this could be the name of the book, the title of a journal article or webpage. Titles are usually written in italics. For books you should also include the edition (if not the first) to make finding information easier. Often when books are republished information remains broadly the same but may be reordered, therefore page numbers may change between editions.

Publisher Information

Usually only relevant for books, but for these you should include the publisher name and place of publication.

Page Numbers

If you are referencing a particular part of a book, then you should include the page number/s you have used in your work. Use p. 123 to indicate page 123 or pp. 123-125 to indicate multiple pages.

URL and Date Accessed

For webpages you need to include the full URL of the page (http://www... etc.) and the date you last accessed the page. The web is not static and webpages can be changed/updated/removed at any time, so it is therefore important to record when you found the information you are referencing.

Once you have recorded the information, you have everything you need in order to reference correctly. Your work should be both referenced in the text and include a reference list or bibliography at the end. The in text reference is an abbreviated version of the full reference in your reference list.

Direct Quotes

If you are directly quoting in your text you should enclose the quote in quotation marks, and include author information:

"Communication is simply the act of transferring information from one place to another." SkillsYouNeed (2019)

For longer direct quotations it may be neater to indent the quotation in its own paragraph.

Your reference list should then include the full version of the reference:

SkillsYouNeed (2022) What is Communication? [online] available at (Accessed October 14 2022)

For a book you would use, in your text:

“Long before the twelfth century rhetoricians had collected quotations, particularly from classical authors, into anthologies called florilegia…” (Clanchy, M.T, 1993)

The reference list would then include the full reference:

Clanchy, M.T. (1993) From Memory to Written Record England 1066 – 1307 Oxford, Blackwell, p. 115

The same rules also apply when you are referencing indirectly and you have not included a direct quote. If you have used the ideas of another source, reference both in your text at the relevant point and in your reference list or bibliography at the end of your document.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

Skills You Need

Develop the skills you need to make the most of your time as a student.

Our eBooks are ideal for students at all stages of education, school, college and university. They are full of easy-to-follow practical information that will help you to learn more effectively and get better grades.

Additional Information

When quoting you may sometimes want to leave out some words, in which case use … (three dots).

"Communication is … transferring information from one place to another"

If you need to add words to a quote for clarity, then square brackets are used:

“Communication is simply the act [in communication skills] of transferring information from one place to another.”

You can use [sic] to note an original error and/or foreign spelling, SkillsYouNeed is a UK site and therefore uses UK spellings:

"The color [sic] of the water..."