• Abbie Tibbott

Navigating Referencing, Citations and Footnotes


Referencing an essay is often the most tedious part of academic writing. We’re all guilty of leaving it until the last minute and having it backfire, but after you’ve spent days writing, polishing your footnotes is the last thing you’re interested in doing. I’ve been there, but now I understand the importance of referencing in avoiding plagiarism, adhering to a style guide and the polish it brings to a piece of work. I reference in the Oxford style, but my tips can be transferred to whatever style your university or college uses. I hope that I can save you some time and effort, especially if you’re running close to the deadline.


Mistake 1: Leaving it to the last minute


Having to go back through your work to correct or enter your footnotes from scratch is the last thing you want to be doing if a deadline is near. It can be frustrating to spend time on a seemingly meaningless part of your essay when you’d rather be proofreading! It’s important to remember that the reason that we reference (regardless of discipline) is to show evidence, credit authors and show academic integrity. Plagiarism is not tolerated at university so passing an idea off as your own could see you stood up in a disciplinary hearing. You’re normally only given one chance to make a plagiarism ‘mistake’ during your degree programme, therefore it is vital that you leave enough time for referencing.


My Advice: Accept footnoting and the bibliography as vital and inevitable parts of the university experience. The more you work on your referencing the faster you will get, combined with the other time-saving tips I’ll mention throughout this blog. Not referencing correctly will lose you marks and gain you a reputation for laziness and more serious accusations about academic misconduct could begin to appear. I’m not here to scare you, but it’s important to schedule in time to reference.


Mistake 2: Leaving your referencing until the end of the writing process


No-one at university told me that referencing at the end of an essay was not always the most effective way to write academically until the start of second year where it was mentioned as a passing comment in a seminar. I don’t know how I was expected to know this beforehand when I’d never done any proper referencing before university! Often students are left to figure these things out on their own which doesn’t always result in the best outcome. Footnoting an essay after you’ve finished writing it can lead to accidental plagiarism by forgetting to reference certain statements or confusing an author’s opinion with your own. It can also lead to the feeling of needing to footnote every sentence for clarity, leading to a high Turnitin score and feedback that there is a lack of analysis within your work. We all have our own methods and I’m not saying that you can’t reference at the end, but it’s really not the most time-effective way if you’re dealing with significant amounts of material.


My Advice: Whenever you make a statement or present evidence, make sure to drop in a footnote. If you don’t want to interrupt your flow of writing with your footnotes, just include the surname of the author, a shortened version of the title and the page number. This will mean that your finished draft will include basic details of the resources you have used, helping you to spot gaps in any research or a weak argument. When editing the text, footnotes can be corrected at the same time which will ensure you haven’t missed any. Including an incomplete footnote is a big indication that you haven’t proofread.


Mistake 3: Having a confusing referencing storage system


If you take your notes on paper, flicking through pages and pages of research to look for biographical details is tedious work. Storing reference details haphazardly or inconsistently simply brews trouble for the future when you’re trying to edit your footnotes. Bibliographies are essential to include as they summarise the resources you have used throughout your work, but incorrect information is obvious and can easily let your marks down.


My Advice: Switch to digital notetaking, or at the very least, consistently list biographical details digitally so they can be copy-and-pasted to your work with ease. Collecting reference information online will help you in the long-term too, as if you want to reuse certain research it will be easily accessible online. I recommend OneNote as a great tool to store any details you need as it has a search feature, which makes looking up references much quicker; it was a life-saver for my MA dissertation. Also, get into the habit of actually noting down biographical details at the start of every new research session.


If you’re new to referencing, different styles need different details, but at a minimum I would record:


· Title of publication

· Year of publication

· Place of publication

· Name of wider work (anthology, journal or corpus)

· Edition (if it’s an edition other than the first)

· Volume numbers or chapters

· Type of resource (article, book, website, etc.)

· Page numbers


At the beginning of each new resource, I will copy out the biographical details in the footnote style dictated by my department and then shorten any subsequent mentions. This means I can copy what I need with ease.


Mistake 4: Being inconsistent with your referencing


Departments or schools will have decided on a referencing style for your subject which you should use throughout your time at university unless told specifically otherwise. Many universities also issue style or citation guides which offer examples of how different types of resources should be cited. Referencing these resources slightly differently each time displays to markers that proofreading is not being undertaken effectively or that you don’t understand how to cite properly. Long-form essays such as dissertations or research projects are easily let down by sloppy referencing, which is such as shame considering the amount of effort you will have put in.


When I say inconsistency, examples could be:


· Using capital letters for every word in one footnote, and none in the next

· Full stops at the end of some footnotes but not others

· Including the place of publication sometimes, but not every time

· Shortening some references and leaving others long even though they are repetitions

· Not including page numbers consistently

· Using Ibid incorrectly


My Advice: Use the citation guide every time, making sure that when you’re proofreading an essay, all of your footnotes align to your department’s standards. Many schools will publish handbooks detailing how you should cite certain records and their verdict on shortening footnotes. As long as you follow directions closely there should be no problems!



This is an example of one of my secondary bibliography spreads!



Extra Advice


· Some lecturers will have their own preferences for how you cite resources in essays written for their module, but make sure that you defer to departmental guidelines. This way, if there is a discrepancy in marking you will be able to demonstrate that you aligned your work to how the department wants things cited, solving any potential issues. If you think that your referencing has been unfairly critiqued due to the personal preferences of a lecturer, don’t be afraid to take it up with senior member of staff.


· You will naturally begin to develop your own style of referencing within the framework of the citation guide. This is okay as long as it’s consistent! Straying too far from the citation guide will get you in trouble though.


· Ibid is overrated. I’ve never used it, so I won’t waste time explaining what it is. If your university insists that you cite this way, make sure that you fully understand how it works.


· There’s nothing wrong with seeking help with your referencing, especially if you’re new to it, or switching from another style. Study advice centres may be available in your department, library or student services, don’t be afraid to ask to be referred for some extra tuition. People who struggle with referencing without asking for assistance often never fully grasp it, so it’s important to get it sorted when you first start to struggle.


· Patience with referencing issues usually runs thin by the end of first year. It’s important to fix any issues brought up in feedback before your marks actually count. Students who struggle to reference will find writing dissertations and long-form essays difficult and will likely lose important marks. University champions independence, lecturers will not chase you!


· Don’t forget a bibliography! It’s often all copy-and-paste but consult style guides for any differences in format and make sure it is alphabetised and easy to read.


This post was a bit full-on, but I hope it will go some way to helping out your referencing. However much we dislike it, there are ways to make it easier!


Happy Studying!