Referencing styles in academic writing

Academic Referencing Style

Much preparation, which involves research of literature, is needed before writing an essay, thesis or other academic work. It is essential to cite all sources in the document for several reasons. On their website, Queen’s University, Belfast provides a useful guide to all aspects of referencing. Their site explains that referencing is necessary if the research is to be successful, and that it will enable the examiner to know that the student has read the literature extensively, thereby giving a degree of authority to the argument. It also allows the reader to access the source as well as enhancing the writer’s skills. A consistent referencing system also attains a standard which is acceptable worldwide. 

Referencing Styles

There are many referencing styles, but the writer of the document may not always have a choice of which one to use. This often depends on the topic of study and whichever style is required by the academic institution concerned. This article gives a brief explanation of four of the most well-used referencing styles, namely APA, Chicago, Harvard and OSCOLA. It is not meant to be a definitive and comprehensive manual, but rather its aim is to direct its readers to seek more details of whichever system they have decided to use. Each system has a number of variations, and is also updated regularly. Therefore, it is important that students read any referencing style information provided by their college/university, as well as checking with their tutors which version they should use. A very useful guide to citation and referencing has been written by Kathleen McMillan and Jonathan Weyers (2013).  

APA (American Psychological Association)

This is more than a reference style, as it requires a particular use of language, font and format. It is what is known as an ‘author-date’ style, meaning that brief in-text citations are given, but further details are given in a reference list. It is mainly used in scientific topics. The University of Birmingham and the University of Wolverhampton provide useful guides to this system on their websites. The APA style is regularly updated, and each new version is published by the American Psychological Association. The current edition is the seventh, and a quick reference guide is given on their website. Anyone using this style is advised to check which version they are using, and if it is the one required by the academic institution to whom the essay will be submitted. 


The Chicago style manual explains that this style has two variations. The first of these is known as ‘notes and bibliography. In this variation, in-text reference numbers in superscript are used, with further details being given, corresponding to each reference number, in the footnotes. No reference list is given, but a bibliography should be provided. This version is popular in topics such as humanities, the arts and history. The second variation is known as the ‘author-date’ style, which tends to be used in science topics. This involves in-text citations, which refer to the author and the date, and also gives a reference list with greater detail. At this point, it is appropriate to explain the difference between a reference list and a bibliography. A reference list gives further details of all in-text citations, whereas a bibliography lists all sources that have been read in preparation for the essay, whether or not they appear in citations within the text. 


This is one of the most popular referencing styles across many disciplines, probably because of its ease of use. It is used in all parts of the world. Since this style is, to some extent, flexible, there are many variations of it, so anyone using it must know which version they wish to use. This information should be available in a style guide provided by the relevant academic institution. However, whichever version is used, consistency is paramount, and even slight variations of the style should not be mixed in the same document. One feature of Harvard is that if prominence is given to the author, the citation is within the sentence, but if prominence is given to the information, the citation is placed at the end of the sentence. The style also requires a reference list. A very useful and practical online guide to Harvard is provided by the University of London. 

OSCOLA (Oxford University Standard for the Citation of Legal Authorities)

As its name suggests, this referencing style is used by the legal profession, and in legal departments of universities. The University of Oxford guide to OSCOLA, which gives full details of all requirements of this style, emphasises two of its key features. One of these is the importance of consistency, and the other that of clarity, thereby enabling the reader to follow the document without encountering any ambiguity. One feature of this style is that it makes minimum use of punctuation; for example, full stops are not used after initials in names. Oxford University’s guide to OSCOLA claims that it is not so much a style guide, but rather a guide to legal citation. Although it was originally provided for Oxford University, it is now used by other university law departments in the United Kingdom, and also in other parts of the world. It is updated regularly; therefore, it is essential that users have the most recent version. OSCOLA is a footnote reference style. This means that reference numbers, in superscript, are given in the text, but that the citations are given in the footnotes. 


Further details of the summaries of the four reference styles given in this article can be accessed from the links in the reference list below. There are, of course, many features that are common to all reference styles, such as authors’ names, dates, book and journal titles, as well as names of publishers. However, this article, in giving a summary of four reference styles, should enable the reader to see the differences between the styles, and also the uniqueness of each style.

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Reference List 

American Psychological Association. Quick Reference Guide. Available at: [Accessed 13.07.20]. 

Chicago Style Manual. Available at: [Accessed 13.07.20]. 

McMillan Kathleen & Weyers Jonathan, 2013. How to cite, reference & avoid plagiarism at university. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.  

Queen’s University, Belfast. Available at: [Accessed 13.07.2020]. 

University of Birmingham. Available at:  

Accessed [13.07.2020]. 

University of London, Harvard Refencing style. Available at:  [Accessed: 13.07.2020]. 

University of Oxford, Faculty of Law. Available at: [Accessed 13.07.2020]. 

University of Wolverhampton. Available at:  [Accessed 13.07.2020].