Last Updated 01 Jul 2021

How to Use References in Your Essays

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This is a quick guide to the different systems of referencing you might be asked to use. Normally you will have to use only one system during your academic course, but it’s useful to be familiar with other styles. This guide does not cover all the possible referencing systems, nor the variations of each, so seek further clarification from your department or the many useful online sources available.

Citations and References

Be aware of the difference between citations and references. Citations are placed in the body of your essay, and indicate to the reader where the idea you are stating has come from. They are typically a shorter form. The full reference is given in the reference list which comes at the end of the essay. Different systems of referencing use different conventions for both citations and reference lists. Some systems also stipulate that you should include a bibliography, a list of texts which you used to gain a broad understanding of the subject but which you do not refer to directly in your essay. Some of the most common referencing styles are Harvard, APA, MLA and Chicago. Other styles include IEEE (used in computer science and electronics), Vancouver (sciences and mathematics) and OSCOLA (law).

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There are a number of computer packages to help you with references. The following links to a table which compares the different ones and lists their pros and cons:


  • The Harvard referencing style is widely used across a number of subjects
  • There are several different versions of this style, so do check which is used in your department
  • The style is based on name and date for citations, with number also sometimes used.
  • This links to a guide giving one version of Harvard referencing in detail:
  • There are some online free reference-generating tools available, for example:


The referencing style of the American Psychological Association is known as APA. It is commonly used in psychology and the social sciences. Like Harvard, there are different versions of APA style.Features include the use of indentations in reference list, ampersands (‘&’) instead of ‘and’, and ways of treating multiple authored texts.


MLA is the referencing style of the Modern Languages Association. It is used in philosophy and English.
The rationale behind citations in the MLA system is to provide sufficient information for the reader to identify the source, with full details given in the reference list. It also rules that information given in brackets should not repeat information given in the text. In MLA the name and page number make up the citation, rather than the date. Names also include initials in citations. Like all referencing systems, MLA dictates a particular way of dealing with online and electronic sources.


  1. The Chicago style is used in English and History.
  2. In Chicago use is made of footnotes, and readers are given full bibliographic details of each source used, as it is cited on each page. Other footnotes referring to the same source give the information in a shorter form.
  3. A bibliography lists all works mentioned in the text.
  4. While footnotes appear in the order in which authors are mentioned in the text, the bibliography is alphabetical


  1. Imperial College (2013) ‘Reference Management’, [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
  3. University of Bristol (2013) ‘A guide to referencing academic work’ [online] (cited 14th February 2013) available from
  5. University of Cardiff (2013) ‘Citing and Referencing in the Harvard Style’, [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
  7. University of Cardiff (2013) ‘Referencing in the MHRA Style’, [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
  9. University of Southampton (2013) ‘Acknowledging Knowledge: an Academic Guide to Referencing’, [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
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