Academic writing relies on more than just the ideas and experience of one author. It also uses the ideas and research of other sources: books, journal articles, websites, and so forth. These other sources may be used to support the author’s ideas, or the author may be discussing, analyzing, or critiquing other sources.

Referencing is used to tell the reader where ideas from other sources have been used in an assignment. There are many reasons why it is important to reference sources correctly:

  • It shows the reader that you can find and use sources to create a solid argument
  • It properly credits the originators of ideas, theories, and research findings
  • It shows the reader how your argument relates to the big picture

Failure to properly acknowledge sources is called plagiarism, and it can carry significant academic penalties. Fortunately, plagiarism is easy to avoid by following a few basic principles.

What needs to be referenced?

Whenever an assignment uses words, facts, ideas, theories, or interpretations from other sources, those sources must be referenced. Referencing is needed when:

  • You have copied words from a book, article, or other sources exactly (quotation)
  • You have used an idea or fact from an outside source, even if you haven’t used their exact wording (paraphrasing and summarising)

The only exception to this is when the information is common knowledge, which is something that anyone is likely to know. If you are uncertain whether to reference something or not, it is better to reference it.

Citations and references

There are two elements used in referencing:

  • A citation in the text of the assignment (also known as in-text citations)
  • An entry in a reference list at the end of the assignment

The citation contains only enough information for the reader to find the source in the reference list. Usually, this is the name of the source’s author and the year the source was published. For example:

When testing the usability of a website, it is necessary to gather demographic information about the users (Lazar, 2006).

In this example, (Lazar, 2006) tells the reader that this information has come from a source written by Lazar, which was published in 2006. This is a signpost, pointing the reader to the reference list.

The reference list is a list of all the sources used (and cited) in an assignment. It is alphabetized according to the names of the authors. Each entry in the reference list contains detailed information about one source. This usually includes the author’s name, the year of publication, the title of the source, and source location details (e.g., publisher’s name, URL). For example:


Durie, M. (2003). Ngā kāhui pou: Launching Māori futures. Huia.

Hazledine, T., & Quiggan, J. (2006). Public policy in Australia and New Zealand: The new global context. Australian Journal of Political Science, 41(2), 131–143.

Lazar, J. (2006). Web usability: A user-centered design approach. Pearson Addison Wesley.

Ministry for Primary Industries. (2012). Food safety.

If they wanted to, a reader could use this information to find these sources in a library or online.

Referencing styles

Referencing is a formal system: there are rules and standards to follow when formatting citations and references. Many students find referencing quite intimidating at first. Like any skill, it takes time and patience to learn.

The examples above use APA style, a format created by the American Psychological Association. It is the most common referencing style used at Massey University.

Other styles include MLA style, Oxford style, Harvard style, and Chicago style. These styles are subtly different, and different colleges and departments may ask you to use different styles. Oxford style, for example, uses footnotes instead of in-text citations, and a bibliography instead of a reference list.


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