Dissertation Referencing

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You need to reference all of your sources for your dissertation properly.

Before we talk about referencing, let's talk plagiarism. To "plagiarise", according to the dictionary, means 1. to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own 2. to use (another's production) without crediting the source 3. to commit literary theft 4. to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source. In other words, plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else's work and lying about it afterward. But can words and ideas really be stolen? According to the law, the answer is yes. The expression of original ideas is considered intellectual property, and is protected by copyright laws, just like original inventions. Almost all forms of expression fall under copyright protection as long as they are recorded in some way (such as a book or a computer file).

All of the following are considered plagiarism:

  • turning in someone else's work as your own
  • copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
  • failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
  • giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
  • changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not.

The latter point is a real source of confusion. Many students think it's okay to use material provided that they have cited it. But imagine you wrote a book which actually consisted 50% of one existing book's content and 50% of another existing book's content. Do you think the authors would be happy that you'd cited their work?

Here's a fair use guide, published in fact by the US government - in other words, what you can do without asking the author's consent. These are called "fair use" laws, because they try to establish whether certain uses of original material are reasonable. The laws themselves are vague and complicated. Below we have condensed them into some rubrics you can apply to help determine the fairness of any given usage.

The nature of your use

If you have merely copied something, it is unlikely to be considered fair use. But if the material has been transformed in an original way through interpretation, analysis, etc., it is more likely to be considered "fair use."

The amount you've used

The more you've "borrowed," the less likely it is to be considered fair use. What percentage of your work is "borrowed" material? What percentage of the original did you use? The lower the better.

The effect of your use on the original

If you are creating a work that competes with the original in its own market, and may do the original author economic harm, any substantial borrowing is unlikely to be considered fair use. The more the content of your work or its target audience differs from that of the original, the better.

Most cases of plagiarism can be avoided, however, by citing sources. Simply acknowledging that certain material has been borrowed, and providing your audience with the information necessary to find that source, is usually enough to prevent plagiarism - provided that your work does not unacceptably rely on other people's words. Remember, it is you that is writing the dissertation - copying other people's work whether or not you cite it demonstrates nothing to your tutor or lecturer.

By the way, the majority of content on this page is from Plagiarism.org - a really good website with lots of resources on how not to plagiarise!

"An incinerator is a writer's best friend." (Thornton Wilder)


Make sure you check the requirements of your university before you start.
There are many different referencing styles and it would be pointless for us to repeat them all here. Instead, we recommend 'How to Write an Essay' which has a very-near-complete collection of the different styles with examples of all.


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