Referencing is about acknowledging other people's thoughts, ideas, theories or data. There are generally three types of information in your work:
- someone else's material: this requires a reference
- your own ideas: these do not require references
- common knowledge: this does not require a reference.
Using the work of others, so long as it is acknowledged, is an accepted and required practice in the academic community. If you don't provide a citation in your work, it will be assumed that what you have written is your own idea and/or common knowledge. Your opinions, experimental results, experiences or thoughts can be considered your own ideas. However, ideas don't often occur in a vacuum and if it's inspired or influenced by others, you should always provide a reference.
Sources are wide and varied, and scholars from different disciplines prefer certain sources over others. Take a look at the section on Reseaching and finding sources for more details.
Common knowledge refers to well-established facts or common sense observations within a particular group's understanding. For example, for many people, major historical facts (e.g. 'the World Trade Center towers in New York collapsed on 11th September 2001', 'Canberra is the capital of Australia') are widely considered common knowledge so would not need to be cited.
Because different audiences have different sets of common knowledge, whether you cite it depends on who you're writing for. For example, consider the statement:
- In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted experiments that found that people were likely to inflict grievous harm on others if instructed to by authority figures.
This statement may not need a citation if you are writing for a Psychology audience, but it would likely need a citation for other audiences. If you are unsure, cite the information. Your lecturer will tell you when it's not necessary.
In your discipline there may be common knowledge that your lecturer does not expect you to cite. In Physics it may be referring to Newton's laws of motion, in Business it could be a description of Corporate Social Responsibility, in Music it might be the idea that Mozart was a Classical composer. However, if you're writing for a broader audience you may need to provide and cite definitions of such concepts.
When giving specific and/or contested information it's best to cite it. For example, you'd need to cite claims such as:
- Studies on galaxies have proposed modifications to Newton's laws of motion
- Corporate Social Responsibility adoption is beneficial for the environment
- Mozart's first composition was written while he was living in Salzburg
To determine whether you need to cite the information, ask yourself:
- Is it likely that most people in my audience know this information?
- Does everyone in my audience agree about this information?
- Is the information widely accessible?
If in doubt, cite it.
There are three main ways to use information from written or spoken sources: in a summary, quotation, or paraphrase.