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Acknowledgement of Sources

When quoting the words of others, or referring to their ideas, a submission must indicate both the source and the extent of that reference. It is not enough simply to list the sources at the end of the submission; in this regard, the acceptable standard for academic writing is considerably higher than that used in some commercial contexts.

When to acknowledge

Scholarly writing includes references to published work in order to support (or counterpoint) an argument or statement being made. Using references helps to demonstrate the author's understanding of what others have said about the subject, and reflects their familiarity with its details.

It is good practice to make a citation—that is, a pointer to a reference—whenever a significant word, phrase, or idea is taken from someone else's work. This enables the reader to check the evidence for themselves, and helps to avoid the danger of appearing to claim to have come up with an idea which actually belongs to someone else. The reader is invited to assume that everything not covered by a citation represents the author's own work or common knowledge.

Knowing when it is necessary to make a citation is something that comes with practice, and supervisors will be happy to give advice in a specific case. If in doubt, it is better to err on the side of caution, and include more references rather than fewer, within reason. Conversely, for many assignments you will not have found it necessary to read very many things, so it will not be necessary to cite many (or any). The one clear-cut case is when actually using someone else's words (whether many or few). In that case, one must give a reference for those words, and show which words they are.

It is seldom appropriate to quote directly more than a phrase or two from another source—it is much better to give a reference and allow the readers to look up the source for themselves. When one does use a word or phrase coined by someone else, one should use quote marks or italics, followed by a citation. In the unusual circumstance of needing to quote verbatim a whole sentence or more, it is usually best to set it off as a separate paragraph, probably indented or italicised. Again, it should be immediately preceded or followed by a citation.

How to acknowledge

Several systems for citations and references are in common use:

  • One could number the references—We find [1] that the four important features of a transaction are: ...—and give a list of references at the end of the document.
  • One could use the `author/year' system—We find (Bernstein and Newcomer, 1997) that the four important features of a transaction are:...—and give a list of references in alphabetical order by author.
  • One could use footnotes—We find1 that the four important features...giving the full details of the referenced book or paper in the footnote.

There are many variations on these themes. The precise scheme chosen is up to you, provided it is clear and consistent. The list of references (or footnote text) should give, as a minimum, the name of the author (if known) and the title of the book or paper. Usually one should give the year of publication, too, and possibly the name of the publisher, and so on. If the point of a reference is a very specific one (say, it can be tied down to a particular sentence) then it is appropriate to give a page number as part of the citation. If the reference is to an electronic document, such as a web page, a Uniform Resource Locator should be given.

Further reading

For more detailed advice on referencing, refer to any style guide for academic writing. The Chicago Manual of Style, Bugs in Writing by Lyn Dupre, and Writing for Computer Science by Justin Zobel are all recommended.

www.ox.ac.uk/students/academic/guidance/skills/plagiarism

www.ox.ac.uk/students/academic/guidance/skills/referencing