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A Student S Guide To Writing Reference Lists

No matter what type of paper you're writing, be it a literature review, research report, summary, or analysis, rest assured that you'll be required to name your sources. There are several different types of resource lists, not to mention a number of different styles for writing

A reference list, also called a list of works cited, is a catalog of all the sources you cited or otherwise referred to in your paper. A citation involves giving another author credit for a quote, idea, finding, or phrase that you use in your paper. You should cite all direct quotes, as well as instances of paraphrasing; original or novel ideas, perspectives, and facts; and research findings. This is necessary so that authors receive due credit for their work. It's also an academic obligation: it provides your readers the opportunity to locate the sources you used, read and interpret the evidence themselves, and perhaps even challenge your conclusions.

In contrast to reference lists, you list all the sources you read in a bibliography. Even if you do not cite the source, it must receive a mention in the bibliography if you used it in any way throughout the research and writing processes. Thus, books and articles you consulted for reference early on must be included in your bibliography, receiving the same attention as those sources you cited extensively.

In addition to various types of resource lists, there are also different styles in which you can compile them. Your professor will tell you whether she wants you to use a reference list or bibliography, along with what style your list should be presented in. This information will most likely be in the assignment itself, so read through your handouts carefully. When in doubt, it's better to ask the professor than guess!

One of the most popular styles is Modern Language Association (MLA) style. Founded in 1883, the MLA is a professional association that promotes the study and teaching of - you guessed it - language and literature. MLA Style is the format recommended for bibliographies by the Association. Along with the styles developed by the University of Chicago Press and the APA, it's one of the "big three" styles. The MLA guidelines are used by more than 125 scholarly journals, newsletters, and magazines, and are quite common in high schools and colleges. You are likely to encounter them at some point in your academic career.

The University of Chicago Press also publishes a style guide, called The Chicago Manual of Style. Now in its 15th edition, the manual explains not only how to document your resources, but also how to deal with copyright issues, design and produce a book, and everything in between. The manual has humble origins, starting out as a sheet of typographical basics in the 1890s, morphing into a short pamphlet first published in 1906, and now weighing in at a hefty 986 pages. Aimed at publishers, editors, and writers, you might have to learn this style if you are majoring communications or related fields.

Also mentioned earlier were the guidelines developed by the American Psychological Association (APA). If you're taking a psychology or other social science course, odds are that you'll be using this style for your reference list. The APA is the largest association of psychologists, with over 150,000 members and 53 divisions. The APA's Publication Manual is a comprehensive resource for both students and professionals who wish to publish their research. Along with guidelines for writing a reference list, the Publication Manual also includes information on how to organize your paper's content; how to express your ideas coherently; ethical standards for reporting research findings; and how to develop and submit a manuscript for publication. If you ever plan on publishing work in psychology, sociology, social work, criminology, nursing, business or economics, you will need to know APA style forwards and backwards!

There are a number of other style guides available; each field prefers a specific style, and many have developed their own guidelines. Thus, you should always double check with your professor to see what style she wants you to use.

Even though the reference list falls at the end of your paper, make no mistake - it's extremely important! Any errors you make could inadvertently deny an author credit for her work. Incorrect citations might make it difficult or impossible for your peers to do their own research on the topic. Failure to properly credit your sources could get you in big trouble, whether it's an intentional omission or not. Compiling the list in the incorrect format, while not as serious as excluding it altogether, may still annoy your professor.

The reference list is more than an afterthought. Afford it as much attention as you do the rest of your paper, and be well on your way to a stellar research report!

Copyright Kelly Garbato, 2005

Kelly Garbato is an author, ePublisher, and small business owner. She recently self-published her first book, “13 Lucky Steps to Writing a Research Paper,” now available at ( or through Peedee Publishing (

To learn more about the author, visit her web site at

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