Reference wrangling

A quick guide to correcting reference lists

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One of the more time-consuming issues to correct in a document is referencing. Authors can save money, and time, by doing a few checks themselves before editing begins.

There are several aspects of referencing that are checked by an editor:

  • Do all of the citations in text have a matching reference?

  • Are all of the references used (cited) in the text?

  • Are the authors’ names spelled the same in both the citation and the reference?

  • Is the referencing style correct and consistent?

  • Are the DOIs and URLs correct, with no broken links?

It is straightforward to check whether citations in the text have a matching reference, and vice versa. Some authors prefer to let the citation lead the check (starting with the first citation, and working through the document page by page, check that the cited references are in the reference list, that no references are missing, and that there aren’t any ‘spare’ references that have not been cited). Others prefer to work from the reference list, checking that all of the references appear in the text as citations, that no citations are missing, and that there are no ‘spare’ citations that are missing from the reference list.

When checking references, it is also a good idea to ensure that the authors’ names are spelled the same in both the citation and the reference, and that names of organisations are also the same. If the name of an organisation is spelled out in the reference, it should be spelled out in the citation; if the acronym is used in the reference it should be used in the citation.

Depending on your referencing style, check for references that have the same authors and dates (i.e. Smith, 1987; Smith, 1987). Some referencing styles require these to be identified using an alphabetical system, in the order in which they appear in the text (i.e. Smith, 1987a; Smith, 1987b). Check to ensure this has been done if your referencing style calls for it.

There are many different referencing styles. In some cases the style is defined by the publisher, and in others the author is able to choose a style. Whichever style is used, work with the given examples as best you can to produce a list of references as close to the style as possible. Even just ensuring that punctuation within the reference (and citation) is correct can save time you would be paying the editor to correct otherwise.

Some reputable sources to refer to for guidance on referencing styles include:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style (for footnotes, endnotes and author–date referencing)

  • Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style author–date referencing)

  • American Medical Association Manual of Style (AMA style used for JAMA and Archives journals)

  • The Australian Government Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Publishers (author–date, documentary-note and Vancouver referencing styles)

  • Library guides, such as the Monash University citing and referencing website, which cover a range of referencing styles.

Finally, one step authors can take in presenting a professional reference list is to ensure there are no mistakes within the references. Typically, 1/4 to 1/3 of references in published journal papers contain errors, such as a misspelled author’s name, an incorrect article title, broken URL, incorrect DOI or missing page numbers. Errors in references can make it difficult for a reader to find the article themselves, and numerous mistakes in reference lists looks unprofessional and can bring into question the quality of the rest of the paper. Since these types of errors are less likely to be picked up by an editor (unless you have specifically asked for them to check), accuracy of references is usually in the hands of the author.

Some well-placed time checking your references before sending your paper to the editor will help to reduce editing costs, reduce the potential for referencing mistakes and improve the quality of your manuscript.

Dr Joely Taylor is a former research scientist. Specialising in academic, technical and scientific editing, Dr Taylor is an Accredited Editor with the Institute of Professional Editors Ltd in Australia, an Editor in the Life Sciences with the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences in the US, and an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders in the UK.