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While just the idea of referencing your essays may bring you out in a sweat, I want to reassure you that the RCN is here to help, and actually, it’s not that hard when you get used to it.  

It’s a vital part of your academic work, so it’s important you understand what you’re doing. When you’re writing an essay, your tutors are looking for a combination of references to different ideas and views, along with an indication of your own thoughts and conclusions on the subject. 

By referencing accurately you’re providing them with evidence of your research and supporting your arguments and analysis of a subject. You’re proving you've read around a bit, acknowledged the work and ideas of others, and shown you’ve really considered different angles on the topic. 

With your sources recorded, your academic argument will be stronger

With your sources recorded, your academic argument will be stronger, as it's supported by evidence from other people's research and work. And if your reader did want to check any of your sources, they’ve got enough information to do that.

1. Get it right for your audience

However, it’s not enough to say you’ll use the “Harvard system”. There are hundreds of versions of Harvard, all slightly different, with variations in the punctuation or the order the details appear. 

I’d advise you to always follow your university or organisation referencing guidelines. These are usually easily to get hold of and will contain lots of useful examples. If you’re not sure where to find them, ask.

2. Consistency counts

If your references have been done in the same style throughout, you’re less likely to lose marks, even if you make a mistake. It shows that you’ve tried to be accurate and consistent, and that you understand this is important in referencing.

I’d recommend keeping a complete record of all your sources as you discover them. That will save you time later if you’re rushing to complete an assignment.

3. Avoiding plagiarism

“Plagiarism is the practice of using or copying someone else's idea or work and pretending that you thought of it or created it.” Collins dictionary (2021).

There are different degrees of plagiarism. Most students already know that the worst form is if you copy and paste someone else’s work into your own. The chances are anti-plagiarism software such as Turnitin will pick this up if you are referencing for a course of study. 

It’s also plagiarism if you refer to a theory or idea and fail to acknowledge the original author, even if you have paraphrased the original text. Don’t include any items in a reference list or bibliography that you haven’t actually consulted yourself. Make every attempt to access original materials.

By referencing accurately you’re providing them with evidence of your research and supporting your arguments and analysis of a subject

Top tips

Free referencing training from the RCN

Rebekkah and Maimuna went along to a recent online workshop, run by the RCN library team.

“I wanted extra guidance on how to reference properly, especially when I was going into third year, as I knew I would be facing a couple of big assignments,“ Rebekkah says. “I didn’t want to lose marks due to incorrect referencing.”

I didn’t want to lose marks due to incorrect referencing

At the workshop Rekekkah got tools and referencing essentials to help guide her understanding. She also found it helpful to listen to other nursing students’ questions as this got her thinking about the way she currently works and how she could make positive changes. 

“The information on how to construct references, along with the examples they provided to see how it should laid be out, was very helpful. I’ve recommended this workshop to a friend of mine on my course - especially as it’s free for RCN members,” she adds.

Maimuna says she wishes she’d known about this when she was a nursing student.

“I completed my Masters last year but I still need to reference my current academic work. They showed us how to use the online tool to organise our references and check our referencing is correct. That has been so useful,” she says. 

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