Referencing – how to.

I’ve reached a point with references and referencing where I am tearing my hair out.  Here’s the how and why of referencing (which may form a draft of something I give to students next year).

Good referencing is like addressing an envelope properly – there are certain styles and conventions that must be followed in order for your mail to get to its destination.  Similarly with referencing, there are specific styles and conventions appropriate to the task in hand that must be followed for the reader to get to the original source of information.  When we’re talking about scientific publications, journals have many different styles of referencing.  If I conduct some research, write it up and submit it to  a journal, I am expected to follow their style of referencing.  Otherwise my paper is not in the correct format and will be sent back to me to fix before publication.  If I set an assignment for students where I specify a reference style, I expect them to follow the reference style as it is training for future assignments where they will be expected to follow style guidelines properly.

An appropriate reference style contains the following minimum information in some order: journal abbreviation (NOT article name), last name of first author, year of publication, first page number.  Other information that may be included: the initials or full names of all authors, full journal name instead of abbreviation, the volume or issue of the journal, the last page number, the title of the article.  The minimum information is generally sufficient for a researcher of some experience to retrieve the article being referred to.

1.  Journal Abbreviation – many journal reference styles require that the abbreviated title of the journal be used.  A comprehensive list can be found here: Web of Science Help.  Note that this list is capitalized, this may not be the required format.

2. First Author – various combinations of initials, last names, full names, partial or complete lists of authors are used. The bare minimum is the last name of the first author.  Journal style guides describe the appropriate style.

3.  Year of publication, first page number – for obvious reasons. If a journal publishes more than one volume in a year (and hence more than two page 1 exist), the volume number would be needed.

The bottom line here is that journals have specific styles, the information is readily available through their websites and it isn’t that difficult to find and follow the guidelines.

Some other referencing traps:

Database searches.  If I search Google for a phrase – for example ‘Creme Egg’.  I get a webpage with an address like this: which seems to work fairly well if you cut paste it into different browsers.  It is, however, incredibly irritating to try and type that link into an address bar.   If I search however in Web of Knowledge for the journal citation report for Dalton Transactions, I get an address like:  If I cut paste that into a browser, I get the equivalent of page not found because it is not a permanent link to that page.  The link is meaningless – the reference fails to provide adequate information to view the original source.

In general website references must include  date accessed (because the content may change), but should also be permanent links to content.  In the above case, a link to the website and details of the search run would be appropriate.

The obvious traps – over or under referencing.  Or referencing common knowledge.  These are tricky, and highly subject dependent.  Really its just experience that helps you get this right.

Unusual sources – I’m not a fan of referencing lecture notes or other course materials.  Generally in a scientific journal such information would be referenced as private or personal communication (as in letter or email), but it isn’t good because the reader may not be able to access the original source of the information.  If it is something from lecture notes, find a textbook that says the same thing.  If it is something your lecturer told you, ask them about an appropriate source.

Referencing is time consuming and annoying, but just like addressing all your Christmas cards, it is necessary and must be done properly.

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