How to Keep Your Dissertation Reference List Under Control

Est. Reading: 4 minutes

No one likes doing academic references, but they are essential and a dissertation contains HUNDREDS of them.

How can you keep your references and citations in order when you are working with so many sources over so many months and drafts?

In this post, I give you my top tips as a professional academic writer and editor.

What are Academic References and Citations?

Academic references and citations are the notes you include in your dissertation that tell the reader where any ideas that are not your own have come from. The main components of academic referencing are the reference list and the citations.

The reference list is the list of sources that you provide at the end of your dissertation, documenting the secondary research that you used to develop your study and support your argument.

Your reference list should contain, at minimum, a reference for every source mentioned (cited) in the dissertation itself. In some academic styles and formats, it may also contain references for sources you consulted/read but did not actual cite in the completed dissertation.

Citations are the notes that occur within the text (as parenthetical or in-text citations, footnotes, or endnotes) directly attached to quotations, paraphrased ideas, and mentions of other authors, works, or studies.

To avoid plagiarism, weak arguments, and a lack of clarity, it is essential for your references and citations to be accurate and complete.

Reference List Dos and Don’ts


  • Keep complete bibliographical information for EVERY source you look at
  • Be consistent about how your format references and citations
  • Consult your advisory team and/or institution for which style to use
  • Double-check your references and citations regularly


  • Attempt to do your referencing at the end of the project (the stress is unbelievable)
  • Rely on automatic referencing tools to get everything accurate for you (they will get it wrong)
  • Forget to proofread citations and references (there are ALWAYS mistakes that creep in)
  • Be tempted to avoid sources that are difficult to cite and reference (your research will suffer)

Keeping Track of Sources

The best way to make sure that you don’t lose track of the sources you are using to complete your dissertation writing and research is to make bibliographical information an integral part of your note taking.

Whatever system you use for keeping notes, always note down the author, date, title, and publisher for the source you are looking at, as well as the page number on which you found any given piece of information and/or the URL for web-based sources.

When writing, always add your references and citations to your text immediately, rather than waiting until you have finished drafting. This makes it less likely you will forget or miss one.

Formatting References and Citations Correctly

There are many different formatting and referencing styles to choose from, but the most commonly used for dissertations are CMS (or Turabian), APA, MLA, and Harvard.

Your institution or dissertation committee will tell you which style they prefer, as well as any deviations from these standard styles that you need to adhere to.

I always advise students not to try and memorize the details of any one style. Formatting and referencing are technical skills, a bit like mending a car. Unless you are planning a career in academic editing (becoming a professional car mechanic), memorizing a formatting style is difficult and completely pointless. Do what you do when you need to fix the carburetor: look it up. Buy a copy of the style guide, keep a copy of your institution’s guidelines handy, and look up the correct way to create your reference or citation. (Or hire a mechanic/editor).

Don’t be tempted to use an automatic referencing tool, like RefWorks or BibMe. They ALWAYS make mistakes. You will need to check each and every automatically generated reference for accuracy – so you might as well do them manually and save yourself the headache.

Proofreading your Reference List

When you proofread your reference list, you need to check that your references are formatted correctly, complete and accurate, and correctly matched to your citations.

I recommend proofreading in three stages. In the first pass, split your screen and go through each chapter line by line, checking that all references in the list match up to a citation in the body, and vice versa. Delete references that are not cited in the dissertation and add any references that are missing from the list but cited in the dissertation.

In the second pass, check each reference against your style guide to make sure you have listed all of the required bibliographical information. This is the stage at which you will mostly likely find yourself rechecking page numbers in your notes, Googling publication dates, and wondering why publishers need offices in so many different locations.

In the final pass, check the formatting – ensure that every period and comma is correctly placed, that capitalization and italicization have been used correctly, and that the information is presented in the correct order. Everything matters, from the number of authors you list before using the “et al” abbreviation to whether you include an author’s whole name or just initials. Detail is everything, so check and double-check your guide.

Need More Help?

Need some extra support with your referencing, formatting, and citation methods and processes? A coach can help with that!

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