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References, References, References

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I cringe when I see that a scientific article I am about to work on has reams of references at the end. I suppose I should have the opposite reaction: lots of references mean a well-researched and documented submissions. Right? Unfortunately, that’s not quite the entire story. Lots of references typically mean lots of mistakes and lots of extra work for the person who has to clean them all  up (me!). To that end, I have included here some quick pointers on citing and including references in your scientific (or even other!) article.

  1. In-text citations. An in-text citation should be included for all references that are listed in the “References” section of your article. The reverse is also true: if you include an in-text citation, then make sure you include the full reference in the list. The format for the in-text citation should match the requirements of the style guide used by the publication or journal to which you are submitting your article. For example, ACS requires (author last name, year). Speaking of which…
  2. Style guides. Be sure to format your in-text citations and references in a way that is consistent with the style guide used by the publication or journal. There are many, many style guides out there, with varying levels of similarities and differences, APA, ACS, AP, Ecology, etc. Regardless of the style is used, know it, and use it, and double check your work afterward. And I highly recommend that you buy or borrow the book and refer to it often until the style has become comfortable and familiar to you.
  3. Zotero. Have you tried this tool yet? A great way to not only keep track of all your references but to organize them and … wait for it … even format them! It’s free, it’s fantastic, and it has hundreds of style guides to choose from just waiting to be applied to your reference list. Before you get too excited, Zotero is not perfect (did I mention it is free?), so you will have to go in and do some cleanup after importing. But overall, highly recommended.
  4. Reference list. Please make sure that each reference includes all required fields, typically all author names (et al. is not a substitute for the names of additional authors); title of publication; journal name (if a journal); publishing company and publishing company city, state (if a book); journal volume, issue, page numbers. Please alphabetize them, and sub-organize them in accordance with the style guide. For example, ACS requires all publications by a the same single author be listed first; followed by same author, with a single co-author; followed by same author with multiple additional authors — all listed chronologically within that author’s listings.
  5. Electronic resources. Most style guides have been updated recently enough to have addressed most issues you will run into with using websites and other electronic resources. Typically, if you are referencing a journal article that is accessed through an online database (i.e., Sciencedirect,, etc.) you would treat the journal article as a journal reference and not as an electronic reference.
  6. Google scholar. This fantastic tool is indispensable for double-checking references, filling in missing information, etc., in addition to its original use for conducting your initial research.

The biggest mistakes I see are related to not following the proper style guide including: incorrect format for author names; missing journal information; and capitalization problems for publication titles (some require initial caps; others first-word initial caps only). The best way to ensure that you’ve done a good job, is to review your references with as much attention as you give to the content of the article. They really are that important.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor


Author: Elizabeth Striano

Elizabeth Striano is a science writer and editor and owner of A Green Footprint LLC, which provides communications and sustainabiilty consulting services to environmental consulting firms, nonprofits, and a variety of businesses and organizations.

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