The focus of this blogpost is literature searching, specifically for longer research projects such as dissertations, and it is aimed at St George’s students.
Your expert Liaison Librarians are able to support you with every step of the way so don’t hesitate to get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We are able to advise on how to plan and carry out a complex literature search in a variety of databases. We can also recommend which databases are most suitable for your topic.
You can email us for an individual appointment or come to one of our online drop-ins. Monday to Friday between 12-1pm you can chat to a Liaison Librarian directly. Click on the relevant link on the day you want to drop by.
Here we provide tips and tricks, no matter which stage of the process you are currently at.
If you are…
…just getting started
Do a scoping search in Hunter. Even if you already use Hunter to locate books and journal articles in our collection, our Hunter video might teach you another thing or two about how to really make the most of its search functions.
If you aren’t familiar with the planning stage of literature searching or you usually skip this bit to get stuck in straight away, now is a good time to change that. When it comes to dissertations and research projects, you need to be much more systematic in your work, including when you formulate your research question. Have a look at our Canvas unit on this topic. It gives you more information and by the end, you will have a research question ready to start searching with.
If you are worried about how to structure your dissertation or academic writing, you can make an appointment with the Academic Success Centre team. Their details are found on the Study+ section in Canvas. We also have a number of books in our collection which can help with academic writing, including how to approach a literature review, dissertation or research paper. They are listed on our Writing for Assessment Wakelet.
If you need specific software to do your research, such as SPSS, have a look at what is available to you through St George’s University and request it here.
And finally, a little tip on how to get started. If you know of a paper which covers the area you are interested in already, have a look at which articles they reference and perhaps you find some relevant papers in their reference list for your project. While this is not a systematic method, it can help you get started and add to your search strategy (e.g. which alternative terms to use).
…ready for an in-depth literature search
If you are a little overwhelmed by the prospect of doing a complex search in multiple databases (and who can blame you), you need to start by familiarising yourself with how to build a complex search, what alternative terms are and how to include them and how to use advanced search strategies. We have a libguide that takes you through the whole literature searching process. For those of you who are working on a systematic literature review, have a look at our relevant libguide, which highlights what you need to consider to turn your literature review into a systematic literature review. Watch the following videos to find out more about identifying keywords and alternative terms.
Don’t forget – you can also ask a Liaison Librarian for help by emailing us at email@example.com or coming to one of our daily online drop-ins. We can recommend which databases are most suitable for your topic.
We strongly recommend you don’t use reference generators such as Cite This for Me as we find that generally the references produced by such tools are wrong. You end up spending longer correcting and double-checking your references than you would have done writing them from scratch. If you find the resource in Hunter, you will notice a “citation” option for each record. This has been formatted to match the requirements of Harvard Cite Them Right but it is not always correct. Make sure you compare it to Cite Them Right and correct it if necessary.
For a longer project, we encourage you to use reference management software as it helps you to deduplicate your search results, manage your references and create in-text citations and references. At St George’s, we support RefWorks, which is a web-based software. You need your St George’s login to access it and create an account. To get started, have a look at our RefWorks libguide. Additionally, our detailed video tutorial covers everything from how to get started to how to create references and in-text citations from within Microsoft Word.
We can also help you with your references, so if you are unsure about anything please email firstname.lastname@example.org or come to our drop-ins.
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:
(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.
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.
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.
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).
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 email@example.com 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.
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.
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!
Pears, R. and Shields, G. (2019) Cite them right: the essential referencing guide. 11th edn. London: Red Globe Press.