Referencing essentials

A step by step approach to help you manage and acknowledge sources effectively.

What is referencing?

Written work at university requires correct referencing. Evans (1995) defines referencing as “the labelling of material you have drawn from other writers with enough information for the reader to be able to locate the source” (p.52).

To make sure that you don’t lose marks unnecessarily or worse, unintentionally plagiarise material, it is important to get referencing right.

There are usually two parts to any reference:

  1. An indicator within the text which points out that material has been drawn from elsewhere (usually a number, footnote, or the author’s name and date, often called an in-text reference or citation).
  2. Detailed information about the source at the bottom of the page (often called footnotes) and/or at the end of the paper (often called end-of-text or bibliographic referencing)

How to reference effectively

There are many different formatting styles for referencing (e.g. APA, Harvard, MLA, Vancouver, Chicago). Whichever style you use, you need to apply it accurately and consistently.

The best way to do this is to take a step by step approach in which you:

  1. Plan how you want to manage information before you start researching
  2. Record information carefully while reading and writing
  3. Edit your work carefully using a style guide before submitting.
  • Step 1: Decide how you want to manage your references

    We’ve outlined three approaches to managing your references below. Want to know which method might work best for you? Check out the options for managing references guide from the library.


    You can choose to do it ‘manually’, meaning you take careful notes  and record information about the sources you use, then follow a style guide (such as re:cite) to format your reference list and in-text citations yourself.

    Citation generators

    You can also use online citation generators (such as the one available in Google Scholar) to generate reference list entries for your sources. You still need to manually add in-text citations and double check the reference list is accurate using a style guide – they do occasionally make mistakes.

    Reference management software

    Software such as Endnote, Zotero or Mendeley are particularly useful when you’re writing longer papers with a significant research component (30+ sources). You can create your own library of references, insert citations or footnotes and generate bibliographies.

  • Step 2: Find out what referencing style you need to use

    Check your subject guide or assessment instructions, and if you’re still not sure ask your lecturer.

    It’s important to know exactly which style you need to use as there are quite a few (e.g. APA, Harvard, MLA, Vancouver, Chicago) and they all have different, and very specific, conventions that you need to follow.

  • Step 3: Find a style guide and read the general notes for an overview

    A style guide outlines the rules you need to follow and will often give you helpful examples. Re:cite is the University of Melbourne’s guide to citing and referencing. You’ll need this even if you are using citation generators or reference management software, as you still need to double check them for accuracy.

    So you know what to note down, read through the general style notes for an overview of the key features of the style e.g. author-date or numerical, chronological or alphabetical organization of reference list, if and when page numbers are required in citations.

  • Step 4: Label sources in your notes while reading

    Always label sources clearly when you’re taking notes, including author(s), year, page number and indicate clearly if it’s a quote or paraphrase. This helps you to keep track of where ideas came from and avoid accidental plagiarism.

  • Step 5: Label sources in text while writing

    Even if you’re only writing a rough draft, it’s a good idea to label sources as you use them. To avoid disrupting the flow of your writing don’t worry about following the rules exactly, just include enough information to help you locate the information again – author, year and page number is often enough.

  • Step 6: Edit and proofread your in-text citations

    After you have finished writing, go back and format your in-text citations. Read through your work, highlight anything you’ve used from another source (including data, ideas, words, images, and tables) and check your work against the style guide.

    Key things to look for in the style guide are:

    • Does this style use a number, or the author name and year in brackets?
    • How do you deal with multiple authors?
    • Is the formatting different for quotation and paraphrasing?
    • Is the formatting different if you use the author’s name in the wording of your sentence?
    • How does this style deal with secondary citation? (i.e. you want to refer to information that the source you read (the secondary source), borrowed from another writer [the primary source]).
  • Step 7: Format your reference list

    First, you need to identify the type of source you are using (e.g. online journal, book, government report). This is important because each type of publication requires different information. For example, for journals you may need to include volume and page numbers, and for books you often need a place of publication.

    Ask yourself:

    • Is it online or print?
    • Who wrote it, and who is the intended audience? Is it:
      • Academic? (e.g. a journal article)
      • Professional? (e.g. trade journal)
      • Popular? (e.g. newspapers or TV)
      • Social? (e.g. blogs or posts).

    Then, look at how bibliographic details are presented for that type of source in the style guide. Does it use endnotes, a reference list, or a bibliography?

    Notice the punctuation, capitalisation, order of information and general formatting. Every small detail is important.

Final tip

Always remember that referencing isn’t just something you do when you have finished writing.

Keeping track of the sources you use throughout your writing process will help you to avoid accidental plagiarism, acknowledge others’ work, show that you’ve considered the topic carefully and help your readers to find the sources you used.

Following the seven key steps above to do this will help you reference easily and effectively.

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