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Referencing your work: Getting started

How to reference and cite in your assignments. Includes Harvard, Footnote, APA, OSCOLA guidelines.

“The basic principle of referencing is to support and identify the evidence you use in your assignments.”

Colin Neville, The complete guide to referencing and avoiding plagiarism

Referencing is a skill that you need to pick up very early in your time at university. It is a key component of all academic assignments. To begin with, it can seem daunting, over-meticulous and opaque - but eventually it should become second nature (honest!).

What is referencing?

Referencing is acknowledging the sources of information that you have used to help you write or create your assignments.

In your work, you should use existing academic literature or other relevant information to back up and provide evidence for the points you are making. This strengthens your arguments and gives them true academic value. The sources of information you use may include books, journal articles, newspapers, government publications, organisational reports, websites, videos, computer programs and so on.

When you reference something, you refer to (or cite) the work of others in order to acknowledge that you did not come up with the ideas off the top of your head, without basing them on sound evidence. It always involves some sort of marker in the text itself to indicate which piece of writing is based on a source and the full source details are given elsewhere - see How do you reference? below for more on this.

Student stating "I think this...because I have read these peoples' work"

Why should you reference?

Person lifting weights

Stronger arguments

If you write an essay without references it weakens any points you make because there is no evidence to support them. By referring to other academics' work, or to information from reputable sources, you are indicating that your points are based on your reading and you have not made them up without careful thought. This strengthens your arguments making them more persuasive.

For any contentious points, you can give these more weight by using several references to support them. You can also refer to work that argues the opposite position and explain why you do not find that as convincing.

community standing on each others' shoulders

Academic engagement

By referring to other writers, you are placing yourself within the wider academic community. You are acknowledging the work that has gone before that has enabled you to learn and make your contribution to the academic debate in your field. Even if you have thought of some ideas yourself, they are more acceptable to that community when you can show that other people have thought the same.

Using a style of referencing that is the norm in your discipline also shows you are engaging with the academic conventions that are part of that field. Doing this correctly gives others in your discipline (i.e. your tutors in the first instance) confidence in your work.

Thief running off with the work of others

Avoiding plagiarism

If you do not use a reference in the circumstances below or follow the conventions of referencing your work, you run the risk of committing the serious academic offense of plagiarism. Plagiarism is taking the work of others and passing it off as your own (even unintentionally). This may ultimately result in failure or expulsion from the University. Don't panic though, it is easy to avoid if you follow the basic rules given on this page and in your referencing system guidelines.

A note about 'self-plagiarism'

If you use part or all of a previously submitted essay in a new assignment or you do not acknowledge that you are borrowing from your own previous work, then you are committing self-plagiarism. This is because you cannot get credit for the same work twice in your degree programme. If you need to refer to a previous assignment, cite yourself as any other author in the text and include your unpublished essay in the reference list:

Bartram, J. (2016) An analysis of story theory [undergraduate essay]. University of Hull, unpublished.

[This example is in UoH Harvard Style].

When should you reference?

You MUST use a reference whenever you:

  • Quote directly from a source.
  • Paraphrase (put into your own words) someone else’s ideas. This is often a better alternative to using a direct quotation. 
  • Use statistics or other pieces of specific information which are drawn from another source.
  • Use photographs, diagrams, illustrations or charts that you have not designed and created yourself.


visual version of above text

How do you reference?

You reference using a referencing system or style. This is a set of guidelines to show you what information is needed in a reference and how you should format it, both within your text and in your reference list at the end of the document. There are two common types of referencing system:

  1. Author-Date (e.g. Harvard, APA): Author surnames and year of publication are given in the text and an alphabetical reference list/bibliography is given at the end.
  2. Footnote-Bibliography (e.g. Chicago, OSCOLA): A superscript number in the text refers to footnotes found at the bottom of each page and an alphabetised reference list/bibliography is given at the end. 

Your lecturers or supervisor will advise you on which of the following centrally supported University of Hull referencing styles to use:

  1. Harvard (Hull)
  2. Footnotes (Hull)
  3. APA