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Addressing students' referencing errors

About the author

Chinny Nzekwe-Excel is a learning development adviser with the Centre for Learning Innovation and Professional Practice, Aston University, Birmingham, UK.

She holds a Master's degree in Engineering Business Management from the University of Warwick. In addition, she has a BSc degree in Computer Science and Mathematics.

Chinny develops and provides customized support to meet students' learning needs and future developments.

She also engages in research and business activities relating to learning and teaching, project team integration, and research methods in collaboration with the different schools/faculties of Aston University.

By Chinny Nzekwe-Excel

Introduction and background

Referencing is an approach used to show that a piece of work recognizes pertinent research/sources and acknowledges their origins. It entails the use of ideas from different resources that are relevant to a particular subject area of study, so as to support and reinforce it. This is to say that, it is a method used to strengthen an idea, argument, study or theory.

Referencing is essential because it places a study within a broader context and compares it with other studies within the same subject area. In addition, it shows the extent of previous research consulted and used in a study. Furthermore, in academic writing, referencing helps to ensure honesty thereby differentiating a given study from other studies.

Subsequently, it presents authority in academic writing, thereby indicating that a particular study is based on some evidence or previous studies, giving the work credibility.

Importantly, referencing is used to avoid plagiarism. Plagiarism, simply put, is the use of someone's idea or theory without acknowledging that person.

Penalizing students because of inadequate referencing is not uncommon in higher education institutions. This is to say that referencing is a topic that has continued to pose confusion to students (Parton and Fleming, 2007), indicating the need for consistency in a given referencing style.

Different academic disciplines adopt and use different referencing styles, for example:

  • Harvard referencing style, which is mainly adopted by studies relating to education, management, business and social sciences.
  • American Psychological Association (APA) referencing style, which is predominantly used in psychology and social science studies.
  • Oxford Standard for Citation of Legal Authorities (OSCOLA) referencing style, which is usually used in legal studies.
  • Numeric or Vancouver referencing style, which is typically used in engineering and medical studies.

However, for the purpose of this study, emphasis is placed on the Harvard referencing style.

The Harvard referencing style

Harvard referencing, also known as the author-date style, is one of the most commonly used and adopted styles of referencing in different schools or faculties of higher education institutions. It is also Emerald's approved system for citing other works (see: "How to... use the Harvard reference system" for Emerald's house style on how and where to use references within the text of your article, and how to compile the reference list at the end).

The Harvard referencing style (HRS) originated from the referencing technique used by a prominent zoologist, Edward Laurens Mark in 1881 (Chernin, 1988).

The HRS consists of two main parts:

  1. A citation.
  2. A list of references.


A citation is the in-text reference that is the source used within the text of a document. It includes the author surname(s) and the source's year of publication written inside parenthesis. However, depending on how the sentence containing the reference is structured, only the source's year of publication could be inside the parenthesis while the author surname(s) or organization name is written outside the parenthesis. The page number(s) of the reference is usually included in the citation if the reference is a direct quote, a figure, table, or statistical information. The author's initials are not included in the text as part of the citation.

List of references

A list of references containing details of the sources used in a piece of work needs to be included at the end of the document, assignment or report. This is to enable the reader to locate or retrieve any of the sources. Table I shows a list of what needs to be included in a list of references for key information sources.

Table I. Checklist of what to include for information sources
  Author Year Article title Publication title Issue Place Publisher Edition Page numbers URL Date accessed
Book Y Y   Y   Y Y Y      
Chapter Y Y Y Y   Y Y Y Y    
Journal article Y Y Y Y Y       Y    
E-journal article Y Y Y Y Y       Y Y Y
Internet site Y Y Y Y           Y Y
Newspaper article Y Y Y Y Y       Y    

Source: Adapted from University of Wolverhampton (2009, p.1).

Though most Harvard referencing guides state that citations in the text should contain authors' surnames and the source's year of publication (Aston University, 2007; Pears and Shields, 2005), they vary in the format with which the list of references is presented.

For example, two (non-Emerald) academic journals that require the HRS for their publications vary in their formats, as shown below:

  • Hedges, L.V. (1987). How hard is hard science, how soft is soft science? The empirical cumulativeness of research. American Psychologist, 42(5), 443-455.
  • Hedges, L.V. (1987). How hard is hard science, how soft is soft science? The empirical cumulativeness of research. American Psychologist, Vol. 42 No. 5, pp. 443-455.

Subsequently, two guidance materials on the HRS showed variations and inconsistencies in the referencing format. With respect to an edited book, one guidance material provided the following format:

  • Wright, J.K. (1996). A plea for the history of geography. IN: Agnew, J. et al. (eds.) Human geography: an essential anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 243-269.

While the other material structured the reference as below:

  • Wright, J.K. (1996). ‘A plea for the history of geography', in: Agnew, J. et al. (eds.) Human geography: an essential anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 243-269.

The above variations and inconsistencies in the format for the HRS create confusion for students, thereby suggesting to students that they may structure their references without following any particular format. In addition, these inconsistencies discourage the development of students' referencing ability from an early stage of their studies or careers.

This study therefore recommends the need to use a consistent format in the HRS so as to reduce students' referencing errors and to ensure that higher education institutions speak the same language, in terms of presenting the same format for a particular referencing system or style.

To facilitate this, this study further recommends that a recognized higher education body or organization, such as the Higher Education Academy, provides an updated version of a format to adopt on a yearly basis, and subsequently circulates this to higher education institutions. However, such circulations need to be done in good time so as to enable and ensure that staff and students adopt the updates and modifications.

Publisher's note:

The Harvard reference system is Emerald's approved system of citing other works. Articles submitted to Emerald for publication are required to use this system. To view Emerald's house style for using and displaying Harvard references, see: "How to... use the Harvard reference system" in our "For Authors" section.


Aston University (2007), "An introductory guide to citing references", Aston University Library & Information Services, Birmingham, UK, August, available at: [accessed November 18 2009].

Chernin, E. (1988), “The 'Harvard system': a mystery dispelled”, British Medical Journal, Vol. 297 No. 6655, pp. 1062-1063.

Parton, S. and Fleming, H. (2007), “Academic libraries and learning support in collaboration: Library-based guidance for peer-assisted learning leaders at Bournemouth university: theory and practice”, New Review of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 13 No. 1-2, pp. 79-89.

Pears, R. and Shields, G. (2005), Cite Them Right: The Essential Guide to Referencing and Plagiarism, Pear Tree Books, Newcastle, UK.

University of Wolverhampton (2009), "Harvard referencing", Department of Learning & Information Services, Wolverhampton, UK, available at: [accessed October 8 2009].