References & citations How to cite right

In academic writing, you will need to cite (or 'refer to') other people's work or ideas. This section considers how to do this by first looking at what references and citations are, then answering the question of why you need to cite. This includes a discussion of what plagiarism is, reasons why students commit plagiarism, and finally how to avoid plagiarism.

What are references & citations?

The terms reference and citation are important in academic writing and the difference between the two can be confusing (though in fact understanding the difference is less important than being able to use both correctly!). The following distinctions are standard in academic writing.

  • Citation: a specific source used in your text; also called in-text citation, as it occurs in the main body of the text. It can be considered to be short-hand format, as it does not contain full text (or 'biographical') information.
  • Reference: the full text (or 'biographical') details, such as publisher or URL, title, etc.; also called end-text citation or work cited. It is contained in the Reference Section at the end of the work. The reference allows the reader to find the text easily, and is the long-hand format of the in-text citation.

Why cite?

The answer to the question of 'Why cite?' is to maintain appropriate academic standards and honesty. You will need to use other people's ideas or words in your writing to make it stronger, and when you do this it is appropriate to acknowledge the fact that these are not your own ideas or words. This is done via citations. It is also appropriate to allow the reader to locate the source and verify the information, and this is done via the references.

A shorter (and more common, though in some ways incorrect) answer to the question of 'Why cite?' is 'to avoid plagiarism'. This is discussed more below.

What is plagiarism?

In academic writing you need to acknowledge the source of any words or ideas in your work. Failure to do this appropriately will result in plagiarism. In other words, there is the following definition:

  • Plagiarism: using other people's words or ideas without proper acknowledgement.

Plagiarism is a serious form of academic misconduct. When you plagiarise, you are essentially stealing someone else's ideas or words. Plagiarism can result from incorrect or missing in-text citations, which means the reader will think the ideas are yours when they are not (stealing ideas); it can also result from missing quotation marks or inadequate paraphrasing, which means the reader will think the words are yours when they are not (stealing words). The seriousness of plagiarism is reflected by the collocation 'to commit plagiarism'. Other words which collocate with 'to commit' are 'crime' and 'murder', and in effect plagiarism is an academic crime, which can result in expulsion from university or even cancellation of a previously-issued degree certificate.

Why do students plagiarise?

If plagiarism is such a serious academic crime, with such strong punishments, why do students do it? One reason is of course that they think no one will notice, and they will therefore gain an advantage by plagiarism as it will improve the quality of their work. In the modern world, with online search engines as well as sophisticated plagiarism-detection tools, it is unlikely that the plagiarism will go unnoticed. It is, however, far more common for students to commit plagiarism unintentionally. One reason for this is because students lack awareness of referencing conventions. Another reason is because of poor record-keeping while researching: students lose track of which information came from which source. A third reason is that when taking notes, students do not use their own words, and when using information from notes they do not paraphrase sufficiently. Understanding these reasons may help you to avoid plagiarism.

How can I avoid plagiarism?

As noted above, plagiarism means stealing someone else's words or ideas. To avoid plagiarism, you will first need to make sure that the words are either your own, by using paraphrasing or summarising skills, or that you use "quotation marks" to indicate that the words are not your own. In this way, you will avoid stealing other people's words. To avoid stealing other people's ideas, you will need to use in-text citations and compile an accurate reference section. These are considered in the next sections of the website.


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Below is a checklist for this page.

Area Details OK? Note/comment
References vs. citations I understand the difference between an in-text citation and a reference.
Why cite I understand why I need to cite my sources
Understanding plagiarism I understand what plagiarism is and why it is a serious problem in academic writing.
Reasons for plagiarism I understand the main reasons why students commit plagiarism in their writing.
Avoiding plagiarism I know that to avoid plagiarism I need to use paraphrase, summary or quotation marks, in addition to in-text citations and a reference section.


Bailey, S. (2000). Academic Writing. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer

Cornell University (2005) What is the difference between documentation, citation, and reference? Available at: (Access date: 10/11/15).

Pears, R. and Shields, G. (2013). Cite them right: The essential guide to referencing. 9th edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Next section

Find out about in-text citations in the next section.

Previous section

Go back to the previous section about paraphrasing.


Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 02 November 2019.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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