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Understanding How, When and Why to Reference

Understanding How, When and Why to Reference

Learn how to acknowledge your sources of information

It is important that you acknowledge your sources of information in your academic writing. This allows you to clearly show how the ideas of others have influenced your own work. You should provide a citation (and matching reference) in your essay every time you use words, ideas or information from other sources. 

If you would like to learn how, when and why to reference by watching a video, you can do so on Capstone Editing's YouTube channel.


Why reference?

Not referencing correctly can be perceived as plagiarism. It is expected and required at the university level that all your assignments will contain references. Otherwise, you are saying that the essay is made up entirely of your own original ideas, and that you have not engaged critically in any way with the literature. A passing grade requires that you use a minimum number of references (check your assignment marking criteria or ask your lecturer), and a good grade requires many more references than this. The purpose of referencing is to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your research, to show that you have read and engaged with the ideas of experts in your field. It also allows you to give credit to the writers from whom you have borrowed words or ideas. For your reader, referencing allows them to trace the sources of information you have used and to verify the validity of your work. For this reason, your referencing must be accurate and provide all necessary details to allow your reader to locate the source. It is therefore a good idea to keep careful records of all the sources you accessed when researching your assignment. This way, you do not have to hunt for these details after you have finished writing.  

How to incorporate the ideas of others into your essay

It can be difficult for new academic writers to know how to incorporate others’ work into their own writing. By learning how to use quotations effectively, and how to summarise and paraphrase the words and ideas of others, you can better avoid unintentional plagiarism. 


A quotation is a word-for-word reproduction of someone else’s words, either spoken or written. When quoting from another source, you must: 

  • Present the quotation between quotation marks, followed by a citation. 
    • Exception: For long quotations (e.g. over 40 words in APA or over 30 words in Harvard), indent the quotation instead of using quotation marks. The quotation should be introduced by a colon and followed by a citation. 
  • Use quotation marks even if only borrowing a single phrase or word from another source. 
  • Include a page number in the citation. 
    • Exception: If the source does not have numbered pages (e.g. a website, an interview), no page number is needed. However, if there is some other way of pointing to the specific location from which the quotation was taken (e.g. paragraph number, clause number, line in transcript), include that in the citation. 

Quotations should be logically integrated into your text. One way to do this is to lead into the quotation or paraphrase by using the author’s name (e.g. ‘According to Lines,’) followed by the quotation from Lines or a summary of Lines’s ideas. 

Quotations must fit grammatically into your text. It is allowable to modify quotations slightly to ensure a good fit. However, it is essential that these changes are clearly marked using square brackets ([ ]). It is also possible to omit words from a quotation, shown using an ellipsis (…). Note that if you omit words, you must be sure that the original meaning of the quotation is retained. You should never omit words to change the meaning of a quotation. 

The below examples show ways to integrate the original quotation ‘Most of the time, they don’t, and I mean really don’t, behave well’, showing changes to 1) the verb and 2) a pronoun. Notice the use of the square brackets to show your modifications to the quotation, and the ellipsis to show omitted words. 

  1. The teacher reported that the children were not ‘behav[ing] well’.
  2. According to the teacher, ‘Most of the time, [the children] don’t … behave well’. 

Finally, you should avoid using quotations that have not been adequately introduced. If a quotation is inserted without appropriate integration into your text, this can negatively affect the logical and grammatical flow of your work, and lower the quality of your writing. Not introducing quotations or incorporating them into your own sentences usually also means you are relying too heavily on the words of others, and your grades can suffer as a result.

Summarising and paraphrasing

Another option for integrating others’ ideas into your own assignments is by summarising and paraphrasing. Summarising means giving an overview of the main ideas in condensed form. Paraphrasing means putting an idea (usually in detail) into your own words.  

To summarise or paraphrase well, you need to read carefully and understand the ideas in the source. Then, you can think about what those ideas mean in the context of your assignment and write them in your own words, integrating them well into your own writing. If you take sentences completely from the original source and just change a few words, this is not paraphrasing, and may be considered plagiarism. 

For some students, the temptation to use a source’s original wording is high. To avoid this, after reading and understanding the author’s ideas, write just the keywords on a separate piece of paper. See if you can change some of the keywords to other words, while keeping the original meaning. Then, think about whether you can reorganise the order of the keywords, to write sentences that keep the original meaning, but that are quite different to the original. Using your keywords, and without referring to the original source, write your new sentences. It takes a while at first, but the process becomes automatic with practice. 

The importance of writing in your own words

Putting others’ work into your own words will not only ensure the material is effectively integrated into your writing, it also demonstrates to your reader (e.g. your lecturer) that you have understood, absorbed and interpreted the information. This is a key purpose of essay writing at university and will help you to get a better grade. In addition, the better you get at putting complex ideas into your own words, the more developed your writing style will become. 

Acknowledge every source

Remember that the need to reference is not limited to academic sources like books and journal articles. You need to reference ALL words, ideas or information taken from ANY source. 

These sources might include: 

  • books and journal articles
  • websites
  • newspapers and magazines
  • pamphlets or brochures
  • films, documentaries, television programs or advertisements
  • computer programs
  • diagrams, illustrations, charts or pictures
  • letters or emails
  • personal interviews
  • lecturers or tutors. (This is not always necessary, but check with your lecturer or tutor about his or her preferences before you draw on his or her ideas.)

Note that if the source you are citing is retrievable (i.e. can be located by another person using the information you provide in the reference list), you must provide a reference for the source. However, if the source is only available to you (e.g. a personal interview or email, or a private Facebook post), you should cite all necessary details in the text, but should not provide a reference in the reference list. ONLY irretrievable sources are not included in the reference list, and even these are still cited in the text. 

The only times you would not reference are:

  • when referring to your own observations (e.g. a report on a field trip) or experiment results
  • when writing about your own experiences (e.g. a reflective journal)
  • when writing your own thoughts, comments or conclusions in an assignment
  • when evaluating or offering your own analysis (e.g. parts of a critical review)
  • when using ‘common knowledge’ (facts that can be found in numerous places and are likely to be known by a lot of people) or folklore
  • when using generally accepted facts or information (this will vary in different disciplines of study. If in doubt, ask your tutor).

If you are concerned that you may not have referenced correctly, you should ask your tutor, lecturer or Academic Learning Advisor for their advice before submitting your assignment. Capstone Editing can also edit your work to correct your referencing and provide advice about how to reference correctly in the future.