Skip to Main Content

A Guide to Good Referencing Skills

What is a citation?

Referencing is the practice of acknowledging original sources created by others, that you use in assignments, reports, and dissertations. These sources can range from ideas and quotes to facts, figures, and visuals. 

Watch a short video to learn what a citation is.

In brief, citations help you:

  • give credit to other's work and ideas (and avoid plagiarism)
  • show readers which ideas you have taken to build your own argument (so your arguments are not “empty claims”)
  • guide readers to track and examine the sources by themselves

Note: You need to cite sources in your writing even that you use someone else's ideas, data, methodologies, illustrations, etc; it does not matter what format they are in and whether they are copyrighted or freely accessible on the Web.

If you do not formally acknowledge the original source of others' work, you are in danger of committing "plagiarism".

Plagiarism occurs when a writer uses the words and/or ideas of others and does not provide the original source of the information. Penalties for plagiarism can include loss of marks, failing a subject or failing your course. 

Go to Avoid Plagiarism to learn more.

A citation style is a set of rules that determine how to format and organize references or citations in academic and professional writing.

Citation style varies across disciplines, and each style has its own unique set of rules for how to format in-text citations and reference lists. Ask your instructor which style s/he prefers.

Go to Citation Styles to learn more about commonly used styles.

How to cite?

Complete referencing consists of two parts:

Referencing = In-text citation + Reference list


In-text citation Reference list
  • a brief mention of the source
  • appears within an essay
  • used to strengthen or support the writer's point
  • used to acknowledge the original source of words, information, or ideas
  • used when the words, information, or ideas are not our own.
  • a complete, alphabetical or ordered list of references
  • appears at the end of an essay
  • should include all materials consulted, even if not specifically referenced in the paper
  • may include various sources such as books, periodicals, encyclopedias, newspapers, government documents, teachers' notes, and interviews.

There are various referencing styles used in different academic and professional disciplines. For example, the Columbia style is used in Biology and Geology, while the MLA style is commonly used in Economics, ACS style in Chemistry, and the Chicago style is the standard for Political Science. 

In the social sciences, business, and management, the style of the American Psychological Association (APA) is commonly used for referencing and citation purposes. 

For example, if you want to cite this news article in your paper to support your argument, you should:

1. Make an in-text reference within your writing:

.. Smart clothing technologies may include printed sensors able to monitor a wearer's well-being or detect dangerous chemicals in the environment (Excell, 2013), ...

2. Include complete details about the article in the references section at the end of your paper:

Excell, J. (2013, April 8). Smart dressing. Retrieved from

Note: This is an example of APA style.

The in-text citation will always be inserted in your report or assignment, where you have quoted or paraphrased someone else’s work. 

Each in-text citation refers to a full reference in the reference list. 

In-text citation styles differ depending on the style. In APA style, it uses Author-Date citation system for in-text citation. You should include the following pieces of information. 

  • brackets
  • surname(s) of the author or authors
  • year of publication
  • page reference also included only when you have quoted directly or referring to an illustration 

Inserting citations

These rules apply for any citation, regardless of the type of material. 

Situation Rule Example
When you paraphrase: The full citation appears in brackets. If it is at the end of a sentence, it will always appear before the full stop. APA uses a comma after the last author's name and before the year. (Adams, 2012)
When you paraphrase and want to use the author(s) name(s) in the sentence:             Only the year of publication will appear in brackets. Brown (2006) has noted the complicated nature of life... 
When reproducing word-for-word material directly from another source: You must include the page reference of where you are quoting. This will appear after the year of publication.  "critical management scholars have pointed to the ways in which seemingly objective criteria such as those of rationality and efficiency are to some extent socially and politically determined. What counts as rationality, for example, can be contested" (Hendry, 2013, p.105).

Test Your Understanding

The reference list is entirely linked to the in-text citations in your text, and it gives full details of the sources you have used. Each one of your in-text citations must match a reference list entry.

Reference list styles differ depending on the style. In APA style, you should bear in mind that: 

  • appears at the end of your document
  • arrange reference entries in alphabetical order by the surname of the first author followed by initials of the author's given name. 
  • for several works by the same author or authors in the same order, arrange the reference entries by year of publication, the earliest first.
  • you don't need numbers, bullet points, start or any other pretty symbols to decorate your references. Keep it plain and simple!

Reference list example:

Garlick, S. (2009). Given time: Biology, nature and photographic vision. History of the Human Sciences, 22(5), 81-101.

Kelly, M. (2013). Living in an era of technology revolution. Electronics World, 119(1924), 42-43.

In-Text Citations

The literature is abundant with articles supporting the importance of students' acquisition of academic writing skills across disciplines. Most articles focus on the pedagogical movement of 20 years ago, called Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), which began in response to the general consensus that writing instruction should be conducted across the academic community (National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, 2003; National Writing Project & Nagin, 2006). A search for literature aimed at application of APA style and academic writing revealed a limited number of studies that focus mostly on interventions aimed at improving writing and understanding of APA style. For example, two articles presented unique methods to improve APA style for psychology students. In the first article, Goddard (2003) reported significant improvement on grammar and APA style assessments for students who completed a 3-credit course designed to improve their writing skills. In the second article, Smith and Eggleston (2001) similarly reported positive perceptions and improvement in knowledge of APA style following participation in a teaching activity designed to enhance students' understanding of the Publication Manual and style by reading a poorly written paper and identifying as many style errors as possible ...


Reference List

Goddard, P. (2003). Implementing and evaluating a writing course for psychology majors. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 25-29. Retrieved April 15, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.

National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected "R": The need for a writing revolution. New York: Author. Retrieved April 15, 2009, from

National Writing Project, & Nagin, C. (2006). Because writing matters: Improving student writing in our schools (Rev. ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, G.E., & Eggleston, T.J. (2001). Comprehending APA style through manuscript analysis. Teaching of Psychology, 28, 108-110. Retrieved April 15, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.

Source: Morse, Gwen Goetz, PhD., R.N. (2009). Faculty application of the american psychological association style. Journal of Nursing Education, 48(10), 542-51. Retrieved from

© HKUST Library, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. All Rights Reserved.