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...
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.
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.
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.
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.