The Difference between a List of References and a Bibliography

The Difference between a List of References and a Bibliography
To many readers and even writers of academic and scientific documents, a list of references may seem the same as a bibliography. After all, both serve to provide complete bibliographical information on the sources consulted during a research project. Yet there is, in fact, considerable difference between a list of references and a bibliography. The structure, organisation, style and formatting of a list of references can, for instance, differ significantly from those of a bibliography, but the primary difference between a list of references and a bibliography usually lies in the contents.

A list of references contains the sources such as research articles, scientific reports and academic books that are actually cited in a document. This is to say that these sources are either mentioned, discussed or quoted (or in some cases all three) by the author, who also provides the necessary in-text citations for those sources. Every source so cited in the document must be included in the list of references, which should not contain sources that have not been cited. The heading ‘Works Cited’ is therefore sometimes used for a list of references, though ‘References’ is the most common heading for such lists.
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A bibliography, on the other hand, often contains sources that are not actually cited in the document, with this being the defining difference between a list of references and a bibliography. A bibliography normally includes full bibliographical information for every source formally cited in the document as well as for sources that are relevant to the research, but not formally cited in the text. Some bibliographies are selective, however, containing, for example, only the most important, the most recent or the most groundbreaking studies on a topic. As a general rule, sources that are formally cited in a document can only be excluded from the bibliography if the complete bibliographical references for those sources have already been provided in footnotes or endnotes. In the notes and bibliography method recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style, for instance, a bibliography may not be necessary at all for a research paper if the full reference for each source is provided in a note when the source is first cited.

The referencing or documentation style required for a paper, book or report usually determines how complete bibliographical references should be provided and can therefore not only indicate whether a list of references or bibliography is necessary, but also affect the practical difference between a list of references and a bibliography. Information about preferred documentation methods and styles can usually be found in the instructions or guidelines for authors presented on the websites of academic and scientific publishers, and university professors tend to offer similar guidance for students who are writing research papers, lab reports and theses for degree credit. Carefully studying the instructions and any example references is absolutely essential, as is following the guidance accurately and consistently. If, for example, Vancouver or numerical references are recommended for a scientific paper, sources should be numbered according to the order in which they are first cited, and a list of references in which the cited sources (and no others) are presented in that numerical order should be provided.

Another common difference between lists of references and bibliographies is the fact that bibliographies are generally not used in conjunction with numerical references. The sources listed in bibliographies are usually arranged alphabetically based on author surnames. This is the standard arrangement for a notes and bibliography documentation method, and it is also appropriate for a bibliography designed to accompany author–date citations. Even more common when author–date citations are used is an alphabetical list of references or works cited that includes only the scholarship cited in a document. The alphabetical order of a bibliography or a list of references will ideally remain unbroken, running through all the listed sources from A to Z to ensure that readers can easily find more information about the studies mentioned in the document.

In the case of bibliographies, however, the sources are sometimes divided into sections or categories. Section headings in a long bibliography may highlight topics such as ‘Primary Sources,’ ‘Manuscripts,’ ‘Theoretical Foundations,’ ‘Trials,’ ‘Case Studies’ and ‘Further Reading.’ The sections and their headings should be relevant to the research reported and useful for readers who are seeking to learn more about the work and its background. Sections dedicated to ‘Further Reading’ and ‘Theoretical Foundations’ may therefore list sources that are not cited and perhaps not even closely related to the content of the current document, but that may be of significant interest to other researchers in the area. Within each section of a divided bibliography alphabetical order usually prevails and is advisable if in-text citations use author names, but a chronological arrangement is also possible, as is an order based on the importance of the studies listed.

Remember as you are reading the necessary guidelines and planning your references that terminology can vary among publishers and instructors, and these variations can negate the basic differences between a list of references and a bibliography. A professor might remind students that a bibliography of sources must be included in a research paper when what he or she actually expects is a list of the references cited in the paper. It is therefore wise to ask for clarification whenever you are unsure about the precise requirements. Writing to a journal or press for documentation details is rarely problematic and may even trigger improvements in their published guidelines, while questions about referencing expectations will be welcomed by most instructors and can inspire informative class discussions about citing sources, including the important difference between a list of references and a bibliography.

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