How to Cite Correctly in Academic Papers

How to reference correctly in academic writing

topcorrect’s tips and advice to quote sources correctly in academic writing.

Plagiarising is probably one of the biggest academic crimes to commit. And more often than not, it’s unintended. Learning to reference and cite correctly in academic papers will have a big impact on your academic writing. It will save you time, stress and any unexpected surprises in the long run. All you have to do is keep on top of recording your sources and giving them the credit they deserve.

Referencing is a skill you’re always going to need when writing academic papers, so learning how to cite correctly early on will be of great use. Referencing isn’t just about crediting the source’s author, nor avoiding plagiarism, it also allows the reader to do further reading and find out how dated or recent the source is. Referencing also helps to validate your argument, as it shows that you’ve done your research.

So now you know why you need to cite correctly, here’s how to reference correctly in academic papers.


When doing your initial research, ensure you keep all sources catalogued with the author(s) name(s), date and year of publication, title of article or publication, publisher information, page numbers, URL and date accessed if applicable.

For author(s) name(s), the norm is to write the surname first then the first initial of their first name, ie., Jones, A. If the publication has more than three authors, you can write the first author’s name and use the abbreviation et al for the rest. For example, Jones, A et al.

Keeping on top of your sources will aid the academic writing process greatly. Especially so, when it comes to revising or editing your Master’s thesis or research paper, as you won’t have to stress out searching for the source of your direct or indirect citation.

Direct Quotes

You should try to summarise or paraphrase references as much as possible, however, sometimes direct quotes are necessary. Using direct quotes may be appropriate when:

  • Quoting a definition or part of a definition
  • Explaining a theory, law, principal etc.
  • Quoting a specific excerpt, phrase or expression
  • Using a controversial, powerful or effective statement

When directly quoting a source, that’s to say using the exact words used by the source, you can do so in two ways:

  • You can use the quote, inserting it in the sentence and punctuating the quote with speech marks, ie., Macbeth’s famous soliloquy starts off with “Is this a dagger which I see before me”(Shakespeare 1623:89).
  • Or you can introduce the quote with a reporting verb such as, states, claims, or as follows and a colon, ie., Newton’s first law of motion is described as follows: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. (Newton 1687:27)”

If the quote is more than 40 words, the general rule of thumb is to start a new line and indent the quote, so that it stands out from the rest of the text. Here is an example:

Hamlet’s soliloquy shows his inner struggle:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

After the quote, you must cite the reference. There are several different referencing systems, but one of the most commonly used systems is the Harvard referencing system. After each reference, you need to include the author, plus the year of publication, with a colon, then the page number, ie., (J R.R. Tolkien 1937:443). Referencing systems tend to depend on faculty and subject preferences, however, so to find out more about the most commonly used referencing systems, check out this guide here.

Indirect Quotes

If you are paraphrasing another publication, even if you put it in your words, you must reference the work. You can do so by introducing the concept or idea by mentioning the source name, for example, C.S Lewis states…  Or you can continue to use the same reference system for direct quoting. Not only is this to avoid plagiarism, but it’s also to demonstrate that you are well-read in the topic area. Citing other sources further backs up your argument and avoids any confusion.


Hopefully during the research stage, you will have kept your sources organised to compile a comprehensive bibliography. A bibliography is a list of all of the sources used throughout your research. Bibliography formats differ depending on the referencing system used and source type. However, the tendency is to order the sources in alphabetical order beginning with the author’s last name and first name initial. It will also include information such as the year of publication, the publication title, the article title, the publisher etc. For a general guide to formatting a bibliography, check out this guide here.

Referencing properly from the offset may take a while to grasp. But referencing your academic paper correctly will save you time, stress and aid your academic writing in the long run. Be disciplined from the word go and you will be grateful for knowing how to reference correctly.

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