Citing Sources: Building your Reference List

Students often feel overwhelmed by the thought of creating the list of references that commonly appears at the end of the paper. Often that’s because the student has waited until the end to build it, has just finished their paper, and hasn’t taken the steps needed to make building the reference list – if not easy – at least less frustrating. Read on to find out how to make building a reference list easier.

What is a reference list?

As I wrote in Pointing to Each Other: Citation Basics, references are half of a citation pair that tells your reader where you got the information you used in your paper. References appear either at the bottom of the page or chapter or at the end of a paper or book. This post focuses on reference lists that appear at the end of a paper, which is what you would use if assigned MLA, APA, or Chicago styles, among many others. If you aren’t sure what style you are expected to use, see Before You Begin and How to read an assignment sheet and rubric for help on where to look to find out.

What is an end reference?

The reference at the end of your paper is a full citation that matches the in-text citations you used in the body of your paper. Think of the in-text citations as shorthand for the full reference at the end. The full reference gives you reader all the information they need to find your source in the library.

That means that all of the required information has to be present, and that it has to be accurate. If you use the advice I provided in Research More Efficiently: Mine Your Sources, inevitably you will run across a reference with an error. There’s little more frustrating that being on a deadline and running across a source that’s just perfect for your paper . . . and then encountering a faulty citation that makes it hard to find the source. Check out Citing Sources: Why Do We Do It? for more on the academic conversation we’re engaging in when we research and cite sources.

Pattern is everything

Citation styles tend to differ in small ways – the biggest hurdle is learning the pattern. That’s it. Citations are like a formula: learn the pattern and all you have to do is plug in the matching information. You just need to know where to look to find the information you need – this is where a writing center a friend or classmate, or an internet search can help you. (I’d give some pointers here but it’s really easier if someone is looking at it with you.)

What information do I need?

Want to reduce the stress of building your reference list? Create the reference as you do your research instead of waiting until you finish your paper to write it. I do this as I take notes, as explained in Avoid Plagiarism: Take Good Notes.

Don’t know how to format for your citation style yet? You can still collect the information as you go. Scroll to the end of Pointing to Each Other: Citation Basics for a list of commonly needed elements for your references.

What you DO NOT want to do is wait. Sources have a way of growing legs and running away, or books get recalled and you forget to grab the citation before you take it back. Do it as you go and you’ll be much less stressed.

Formatting the references page

I’ve written that citations vary in style so many times that you may be wanting to throw spitballs at me, but it’s still true. One consistency: typically you only list the reference once, regardless of how many times you cited it within the body of the paper.

Below is a list of questions to consider when you’re formatting your reference page.

  • What is it called? Common options include “References” and “Works Cited.” Is the heading a different size or the same size as the text? Is it centered? Bold? Italic?
  • What line spacing are you supposed to use? If it’s double-spaced, do you double-space between all lines or just between entries?
  • How do you organize the entries? A common requirement is to alphabetize by the author’s last name.
  • Do you indent one of the lines? Is it the first line, or all subsequent lines?
  • What do you do if you have multiple works by the same author?

Consult the style guide to answer these questions and to check on any other specifics the style requires.

Avoid mistakes and academic dishonesty

Reference lists . . . wow, I’ve seen some real messes in my time. The kind of thing that makes me drop my head in my hands and groan. Here are some do’s and don’ts.

  • DO write your reference list using appropriate citation guidelines
  • DON’T copy and paste the URL where you found the source. There are a number of reasons for this, but I’ll focus on three: 1. the teacher often can’t just click on the URL you used and get to the source, 2. the teacher shouldn’t have to even attempt to do that, because you did it wrong, and 3. doing so is wrong. Don’t expect to get credit for using references if you only give your teacher URLs.
  • DO make sure your citations and references match. If you cite something in text, the full citation must appear in the references. If it appears in the references, it must be cited in the paper. Double-check to make sure you haven’t included a reference that was actually cut out of the paper.
  • DON’T get lazy (or rushed) and forget to check your citations. Don’t try to pad your reference list by adding sources you didn’t use. Even more importantly, don’t deliberately mis-match citations and references in an attempt to hide plagiarism. (Yes, I’ve had more than one student try this trick. Not only did it not work, but it also let me know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they intended that academic dishonesty.)

If you follow my advice and gather the information as you go, build the references as you research, and double-check your work, you’ll find that building a reference list isn’t so hard after all.

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