How To Write References for Academic and Scientific Research Papers
Writing accurate & appropriate references is an essential aspect of preparing a research paper for successful publication, examination or any other kind of serious dissemination or evaluation. This article explains exactly how to write perfect references in two widely used scholarly styles: the parenthetical author–date system recommended by the American Psychological Association (APA) & the sequential numerical or Vancouver system frequently used in the sciences. The post also includes several clear examples of in-text citations & complete bibliographical references formatted in both styles.
Neither of these documentation styles is inherently complex, though each does have its characteristic pitfalls, and the utmost accuracy is essential when using either. Accusations of plagiarism or misrepresentation of the work of other scholars can be the unpleasant result if authors are not absolutely correct and scrupulously thorough in providing citations and references when they should to acknowledge the research of others. In addition, publication attempts can prove unsuccessful and grades lower than expected if instructions and guidelines for references are not observed with precision and consistency. The discussion and examples offered below outline exactly how to provide scholarly references for articles and books in one version of an author–date documentation style – APA – and one of a numerical style – Vancouver – but do be aware that various versions of these two basic styles exist, so consulting the guidelines, instructions or manual specific to the research paper you are writing is always imperative before finalising formats for in-text citations and complete references.
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Writing APA Author–Date References for a Research Paper
Writing an accurate and appropriate APA author–date reference is a two-stage process involving 1) the creation of an in-text citation in the main body of the paper and 2) the addition of a complete bibliographical entry about the source in a list of references at the end of the paper.
1. The in-text citation should contain the last name of the author (or last names of the authors if there is more than one) who wrote the article, book or other document followed by the document’s date of publication. This information most frequently appears in parentheses immediately after the statement related to the paper, as in this example:
• A recent study of the text presents a similar argument (Wilson & Bond, 2016).
Alternatively, the names of the authors or the date of publication can be integrated into the main text, with the remaining information presented in parentheses:
• Wilson and Bond present a similar argument in their recent study of the text (2016).
• A 2016 examination of the text presents a similar argument (Wilson & Bond).
Rewording of the main text is obviously necessary, but the only difference (beyond arrangement) in the citation information itself is that the word ‘and’ is used between the author names in the main text, whereas an ampersand (&) is used between those names when they appear in parentheses. The parentheses can sometimes be eliminated altogether by writing both author names and publication date in the main text:
• Wilson and Bond’s 2016 study of the text presents a similar argument.
Page numbers can be used for referring to specific information in particular parts of a publication, but they are usually only required in APA style for direct quotations when a passage or other part of a published document is reproduced word for word in a new research paper. In such cases, the page number is separated from the publication date by a comma and preceded by the abbreviation ‘p.’ for ‘page’:
• As Wilson and Bond explain, ‘the political reading of the text, even the most personal of its episodes, seems universal until the book falls into a woman’s hands’ (2016, p.88).
When two or more sources are cited in the same set of parentheses, semicolons are used to separate the sources:
• Both studies consider the poem in relation to urban culture (Samuel & Watson, 2013; Wilson & Bond, 2016).
The normal arrangement when multiple sources are cited in a single set of parentheses is to observe alphabetical order according to the author names, as I have done above (with ‘Samuel’ preceding ‘Wilson’). Notice that the in-text citation takes the same form whether the source cited is a book or an article, with ‘Samuel & Watson’ referring here to a monograph and ‘Wilson & Bond’ to a journal article.
2. Every source cited in the text of an academic or scientific research paper using APA style should also be included in a list that is entitled ‘References’ and presented at the end of the paper. An APA list of references should be arranged alphabetically based on author names, and all the bibliographical information required for readers to find each source must be provided in a specific format. The author names for a publication come first and are inverted, with the last name of the first author of each document opening the bibliographical entry. Author names are followed by the date of publication (in parentheses), with these two pieces of information serving readers by connecting the complete reference to the in-text citation. It is therefore vital that the last names of authors and the publication dates provided in both places are checked against each other for errors and inconsistencies and then carefully corrected to agree with precision.
For the complete reference to a journal article, the title of the article follows the date of publication. The name and volume number of the journal come next, both of them in italic font, though do be aware that special fonts may not be displayed in this post. The pages on which the article can be found come next, and if there is a doi or url for an online version of the paper, that should be the last item in the entry, which would take this form:
• Wilson, S., & Bond, F. (2016). Political and personal readings of the earliest zone poem. Urban Poetry, 12, 72–94. doi:00.0000/00000000000000
For the complete reference to a book, the information, and thus the format, is a little different. The title of the book follows the publication date and appears in italic font, with the place of publication and publisher’s name completing the reference:
• Samuel, H., & Watson, M. (2013). Political poetry and modern urbanity. London: Big City Press.
Writing Sequential Numerical References for a Research Paper
The same two-step process is necessary when writing the sequential numerical references used for Vancouver style documentation, but in-text citations are notably simpler, a different arrangement is used for the list of references and a somewhat different format is required for the complete bibliographical entries included in the list.
1. For a numerical in-text citation, a single Arabic numeral is all that is required. Each source is assigned a number when it is first cited, so the sources used in a research paper are numbered sequentially according to the order of first citation, with each source retaining throughout the paper the number it was originally assigned. The first source cited would therefore be reference 1, the second reference 2 and so on. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommends placing these reference numbers in parentheses, with a citation taking this form:
• A recent study of the text presents a similar argument (1).
As is the case with author–date citations, information about sources can also be added in the main text:
• Wilson and Bond present a similar argument in their recent study of the text (1).
• A 2016 examination of the text presents a similar argument (1).
• Wilson and Bond’s 2016 study of the text presents a similar argument (1).
Unlike author–date citations, however, this additional information in the text does not negate the need for the reference number, which is always required.
If you need to cite a specific page of a document to point readers to a particular piece of information or indicate the location of a quoted passage, the page number should be added after the reference number, usually with a comma to separate it from the reference number and a preceding ‘p.’ to avoid confusion:
• As Wilson and Bond explain, ‘the political reading of the text, even the most personal of its episodes, seems universal until the book falls into a woman’s hands’ (1, p.88).
When two or more sources are cited at the same time, commas are generally used to separate the reference numbers, usually without intervening spaces:
• Several studies have taken this approach to the text (1,2,5–8).
2. The reference list for sequential numerical citations is arranged, not surprisingly, by the numerical sequence of the citations. This means that the first source cited in a research paper (reference 1) is also the first source listed in the References section of the paper, the second is the second source in the list and so on. The following two sample references follow ICMJE guidelines and would serve as the opening entries in a numerical list of references:
• 1. Wilson S, Bond F. Political and personal readings of the earliest zone poem. Urban Poetry. 2016;12:72–94. doi:00.0000/00000000000000.
• 2. Samuel H, Watson M. Political Poetry and Modern Urbanity. London: Big City Press; 2013.
As these examples show, the information required for a complete reference varies according to the nature of the source cited, just as it does with author–date references. In addition, the names of journals (but not books) are often abbreviated when preparing numerical references. It is essential, however, that the correct or standard abbreviation for each journal be used when shortening journal titles, which can easily be confused in their abbreviated forms, so a little research may be necessary to determine the right abbreviation. Use of the complete journal title is recommended when there is any doubt or there is no standard abbreviation.
A cautionary note is in order when writing sequential numerical references. Adding or deleting sources from a numerical list of references that has been arranged according to the order in which sources are first cited can necessitate changes in subsequent list entries as well as in the in-text citations, and the same is the case with any changes to those in-text citations. The reason is simple: if, for example, you remove reference 3 from the text or list, what was reference 4 becomes reference 3, what was reference 5 becomes reference 4 and so on. If you add that removed reference back in elsewhere more alterations will ensue. It is therefore wise to check and finalise the order of the reference list very carefully indeed after all the in-text citations are in their final places, and to ensure that the assigned reference numbers agree with the utmost accuracy between in-text citations and the list of references.
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