in Academics, Writing

Choosing and Using an Appropriate Referencing Style


One of the issues that is frequently encountered by individuals looking to write more authoritative and academic articles and reports is citations. Having a wide variety of citations in your work, provided they are appropriate for the context, increases the accuracy and reliability of what you produce. Citations themselves are easy; find something made by someone else that backs up the point that you are making, then reference it. Choosing and using a referencing style that is appropriate for your work and audience can be much harder.

The infamous Wikipedian protester (xkcd #285)

What is a referencing style and why use one?

A referencing style, simply put, is how you write your references. References are broken into two parts: the in-line reference, and the reference list. The in-line reference is positioned within the text. It tells the reader what reference to check in the reference list. The reference list is the complete listing of each citation. Reference lists are usually located at the end of the document, but they may also be located as a footnote at the end of each page or chapter.

Using, or if you are an editor, enforcing, a reference style carries multiple benefits. Firstly, it ensures that all citations within a work follow the same format. This makes it easier for the reader to utilise your citations when they wish to. If you use multiple styles within a single work, the reader must manually differentiate between the different styles, which may be confusing if the styles are very similar.

As an extension of this, a unified referencing style within a collection of works, such as an academic journal, is easier for readers. This is because they only need to understand a single reference style to read the citations of every constituent work. This also makes the work of the editors and reviewers easier, as they will not have to learn and correct multiple reference styles.

Secondly, picking a style and sticking to it will help improve your writing workflow. You will learn to use references more confidently. Content is read with more authority when it is consistent, and quality referencing adds to this.

There are multiple styles of reference, and some of them mix and match elements of one another. There are a handful of major referencing styles that are arguably the most popular. In addition to these styles, there are also two different referencing systems.

The two referencing systems

The first referencing system is called the Vancouver system, also known as footnote referencing. It was created by a committee of medical journal editors in Vancouver in 1978, and it has been popularised several medical journals and Wikipedia. It takes the form of a simple numbered in-line citation and a numbered endnote or footnote reference list. Following is an example adapted from “Encephalitis lethargica – The mind and brain virus” by Paul Bernard Foley1.

The in-line citation:
“As another author commented in connection with the epidemiology of influenza, ‘hypotheses must provide satisfactory explanations for all the known findings – not just for a convenient subset of them’.25.

The footnote or endnote:
25. Davenport, F. (1977) “Reflections on the epidemiology of myxovirus infections”. Medical Microbiology and Immunology i. 164; pp. 69-76.

The second referencing style is called the Harvard system, also known as bracketed or parenthetical referencing. It was created by staff at Harvard University, and popularised by their academics. It takes the form of a variable textual in-line citation and an alphabetised endnote reference list. Following is an example from one of my university papers.

The in-line citation:
“This is especially important when we consider that said administrators are likely to have a legal responsibility to do so as data controllers under the Data Protection Act (ICO, n.d.)”

The endnote:
ICO (n.d.) “Guide to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): The Principles”, the Information Commissioner’s Office [ONLINE]. Available at the ICO website.

From these examples, you get a rough idea of how the two systems work, and how they differ. The Vancouver system only has one implementation; the one used here. The Harvard system, however, is the one with multiple styles.

The different Harvard referencing styles

As the Harvard system does not use a simple numbered list, implementations of it can vary wildly. Most of them fall roughly into two formats, author-date and author-title-page. The former is shown in the example above and is mostly used within the sciences and history disciplines. This is because the date of the publication is important to these fields. Referring to a survey as “recent” without providing a date may cause issues for your readers, who may not be able to find the date themselves.

The latter format is mostly found within the humanities and arts. This is because the date of publication is not important: The Mysterious Affair at Styles will always have an original publication year of 1920, and every subsequent publication is only a reproduction. Any copy of this novel should be sufficient for the reader to check the source material. In this case, a reference to (Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, p. 10) will be more useful.

The complexities of the Harvard system do not end here, however. How the reference list should be written can vary wildly, depending on which style an organisation uses. I will not cover these here, as they are more suited to a separate article.

How to choose which system and style to use

There are myriad rationales for each system and style of referencing. Seeing the examples above may have provided you with enough information to choose one. If that’s the case, congratulations, you’re done! If not, however, this checklist should help you make the right decision.

1. Are you writing for a pre-existing organisation or publication?

If you are, they more than likely have a style guide. If you’re at school or university, check with your tutor, student support staff, or your institution’s library. They should be able to provide you with a copy of the guide. If you’re writing for a journal or conference, check with your liaison, editor, or another contributor to see what they recommend. You should always use the styles preferred by your institution.

2. What style do you encounter in your field?

Many fields have an established style, even if journals or universities don’t use it. Read some of the more popular publications or some recent works in your field, or ask other practitioners or students. If there is a trend, go with it.

3. What style do your references use?

Check what references exist in the papers that you are citing. If there is a common style between them, use that. It will help readers navigate your citations, and helps to reinforce a particular style within your field.

4. Which style is easier for you to understand?

If you’re in a position to decide your style, this is the key question. Try reading the two fragments below, adapted from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life by Sigmund Freud[2]. If one of the styles interrupts the flow of your reading, it probably isn’t appropriate for you.

But at this stage of the discussion we must also think of the assertions of Wundt, who deals with the manifestations of speech-mistakes in his recent work on the development of language.[4] Psychic influences, according to Wundt, never lack in these as well as in other phenomena related to them.

But at this stage of the discussion we must also think of the assertions of Wundt, who deals with the manifestations of speech-mistakes in his recent work on the development of language (Wundt, 1900). Psychic influences, according to Wundt, never lack in these as well as in other phenomena related to them.

5. Are you writing for the Web or print?

If none of the other questions led you to the right style, this one might be the trick.

Generally, content written for the web opts for Vancouver referencing. This is because the numbers can be hyperlinked, rendering the need to find a source in a reference list less relevant. In addition, some sites will skip the in-line citation entirely, as this example from my blog demonstrates.

On the other hand, if you are writing for print, you should consider whether or not you prefer footnotes or endnotes. Harvard referencing may be better in the latter case, as finding one of several hundred numbered references at the end of a book may be harder for your readers.

A note about shortnotes

With the Vancouver system, it is reasonable to use both footnotes and endnotes with a system of shorthand notes. This is used in the paper that I referenced at the beginning of this article. With this method, there is a shorthand footnote, and the complete reference is provided as an endnote in a reference list à la the Harvard system.

In the original work cited, the example used above looks like this:

The in-line citation:
“As another author commented in connection with the epidemiology of influenza, ‘hypotheses must provide satisfactory explanations for all the known findings – not just for a convenient subset of them’.25.

The footnote:
25. Davenport (1977).

The endnote:
Davenport, F. (1977) “Reflections on the epidemiology of myxovirus infections” Medical Microbiology and Immunology i. 164; pp. 69-76

For particularly long works, or when there are a lot of citations, this may be appropriate if you’re using the Vancouver system. This mitigates one of the main disadvantages of the system. It is, however, entirely optional, so don’t feel compelled to use it if you dislike it.

Concluding Referencing Styles

There is a lot more to citations than what I have outlined here. This article only scratched the surface of the complexities of the various systems and styles of referencing. Hopefully, it’s just enough for you to figure out the basics, and what to research from here to find out more. I may write some further articles in the future to go into more detail and cover some of the more technical requirements of different referencing styles.

As always, drop a comment below or join my Discord server if you have any comments or questions.


  1. Foley, P. (2018) “Encephalitis lethargica: The mind and brain virus“, New York, Springer, pp. 13.
  2. Freud, S. (1901) Mistakes in Speech, “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” pp. 33

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