As an academic or researcher you are the top of a pyramid of human knowledge stretching back thousands of years. Your knowledge is the result of a litany of people before you building one small piece of the very large puzzle that you are now solving.

Now, whether you are choosing to use that vast cumulative knowledge to develop the next cure for cancer or in order to make ice cream taste slightly more like a different type of ice cream, you are doing so with the help of those that have gone before.

Part of research is that it is important to explain which particular bit of the giant pyramid of knowledge you used to reach your new existing idea/discovery. Pointing at the whole thing and saying “yeah, that totally proves it” is very much frowned upon.

So when releasing your work it’s important you properly reference all that has come before and all that you used to support your tiny new block you want to add to the pyramid. This is where referencing comes in.

For those of you that worry about referencing correctly in their work, we at ErrantScience have prepared this detailed guide to help give you all the advice you need to make it as totally unreadable as everyone else’s.

What information you need need to reference

Hopefully if you are looking up how to write a reference section you have some cutting edge new research that you want to publish. Now, that research was almost certainly based on several other bits of research that came before and it’s important to make sure your research shows that, as well as puts it in context of the field it’s within.

Or at least make it look like that last paragraph is true, as like all researchers you can’t remember where any of that came from and are just happy to have some good results.

The standard here is to write a nice introduction to your research report, paper or thesis that you think sounds a lot like you remember how it all fits. Then you need to go back through and find your more outlandish statements, those are the bits you need to reference.

Then start googling to find papers that match what you wrote/half remember.

Choosing sources

Information can come from many sources. Some sources are better sources of information than others (e.g. journals and books), others are sources of “information” (e.g. the Daily Mail or Fox News). It’s important to make sure you’ve found the best and most up to date source for your information.

For many research papers many people go for journal papers as their primary source of information. As they are a primary source often produced directly as a research output they seem like a good place to cite. However, they are also impenetrably hard to read and frankly who’s got the time for that. Wikipedia has almost the same information and it’s all nicely formatted so just cite that.

Another key source of places to reference would be the journal papers of your friends in academia. They might not be at all relevant, but they are really good people so I’m sure they know what they are talking about. Besides if you cite them they might cite you which makes everyone happy.

Referencing information

Once you’ve got all the things you want to reference you’ll need to make sure you have all the information you need to reference it correctly. There are many guides for this but a quick summary is this:

For a journal paper you’ll need the authors, title, journal name, year it was published. You won’t need the DOI which is a simple and easy to find a unique reference for the paper. But you will need the volume, issue and page number, even for online only journals.

For a book you’ll need the authors, title, edition, the city in which it’s published, the publisher and the page numbers. Publishers often have multiple offices around the world as well as numerous print contractors. Determining which city it was printed in is of course vital.

For websites you’ll need much less (as many don’t have authors and are written by web pixies) but you will need to say when you accessed it. As 99% of websites don’t say when they were last updated and website archiving is patchy at best this date is obviously vital to ensuring that no one will have the slightest clue if they are looking at the same information.

Referencing style

Styles are something that you can have some choice over but it depends a little. Most journals and universities have style guides they want you to follow. For reasons that even the brightest can’t fathom literally everyone has their own unique style.

You should budget at least 4-5 days for trying to get your citations into the correct style. Even if you use a citation manager there will always be one aspect of it that doesn’t quite fit or work with the style you have to use.

At least one of the 4-5 days you spend on making the style right will involve eating your own weight in ice cream and crying.

Number of references

Finally you need to make sure you have enough citations. If you write an amazing 12 page research paper that has just 5 citations then that’s not enough.

You’d think that the number of citations would be more judged on merit and entirely irrelevant, but weirdly it’s not and many reviewers will judge your work on a pure numbers count.

If you are stuck then please feel free to put references to the ErrantScience Journal of Clutter – this free service will enable you to increase you paper count without needing actual work.

If you’ve followed this guide correctly then your referencing section will be as good as those you have seen in Nature or Science. And everyone knows those journals let anything in if it’s got a proper reference section.


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