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Documenting sources

Bibliographies, reference lists and styles

A bibliography is a professionally referenced list of readings. It’s not a random list of everything read on a loosely defined topic, but a useful guide for reading that defines a specific area. Your bibliography is the record of your reading for a research project, and shows the development of your knowledge of the topic and what other researchers are doing. Your final written discussion of literature may not include all the items you’ve selected and read, but your bibliography keeps it all together in one place, and might serve more than one project. It records all the publication details that you will need to include in a list of publications actually cited in your writing.

All entries in your bibliography have to be accurate and adequate, so you and anyone else can always quickly trace the source of anything you are discussing. Using bibliographic software makes it easy to keep an accurate record of important papers you’re reading, and to keep notes on what you’re thinking about each item as you select and read it. The value of doing this will become clearer later in the course, but it’s generally a good habit to record your immediate thoughts as well as the publication details of your selected literature.

Referencing styles

Your reference list (publications cited in a particular piece of writing) should be formatted to follow a particular style, so it helps to get this right at the beginning of your research process – you don’t want to finish a literature review and then have to spend days re-formatting hundreds of references. The format, or style, of your referencing is determined by your discipline or publishing context, so find out now what style of referencing you should be using, and record all your reading in that style. There are too many different styles in use around the world for us to illustrate and name them here – what matters is that YOU know which style you’re using, and that you maintain all your references in the SAME style.

Referencing styles vary in the ordering of elements, not in the type of information they include. The style guide I follow is based on the Australian Government Publishing Service’s version of Harvard (author-date) style. Whichever style you follow, the basic information to be included is the same, even if the ordering varies:

  • the author’s family name and personal name (or initial letter, depending on the style);

  • the year of publication (perhaps in brackets, depending on the style);

  • the title of the paper/article (perhaps in single or double quote marks, depending on the style);

  • the name of the academic journal (in italics or underlined, depending on the style);

  • the volume number and the issue number (if there is one) and

  • the page range

Rules are similar for referencing books and book chapters, and other kinds of source – just find a style guide and follow it exactly and consistently for each type of publication. It might be easy to copy references from journal articles and databases, but you need to carefully check the formatting, because the style may be different to what you need to follow. Be sure to format every single source in your own bibliography and reference lists in the same way. It might seem a bit much to demand that all referencing is always accurate, complete and consistent, but it’s not about making the writer’s life miserable – it’s about the reader. Reading a lot of academic literature trains the mind to see patterns and to read ever more quickly, and errors and inconsistencies in referencing interfere with that. As an academic writer, you need to make sure you don’t disturb the established norms that enable academics to read very quickly.

Conversation starter

  • Do you recognise the difference between a bibliography and a reference list?

  • Do you think the reference list at the end of a journal article represents everything that author has ever read on the topic?

  • Have you read a journal article that seems to be citing lots of sources for the sake of making it look like they are well informed, but doesn’t seem to show good understanding of the sources?

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This article is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong

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