Referencing and avoiding plagiarism

Many universities use Cite Them Right by Richard Pears and Graham Shields as their referencing standard. This easy-to-use book will enable you to reference just about anything from a tweet to an online journal, a television show, or even a tattoo. Cite Them Right is also available as an online resource, Cite Them Right Online which your university may subscribe to. Ask in the library to find out if you have access!

What is referencing?

Referencing is the process of acknowledging the sources you have used in writing your essay, assignment or piece of work. It allows the reader to access your source documents as quickly and easily as possible in order to verify, if necessary, the validity of your arguments and the evidence on which they are based.


You identify sources by citing them in the text of your assignment (called citations or in-text citations) and referencing them at the end of your assignment (called the reference list or end-text citations). The reference list only includes the sources cited in your text. It is not the same thing as a bibliography, which uses the same referencing style, but also includes all material (for example, background readings) used in the preparation of your work.

Referencing successfully

To reference successfully, it is essential that, as a matter of course, you systematically note down full details of author, date, title and publication details of any material you use at the time you use it. For web pages, e-journals and ebooks, write down the access url and the date that you accessed the source. Besides being good academic practice, this ensures that you do not have the problem of trying to find sources you may have used weeks or months previously.

What's the benefit of accurate referencing?

By referring to the works of established authorities and experts in your subject area, you can add weight to your comments and arguments. This helps to demonstrate that you have read widely, and considered and analysed the writings of others. Remember, good referencing can help you attain a better grade or mark (often between five and ten percent of the total). Most importantly, good referencing is essential to avoid any possible accusation of plagiarism.

What is plagiarism?

The following are considered forms of plagiarism:

  • Passing off as your own a piece of work that is partly or wholly the work of another student.
  • Citing and referencing sources that you have not used.
  • Quoting, summarising or paraphrasing material in your assignment without citing the original source.
  • 'Recycling' a piece of your own work that you have previously submitted for another module or course (i.e. self-plagiarism).

How can you avoid plagiarism?

In many cases, students who find themselves accused of plagiarising often have done so unintentionally. Poor organisation and time management, as well as a failure to understand good academic practice, are often to blame. You might therefore find it helpful to:

  • Manage your time and plan your work – ensure that you have enough time to prepare, read and write.
  • When paraphrasing an author's text, ensure that you use your own words and a sentence structure sufficiently different from the original text.
  • In your notes, highlight in colour/bold any direct quotations you want to use in your assignment - this will help to ensure you use quotation marks with an appropriate reference when you are writing up your work.
  • Allow enough time to check your final draft for possible referencing errors or omissions: for example, check that all your in-text citations have a corresponding entry in your reference list, and vice versa.
  • Save all your notes and files until you receive your final mark or grade.

What is common knowledge?

In all academic or professional fields, experts regard some ideas as common knowledge. This is generally defined as facts, dates, events and information that are expected to be known by someone studying or working in a particular field. The facts can be found in numerous places and are likely to be known by many people: for example, that Margaret Thatcher was a British prime minister. Such information does not generally have to be referenced.

However, as a student you may only have just started to study a particular subject, so the material you are reading may not yet be common knowledge to you. In order to decide if the material you want to use in your assignment constitutes common knowledge, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did I know this information before I started my course?
  • Did this information/idea come from my own brain?
  • If the answer to either or both of the questions is 'no', then the information is not common knowledge to you.
  • In these cases you need to cite and reference your source(s).

This content was written by Richard Pears and Graham Shields, authors of Cite Them Right.

The six-point code

To make it easier for you to decide exactly when you need to cite, use the following simple six-point code. This is another of those notes worth sticking to the side of your computer screen or pinning to the notice board above your desk. Wherever you keep it, make sure it’s just a glance away.

When to cite:

  1. Distinctive ideas
    Whenever the ideas or opinions are distinctive to one particular source.
  2. Distinctive structure or organising strategy
    Even though you may have put it into your own words, if the author has adopted a particular method of approaching a problem, or there is a distinctive intellectual structure to what’s written, for example to an argument or to the analysis of a concept, then you must cite the source.
  3. Information or data from a particular source
    If you’ve gathered information from a source in the form of facts, statistics, tables and diagrams, you will need to cite the source, so your readers will know who gathered the information and where to find it.
  4. Verbatim phrase or passage
    Even a single word, if it is distinctive to your author’s argument. You must use quotation marks and cite the source.
  5. If it’s not common knowledge
    Whenever you mention some aspect of another person’s work, unless the information or opinion is widely known, you must cite the source, so your readers can follow it up.
  6. Whenever in doubt, cite it!
    It will do no harm, as long as you’re not citing just to impress the examiner in the mistaken belief that getting good grades depends upon trading facts, in this case references, for marks.

This content was written by Bryan Greetham, author of How to Write Better Essays, How to Write Your Undergraduate Dissertation and How to Write Your Literature Review.

How to cite a reference

You now know when to cite a reference, but you also need to know how to cite the reference correctly. Different subjects will cite references using different systems, but there are two main methods:

The Harvard System

For example:

  • Watts (1999) offers suggestions about how to prepare for university.
  • It has been found by Holmes and Watkins (2000), that criminals are …
  • This module is no longer offered (Smith, 2004).
  • If you use the Harvard system in the main body of your work, you will be expected to cite your references in full in your bibliography.


Footnotes are flagged in the main body of the text by a number and then the reference written in full at the bottom of the corresponding page. For example:

‘….and so it was thought that, “A new feeling came into existence, a sense that people had become separated from nature.”’ 1

If the quote is from a book, the citation should follow:

Author surname,initial(s)/ Title of book/ (Publisher/ Place of publication)/ Page number

Peck J and Coyle M, Literary Terms and Criticism, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p.70

If it were a journal article, you would cite:

Author surname, initial(s)/ ‘Title of article’ in Journal title/ Volume number (Issue number)/ (Year)/Page number

Peck J and Coyle M, “Romantic poetry” in Literary Terms and Criticism, 4 (1) (2002), p.70

Endnotes should be referenced in exactly the same way except they are found all together at the end of a chapter or at the end of the book.

For electronic sources, give the web page address and the date you downloaded the information. You should also cite the name of the reference and the original source if you have this information.

This content was written by Richard Pears and Graham Shields, authors of Cite Them Right

APA Citation Style

You may also come across the APA style, which is frequently used in the social sciences. Like Harvard style, APA style uses the author-date system for in-text citations. In the in-text citations, you should cite the last names of all the authors and the publication year:

Johnson suggests that more research is needed to … (2014).

According to recent research, the climate change … (Becker, 2018).

Recent evidence suggests that … (Thomas, Dumoulin, & Reynolds, 2017).​

In the reference list, which follows the main text, you should cite your sources in full. This is a bit more complicated than the in-text citations, as the format depends on the source type. Below, we’ve given the format for and an example of the three most common source types:


Format: AuthorLastName, FirstInitial. (Year). TitleBook (edition). City, State/Country: NamePublisher.

In reference list: Porter, M.E. (1998). Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and
Competitors (1th ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.

Journal article:

Format: AuthorLastName, FirstInitial., & Author LastName, FirstInitial. (Year). TitleArticle. TitleJournal,
Volume(Issue), Page Number(s).

In reference list: Andreff, W., & Staudohar, P. D. (2000). The evolving European model of professional
sports finance. Journal of Sports Economics, 1(3), 257-276.


Format: AuthorLastName, FirstInitial. (Year, Month Day). TitleArticle [Type]. Retrieved from

In reference list: Worland, J. (2015, July 27). U.S. flood risk could be worse than we thought.
Retrieved from

Fully understanding APA’s rules for citing sources in the reference list can be challenging. However, there are some great tools that can help you with this.

You can use an APA citation generator, which will ask you to select your source type and fill in the required fields. This tool will generate both the in-text and reference list citations for you.

Another great way to ensure you have the correct citation for your reference list is to use Google Scholar. Just search for your source and click the quote icon to copy the citation using your citation style.


Once you are clear about this, all you are left with is how to eradicate from your work the accidental cases of plagiarism, focussing on organisation and processing.

1. Organisation

Most of these are due to poor organisation. Many of us leave ourselves inadequate time to get our work done, so we rush research and note taking and in the process blend the ideas of our authors into our own, not knowing which are which. Inevitably when we come to write we pass them all off as our own. There are, therefore, simple things you can do to avoid this.

  • Time
    This is obvious: leave enough time so you don’t rush your work. Make sure you have broken the task up into distinct stages (interpreting the essay question, research, planning, writing, and revision) and you have given enough time for each with time between them for your mind to process the ideas effectively. To make absolutely sure give yourself 25% more time that you think you need. As you complete each assignment you will be able to judge for yourself whether this is too much or too little. (See Chapters 19 and 20 in How to Write Better Essays).

  • Record the details
    Put the details of the text you’re using clearly at the top of the first page of your notes: the author’s name, the title of the text, page numbers, and the date of publication. Not only will this save you a great deal of time and stress in trying to track down a reference long after you have used it, but it will be an obvious reminder that the ideas you’re noting are someone else’s and may need citing.

  • Separate your own ideas from your author’s
    This can be done quite simply. For example, you could just put the material you borrow from your sources in a different colour, or on different sheets of paper, or different documents.

2. Processing

But organisation is just one part of the remedy. Once you’ve organised your work you’re still left with problems that arise from the way you do your research.

  • Active processing
    The simple answer here is to avoid all passive, surface-level processing in which you merely read for understanding, note accurately what the author says, and then reproduce it word for word in your work. If you can avoid studying when you’re tired and break up your study sessions into manageable blocks of no more than two hours, then you are likely to avoid lapsing into passive, uncritical processing of the material.

    Instead process the material actively. In other words, structure what you read by analysing it into key points and sub-points, and criticise and evaluate it, rather than just passively accept what you read. In this way you will free yourself from being dictated by the author as to what is most important in what you read. You yourself will decide what should be noted and this will be dictated by the questions you, not the author, have already decided are most important.

    As a result you will probably borrow less, because you can see it is not as important as you might otherwise have thought, and you will integrate it within your own thinking, so that you impose your own distinctive organisation and structure on it. (See Chapter 13 of How to Write Better Essays).

  • Interpret the question
    However, to do this effectively you must have clear in your mind the key issues you want to explore in the text and the questions to which you want answers. This means you must in the first stage of essay writing have analysed the implications of the essay question you are tackling. This way you reveal not only the questions you want the text to answer, but also what you yourself already know about the issues. Armed with this you’re less likely to be dictated to by your authors and adopt their ideas wholesale. (See Chapters 3 to 8 in How to Write Better Essays).

  • Break the text up into manageable units
    Still, it’s all too easy to say don’t be dictated to by the authors you read, but when you get down to it each author writes in a way best calculated to present the most persuasive account. He or she wants to convince you that their point of view is correct, and as you are less experienced in the topic your ideas are bound to be heavily influenced by what you read.

    All of this you will know to be true from your own experience. So, do a simple thing to give you every chance of liberating yourself from enthralment to your author. Break down a chapter you’re reading into manageable units, which you can read, understand and then put aside so that you can take your notes without using the book. If the unit is of a manageable size you should be able to recall the key ideas and create the structure of the passage in your own terms. Don’t worry about details – you can always come back for them later. Be guided by your interpretation of the implications of the question and your own judgement, not the author’s, as to what is most important. You must allow your ideas to come through; you’re not just a sophisticated recycler of received opinions.

    This highlights the problem from which many of our difficulties arise: how are we to let ourselves and our own ideas into the picture? Never read and take notes at the same time. You will fail to create sufficient distance between your ideas and the author’s, and you will find yourself merely reproducing them verbatim. (See Chapters 14 and 15 of How to Write Better Essays).

  • Confidence
    There is, of course, one element running throughout this advice: the importance of having the confidence to trust in your own ideas and your own abilities to express and develop arguments as well as anyone. Beware of assuming that there are just right answers, which the author has presented correctly. As soon as you convince yourself of this, there is nothing more you can do but copy them accurately. (See Chapters 9, 10 and 11 of How to Write Better Essays).

The content has been written by Bryan Greetham, author of How to Write Better Essays.