A General Outline of Reference Writing To Avoid Common Errors

A General Outline of Reference Writing To Avoid Common Errors


Referencing is an important aspect of medical writing which recognizes the contribution of another author or source in the article. Omissions or wrong referencing leads to rejection or retraction of the article and even serious consequences concerning plagiarism. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) has published several guidelines which an author must follow strictly during referencing. Special caution must be exercised while following a particular reference style in which every component and punctuation has certain implications and guidelines. Using proper punctuations and ‘et al.’ in references, referencing a paraphrased text, making unnecessary citations, omitting necessary citations, citing from predatory journals, etc. are some of the common cautions discussed in this article. Use of reference manager software has provided an easy alternative to manual writing of references in present times.


Citation, references, medical writing, plagiarism, reference styles


Medical writing is very important for the profession as new knowledge and information constantly being added or observed must be reported adequately for the progress of science[1]. From novice to the most experienced, many persons are involved in medical writing and a huge bulk of literature is daily being submitted to medical peer-reviewed journals. Publishing articles are often made compulsory by many organisations for professional appointments and promotions, and therefore clinicians, academicians, and researchers are in quest for more medical writing[2]. Any new exploration in science begins with argument and review of the existing evidence. Any researcher working on a paper has to review the already existing pieces of evidence by studying them in-depth. By providing a reference to any article or book or borrowed material, the researchers are acknowledging the contributions of such articles in their research[3]. The terms ‘cite’ and ‘reference’ mean the same as citing a source of work is to provide a reference to the source[4]. Failure to provide proper acknowledgement to the source/ author(s) in writing is an example of scientific misconduct known as plagiarism[2]. Mistakes in references can be made by authors which may result in rejection of articles and caution must be exercised by authors. In many instances, monetary fines and other professional penalties have been exercised over prominent authors by regulatory authorities due to plagiarism[5].

Why referencing is important?

Referencing allows the author to acknowledge the contributions of other authors in their work. By citing the work of a particular researcher, the authors acknowledge and provide respect to the intellectual property of the said researcher[3]. The following points summarise the importance of referencing writing[2,4]:

  • Demonstrates that the work has been careful and rigorous on behalf of the author(s);
  • Indicates which part of the work is from another source and which is original;
  • Makes the reader aware that the author is competent in the field of work and has studied the existing literature in the field;
  • Allows the reader to refer back to the source documents for further information on the topic;
  • Indicates the reader on the reliability of the article in regard to the quality and authority of the source from which it has been borrowed;
  • Helps the reader to determine whether updated information has been presented in the article;
  • Protects the authors from the malpractice of plagiarism;

Why be cautious while referencing?

Referencing seems easy for any medical writer but mistakes in referencing may amount to serious misconduct in research. Plagiarism is serious misconduct as per publication ethics which is the failure to acknowledge sources of data[2]. Such misconduct when detected may result in rejection of a submitted article and even retraction of published articles[6]. Writers have therefore to observe extreme caution while referencing articles. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) published certain recommendations[7] for referencing for authors in a medical journal and this article, which are discussed below as how to abide by such considerations while writing an article. The following recommendations are being summarised from the report titled, ‘Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals’, published by ICMJE[7]:

  • The authors should provide direct references to original sources wherever possible.
  • References should not be used by authors, editors and peer-reviewers to promote self-interests.
  • Authors should avoid citing predatory and pseudo-journals.
  • References to review articles can efficiently guide readers to a body of evidence, though review articles generally don’t reflect the original sources accurately. Sometimes, referencing review articles seems useful as referencing original sources can be exhausting and consume more space.
  • References to accepted but unpublished papers shall be designated as ‘in press’ or ‘forthcoming’.
  • Information, if obtained from a manuscript which is not yet accepted, must be cited in the text as ‘unpublished observations’ with written permission from the source.
  • Published articles should be cited with the unique, persistent identifiers of the dataset employed.
  • Citing any personal communication should be avoided unless it provides essential information which is not available from any published source. In case of such citation, the name of the person and date of communication shall be mentioned in parenthesis.
  • To minimise errors in referencing, authors must refer to electronic sources like PubMed or print copies from the original source.
  • Authors must be careful not to refer any retracted article except in the context of referring the retraction.
  • The references should be numbered consecutively as they appear in the text as per the vancouver style.
  • References of tables and figures should be made according to the sequence in which such references appear in the text especially when using styles.
  • The abbreviations of the journal titles should be used as per the MEDLINE directory.


Numerous reference styles are available to the authors for writing down the references. Such styles are different in application but the information furnished by such styles are the same[8]. Among the numerous styles available, the most common styles include Vancouver style, Harvard style, American Medical Association (AMA) style, American Psychological Association (APA) style, Modern Language Association (MLA) style, Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) and others[8]. Vancouver style is the most common style of citation used in biological and medical scientific articles[8]. The style was developed by a group of editors who met at Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1978 to establish guidelines for the journals. This group known as the ‘vancouver group’ expanded to join the ICMJE and published different guidelines for referencing[8]. The basic format for writing a reference consists of the following[9]:

  • In the case of a journal article:

Name of author(s) – article title – journal title – date/year of publication – volume – issue – location by pagination. 

A general guideline that should be taken care of during writing the individual components of a citation are mentioned in table 1.


  • Incorrect placement of punctuations and symbols:

The most common mistake in writing down a citation is omission or wrong use of punctuation and symbols. For writing a reference to a journal the following punctuation marks are conventionally used:

Author 1, Author2, Author3(Individual names of multiple authors separated by a comma) (period) Article title as mentioned (period) Journal title abbreviated as per MEDLINE (period) Date of publication (semicolon) Volume number (issue number in parenthesis ) (colon) Pagination mentioning the page range separated by a hyphen (Period) Available from: URL Digital Object Identifier (if available)

Example: Petitti DB, Crooks VC, Buckwalter JG, Chiu V. Blood pressure levels before dementia. Arch Neurol. 2005 Jan;62(1):112-6.[9]

Manual writing down of references requires much attention in such aspects but using software for referencing has minimized such mistakes.

  • Using the ‘et al.’ in references

Et al.’ is a short form of ‘et alia,’ which means ‘and others’. This is commonly used in academic citations while referring to multiple authors in an article[10]. The ‘al’ should always be followed by a period. No period should be used following ‘et’. Any punctuation may be used after ‘et al.’ as per requirement while citing in-text reference[10]. In writing down a citation, it is generally considered to use ‘et al.’ if there are multiple authors in a certain article. Mentioning the name of multiple authors may be exhaustive and, in such occasions, the journals may limit mentioning the name of authors to 3 or 6 as per their guidelines. The author must read the journal instructions in details before making references. ‘Et al.’ must not be used in articles up to 3 authors.


Gupta J, Azis SP, Rutten L, Manchanda RK, Pramanik A, Chakraborty PS, Singh P, Singh JP, Sah M, Reddy GRC, Sarangi M, Chakma A, Remteke S, Pradhan PK, Devi P, Singh O, Sahoo AR, Avinash KK, Singh NK, Goli SP. Exploring the predictive value of specific symptom as prognostic factor: Assessment of group-confined likelihood ratio for symptom ‘Headache’ in 20 lesser-known drugs. Ind Jour Res Homoeopathy. 2019; 13(1): 4 – 11. Available from: https://www.ijrh.org/text.asp?2019/13/1/4/255271

May be written as:

Gupta J, Azis SP, Rutten L, Manchanda RK, Pramanik A, Chakraborty PS, et al. Exploring the predictive value of specific symptom as prognostic factor: Assessment of group-confined likelihood ratio for symptom ‘Headache’ in 20 lesser-known drugs. Ind Jour Res Homoeopathy. 2019; 13(1): 4 – 11. Available from: https://www.ijrh.org/ text.asp?2019/13/1/4/255271

  • Omitting citation while paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is a process of rewriting a quote or portion of the text of an article, in words different from the original article and of the same approximate length[11]. An extract is paraphrased on the context to support an argument, maintain a consistent style and to avoid lengthy quotations[11]. Summarizing and paraphrasing differs from each other. While summarizing, we create a summary or conclusion of the extract from the text whereas in paraphrasing we put up the extract in our own words[11]. Even though such sentences are formed using the author’s own words but the idea remains of the original contributor. Sometimes even accusations of plagiarism can occur in such situations. Therefore, the extract being paraphrased must be adequately cited[12].

  • Making unnecessary citations and omitting necessary citations

Excessive citations and inappropriate citations are both important issues while referencing an article. These issues especially arise when writing for academic purposes like dissertation and thesis. Many academicians convince students to provide an exhaustive list of references in their theses and dissertations[12]. The author should not cite anything which he/she has not read in person, even if mentioned in the reference of another cited article. There may be a difference between the idea between the original article and the referencing article. On the other hand, some academicians may hold the idea that a piece of common knowledge does not require extensive citation. But the concept of common knowledge is variable among individuals. Therefore, ignoring the citation of common bits of knowledge must be carefully performed[13].

Referencing predatory or pseudo-journals

Predatory journals are those journals which accept manuscripts from authors with a certain amount of money but fail to perform the requisite checks of quality and ethical approval. Such journals contain contradictory statements, fake impact factors, false addresses and misleading information about the editorial board[14]. Such publications are harmful to the progress of science because they promote inferior quality scholarship and self-interests, bring about false and misleading information and waste valuable resources behind any research[14]. Failure of quality assessment in such articles is a risk to cite as information in such journals are unreliable. But detection of such journals is a difficult task for researchers, as such publications generally find out an entry into certain indexes. A few lists like Beall’s list and Cabells ‘predatory’ list are readily available over the internet and regularly updated, still publications find out a way to avoid such lists. Careful information about the journal background must be verified by the authors before citing any information.


With the advent of technology, the hard work of preparing exhaustive reference lists is being replaced with efficient means of citation management software. EndNote, Mendeley, Zotero, RefWorks are certain such softwares which have reduced the burden for managing such exhaustive library of references for authors. Using a word processor, such software help to efficiently insert in-text citations and format bibliography according to the desired reference styles[15]. Such softwares must be encouraged to be used by students and academics as such means reduce essential time in any research and publication.


The research publication is an infallible aspect of scientific advent and in writing down them, the role of citation cannot be ignored. Cautions regarding these though very trivial, yet failure to address such issues may lead to several unfavourable consequences. This article only provides a general overview of such cautions and this must be maintained in the scientific articles.   


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2.        Dhammi I, Ul Haq R. What is plagiarism and how to avoid it? [Internet]. Indian J. Orthop.2016 [cited 2020 Nov 2];50(6):581–3. Available from: 10.4103/0019-5413.193485

3.        University of New south Wales. Why is Referencing Important ? Univ New south Wales [Internet] 2018 [cited 2021 Feb 11];[2p.]. Available from: https://student.unsw.edu.au/why-referencing-important

4.        Higher Education Development Centre U of O. What is referencing and why is it important? [Internet]. Univ. Otago2017 [cited 2020 Feb 11];[6p.]. Available from: 10.1007/978-1-137-27313-0_1

5.        iThenticate (R). 6 consequences of plagiarism [Internet]. Turnittin2020 [cited 2021 Feb 11];[1p.]. Available from: https://www.ithenticate.com/resources/6-consequences-of-plagiarism

6.        Committee on publication ethics C. Code of Conduct and Best Practice Guidelines for Journal Editors [Internet]. Comm. Publ. Ethics2011 [cited 2020 Feb 11];[5p.]. Available from: https://publicationethics.org/files/u7141/1999pdf13

7.        International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). Recommendations for the conduct, reporting, editing and publication of scholarly work in medical journals. 2019.

8.        Yaseen NY, Salman HD. Writing scientific thesis/ dissertation in biology field: Knowledge in reference style writing [Internet]. Iraqi J. Camcer Med. Genet.2012 [cited 2020 Nov 2];6(1):5–12. Available from: http://ijcmg.uomustansiriyah.edu.iq/index.php/ijcmg/article/view/95

9.        Karen Patrias. Citing Medicine: The NLM Style Guide for Authors, Editors, and Publishers [Internet]. Second. Bethedsa (MD): National Library of Medicine (US); 2007. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK7256/

10.      Caulfield J. How and when to use et al. [Internet]. Scribbr2020 [cited 2020 Feb 11];Available from: https://www.scribbr.com/citing-sources/et-al/

11.      Content Team M. Paraphrasing and Summarizing [Internet]. Mind tools [cited 2020 Feb 11];Available from: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/paraphrasing-summarizing.htm

12.      Barbeau E. 5 Common Citation Mistakes [Internet]. Cite This Me, Chegg Serv. [cited 2021 Feb 11];Available from: https://www.citethisforme.com/blog/2018/08/03/5-common-citation-mistakes

13.      Neville C. Referencing: Principles, Practice and Problems [Internet]. RGUHS J. Pharm. Sci.2012 [cited 2020 Nov 2];2(2):1–8. Available from: 10.5530/rjps.2012.2.1

14.      Grudniewicz A, Moher D, Cobey KD. Predatory journals: no definition, no defence [Internet]. Nature2019 [cited 2020 Nov 2];576:210–2. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03759-y

15.      Library U of W. Citation Styles & Tools: Citation Management Software [Internet]. Univ. Washingt.2020 [cited 2021 Feb 11];Available from: https://guides.lib.uw.edu/research/citations/citation-tools#:~:text=Citation management tools—sometimes called,share your references for research.

Table 1: Guidelines for writing citation for a journal article[9]

About Author:

Baidurjya Bhattacharjee1#, Chaturbhuja Nayak2

  1. Research Officer (Homoeopathy)/ Scientist -1, Clinical Research Unit (Homoeopathy), Siliguri, West Bengal, under Central Council for Research in Homoeopathy, New Delhi, India.
  2. Formerly Director-General, Central Council for Research in Homoeopathy and President, Homoeopathy University, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

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Homeopathy360 Team