Referencing? To Evernote or to Endnote?

Someone on the Fb PhD board I (still) belong to asked a good question today, and naturally that inspired a blog post.

Let’s talk about referencing. It’s a question that seems to come up again and again, and one that many supervisors don’t seem interested in dealing with (or don’t have an answer for).

Depending on your area of subject, whether that is history, or engineering, or law, your field with have a referencing system that is considered best practice. It might be Chicago, it might be Harvard, it might be MLA, or another.

Whatever your field of research is, you can discover your referencing system by reading in your subject matter. Read the bibliographies of books and articles and make note of the reference system they (usually) use. There will always be some that deviate, but most fields of study have a set system that the majority of authors will use.

You can also ask other students in your department, of course, particularly those who are in writing-up mode, because they will be dealing with this very issue. It is best to understand the right system before you start writing anything, as using the correct referencing system from the beginning will save you a great deal of time and grief later on.

Once you have the correct system identified, make sure that, over the course of your PhD, you take the time to save all references in that format, and that anything you write uses that format. When you get around to doing your bibliography for your thesis, the vast majority of your references will already be somewhere on your computer and can be copied and pasted.

Trust me, this is the easiest way. Hunting down references, or missing parts of references, at the eleventh hour sucks and is the stuff PhD nightmares are made of.

If, for whatever reason, your field of study does not have a referencing system (or you have two fields of study), ask your department admins what option is best. Also ask senior PhD students, who will already have chosen a system. The best advise is to be consistent, so if you are using the same system as all the soon-to-submit candidates are using, you will be okay. Or the system that your department staff use.

If you have completely free reign (like I did), take some time to choose a style. If you’ve done a Masters thesis, then you are probably already familiar with one style, at least. If you’re comfortable with that style, and if it works for your thesis subject, then it is probably best to continue using this. You’re familiar with it, and that will make creating bibliographies much faster and less headachy.

I didn’t do this. [This is one of those, Do As I Say, Not As I Do, moments.] I chose a completely different reference system from any I had used before and one that was not typically used in my central field of study (I say typically, because it is used, just not frequently). I chose it because it fit the other field of study that I was bringing into my original field, and also because of word counts.

My university counted all words in the thesis except the appendices. That meant that footnotes counted in the final word total. And certain referencing styles created A LOT of footnotes. I calculated that I would save about 8000 words by using the Harvard author-date style. [I had a lot of references, owing to three literature review chapters, as well as dozens of interviews for field work.]

The advantage of that system was also that it meant I could use footnotes for explanatory reasons, rather than fill half the page up with referencing. I had a lot of terms that needed to be explained, and it was recommended I do this in footnotes, rather than in the text, as the terms came from multiple fields, and most people reading my thesis would be familiar with at least one field and wouldn’t need to check the terms from that field. It would make it easier for others to read. I don’t know if it is, or not, but it’s what I went with.

I saved a lot of words doing author-date style, with limited explanatory footnotes, and I’m glad I did. As it was, I clocked in at only 1000 words under the max!

But choosing a referencing system is not arbitrary. If one exists in your field, you need to use that because it is what is expected, and your examiners will question why you didn’t use the recommended style. If one does not exist in your field, choose one that compliments your thesis, for whatever reason that is. But BE CONSISTENT, whatever you choose. Make certain you are using only one style, and that your punctuation for it is correct. A bibliography of a thesis can be thirty or more pages long; that’s a lot of references, and someone will notice if you missed a comma.

Even if that someone is only you.

* Oh, you thought this post was actually about referencing software didn’t you? Don’t worry, I’ll get to that too, but the first step is to decide on a referencing style, before you decide what referencing program (or not) to use.