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.
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: What is a common knowledge?
A: It is information that the specific audience for a piece of writing should know. For example, if you write a journal article about energy engineering for an audience of energy engineers, it is not necessary to reference when you define fuel cells, as most of the audience is expected to know this information. Conversely, if the same article is to be published in a general magazine, a reference is needed, as the audience would not necessarily be expected to know this information.
Q: Do I reference if the source is freely published on a website where anyone can access it and there is no author’s name shown?
A: Absolutely. Although the author’s details are not shown, you still have to cite the website where you found the information.
Q: I am not sure if I should reference. What should I do?
A: Err on the side of caution. It is a good idea to include a reference if you are unsure if one may or may not be needed. This ensures that you are not unintentionally plagiarising.