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Year : 2023  |  Volume : 69  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 1-6  

The art of referencing: Well begun is half done!

CA Divecha1, MS Tullu2, S Karande2,  
1 College of Medicine and Health Sciences, National University of Science and Technology, Sohar, Sultanate of Oman; and Seth G.S. Medical College and K.E.M. Hospital, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
2 Departments of Pediatrics; College of Medicine and Health Sciences, National University of Science and Technology, Sohar, Sultanate of Oman; and Seth G.S. Medical College and K.E.M. Hospital, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Correspondence Address:
Dr. M S Tullu
Departments of Pediatrics; College of Medicine and Health Sciences, National University of Science and Technology, Sohar; and Seth G.S. Medical College and K.E.M. Hospital, Mumbai, Maharashtra

How to cite this article:
Divecha C A, Tullu M S, Karande S. The art of referencing: Well begun is half done!.J Postgrad Med 2023;69:1-6

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Divecha C A, Tullu M S, Karande S. The art of referencing: Well begun is half done!. J Postgrad Med [serial online] 2023 [cited 2023 Feb 1 ];69:1-6
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The value of scientific research lies in its wide visibility and access/availability to others; this is generally achieved by a scientific publication as an original (research) paper. The scientific inquiry typically advances based on previously laid ideas/research, making it essential to acknowledge the contribution of the previous authors. The references list is a catalog of literature sources chosen by the researcher to represent the most relevant documents pertaining to his/her study.[1] The British Standards Institution defines reference as “a set of data describing a document, sufficiently precise and detailed to identify it and enable it to be located.”[2] References lay the foundation of the paper, providing context for the hypothesis, methodology, interpretation, and justification of the study.[3] Using other's ideas/thoughts without due credit amounts to plagiarism, compromising the academic integrity of research. A well-referenced paper is thus accurate and complete, adds value and credibility to both the researcher and the source author, and enhances the scientific prestige of the chosen journal.[3] A bibliography also lists the sources used during research. However, while references only include those sources (journals, books, web information, etc.) which are actually cited in the publication, bibliography comprises all accessed sources (works consulted), irrespective of whether they are cited in the study publication or not.[4] Thus, referencing in academic writing is an important research tool to display as well as integrate knowledge on a particular subject or topic.[5]

 Importance of Proper Referencing

Scientific research is usually developed on previously established ideas/scientific knowledge. A meticulous literature review at the beginning of the study enables the researcher to identify the work done in the field, identify the gaps in knowledge, and recognize the need for further research.[6] The most relevant sources from this literature search (essentially) form the list of references. Use of proper referencing is thus beneficial in many ways, such as the following:

It helps the readers to identify and locate the sources used in the research and provides evidence to verify the need/rationale of the study, methodology, inferences, and implications of the study.[3]It provides an overview of the techniques/tools used, supports/convinces the reader about the appropriateness of the methodology, and offers a proper perspective in which the research findings need to be interpreted.[3],[7]It is a proof of the author's in-depth reading and knowledge on the subject pertaining to his/her research. References not only highlight similarities in research, but also differentiate the author's ideas from his sources, indirectly acknowledging the author's own contribution to that topic.[4]References chosen by a researcher not only credit the individual author/s whose work is cited, but also demonstrate his/her appreciation toward cited authors, at times leading readers toward hitherto lesser-known/unknown author's research.[4],[8] By providing acknowledgment to the cited idea/thought, the author also avoids being accused of plagiarism and adds credibility to his/her own work.[4]Referenced works steer the readers toward literature pertaining to a particular topic, thus advancing the readers' interest.[4] It also allows to trace the origins of ideas and integrates newer ideas (from current research) with previous ones, thus building a web of learning about the topic of interest.[9]The reference list provides a list of experts in a specific field, thus helping editors to identify appropriate reviewers.[3]It provides peer reviewers with related sources of information to evaluate the manuscript with respect to the cited work.[6]

 Organizing the References

An initial extensive literature search helps in identifying the appropriate research question, drafting the study protocol, supervising ongoing research, analyzing the results, and writing the paper.[3],[7] Although references are displayed at the end of the article/after the text of the article, they should not be actually written after completing the text of the manuscript. While drafting the text of the manuscript, the author/s should type the references on a separate MS Word document simultaneously. This preparation allows the writer to choose adequate number of relevant and rational references, avoid bias in his/her research/writing, and limit the reference number as per the target journal for publication.[7] While citing, it is imperative not to cite broadly, but to do so with respect to the content of the article. Articles which define the topic, lay down background information regarding the study question, give current knowledge about the research, and describe previous studies on a similar study question should be mentioned in the “Introduction” section of the manuscript.[10] These studies enable to identify existing knowledge, gaps in knowledge, and justify the rationale of the study.[6] Studies which identify or refer to the method, protocols, or standards (whether new or previously published), elaborate on complex or lesser-known statistical analysis, describe diagnostic criteria, rationalize sample size estimation, or justify use of specific study design/method are best suited as references to the “Methods” section of the manuscript – they help to plan a strong and supported methodology and describe the technique and criteria of the study group.[3],[10] Research that reflects on the study findings/results or provides supportive explanation merit mention in the “Discussion” section of the manuscript – they provide information to interpret the study based on existing published data, compare results with those of other studies, and rationalize the implications of the results.[10]

Though citation analysis treats all references equally, it is important to weigh references in terms of their value to the paper.[11] While some references are worthy to be mentioned only once in the paper, some are very relevant to the study question and referred to on multiple occasions, and it is important to re-cite only the most relevant articles.[3] Referencing is not just about stating the publication source (providing relatedness), but also adds value to the paper in terms of representation on the subject and connectivity between knowledge sources (capture the “aboutness”).[11] References can be books (author/s), legal documents, journal articles, newspaper articles, reports (e.g., official reports from government departments), university working papers, papers presented at conferences, internet sources (including weblogs – blogs and email correspondence), DVD/CD databases, radio/television/videos/audio cassette/CD-ROMs, interview transcripts, and illustrations.[12]

 Choosing Appropriate References

As a rule, whenever one uses an idea, data, diagrams, tables, concepts, methods from a previously published work, it should be cited.[12] With availability of multiple search engines and abundance of online resources, the task of filtering references may seem daunting.[5] While choosing references, one should ensure that the original source is completely read and correctly interpreted before its citing.[6] It is preferable to provide direct references to original article sources as far as possible, choosing a landmark article on the topic.[5] The choice of references should serve as the most relevant, appropriate, and valuable addition, and one should stick to the most pertinent references that actively support/contradict their conclusions or experience.[6] It is preferable to use the most recent relevant resources to provide the latest and up-to-date information; however, certain landmark papers may also be cited (even if they are old). Note that very old references may not be available/accessible to reviewers as well as readers.[7] Often, there are multiple sources for the same information; always prefer references that provide the highest level of evidence (such as meta-analysis), most recent publications, or trustworthy sources such as reputed peer-reviewed journals (with higher impact factor), open access and preferably indexed on reputed databases such as MEDLINE and PubMed.[13],[14] Citing works from the journal one wishes to submit demonstrates that author follows that particular journal's publications and values it; however, one should refrain from unethical practices such as coercive citation (when authors are coerced/directed to add irrelevant citations from the editor's journals) or padded citation (when authors pad their reference list with superfluous citations).[14],[15],[16] There should be a judicious combination of original as well as review articles. Review articles summarize a large body of literature and reduce the number of references; however they may be biased and may not reflect the original article accurately.[16] One should stick to the journal guidelines rigorously (in terms of style and number) to avoid rejection or delay in the processing of the manuscript.[6] Avoid citing conference abstracts as far as possible, as they provide incomplete or limited information on the subject and often lack an appropriate peer review.[16] Other sources which lack traditional review and thus may cite inappropriate, unchecked, or promotional content include online sources, such as audio and video presentations, and should therefore be used with caution.[17] It is also prudent to avoid personal communications and limit their use to situations where essential information is unavailable from a public source (if permission is necessary, then name and date of the communication should be cited in brackets in text).[16] Limit self-citations to the bare crucial ones that are necessary.[18] Articles accepted but awaiting publications should be cited as “in press.”[16] Articles submitted but not yet published should be referenced as “unpublished observations” with written permission from the source; however, since they have not undergone a peer review, they should be (preferably) avoided.[16] It is prudent to avoid citing articles published in predatory journals.[16]

There is no need to provide references to facts that are expected to be well known to the journal readers, including historical overviews, own experiences, while outlining previously referenced ideas in conclusions, or while summarizing what is regarded as “common knowledge.”[12] One should be careful with online sources. There may be errors while copying the uniform resource locator (URL) or the webpage, or the website may change or be closed/inaccessible; hence, cite them only if very essential and check for their reliability and give the date of access.[3] It is preferable to use online sources with digital object identifiers (DOIs), assuring their permanent presence.[13] Also, before submission, it is worthwhile to check the US National Library of Medicine's (NLM's) PubMed database ( for any recently published articles related to the manuscript's topic.[19]

The number of references is determined by the target journal requirements as well as the type of manuscript submitted; for example, the Journal of Postgraduate Medicine allows about 30 references for original articles, up to 15 references for brief reports/grand rounds/clinicopathological forum, 12 references for case series, up to 10 references for case reports/research letter, and five references for a letter to editor (

 Preparing the References

Citation consists of two components – the “in-text citation” and the “reference list.”[7] In the in-text citation, quotation marks are used to cite an exact line/phrase from another source, specifically for definitions, examples, or explanations provided by another/earlier author/s.[13] To prevent plagiarism, it is suitable to interpret and then summarize the cited content in one's own words, referencing the source at the end of the sentence.[14]

The parts and order in the citation depend on the source which the author is referencing (journal, book, book chapter, or web source) and the journal guidelines. It is imperative to go through the target journal rules and follow the “Instructions to Authors” related to referencing guidelines (the style, punctuation, italics, abbreviations, issue number, volume number, and pages). All the references are generally cited and numbered as per the order in which they are mentioned in the text (and are to be inserted immediately after the source information and not necessarily at the end of the sentence, especially when multiple facts are stated in a single sentence).[6] In case of a table or a figure, the citation number should be in sequence to that of the preceding text.[7] The same reference number in which the source is first cited should be used throughout the manuscript (if cited again) as well as in the reference list.[7] The citation numbers are placed as superscript/in parentheses as per the journal guidelines.[7] In case of multiple citations, place them immediately after the fact; they should be placed in order of their chronology of publication (or alphabetically if published in the same year) separated by commas.[6],[7] If many references are cited consecutively, the numbers can be separated by a hyphen.[7]

Any documented knowledge (text, audio, or visual) can serve as a source of reference. They can be print based or electronic and include journals, books, doctoral theses, conference papers, newspapers and magazines, web pages, and so on.[4]

The basic elements while referencing are as follows:[13],[20]

Journal/research paper: Name of author/s, title of paper, journal title (often abbreviated according to the style used for MEDLINE []),[16] publication year, volume number, issue number (issue number is kept optional by many journals), and page numbers (starting and ending page numbers or e-article number if the journal does not allot page numbers but allots e-article numbers only)[13]Book/chapter: Chapter author/s, title of chapter, editor/s, name of book, edition, publisher, city of publication, year of publication, and page numbers[13]Web sources: Names of author/s, title of webpage, year, weblink, date of access, and other information such as publisher, year of publication, and date of recent update (as may be applicable/available).[13] When citing a webpage, provide the DOI or URL of the original source as far as possible.[1],[20]

Special attention needs to be paid to the punctuations while composing the reference, and the authors must adhere to the style recommended by the journal (that the manuscript will be eventually submitted to). Note that with each revision that the author makes in the manuscript, there may be changes in the order, addition, or deletion of references, and these adjustments should be meticulously ensured to avoid referencing errors.[3] It is also the author's responsibility to ensure that every citation has a corresponding reference and every reference is cited in the right place and context in the manuscript.[6] To avoid citation errors, the authors must verify each reference against an electronic bibliographic source like PubMed or print/pdf copies of original resources.[16] Authors should also verify that none of the cited references is a retracted article; this can be done via MEDLINE by searching PubMed for “Retracted publication [publication type]” or by going directly to the PubMed's list of retracted publications ([publication type]).[16]

“Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals” issued by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) provides specific information on how to cite sources, which should be followed.[16] These recommendations by the ICMJE summarize and provide regular updates on how to cite various sources (print documents; unpublished material; audio and visual media; material on CD-ROM, DVD, or disk; and material on the Internet) via Sample References ( on their webpage.[16] Detailed information is also available in the NLM's Citing Medicine, 2nd edition ([20] Number of references to be cited should be in accordance with/within the limits as stated in the “Author Guidelines” issued by the target journal.[7] Authors should take precaution, so as to avoid citing the same reference twice in the list of references.

 Types of Referencing Formats/Styles

“Citation style” is the standard format in which the source is documented in the text as well as in the reference list at the end of the manuscript.[4] In-text citation styles can be broadly classified into numerical referencing style (Numeric style/Vancouver/Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers [IEEE] and Running notes style/Modern Humanities Research Association [MHRA]) and name referencing style (Author Date/Harvard, American Psychological Association [APA] and Modern Languages Association [MLA]).[12] The two major used citation styles are the Vancouver and the Harvard styles, and most other styles are minor modifications of these two styles.[4] The common citation styles and their examples are summarized in [Table 1].[3],[12],[13],[16],[20] Thus, there is a wide variability in the citation style in text as well as reference list; however, the author does not have a choice, but to stick to the style recommended by the journal to which he/she wishes to submit his/her research.[3]{Table 1}

 Common Errors in Referencing

Referencing is a tedious task and if not taken seriously and performed diligently, it is prone to many (easily avoidable) errors.[7] A reference should be accurate, clear, and consistent throughout the manuscript.[6] An incorrect reference not only questions the credibility of the paper, but also makes it difficult for the reviewers and the readers to seek the cited article, thus denying the source author of due credit for his/her work.[3] It is the author's responsibility to cite the most relevant and appropriate references in his/her research.[3] The author should not only locate, read, and understand all sources cited by him/her (intellectual pleasure), but also confirm the source and provide all elements of the source correctly (accuracy).[6] The author should be careful not to copy references from an earlier article, but should actually rewrite each selected reference afresh.[6] Some common errors occurring during referencing are summarized in [Table 2].[6],[7]{Table 2}

 Reference Management Software

As described earlier, there is a wide variation in the journal formatting styles and it is laborious for the researcher to store, organize, and manage the references throughout the process of literature review and protocol planning till the drafting and manuscript submission.[21] Even more challenging is the addition/deletion or reordering of references (in text as well as in the reference list) with each revision or submission to a newer journal.[22] There is an increased likelihood of making errors in citing, especially while organizing the references and writing the reference list.[23] To minimize such errors, reference management software (RMS), also known as citation management software or bibliographic management software, are available to the authors/researchers.[21] They not only help to search and retrieve the online scientific sources, but also help to import them to their database for storing, organization, and subsequent retrieval.[22] Many RMS have cloud-based storage, enabling users to be able to access the information from multiple devices as well as collaborate with other researchers.[22] RMS also allow authors to retrieve citations while writing in the format of desired journal, thus permitting to “cite while you write.”[14] They also enable addition, deletion, insertion of references in the text and automatic (auto) resequencing of their order in the main manuscript (text) as well as in the reference list.[22] They can generate reference lists in multiple formats/citation styles to suit the target journal requirements and allow conversion of one format style to another with ease at the click of the mouse.[14] By linking each citation with a full reference, they ensure each citation in the text is accounted for by a corresponding full reference in the list.[12] Most of them are compatible for use with common programs such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs.[24]

There are numerous programs for reference management available in the market – independent applications, those operating within an internet interface, and combination of both these modes.[1] The most commonly used are Mendeley by Elsevier (, EndNote ( by Thomson Reuters, and Zotero ([1] Some others are RefWorks, F1000 Workspace, JabRef, Citavi, Bibsonomy, ReadCube Papers, Colwiz, Sente, RefME, Connotea, CiteULike, BibTeX, and Microsoft Word.[22],[24],[25] While many of them are free, some are fee based and require a (paid) subscription.[13]

Despite the use of RMS, one cannot guarantee absence of referencing errors, as there can be errors in details (author names, journal title, dates) or duplication of references when retrieved from different databases.[23] So, ultimately, the authors (themselves) are responsible for the accuracy of the references cited by them (whether they do the referencing using RMS or manually).


Thus, referencing is an essential part of research and should be assigned due importance, right from the conception of the study question till its delivery as a publication. It plays a vital role throughout the manuscript and appears in almost all sections – from laying down the foundation for study rationale (in the “Introduction” section of the manuscript), describing/justifying the study procedure/s (in the “Methods” section), validating the results (in the “Results” section) and its implications (in the “Discussion” section of the manuscript). References are also utilized by editors to identify subject experts for peer review, by readers to obtain more resources on the subject matter, and by peer reviewers to critically evaluate the manuscript in the light of the available evidence. It is thus essential that references are chosen wisely and carefully as they are representative of the study. It is the author's responsibility to confirm the clarity, accuracy, and appropriateness of the cited sources. One should be careful to avoid common referencing errors to prevent delay/rejection by the journal of interest. As Vancouver style is the commonly preferred citation style by journals of medicine and health sciences, researchers should be well versed with it. Authors should diligently stick to the instructions and style of the target journal. The availability of reference management software such as Mendeley and EndNote has made the authors' task of collecting, storing, organizing, retrieving, and utilizing the references more efficient and easier; however, it is still the authors' responsibility to select appropriate references and cite them accurately and correctly.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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