Why you need to use references and citations

You’re told to give references in coursework, but do you know why they are so important?

A friend asked me if references were mainly for respect and ego purposes. They wondered if the point of citing the work of others was a bit like tipping your hat to them, or saying “Well done, kudos for the great academic work you published”.

Academic work has references for very different reasons, even though I’m sure many people would love to see their work being used elsewhere.

photo by Nick Sherman

photo by Nick Sherman

The real reasons for referencing/citation include:

  • Showing how widely you’ve read around the subject;
  • Demonstrating your understanding of the context and research up to this point;
  • Highlighting points of view that differ to yours;
  • Backing up your own points of view.

Another great explanation of why we reference is offered by Monash University:

“Referencing helps create a map of knowledge, a web of pathways in knowledge; and each researcher helps extend that knowledge. It means that we don’t have to find out everything for ourselves all over again; we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In effect, referencing multiplies knowledge exponentially.
“But scholarship depends not only on the sharing of knowledge but also on the questioning of knowledge. It relies on both the acknowledgement and critique of the work of other scholars.”

My friend was concerned that all these references felt like collusion. They asked, “If you reference too much, where is your own work?”

Using the work of others in coursework is not collusion. Think of it more as collaboration. You recognise what has gone before and give that work credit as you extend upon it or put it in a different context.

photo by Horia Varlan

photo by Horia Varlan

None of this has anything to do with plagiarism. Plagiarism is completely different. You plagiarise when you copy something word for word. You plagiarise when you take other people’s work and reword it as your own. You plagiarise when you don’t give the credit for an idea that doesn’t originate from you.

If I’d reworded the Monash explanation as my own in an academic essay, that would be plagiarism. If, instead, I talked about referencing creating a map of knowledge and gave a footnote to the Monash piece, that would be fine.

There’s no need to reference when the facts or theories are fairly common knowledge. The dates of major historical events, for instance, can be used as a given…Unless they are widely disputed or you are trying to dispute the dates yourself!

Instead of worrying that too many citations make it look as if you’ve done nothing yourself, be confident that a number of well-placed references will give more relevance to your work.

References are your friend. I didn’t realise this enough myself when it mattered and it sounds like there are other students out there in a similar position.

Remember the need to cite this way: You’re adding sources to support your own content, not someone else’s ego.


  1. Well written and useful article. Sometimes, when you want to enter a new field of research, you need to read and learn a lot. Then you might want to write a tutorial to show others (and to yourself) that you master the subject and also to help others understand the subject. A tutorial consists mostly of citing and rewording other people’s work. Of course you have to give references.

  2. What you say about references being a knowledge map is very true. When reading journal articles etc. citations provide a great means of following the development of ideas and theories as well as pointing you to other sources on a particular subject.

  3. Your statement that “None of this has anything to do with plagiarism.” concerned me as citation can protect against ideas plagiarism, however, you then covered that with “You plagiarise when you don’t give the credit for an idea that doesn’t originate from you.”

    There is also another occasion, in my opinion, when referencing protects against plagiarism and that is when you are using a diagram or figure from another source and even though you have redrawn it, and possibly added something to it, it is still a good idea to reference the original figure or diagram upon which makes it was based.

    1. Yes, just as rewording something without proper citation shouldn’t be done, the same can be said for redrawing. In fact, any type of content needs to be treated with this in mind. If it originates elsewhere, give necessary credit, even when you add your own content to the mix. It may be worth highlighting your own additions, so they don’t go unnoticed either.
      Many thanks for pointing this out, Nick.

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