Why reference?

Whether you quote the words of the original source, or use your own words, in all cases you need to give a reference to where the idea or information came from. If you are quoting directly, you put quotation marks around the passage that you copy so that your reader can see that it is copied from the source; and at the end of the passage, you put the reference. If you are using your own words, don’t put quotation marks around them, but put a reference at the end of the passage in exactly the same way as for a quotation. This shows the reader where you learned the idea or information that you’re presenting, at the same time as showing that you are expressing it in your own words. (To make sure that you know whose words are whose, be sure to use quotation marks in your notes when you copy from a source.)

There are various methods of referencing. Different subjects use different methods, and most of these are likely to be different from the method you were using at school. For this reason, it is important to consult the subject guide for guidelines on referencing every time you prepare an assignment, to make sure that you are using the method that subject requires. All subjects require you to give each reference twice – first in the essay itself, when you refer to a source, and again in your list of references (or bibliography) at the end of the essay.

Plagiarism and plagiarised material

According to this university’s definition, “Plagiarism occurs when another person's writing or other work is copied or reproduced without acknowledgement”.

Put simply, your assignments must be your own work, and they must be expressed largely in your own words.

What counts as plagiarised material?

  • Anything that you copy from another student (you are encouraged to study with your peers, but you are expected to write your assignments separately. Note one exception to this rule: in some subjects, you may be asked to submit a group project in which all members of the group take joint responsibility for the text, and receive the same mark.)
  • Anything that you learn from a source and include in your essay without “referencing” (that is, showing where it came from). This applies whether you simply copy it, or quote it (that is, copy it and put quotation marks around it), or whether you paraphrase it in your own words. This includes:
    • Written sources
    • Film
    • CDs
    • Internet sources
    • Visual images and graphics
    • Audio sources

When you write something for assessment, you are being judged on what you have learned and what you have thought. So, if you copy or refer to what somebody else has written, without referencing to show that somebody else wrote it, then you are getting marks based on the quality of their work, not yours.

Find out more about academic integrity and plagiarism.

Using your sources

A 'source' is any material from which your learn information or ideas.

This does not mean that you should not use information and ideas from your reading. Your writing is supposed to be your own original work, but that doesn’t mean that you have to come up with facts that nobody else knows, and it doesn’t mean that nobody else’s ideas should be in your essay. They MUST be there, in fact, because university courses invite you to engage with other people’s ideas about the subjects you study.

You have to read and respond to published sources; and you will be marked on your ability to understand and use these sources in your assignments. All of this material has to be referenced to show your reader where it came from, and you don’t need to be anxious that, if your essay has lots of references, it will look as if you had no ideas of your own. What is original about your work is:

  • the way you relate ideas and information from the sources to the question you have been asked
  • the way you explain the ideas, and your choice of examples and evidence
  • your testing of other people's ideas against evidence, and against the ideas of others
  • your judgement of the strengths and limitations of other people's thinking
  • your ability to ask questions arising out of your encounters with other people's ideas
  • your ability to apply the ideas of others in new contexts
  • your ability to construct answers of your own

Using sources in your writing is a bit like weaving: you use threads from various different places, but the new pattern that you weave is your own.

By referencing, you fulfil a responsibility to both your sources and your readers. You tell readers where they can go to look at the original sources you used, so they can decide whether they would have understood them in the way that you did; and if they want to know more about a source than they found in your essay, they can follow it up for themselves.

Expressing ideas in your own words

You may wonder whether it is acceptable just to assemble a series of quotations from the things you have read. In fact, this is never enough for an assignment, because the things you read will not normally have been written to answer the question your lecturer has asked you to work on. They will be useful to you in constructing your own answer, but they have not done it for you

Another reason that just assembling quotations is not satisfactory is that your marker cannot tell whether you have understood what you are quoting unless you comment, yourself, in your own words. It may be that you have understood it, and that you feel the original wording is much better expressed than anything you could manage in its place; but the marker needs to see what you think the material means, and that is only possible if you explain it yourself.

Certainly, there will be times when it is appropriate to quote another person’s words in your assignment – that is, to copy them word for word (and your tutors will talk more about this). You should quote when it is important for your reader to see exactly how the original writer expressed something. This might be because there is an attitude or a character in the original that would be lost if you re-worded it. Or, it might be because the wording itself is something that you need to comment on, perhaps to explain why those words were used. If there is no reason why your reader needs to see the original wording, however, you are expected to give information and explain ideas in your own words.

This is not easy if you are looking at the original source; but it is easier if you look up from your reading at the end of a section that you want to use and ask yourself, “If I had to explain this to someone who hasn’t read it, how would I do that? What would I say?”

How much quotation is too much?

This partly depends on the nature of the subject. For example, in English literature essays, you are likely to quote frequently from the novel or story you are discussing, because the point you are making concerns the effect of particular words used by the narrator or by a character. As evidence for your point, therefore, you must show these words to the reader and comment on how they work.

In an Art History essay, by contrast, most of the essay will often consist of your own observations of what you see in a painting or sculpture, so you would not need to quote very much from sources. In a Science assignment that requires you to apply scientific knowledge to a particular case study, you would not need to quote very much, if at all. Since the amount of quotation that’s considered appropriate varies from discipline to discipline, it’s a good idea to check your understanding with your tutor.