Top 10 referencing mistakes… and how you can avoid them!

We know that referencing can be laborious, especially if you are new to academic writing or are used to using other referencing styles. However, the good news is there’s plenty of guidance available to you at St George’s. Whether you use the print or online version of Cite Them Right (the book on which our referencing style is based), use our helpsheet, access the referencing quiz via Canvas, visit the Research Enquiries Desk or get in contact with your Liaison Librarians, there’s support available whether you’re at home, on site or on placement.

Even with these resources, it’s easy to make mistakes. The Liaison team regularly meet students with referencing enquiries and over the years have identified a series of common citation and reference list mistakes we see in written assignments. So based on our experiences – and feedback from teaching staff – we’ve compiled for you here (in no particular order) a breakdown of the most common referencing mistakes and some useful advice on how to avoid them!

Read on for the full article, or use the links below to navigate to the sections that most interest you:

1) Using et al. incorrectly
2) Numbering reference lists…
3) …and using numbers as in-text citations
4) Including an author’s initials in citations
5) Forgetting to include page numbers in citations
6) Using footnotes
7) Using ibid. or op. cit.
8) Missing/incorrect dates
9) Chapters in edited books
10) Pesky punctuation

(Please note that any links to Cite Them Right online may require your SGUL username and password if you are reading this post off-site, i.e. not connected to eduroam or the SGUL network)

1) Using et al. incorrectly

A common issue we see at the Research Enquiries Desk is the incorrect use of et al. To remind you, this stands for ‘and others‘ and it can be used in both in-text citations and your reference list to indicate a work has multiple authors.

However, it should only be used if the source you are referencing has four or more authors.

If the source has one, two or three authors they must all be named.

The problems we see most often include et al. being used to replace just two or three authors; inconsistent use of et al. between corresponding citations and references and incorrect formatting and punctuation.

How can you avoid it?

Follow the guidance in Cite Them Right. The page on Setting out Citations provide comprehensive guidance on how to cite one, two, three and four or more authors, but you’ll also find examples of using et al. in entries for individual resources; including books, journals etc.

Remember: St George’s doesn’t require the naming of all authors in your reference list. You can use et al. in both your in-text citation AND the full reference at the end of your work.

Also: et al. should always be written in italics, with a full-stop at the end. Check over your work to ensure you have done this consistently throughout your writing.

2) Numbering reference lists…

The Harvard style of referencing is all about the author of a publication and the date it was published. It’s these pieces of information that dictate the order that your references appear at the end of your work: you should list them in alphabetical order, by the author’s surname:

Cottrell, S. (2019) The study skills handbook. 5th edn. London: Red Globe Press.

Diabetes UK (2018) Preventing Type 2 diabetes. Available at: https://www.diabetes.org.uk/preventing-type-2-diabetes (Accessed: 20 September 2018).

Dimond, B. (2013) Legal aspects of midwifery. 4th edn. London: Quay Books.

We regularly see students who have unnecessarily numbered their references in an otherwise exemplary alphabetical list, or have listed their references in the order they appeared in the body of their work.

How can you avoid it?

This is an easy one – just don’t number them! In all seriousness though, it is always a good idea to double check that your references are in alphabetical order. The sample reference list in CTR can give you an idea of what a complete reference list might look like. The troubleshooting page provides additional guidance on what to do when you have multiple works by the same authors, or authors with similar names and initials.

3) …and using numbers as in-text citations

Similarly, we also regularly see people mixing up different referencing styles in their work. For example, the Vancouver style uses numbers as in-text citations which correspond to a numbered reference list.

This is incorrect: Harvard is an Author-Date style of referencing which requires both of these pieces of information within your in-text citation.

How can you avoid it?

Familiarise yourself with the Basics of referencing section in Cite Them Right. The Setting out Citations page will give you a thorough run-down of what citations look like in the Harvard style and the Sample text and reference list page offers similar examples in a body of writing for illustrative purposes.

4) Including an author’s initials in citations

As we mentioned above, Harvard is an Author-Date style of referencing, so your citation should contain, funnily enough, the author’s surname(s) and the year of publication: e.g. (Williams, 2017)

However, we regularly see people also including the author’s first name(s) or initials within their citations: e.g. (Williams, R., 2018). This isn’t required in Harvard. You do, however, need to include initials within the full reference in your reference list.

How can you avoid it?

It’s as simple as following the guidance in Cite Them Right, either in an individual resource page or in the Setting out Citations section.

5) Forgetting to include page numbers in citations

We’ve often found that there is some confusion over where and when to include page numbers within in-text citations. This is what Cite Them Right has to say on the matter:

If you are quoting directly or using ideas from a specific page or pages of a work, you should include the page number(s) in your citations. Insert the abbreviation p. (or pp.) before the page number(s).

(Pears and Shields, 2019, p. 7)

How you set out your citation depends on the flow of your writing or the idea you are trying to communicate. Follow the advice of the Setting out Citations and Setting out Quotations pages for more information.

When it comes to your reference list, you only need to include page numbers for chapters in edited books and journal/magazine/newspaper articles. The Elements that you may need to include in your references page discusses the various types of bibliographic information required for effective referencing in more detail.

How can you avoid it?

You might be sensing a theme if you’ve read this far – follow the guidance in Cite Them Right! As linked above, the Setting our Citations page will be most helpful here, but we’d argue that it’s just as important to be thorough and methodical in recording the bibliographic details of the sources you are using in your work. Whether it’s in a notebook, a tool like OneNote or Evernote or a Word document on your device, keeping track of these important details will help you produce more accurate citations and references.

6) Using footnotes

In another example of mixing up referencing styles, we’ve seen plenty of examples of written assignments that use footnotes to display references or expand on a point in the text. Unfortunately, footnotes are not used in Harvard (or other Author-Date styles of referencing) so you should avoid using them in your written work.

How can you avoid it?

You should ensure that all of your citations appear in the body of your written work and that your references are listed in alphabetical order on a separate page at the end of your assignment. If you are having trouble succinctly paraphrasing or synthesizing information in your work, have a chat with the Academic Success Centre advisors who can help you develop your academic writing.

7) Using ibid. or op. cit.

In another example of mixing up referencing styles, it’s fairly common for us to see the terms ibid. (referring to an immediately preceding cited work) or op. cit. (referring to previously cited work) in place of the correct author-date style of in-text citation. These terms are broadly used to save on space (or your precious word count!) but as with footnotes, neither of these terms are used within Harvard (Cite Them Right) referencing so you should avoid using them in your written work.

How can you avoid it?

If you aren’t sure about how to set out your in-text citations, or have a question that the Setting out Citations page can’t solve, just ask your Liaison Librarians for advice. Email us at liaison@sgul.ac.uk or drop by and see us at the Research Enquiries Desk (open Mon-Fri 11am – 2pm) where we’d be happy to help. The Academic Success Centre can also advise on the flow of your writing.

8) Missing/incorrect dates

We’ve mentioned this a couple of times already, but with Harvard being an Author-Date style of referencing, you need to include a date! This is usually the year of publication, but what do you do if you can’t find one? Cite Them Right advises you to simply write no date in full in both your citation and reference: e.g. (Cancer Research UK, no date).

Websites are probably the most common references we see that are missing their vital bibliographic details. If you find that lots of your sources are missing dates, ask yourself if you might be able to find a better, more reliable source for your work. eBooks are just as good, if not better than, websites for background information and have the benefit of including all the necessary bibliographic information at the beginning of the book.

Remember: You should avoid using websites for academic work which have no obvious author, title or date.

9) Chapters in edited books

The key to successfully referencing a chapter in an edited book is to ensure you are recording both the author(s) and title of the chapter you have read as well as the editor(s) and title of the book as a whole. A common mistake we see usually involves including only one of the other.

You also need to remember that in your in-text citation you should include the author of the chapter and the date, not the editors of the book.

How can you avoid it?

Follow the guidance in Cite Them Right. There are also examples here and in our Harvard helpsheet. As ever, you can also email us at liaison@sgul.ac.uk or drop by and see us at the Research Enquiries Desk (open Mon-Fri 11am – 2pm) where we’d be happy to make sure you’re getting it right.

10) Pesky Punctuation

Arguably the trickiest – and most tiresome – thing about any kind of referencing is ensuring your references are formatted correctly, with all the necessary punctuation in the right places. If you’ve got an errant full-stop, or a missing comma, you are likely to be marked down.

How do I make sure my formatting is correct?

Attention to detail is key: following the exact layout of the examples provided in Cite Them Right – whatever the source – will help you achieve referencing perfection.

Giving yourself time is also important! Leaving referencing to the very last minute often means forsaking accuracy in an effort to turn your assignments in by the deadline. Marks for correct referencing are easy to earn and easy to lose, so give yourself the best chance and try to reference as you go and keep track of the bibliographic information of your sources too.

A quick word on referencing generators

Another barrier to successful referencing is the use of online, automatic reference generators. We don’t recommend that you use them, although we realise they can be tempting. It’s worth bearing in mind that the references they produce are only as good as the data you feed in – so if anything is missing, you’ll get incomplete, inaccurate results. Even with ‘official’ referencing management software like RefWorks, we always caution that you should check your work before you submit it.

This is something we see a lot at the Research Enquiries Desk (RED) and while it can feel like these generators save you time, unpicking the errors and formatting of these references usually requires more effort than it would have taken to write the reference using the support in Cite Them Right.

If you’re in doubt, come and chat with us at the RED – as ever, we’re always happy to help.


We know that was a bit of a long read, but we hope it was worthwhile. If you are an SGUL student, please feel free to share this with your peers and help them avoid these common pitfalls!


References

Pears, R. and Shields, G. (2019) Cite them right: the essential referencing guide. 11th edn. London: Red Globe Press.