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Believe it or not, there are actually different types of referencing. Usually your college or university will tell you which one you should use, but if you do have the choice then I have the different types of referencing covered below…. read on to see what each type of referencing entails and which one might best suit you!

What are the main types of academic referencing?

types of referencing

There are four main types of academic referencing. You might need to use one or more of these referencing styles throughout your undergraduate or postgraduate degree – in fact, you will definitely need to use at least one at some point! They have similarities and differences, and you can learn more about each referencing style below. Before we jump in to each individual style, here they are:

  • MLA (Modern Languages Association)
  • APA (American Psychological Association)
  • Harvard
  • MHRA (Modern Humanities Research Association)

MLA Referencing 

The MLA referencing style comes from the Modern Languages Association. Here is how to reference easily in this style:

In text, use the surname(s) of the author(s) and the page number or range that your quote is from. For example, Jones states “…” (173) or (Jones 173). For 2-3 authors, all names can be used – e.g (Jones, Harris and Smith 173). With 3+ authors, use (Jones et al 173) and so on. This must then correspond to your reference list at the end of your essay or thesis. Your Works-Cited list, as this is called, must be double spaced and listed in alphabetical order. Entries appear like this:

Author name(s). “Title of the source”. Title of container, other contributors, version, numbers, publisher, publication date, location.

In your Works-Cited list, names must be inverted; e.g Jones, Kevin B. If you are listing multiple works by the same author,, the first reference needs to contain their full name but subsequent references should have the author name replaced with ‘- – -’.

What do MLA say about their referencing style?

From the MLA website: Building confidence in the information and ideas we share with one another is perhaps more important today than ever before, and for nearly a century it has been the driving principle behind MLA style, a set of standards for writing and documentation used by writers to find and evaluate information, alert their audience to the trustworthiness of their findings through citation, and shape the expression of their ideas in conversation with others. What we call “MLA style” has never been a static method, instead changing over time to meet the needs of writers, students and instructors, and publishers. 

This means that the MLA referencing style can and does change. You need to make sure you are using the most up to date referencing style, so check with your tutor and/or lecturer if you are unsure!

types of referencing

APA Referencing

APA is one of the most popular academic referencing styles. This is a similar style of referencing to MLA, but simpler in some ways. You need an in-text citation as well as a bibliography at the end of your work. So – here’s how to reference in APA style, made easy…

Your in-text citation needs the author name, the year and the page number. For example, using fictional Kevin Jones from earlier on in this article, you’d write in brackets: (Jones, 2021, p.173). This must go after your quote and before the full stop! As well as this, you must compile a bibliography – this requires much less information than the MLA bibliography. Each entry needs, in the following order: the author’s surname, their first initial, the date of publication in brackets, the title of the book, the place of publication and the publisher. It should look a little something like this:

Surname, Initial. (Year) Book title. Place of publication: Publisher.

Punctuation is a big one when it comes to APA referencing, so make sure you check and double check yours.

What do APA say about their referencing style?

From the APA website: ​​APA Style originated in 1929, when a group of psychologists, anthropologists, and business managers convened and sought to establish a simple set of procedures, or style guidelines, that would codify the many components of scientific writing to increase the ease of reading comprehension. They published their guidelines as a seven-page article in Psychological Bulletin describing a “standard of procedure, to which exceptions would doubtless be necessary, but to which reference might be made in cases of doubt” (Bentley et al., 1929, p. 57).

Since then, the scope and length of the Publication Manual have grown in response to the needs of researchers, students, and educators across the social and behavioral sciences, health care, natural sciences, humanities, and more; however, the spirit of the original authors’ intentions remains.

They go on to talk about how their referencing style is uniform and allows for writers (and students like you!) to cite their work with minimal distraction to the reader. The simplicity of APA as an academic referencing style also means that there is less room for error.

types of referencing

Harvard Referencing

This is often referred to as the most common type of referencing. Harvard style is used most often in humanities subject areas, as well as natural and social sciences. You may think that this style of referencing “obviously” comes from Harvard University in the US… but it’s actually a bit of a misnomer! The technical name for Harvard referencing is actually parenthetical referencing. It gets its name from the use of parentheses (brackets) as you’ll see below. Some staff from Harvard were actually the first to use this style of referencing – back in the late 19th century – so this is where the name comes from.

Again, when using Harvard Referencing you need both an in-text citation and a bibliography at the end. For your in-text citation all you need is the author’s surname and the year, which can be written as (Jones, 2021) OR Jones (2021). For 2-3 authors include all of their names, such as (Jones, Harris and Smith, 2021) OR Jones, Harris and Smith (2021). And for more than three, use ‘et al’ like so: (Jones et al, 2021) OR Jones et al (2021). No matter which way you style it, there are brackets or parentheses involved – hence the technical name for Harvard referencing!

Then, of course, it is time for your bibliography. Entries should appear as below:

​​Surname, Initial. (Year of publication) Title. Edition if later than first. Place of publication: publisher. Series and volume number if relevant.

Harvard referencing is one of the simpler of the four, but you should always triple check when it comes to punctuation, brackets and italicisation. 

What do Harvard say about their referencing style?

From the Harvard University website: For a full explanation, please see the Wikipedia article for Parenthetical References; History.  The definitive scholarly article on the subject is Chernin C. The “Harvard System”: a mystery dispelled.  British Medical Journal 297:1062-1063, October 22, 1988. Harvard Library doesn’t provide support for this specific style.

Judging by this, it is clear that the university does not necessarily claim this referencing style. In fact, they don’t really even *use* Harvard referencing at Harvard… There are many different citation styles. The major styles used at educational institutions in the US tend to be APA (American Psychological Association); MLA (Modern Language Association); and Chicago. The preferred styles tend to vary by discipline (for instance, academics in History usually use Chicago). If you are unsure of which style you should be using, check with your instructor or other academic advisor. If writing for publication, usually the publisher will tell you what style is preferred.

MHRA Referencing

The fourth and final type of referencing is MHRA. This comes from the Modern Humanities Research Association. It is an extensive but not massively complicated style of academic referencing. There are in-text citations in the form of superscript numbers and footnotes, as well as a separate bibliography. It is mostly used in humanities subjects, as the name and source would suggest!

So your in-text citation takes the form of a superscript (small) number which corresponds to a numbered footnote. You’ll use a quote, add the number, and then add a footnote at the bottom which includes the following:

Author name, Book Title, ed./trans. by Editor/Translator name, edition (Place of publication: Publisher, Year), page number(s).

Subsequent citations from the same source only require the name of the author and the page number.

Then of course, you’ll need your bibliography. It needs to be on a separate page, listed alphabetically by author surname. Each entry should be laid out something like this:

Jones, Kevin, Fictional Title, ed. by Sarah Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021)

So remember – in the footnote it’s first name the surname while in the bibliography you’ll need the surname first. Always double check this!

What do MHRA say about their referencing style?

From their website: The MHRA Style Guide is an essential reference for scholars, students and editors in the Modern Humanities. Originally codified for our own use, MHRA style has since 1971 been used much more widely, and today many universities require dissertations to follow it.

They also mention that slight changes are made to the style guide periodically. 

A few notes on academic referencing 

It should be noted that the above examples are for books. When referencing other sources, which you may be required to depending on your course, module or particular assignment, there may be certain changes to make. Always consult your university style guide.

There are also plenty of FREE websites, as well as downloadable software, which format your references for you. These include EasyBib, as mentioned in my list of top 10 apps for making your life easier as a student.

Types of referencing- further reading

If you found this article on the types of referencing helpful, why not try another one? Here are some that you may be interested in-