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When you are writing a piece of work and you use someone else's words or ideas, you must reference them. But what exactly does referencing mean, and why is it so important? Let's find out...

Referencing in a nutshell

Academic work builds upon the shared ideas, words and findings of other people. However, whenever you use other people's work – whether from a book, journal article, newspaper, video or other source ­– you must acknowledge it. In other words, you need to tell the readers of your work where you got the information from and who produced it. This is called referencing ­– but what exactly is referencing, and why is it so important? Read on to find out...

  Check out our What is referencing? video to get started...

Why is referencing important?

Referencing makes it clear which information sources you’ve drawn on for your work. It places your writing in context, and shows that it builds on the work of others. This helps give credibility to arguments or analysis you present. It also proves you’ve taken the time to read around a subject – something your lecturers expect you to do, and a good way to get you better marks!

Referencing also gives credit to the original author or creator of the information you’ve used. It shows you’ve used their ideas and concepts. It also helps spread good work, connects important ideas, and contributes to the growing body of human knowledge.

What's in it for me?

Referencing allows assessors and other researchers to find and fact-check your sources – an important part of the academic review process. It also provides an easy-to-follow trail that other readers can follow to locate the sources you’ve used, should they want to learn more.

Good referencing also proves you have what it takes to thrive as an independent researcher. It shows you can understand a question or problem and then find, analyse and critically evaluate relevant sources to create your answer. These are key skills that both lecturers and graduate employers are looking for.

Finally, there’s another, even more important reason to reference. It helps distinguish your work from the ideas and contributions of other people. It shows which parts of your work are your own, and which parts were inspired by others. If you don’t make this difference clear, or you forget or fail to reference your sources correctly, your own ideas won’t stand out as clearly or get credit. At worst, you might even be accused of plagiarism – copying somebody else’s work and passing it off as your own.

The number of references you need to include in your work depends entirely on the type, length and topic of your research. Don’t go crazy and include too many – your work needs to be readable, and your lecturers really want to see evidence of your own, original thinking.

When do you need to reference?

You need to include a reference whenever you use information from someone else's work. It doesn’t matter where that information came from: web sites, textbooks, journal articles, magazines, newspapers, computer programs, images, social media: if you use it, reference it.

When is a reference not needed?

If something is considered common knowledge – simple dates or historic facts for example – you don’t need to reference it. “Newcastle upon Tyne is in the North East of England” is a well-known fact, so it doesn’t need a reference. In the same way, “the Earth is round” and “Shakespeare was an author” don’t need references either. This also applies to common knowledge in your own subject; if an educated reader would know a fact without needing to look it up, it probably doesn’t need a reference.

If you are unsure whether or not you should reference a piece of information, it is always best to play it safe and include a reference anyway.

Keeping up to date

If you’re involved in ongoing study or research, it’s vitally important that you keep up to date with new publications and developments in your field. Subject databases allow you save your searches and even set up automatic alerts when new information is released. Mailing lists, discussion groups and social media are also excellent ways to collaborate and stay informed.

360 degree searching

Looking at the references of a useful article or book chapter is an easy way to identify other potential sources to read. This will lead you to find older material that was published before your original article. Citation searching, on the other hand, allows you to search forwards from an article, to find publications which have subsequently used that original article in their own bibliography. This allows you to find more up-to-date analysis of your topic, and trace academic debates forwards, as well as backwards, in time.

We call this process of looking back at references and forwards at citations, 360 degree searching. Key databases that enable you to use citation searching include Google Scholar (click on the Cited by link underneath any record), Scopus (look for Cited by in the right hand column of your results) and Ovid.

Next up: How to reference