Academic Referencing 101 (The What, Why and How)

academic referencing

What Is Academic Referencing?

Academic referencing is basically using someone else’s words, data or findings in your academic writing and giving them the credit. It is a crime not to acknowledge the source of your work.

Lack of referencing is known as plagiarism – a serious offence that can result to jail time.

There are several types of referencing styles. The specific style to use depends on your study discipline.

Citing someone else’s work entails indicating the author’s name, date, title of work, where the work was published as well as the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) for online work.

Importance of Academic Referencing

Mastering the art and science of academic referencing has many benefits for the student and other users, including:

  1. It improves your writing skills: Referencing entails paraphrasing, summarizing and quoting other people’s work. It also entails conducting thorough research and writing drafts. All these skills help to hone your writing skills and give you a unique writing style.
  2. You become knowledgeable on a wide array of subjects: You gain a competitive edge and are able to apply your knowledge in life.
  3. It displays responsibility and maturity: When you use other people’s work and give them credit, this shows a sense of maturity and authenticity.
  4. It helps you to develop authoritative voice in research: You are able to critique or agree with others’ opinions in a healthy manner. This gives you space to fill in any research gaps. As a result, you can confidently defend your work.
  5. It makes it easier for people to obtain the original source of information. Someone can easily refer to the cited work for confirmation.

Academic Referencing Styles

The most common referencing styles are:


APA (American Psychological Association) referencing style is used in Psychology and social sciences.  

Basic APA guidelines are as follows.

  • Double space your academic paper.
  • Recommended font type and size is Times New Roman, 12.
  • Your essay should have a 1-inch margin on all sides.
  • Use a running head/ page header. This is found at the top of each page and includes your paper title, albeit in short form.
  • Divide your paper into four sections:
  • Title page. This contains the title, your name and the institution you are affiliated with.
  • Abstract. This is a clear summary of the major points of your research paper. These include research questions, topic, data analysis, results and findings. Recommended word count is 150 – 250.
  • Main body. Gives in-depth information on what you have researched on.
  • References. This is a list of all cited works. References are listed in alphabetical order.


MLA (Modern Language Association) is synonymous with humanities, languages and arts.

Basic MLA guidelines are as follows.

  • Double space your entire paper.
  • Use 1-inch margin on all sides of every page.
  • Indent the first line of each paragraph ½ inch from the left margin. This is best done using the “Tab” key.
  • MLA does not have a title page, unless your supervisor instructs you to include one.
  • Use a header on all pages. This is located at the top right side corner of the paper. It consists of your last name and page number. The header numbers all pages of the essay consecutively.
  • MLA gives provision for endnotes and footnotes. Endnotes are listed on their own page before the Works Cited page.
  • Center your title.
  • Works Cited page has listings of any referenced items. Authors’ names are listed alphabetically, beginning with the author’s last name.


The Chicago Manual of Style is another referencing option for history, arts as well as literature. It incorporates both the Notes-Bibliography (NB) as well as the Author-Date (AD) formats.

Basic guidelines for using Chicago/ Turabian style are as follows.

  • Use extracts in your paper. Extracts are blocked quotations. Extracts are indented, started on a new line and are not enclosed within quotation marks.
  • Double space your paper except for extracts.
  • Use a header for page numbers.
  • Use readable fonts like Courier or Times New Roman, with a recommended font size of 12.
  • Include a title page. The title is placed slightly lower in the page, about 1/3down. Your name, date and course type are located much further down after the title.
  • Referenced works are titled as “Bibliography” for Notes-Bibliography format and “References” for Author-Date format.


The Harvard referencing style also uses the author-date format. It is used interchangeably in social sciences and humanities.

Basic guidelines are as follows.

  • Uses similar formatting as APA. In-text citation include the author’s surname, page number and year of publication.
  • Reference list is on a separate page. It is listed in alphabetical order of authors’ names or source title.
  • Double space your content.

Useful Referencing Tools and Resources


As a research student, you will need all readily available citation tools. Zotero is a free citation tool that allows you to manage your research process.

Zotero allows you to attach research notes, share citations with colleagues, separate your research work into subjects, save your cited works in files as well as create reference lists as you work.

Zotero is available as an application.

Related post: How To Use Zotero For Reference Management (An Illustrative Guide)


Research work can take its toll on you as a student. The Endnote is a research software that allows you to access your stored citations anytime.

You can share and organize research documents using Endnote.


Another research management tool, Mendeley also allows you to connect with other colleagues and students.

You can use Mendeley to create bibliographies, pull out citation materials and organize your research in bits.

Mendeley is compatible with desktops, Mac as well as laptops.


Citavi is favorable for both students and organizations who need knowledge management strategies.

Citavi allows you to collaborate with colleagues, share research materials, store information, create discussion forums, categorize your research as well as manage your content.


This referencing tool simplifies your research process in numerous ways.

RefWorks allows you to retrieve information from any source, gives accurate references, provides unlimited storage folders, search tools, share with other users as well as supports institutions and libraries in providing seamless research process to students.

Final Thoughts on Academic Referencing

In conclusion, academic referencing is a skill that gets better with practice. As a PhD student, you cannot sail through without effective academic referencing. Knowing the various referencing styles and resources simplifies your research process.

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Grace Njeri-Otieno

Grace Njeri-Otieno is a Kenyan, a wife, a mom, and currently a PhD student, among many other balls she juggles. She holds a Bachelors' and Masters' degrees in Economics and has more than 7 years' experience with an INGO. She was inspired to start this site so as to share the lessons learned throughout her PhD journey with other PhD students. Her vision for this site is "to become a go-to resource center for PhD students in all their spheres of learning."

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