Referencing styles in academic writing

Using appropriate referencing styles in academic writing

Much preparation is needed before writing an essay, dissertation, or indeed any other form of academic work, and this often involves reviewing relevant literature. When doing so, it is essential to cite all sources in the text. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it will demonstrate to the examiner that you have read the literature extensively, thereby endowing your arguments with a degree of scholarly authority. Secondly, as well as enhancing your skills as a writer, it also allows the reader to access the source for themselves. Thirdly, a consistent referencing system will enable you to attain a standard that is accepted worldwide.

Referencing Styles

Numerous referencing styles exist, but you may not always have a choice as to which one to use. This often depends on the topic of study and whichever style is required by the academic institution concerned. This article provides a brief explanation of four of the most widely-used referencing styles: APA, Chicago, Harvard, and OSCOLA. It is not meant to be a definitive and comprehensive manual, but to direct readers to seek more details on whichever system they have decided to use. 

Each system has a number of variations, and is also updated regularly. Therefore, it is essential that students read any information on referencing styles provided by their college/university, as well as checking with their tutors which version they should use. An extremely useful guide to citation and referencing has been written by Kathleen McMillan and Jonathan Weyers (2013) in their book How to Write for University: Academic Writing for Success (Smarter Study Skills) published by Pearson Education.

APA (American Psychological Association)

APA 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, with full details given in a reference list. It is mainly used in scientific disciplines. The University of Bath ‒APA 7th - Referencing guide - Library at University of Bath and the University of Lincoln ‒ APA style and referencing - APA 7th Edition - University of Lincoln - Guides at University of Lincoln 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 ‒ Reference examples ( Anyone using this style is advised to check which version they are using, and whether this is the one required by the academic institution to whom their work will be submitted.


The Chicago style has two variations. The first 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 disciplinary fields such as the humanities, the arts, and history. The second variation is known as the ‘author-date’ style, and tends to be used in science subjects. This involves in-text citations, which refer to the author and the date, and a reference list which provides further details. 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, regardless of whether they appear in citations within the text. A useful guide to Chicago referencing is provided by the University of York ‒ Chicago - Referencing styles - a Practical Guide - Subject Guides at University of York.


This is one of the most popular referencing styles as it is used across multiple disciplines, probably because of its ease of use. It is used in all parts of the world. Because this style is, to some extent, flexible, numerous variations exist, 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 style should not be mixed in the same document. One notable 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. An extremely useful and practical online guide to Harvard is provided by the University of Sheffield ‒ Harvard referencing (

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 the legal departments of universities. The University of Oxford guide to OSCOLA, which gives full details of all its requirements, emphasises the importance of both consistency and 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 developed for Oxford University, it is now used by other university law departments in the United Kingdom, as well as in other parts of the world. It is updated regularly; therefore, it is essential that users access the most recent version. Most important to note is that 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. The University of York provides a detailed guide to OSCOLA referencing on its website ‒ OSCOLA - Referencing styles - a Practical Guide - Subject Guides at University of York.

A final note

It is important to stress that there are, of course, multiple 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 all four reference styles, should enable the reader to see the differences between them, as well as the uniqueness of each style.


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