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Key differences between a citation and a reference

What’s common

It is easier to understand the difference between a citation and a reference if we know what they have in common.

  • Both are associated with academic texts and are pointers to sources of information.
  • The two are also linked, with the citation (within the main body of the text) pointing to the corresponding reference (often added to the end of the main text, for example, in a reference list of bibliography).

What’s different

  • Purpose: The purpose of a citation is to point to additional information whereas the purpose of a reference is to supply that additional information.
  • Location: Citations appear within the main text whereas references are added towards the end of the main text as a list.
  • Amount of information: Citations give minimal information whereas references provide all the details.
  • Length: It follows therefore that citations are short, either comprising the last names of authors and the year of publication or appearing as footnotes. In contrast, references are long and often run to several lines.
  • Mutual referencing: Some citations lack corresponding references (for example, when the source of information is a personal email or unpublished data) whereas every reference must have a corresponding citation within the main text.

A working example of citations and references

The difference is best illustrated with an example of an excerpt from a typical academic text.

Note the citations below, highlighted in bold: 

“We have yet fully to understand how typography should be designed when glance reading competes with other cognitive tasks, such as driving while using an in-vehicle display (Reimer et al. 2014) or walking while reading on a mobile device (Chen and Lin 2016).” 

At the end of the paper from which this example is taken, there will be a list of sources. The list has a heading, ‘References’, and is arranged alphabetically by the names of authors taken from the citations. Included within that list are the following two references, which were cited in the paper (the excerpt above).

References

Chen, C.-M., and Y.-J. Lin. 2016. “Effects of Different Text Display Types on Reading Comprehension, Sustained Attention and Cognitive Load in Mobile Reading Contexts.” Interactive Learning Environments 24 (3): 553–571.

Reimer, B., B. Mehler, J. Dobres, J.F. Coughlin, S. Matteson, D. Gould, N. Chahine, and V. Levantovsky. 2014. “Assessing the Impact of Typeface Design in a Text-Rich Automotive User Interface.” Ergonomics 57 (11): 1643–1658.

Difference of form

One more difference between a citation and a reference can be in terms of form. A citation may either be a combination of letters (names of authors) and numbers (year of publication) or entirely numerical, whereas the form of the corresponding references is often the same.

The citation provided earlier (presented here again for ease of perusing) comprises the names of authors and the year of publication

“We have yet fully to understand how typography should be designed when glance reading competes with other cognitive tasks, such as driving while using an in-vehicle display (Reimer et al. 2014) or walking while reading on a mobile device (Chen and Lin 2016).” 

Good to know: This system of citation is known as the Harvard system.

Another system comprises numbers instead of names. In the example below, note the superscript ‘18’ in bold.

“We focus on domestic food value chains for the simple reason that roughly three-quarters of all food is consumed in the same country as its raw commodity inputs were grown18.”

At the end of the article appears a numbered list, arranged in the order of appearance in the text, in which reference no. 18 is given as follows:

D’Odorico, P., Carr, J. A., Laio, F., Ridolfi, L. & Vandoni, S. Feeding humanity through global food trade. Earth’s Future 2, 458–469 (2014).

Good to know: This system of citation is known as the Vancouver system and is common in medical journals and review papers.

 

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