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Physical Sciences: Referencing

Why do I need to reference?

Woman sitting at a desk with an open laptop and a cup of coffee

Referencing is a fact of academic life and many of us do it without really thinking about why. The main reason is to avoid potential accusations of plagiarism and give credit to the work of others. Using the work or ideas of others without appropriate credit is a form of academic misconduct and there are severe penalties for this whether it was intentional or not. But there are also other reasons why you should reference the materials you have used. It helps to demonstrate the range of your reading and sets your work in a wider context for the reader. What have you learnt from others and how does this connect with your own ideas? Where are the gaps in the current research that you are aiming to fill? It also signposts your readers to other sources they might find useful for their work through your reference list or bibliography. This all contributes to helping to move knowledge forward. And finally, it is part of good academic conduct and maintaining the integrity of research to give credit to the original author of the ideas you yourself are building upon. This guide will talk you through the essentials of referencing and how to manage the information you collect and use throughout your project. 

Academic integrity and avoiding plagiarism

Academic integrity is a key element of good scholarly practice. It is an approach which brings together a range of principles and promotes the importance of acting ethically at all stages of the research process to avoid academic misconduct. The University of Cambridge defines academic misconduct as 'gaining or attempting to gain, or helping others to gain or attempt to gain, an unfair academic advantage in formal University assessment, or any activity likely to undermine the integrity essential to scholarship and research'. It includes actions such as plagiarism, self-plagiarism, contract cheating, collusion, impersonation, fabrication of results and failure to meet ethical obligations.

Good referencing practices is the best way to avoid accusations of academic misconduct. Referencing clearly identifies your sources and shows which ideas are your own and which are taken from elsewhere. Assignments and other work is often run through plagiarism detection software such as TurnItIn which identifies matches with previously published work. An assessor will look at the resulting report to determine whether these matches have been correctly attributed to their original creators. There are severe penalties for academic misconduct, even if this was unintentional, so it is important to ensure good referencing practices.#

AI and referencing

New AI tools such as ChatGPT have been in the news in recent months and you may have questions about how these could be used as part of your studies. The University of Cambridge has clear guidelines which class the use of ChatGPT and other AI tools a form of academic misconduct as they do not represent the work of the individual student. You should also be wary of any references supplied by AI tools as these may be inaccurate or false.

Steps to referencing

Referencing styles

The first thing to determine is which referencing style you will be using. Check with your department or publisher to find out which style is in use.  All referencing styles have subtle differences so making sure you use the correct style from the start saves editing in the future. Information about which style to use should be found in course handbooks or publisher guidelines. 

What information do I need?

The exact information you need to include in your reference will depend on the referencing style and the item you are citing, for example page numbers for a paper resource and a DOI for an online resource. You should follow the guidelines for your chosen style but an example of the information to include can be seen in the graphic below.

Example reference for a book showing year of publication, title, author, place of publication and publisher.

Do I need to reference this?

Broadly speaking, you should reference any material or ideas that are not your own. This helps to clearly define your own contributions to the work. More guidance can be found in the boxes below.

You should aim to reference any material you use in your own work which you have not created yourself. This includes a broad range from text and images through to conference presentations and recordings. This includes:

  • When directly copying or quoting sections of work by other people. Remember that there may be a limit to the amount you can use.
  • When using someone else's ideas even if you are not using their words, for example to discuss the development of a theory.
  • When using data gathered from interviews, emails or conversations.
  • When reporting facts or figures to support an argument.

There may be times during your research that you want to refer to a previous piece of your own work. It is good academic practice to reference your own work, and helps avoid self-plagiarism. Self-referencing shows that you have not just lifted text from previous work, and demonstrates that you have integrated it into your current research. Self-plagiarism does not apply to drafts of your work. You are likely to create several drafts, some of which you may show to your tutors for comment. This is an acceptable academic practice and any revisions prior to submission are not self-plagiarism.

You may need to refer to materials which have not been formally published. Unpublished materials can include letters, emails and interviews. Whilst a reader may not be able to access these sources, it is still important to cite them as sources that are the work of others. Resources such as lecture notes, Although you should look for wider sources, if you need to use lectures or materials from the VLE you should also reference these.

There are some instances when it is not necessary to include a formal reference:

  • When you are writing your own observations or experiment results.
  • When you are writing about your own experiences, thoughts, comments or conclusions.
  • When you are evaluating or offering your own analysis.

When you are using common knowledge or generally accepted facts. This is knowledge that can be found in numerous places and is likely to be known to a lot of people e.g. the sky is blue, the chemical symbol for iron is Fe. This knowledge will vary by discipline so you can always check this with your supervisor.

Cite Them Right

Cite Them Right Logo

Cite Them Right is an invaluable tool for referencing and contains information on how to reference many types of resources. It guides you through the process of compiling a reference in a range of different styles and demonstrates how to include these both in the text and as a bibliography. You can access Cite Them Right using the A-Z Database tool and your Raven password.

Manual referencing vs reference managers

Whether you compile references by hand or online is a personal decision and there are pros and cons to each approach. You can compile your references manually by recording the information needed to create a full reference/citation when you use sources. This information is then formatted into the correct style and inserted into a final document along with in-text citations. Whilst referencing in this fashion may take longer it can be helpful you have a lot of unusual sources which may require adjusting a referencing format. If you would prefer to create and format your references automatically you can use a reference manager. These digital tools help you to collect, store and organise your references so you can keep track of your reading, store your notes alongside the original sources and automatically generate citations and bibliographies in a range of styles.  

Whichever method you choose it is important to check your references for accuracy. Mistakes can be made when adding information manually and although reference managers will do a lot of the hard work for you, the references they provide are only as good as the data they are based on. 

Reference managers

Zotero logoZotero is a free, open-source reference manager compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems. Available as both a downloadable application and a web tool, it integrates with most internet browsers. Installation is a two step process - users should download both the application and the browser connector to access all available features. If you do not want to sign up and install and application you can still use ZoteroBib - a browser based version of the tool.

You can find out more about Zotero on the dedicated LibGuide.

EndNote logoEndNote is provided by Clarivate Analytics. It is compatible with both Windows and Mac operating systems but those using Linux are limited to the free basic version. EndNote is available to Cambridge users through the University and can be accessed using your Raven password. As this is linked to your Cambridge credentials you may lose access if you leave the University so it is important to ensure you back-up your references. A cloud based version called EndNote Web is available but to access this you need to install EndNote desktop.

You can find out more about EndNote on the dedicated LibGuide.

Mendeley logoMendeley Reference Manager is provided by Elsevier and is compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems as well as all common browsers. It is free to use but you will need to register for an account. There are two elements to download - the tool itself and the Web Importer plugin for your browser. A free account offers 2GB of personal storage and 100MB of shared space if you are working with others on your reference library. 

You can find out more about Mendeley on the dedicated LibGuide.

Bibtex logoLaTeX is often used by those in the physical sciences to produce outputs as it can cope with complex mathematical formulae. Although many reference managers work with LaTeX you may want to explore BibTeX for enhanced functionality. BibTeX allows references to be consistently formatted by separating the information about an item and the format that it is presented in, something which will be familiar to LaTeX users. References are stored in an external file and then added to the document during composition.

You can find out more about BibTeX in this guide from Oregon State University.

Referencing & Academic Integrity Resources

These resources have been developed by the Physical Sciences Research Support Team. We also offer training on a number of topics - you can find our training schedule here.

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