The ABCs of Alphabetical Order in Reference Lists and Bibliographies

The ABCs of Alphabetical Order in Reference Lists and Bibliographies | Tips on How to Get Your Research Published
Academic and scientific writing tends to include a large number of citations and require a rather lengthy list of references so that readers can consult any sources that interest them or might contribute to their own research. Although some reference lists are numerical – arranged, that is, according to the order in which the sources are first cited in a document – many observe alphabetical order. Often the format will be one continuous list from A to Z, but occasionally that list is divided into smaller sections. Primary sources might be separated from secondary ones, manuscripts might be separated from printed works and experimental trials might be separated from theoretical studies. If alphabetical order is required within such a layout, the references in each section will need to be arranged from A to Z.

Each of the references in an alphabetical list usually begins with the name of the first author or, if no author names are given in the source, with the title of the work. The first author’s name should be inverted (e.g., Smith, John), so it is the surname or family name that appears first and determines the placement of the reference in an alphabetical list (‘Smith, John’ should therefore precede ‘Wilson, John’). Additional author names follow that of the first author. In some cases these additional names are inverted as well, but in others they are not (e.g., Smith, John, and Robert Jones), so do check the relevant guidelines to be sure you enter them appropriately. If a lack of author names means that the title of a work appears first, it is used to determine alphabetical placement, but any opening article should not be considered, so a book title beginning ‘The Exploration’ would precede one beginning ‘A Study’ because ‘E’ precedes ‘S’ alphabetically speaking.
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Alphabetical order is usually determined letter by letter, so the surname ‘Olsen’ would precede ‘Olson,’ and the full name ‘Smith, John’ would precede ‘Smith, Richard.’ Initials come before unabbreviated names beginning with the same letter, so ‘Smith, J.’ should precede ‘Smith, John’ in an alphabetical list. A work with a single author precedes a multi-author work with the same first author: an article by ‘Smith, John’ would therefore come before one written by ‘Smith, John, and Robert Jones.’ If you need to list more than one source by the same author, the order should not be determined alphabetically by moving on to the title, but by the dates of publication. Depending on the guidelines and style you are following, the earliest publication might come first – ‘Smith, John (2008)’ before ‘Smith, John (2012)’ – or the most recent might come first: ‘Smith, John (2012)’ before ‘Smith, John (2008).’ It is essential to check the publisher guidelines to determine which is appropriate.

In English reference lists and bibliographies accented letters are generally treated as though they were unaccented for alphabetisation purposes, and names beginning with ‘O,’ such as ‘O’Neil,’ are usually treated as though the apostrophe were not there, so ‘O’Neil’ would appear between ‘Olson’ and ‘Osborne.’ Names beginning with ‘Mc’ or ‘Mac’ can be treated similarly and alphabetised letter by letter, but some style guides will place such surnames before all other surnames beginning with ‘M.’ Finally, surnames that contain particles (‘de,’ ‘van’ and the like) can be especially difficult to place. The name ‘Leonardo da Vinci,’ for instance, might appear as ‘da Vinci, Leonardo’ or as ‘Vinci, Leonardo da.’ The guidelines you are following may give specific instructions and other work published by the same journal or press might provide answers, but considering the personal preferences of the author concerned as well as traditional and national usages is often helpful as well.

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