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Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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8.1 Referencing systems

Although styles of referencing differ, referencing systems can broadly be categorised as either ‘alphabetic’ or ‘numeric’:

  • Alphabetic referencing is where the author’s surname and date of publication are listed in the in-text citation, while the final reference list is sorted alphabetically. The most commonly used example is the Harvard referencing system.
  • Numeric referencing is where the sources used are allocated a number based on the order of their first occurrence in the text, with this number listed in the in-text citation, while the final reference list is ordered numerically, comprising of the author’s name, year of publication and other reference details. The most commonly used example is the Vancouver referencing system.

Different disciplines have their own specific requirements and referencing conventions. The referencing system used will often depend on the precise discipline of study and may vary depending on the preferences of the leading journals or organisations in that area (e.g. the American Psychological Association referencing system). Irrespective of which system you use, the key to good referencing is consistency in practice, ensuring in-text citations are used appropriately throughout the text, while the full reference list at the end of the document allows the reader to retrieve these sources.

The alphabetic system allows the reader to instantly note which authors are being cited and the year of publication of their work. For the numeric system, the reader will need to refer to the final reference list to see which authors are being cited, and what the year of publication is. A version of the Harvard referencing system has been adopted for use by The Open University. You can find guidance on this referencing style by following the link below.

Quick guide to Harvard referencing (Cite Them Right) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

You should ensure that you are familiar with the referencing requirements for your postgraduate course and use referencing styles specified by your institution and professional discipline area.