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Referencing Styles 101: Easy Hacks

Referencing Styles for academic papers. Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

Referencing style guides are more than just about creating the list and citing sources. It is about a whole system of formatting academic papers. Although, not all referencing style manuals have sections on formatting text. Therefore, for the most part you should focus on how sources are referenced in different styles. A key aspect of academic writing is using referencing to clearly identify information and ideas in your writing that come from source materials. It’s essential to acknowledge other people’s ideas in this way so that you can avoid plagiarism.

Before going any further, it is important to understand the difference between a referencing style and a referencing system. A referencing style is a generic approach to citing sources (e.g., Harvard, Oxford, and Vancouver). However, there may be several versions or variations of any given style. A referencing system is a citation style set out in a published style guide (e.g., APA style, MLA style, or Chicago style), meaning there is a single authoritative source on the correct style. There might be a difference but at the end of the say they are all designs by which sources are referenced and cited.

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referencing style

Referencing styles in general have two main foci. The first is citation of the sources within the text. Citations appear in the text of your document to show where you’ve used information or words from source materials. The second is the list of the sources as well as the details on how to access them. Appears at the end of the document and contains the full details of each source cited in the text so the reader can find them if they want to.

Although it is not set in stone, being in a certain field does not tie you to the referencing style that is common or specifically designed for that discipline. Particular referencing styles are preferred by particular academic disciplines because they work better with the kind of texts that are most commonly used in that discipline. This page includes brief details of each style of referencing used by different departments at Reading. You should always check your course handbook to see which their preferred style is. Remember that if you are studying modules in different departments or schools, they may each prefer a different referencing style.

Different Designs of Referencing Styles


(Last name year, page)

This is perhaps the most common of all three designs. It is simple and easily applied. It is used by popular referencing styles like APA. Referencing styles with the Author-Date citation system are primarily used by those in the physical, natural, and social sciences. Instead of using notes, sources are cited directly in the text, in parentheses, by the author’s last name, publication date, and page number(s), if necessary. A full citation for the source will also appear in the Bibliography page.

When using an Author-Date reference style, all bibliographic sources will have the year of publication listed directly after the author’s name. Doing so makes it easier to follow a text citation to the correct full source. This is particularly useful when identifying multiple citations from the same author.

This design can also be author-page instead of author-date. Some reference styles prefer to pinpoint the source of the information. Therefore instead of having (Albom 1997) it would be (Albom 56).


This is another common referencing design. It is used by referencing styles like Oxford. In the notes-bibliography system, you signal that you have used a source by placing a superscript number at the end of the sentence in which you refer to it. For direct quotations, put the superscript number immediately following the quotation.

You then cite the source in a correspondingly numbered note that provides information about the source (author, title, and facts of publication) plus relevant page numbers. Notes are printed at the bottom of the page (called footnotes) or in a list collected at the end of your paper (called endnotes).

In most cases, you also list sources at the end of the paper in a Bibliography. That list normally includes every source you cited in a note and sometimes others you consulted but did not cite. Each bibliography entry includes the same information about the source contained in the full note, but in a slightly different form. In some cases, the bibliography is not mandatory and can be left out. Although, it is prudent to include a bibliography to accompany the footnotes.


This design of referencing is not common. An example of the numerical design is the Vancouver referencing style. In the number reference system, a number is added in parentheses or square brackets in the appropriate place in the text, starting the numbering from 1. The bibliography of the work is arranged by the order in which the citations appear in the text.

This system is not as easy for readers to follow as the Harvard referencing system, but from a writer’s point of view the system is practical in that it does not affect the structure of the text. Using the numeric system is particularly justifiable if the resources include directories or other similar materials that do not have an author. Maintaining the number reference system without the help of reference management software is more difficult than the Harvard referencing system.

This design may also utilize letters instead of numbers. This means that inside the parenthesis would be a letter. The reference list at the end of the document would then be arranged in the order of the letters. This is not a common way to apply the numerical design in referencing styles, use of numbers is more prominent.

Common Referencing Styles

APA APA Style is defined by the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. It was designed for use in psychology, but today it’s widely used across various disciplines, especially in the social sciences.
MLA It is the official style of the Modern Language Association, defined in the MLA Handbook. It’s widely used across various humanities disciplines. Unlike most parenthetical citation styles, it’s author-page rather than author-date.
AMA The American Medical Association (AMA) provides guidelines for a numerical citation style using superscript numbers in the text, which correspond to entries in a numbered reference list. It is used in the field of medicine.
Harvard A term for parenthetical author–date referencing. This is when sources are cited by giving the author’s surname and a year of publication in the main text, with full source details then given in a reference list at the end of the document.
Oxford Another name for footnote referencing, where sources are cited in footnotes at the bottom of the page and listed in a bibliography.
Vancouver A name for number–note referencing, where sources are cited using numbers in the text. Each number then points to an entry in a reference list at the end of the document.
Chicago This is an author-date style that is often used in the sciences. It is one of the most authoritative styles which makes one of the most referenced styles when creating and updating other styles.


Which Referencing Style is good for you?

Usually, students are directed to a particular referencing style by their instructors. In other cases, institutions provide instructions on which the students should use in their assignments. However, if you are writing your paper to publish but not to submit to an instructor then the decision is left up to you. The table below is a guide to choosing a referencing style based on your discipline.

Harvard Agriculture, Policy and Development



Biological Sciences

Construction Management and Engineering

Food and Nutritional Sciences

Geography and Environmental Science

Mathematics and Statistics

Chicago Art
APA Psychology

Computer Science



English Language and Applied Linguistics

Vancouver Pharmacology


AMA Clinical Language Sciences
MHRA English Literature

Film, Theatre and Television



It is imperative that whichever referencing style you choose be executed properly. You cannot afford to mix up the rules either. You have to be able to apply each style exactly as the guides and manuals direct. Therefore, you should take the time to study a manual and/or referencing style before you try to apply it to your paper. Remember that academic writing is big on referencing. At the same time, remember that it matters how you reference. Use of referencing styles is not a matter of posterity but a matter of following the rules of academia. It is about adhering to the academic and professional code of conduct.

At Custom Scholars, we hire only the best professionals in the business. We are determined to ensure that whatever you need, whenever you need it and however you need it, we can handle. Therefore, you can be sure that no matter which referencing style you are looking to apply, we have someone on hand who has a mastery of it and can execute it perfectly. So reach out. Call us. Email us. Chat us up on our website. We can help. All you have to do is ask.

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