Easier Ways to Manage Your References List

How to build your reference list

Preparing your manuscript for publication is never complete without correctly formatting your references. Most researchers don’t enjoy this step.

Get it wrong, and your entry might be desk rejected. But get it right, in the format your target journal or publication (or dissertation board) wants, and you’ll show that you care, and give the journal editors one less thing to critique.

You can hire an editor to do your referencing (we will happily do it) or use referencing software (gives errors). But at least at first, try to get it done yourself; then you’ll be in control.

It does mean paying special attention to nitpicky matters like punctuation and capitalization, but it doesn’t have to mean scroll up and down 50 pages of manuscript. We’ve got much easier ways to do it.

So let’s look at a few key things to know about references to make sure you get them right.

What referencing style do I need to use?

The Instructions for Authors on your target journal’s webpage should be your first source for reference formatting info. Or if you’re a student, you’ll likely be using APA or Harvard style. You instructor will tell you.

In journals, there’s almost always a section describing the preferred format for citations and full references. This will explain what sources are acceptable to reference, how each should be listed, and how any online links, such as DOIs, should be cited.

This from the BMC Biology website:

Check a few recent sample papers if your target journal doesn’t provide this information. The style used in recently published articles is likely similar to what the journal will require for new submissions.

If you have any doubts, contact the journal directly by email. Or if you’re really brave, give them a call.

I keep hearing about Harvard vs. Vancouver, etc., what’s the difference?

In short, Harvard style means that your citations will be listed as (author name, year), and the reference list will be alphabetical by the first author’s last name. In Vancouver style, you should list citations numerically in the order they appear in the text.

There are other referencing styles as well (Chicago/Turabian, APA, MLA etc.) that vary from these.

This is also a very simplistic description of the two, so always be sure to check the specifics of abbreviations, bold or italic font, and page number listing style for each sample journal to save yourself potentially long and painful revisions later.

And we’re trying to relive your pain here.

Here are some examples of what citations in these different styles can look like. These, by the way, were generated using the free online tool Citation Machine, which is handy when you need a quick citation and don’t want to do it by hand.

AMA

Shimura A, Yokoi K, Ishibashi Y, Akatsuka Y, Inoue T. Remote work decreases psychological and physical stress responses, but full-remote work increases presenteeism. Frontiers in Psychology. 2021;12. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.730969

APA

Shimura, A., Yokoi, K., Ishibashi, Y., Akatsuka, Y., & Inoue, T. (2021). Remote work decreases psychological and physical stress responses, but full-remote work increases presenteeism. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.730969

Chicago

Shimura, Akiyoshi, Katsunori Yokoi, Yoshiki Ishibashi, Yusaku Akatsuka, and Takeshi Inoue. “Remote Work Decreases Psychological and Physical Stress Responses, but Full-Remote Work Increases Presenteeism.” Frontiers in Psychology 12 (2021). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.730969.

Harvard

Shimura, A. et al., 2021. Remote work decreases psychological and physical stress responses, but full-remote work increases presenteeism. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.

MLA

Shimura, Akiyoshi, et al. “Remote Work Decreases Psychological and Physical Stress Responses, but Full-Remote Work Increases Presenteeism.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 12, 2021, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.730969.

Vancouver

Shimura A, Yokoi K, Ishibashi Y, Akatsuka Y, Inoue T. Remote work decreases psychological and physical stress responses, but full-remote work increases presenteeism. Frontiers in Psychology. 2021;12.

Consistently inconsistent variations

You’ll often find inconsistencies in capitalization in particular, and punctuation to a lesser degree. There are many “flavors” of each of these style, especially Vancouver (just look at how many different options there are in Citation Machine!).

Why so many? If you find out, let us know. We just take them as they come, and make the journal happy.

Journals themselves are notoriously inconsistent on them. That said, if you have the basic structure and order of each element, you’ll be in good shape.

Reference management software

If you have access to reference management your will generally get much easier not just for formatting references but for managing your hundreds or thousands of PDFs.

The most popular reference managers are:

These packages continue to add more features and become more flexible across devices, which is increasingly necessary when you may be reading, writing, and citing on a PC, tablet, or even your phone.

There’s also BibTeX for LaTeX files; very handy if you’re using an online compiler like Overleaf. And the completely online SaaS PaperPile is also a strong entry and quite affordable, too. Just drop your papers in there, organize them as you wish, and generate citations.

These programs allow you to insert references as you go along and make moving them around much more straightforward. They also save you time formatting your final reference list, as many journals will provide you with downloadable style files you can use to automatically put your references in the proper format.

Microsoft Word also has a built-in reference management tool, but it’s a bit tricky to use and can cause more trouble than it’s worth. The above options typically will have a plug-in for your browser and for Word, for Windows or Mac, and apps for your mobile devices.

Happy syncing and citing.

Tips & tricks for less painful referencing

If you don’t have reference management software, there are still a few things you can do to make organizing your citations easier.

  • When developing your initial draft, put the citation information in a comment bubble with the sentence it refers to. Do this instead of listing the citation by name or number in-text yet. It’ll allow you to move text around quickly without worrying about the formatting style or renumbering your sources.
  • Even if your target journal uses a Vancouver/numerical system for citations, you may want to cite your references using a (name, year) format, like APA Style, while you’re writing. It’s easier to replace names with numbers than vice versa, especially if the order isn’t yet final. Then your final reference list can be quickly rearranged to match.
  • Prioritize your citations. If a journal limits the number of sources you can include, you should be able to remove articles easily. Being unsure of the importance or priority of your citations may lead to considerable rewriting and reorganization of your references later if you need to remove them.
  • Familiarize yourself with the standard abbreviations for journal names using the Index Medicus. Many journals want abbreviated journal names for the reference list, and knowing the common usage will make this a quicker task.

So if after all this, you’ve thrown your hands up in the air. It’s too much trouble! You have better things to do, places to be, Netflix to watch.

Then order a professional edit with an edit or even reformat of your references. Maybe we enjoy the pain, maybe we’re a bunch of geeks. It depends on the editor. They all do a great job of getting your references in order. And what a pretty “cite” your manuscript will be.

Scroll to Top