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When to Reference

Referencing is a very important part of academic writing. Perfect referencing is required for a piece of writing to be considered at a professional level. When writing an essay, a thesis, a journal article or any academic manuscript, it is common practice to use other writer’s works as your source material or readings. Usually, you need to reference these sources but, confusingly, there are some exceptions. In order to avoid unintentional plagiarism, you should develop the important skill of knowing when to reference.

What a reference does:
• It provides access to your source material for readers. Readers will be able to follow your directions to a source if they are interested in getting more information about it or reading it themselves.
• It gives credibility to the information presented in your text.
• It gives appropriate credit to the author of the original text.
• It demonstrates that the author has researched properly and that the author understands which sources are most important for a particular topic.
• It helps avoid being accused of plagiarism.

You should reference if:
• You are quoting exact words directly from another’s work.
• You are using a famous quotation.
• You are paraphrasing text written by someone else.
• You are summarising ideas or points from someone else’s work.
• You are reprinting tables, charts, diagrams, data, statistics or pictures.
• You are using someone else’s idea.

You do not have to reference if:
• You are writing from your own experience, experiment, opinion or analysis.
• The information is ‘common knowledge’.*
• The information is a widely accepted fact.
• You are summarising ideas from several sources in order to describe what happened over a specific period.

Updated: 27 May 2020

Frequently Asked Questions

Even though it is quite clear about when to reference in most cases, it may be difficult to realise whether a reference is needed in specific cases. The following Q&A may help you with this:

Q: Why add references?

A: In academic writing, accurate referencing is essential to give credit where it’s due: to the authors of works that you’ve built your research on. If you’ve drawn on the concepts, words or overall research of other researchers, referencing allows you to acknowledge them and shows that you respect their intellectual property rights. Referencing also lends authority to your work. That is, it provides support to your own assertions. Moreover, it allows interested readers to locate other studies in your research area.

Q: How do I decide when to reference?

A: Add references when quoting the exact words from another’s work, that is, when directly quoting from their work. Also remember to reference when using a famous quotation; paraphrasing or summarising text, ideas or points written by someone else; reprinting tables, charts, diagrams, data, statistics or pictures; and using someone else’s idea.

Q: How do I decide when not to reference?

A: You needn’t reference when what you write is based on your own experience, experiment, opinion or analysis; when the information you state is ‘common knowledge’ or a widely accepted fact; and when you recap ideas from several sources to describe what happened over a specific period.

Q: How can I decide what is ‘common knowledge’?

A: ‘Common knowledge’ is all the information that your specific audience already knows: So, first, you must know who your intended audience is, which will help you decide the extent of knowledge you can assume they possess. For example, for a journal article that will be read by energy engineers, you needn’t add references when defining fuel cells, because your audience would know this information. However, if you write the same article for a general magazine, you should add a reference since your entire audience would not necessarily know this information.

Q. Now I’m confused about referencing certain works that I’ve read! Should I or should I not reference those?

A: Err on the side of caution. It is always a good idea to include a reference when you’re unsure whether one is needed. This ensures that you don’t unintentionally plagiarise another author’s work—and you would know that plagiarism is an issue viewed very seriously in the academic world.