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Citing and Referencing in Academic Writing


Citing and referencing are two closely-related crucial skills in academic writing as they enable you to effectively acknowledge the articles, books, and other resources you used while writing your academic work. Citing is used to note in the text where you use someone else’s ideas, whereas referencing is the act of listing the sources you have cited at the end of your work. Citing is actualized in the form of in-text citations that show which source you are referring to; while referencing is realized in the references list that provides the full details of the source. The references list helps your readers to find the source when they need to.

In creating an academic work, citing and referencing are necessary for various reasons. First, they provide evidence to back up your ideas, arguments, claims, and assertions in your work. By citing experts in your field you show your readers that you are aware of the scope of the topic you are working on. Citations signal that you have properly studied and understood what others have discovered or thought about it. In short, citing and referencing help build your work credibility. Second, citing and referencing indicate that you are an ethical user and producer of information. Citing and referencing facilitate you to give credit to other authors and acknowledge their ideas that contributed to the own development of your thoughts and ideas. In this context, citing and referencing enable you to acknowledge and respect the intellectual property rights of that researcher. Third, citing and referencing help you serve your readers as they enable them to locate the sources you used. Finally, citing and referencing is an important way to avoid plagiarism as they make it clear which ideas are your own and which are someone else’s.

What, How Many, and How to Cite

In academic writing, you can cite and reference any ideas, data, or words from any sources, including books and journal articles; newspapers and magazines; films, documentaries, television programs or advertisements; pamphlets or brochures; websites or electronic resources; personal interviews; conference or lecture’s slides; letters, emails, online discussion forums; and diagrams, images, charts, or illustrations. However, you should be selective in choosing your references because not all sources are of high quality. Always be critical to determine the relevance, reliability, and recency of the sources. 

You do not need to cite and reference information categorized into common knowledge and unpublished results of your own observations or experiment and reflective journal. Common knowledge refers to information that is likely to be known by most people or information shared by a specific group of people, such as a national or cultural group, or academics in a particular field of study. Folklore, famous historical dates, long-established facts, or theories, like ‘the earth is round’ or ‘the chemical symbol of water is H2O)’ are common knowledge.

Citing sources in academic writing can be challenging, particularly for novice researchers or writers. The challenge can be due to three factors: what to cite, how many sources to use, and what citing method to use to integrate the sources into the work.

There are no hard and fast rules to determine the number of sources to cite as it depends on various factors, including the topic complexity, the nature of the work or research project, and the level of scholarship. The following is only a practical guideline. Different institutions or scholars can have different expectations. 

The more complex a topic, the more resources are needed. For an academic essay about a simple topic written in 1,000 words, two to three titles of sources might be enough. But if the topic is complex, that academic essay might need five titles of sources. The nature of the work also determines the number of sources to cite. An essay naturally needs fewer sources than a literature review. An academic essay that has 10 pages might need 10 titles, whereas a literature review of 10 pages requires 20-30 titles. Different levels of scholarship require a different number of sources to cite. The minimum number of sources for an undergraduate thesis is 10 titles; for a master thesis, 40 titles, and for a doctoral thesis, 50 titles.

As stated earlier, the guideline above is a merely practical suggestion. What is important is that anytime you are making a claim and need to support it with someone else’s work, you should reference it.

In addition to the number of sources you cite, you should also consider the quality of the sources. Regarding the quality, as mentioned earlier, three aspects need to consider. First, are the sources relevant? The cited source should significantly relate to and add credibility to your ideas or claim. Do not merely drop references to your work if they do not strongly support your ideas. Secondly, prioritize using highly reliable sources. Third, use the most recently published. In this context, citing recently published peer-reviewed journal articles is preferable to other forms of sources. After journal articles, prioritize conference papers, dissertations, theses, and professional association papers over books and encyclopedias, and prioritize books and encyclopedias over website, newspaper, and magazine articles.

Citing Methods

To integrate sources into a paper, three ways could be employed: quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing. Although they have the same role, they are different in terms of features, purposes, and implementation (how-to). The following table lists the differences.

The following articles describe the strategies and examples of each of the three citing methods.

Summarizing in Academic Writing

A Practical Guides for Quoting in Academic Writing

A Practical Guide to Paraphrasing


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