Reference style: The best reference format for commercial articles
If you need to include references in your commercial white paper, conference poster or trade-magazine article, you’ve probably wondered what’s the best reference style to use. Should you include all the author names? What’s the correct journal abbreviation? How should you even cite a webinar? Wonder no longer, as I take you through a set of reference formatting rules that are straightforward to apply, and give clear, easy-to-understand results.
Being clear and consistent with references
Citing your sources is a good way of getting the reader to trust what you’re saying. But finding the sources and deciding how to incorporate them into the text (the subject of my first blog post) is only part of the job. It’s also important to cite the details both clearly and consistently, so they can be easily understood, and the original source found.
If you happen to be submitting your article to one of the more prestigious journals or trade-magazines, it’s likely that you’ll have to adhere to a particular style for in-line citations and the references themselves – such as Harvard, APA, Chicago, Vancouver, or the publication’s own house style. However, as a commercial writer like me, it’s more likely that you’re preparing some marketing literature, and just need to settle on a consistent style that’s simple to apply and easy to understand.
Unfortunately, that isn’t easy because of the bewildering array of formatting options. Should you use author–date or numbered citations? Should the year be in parentheses? Do author initials go before or after the surname? What about journal abbreviations? You could write a book about this topic, and indeed there is such a volume.
But as a B2B marketer you don’t need to understand all these nuances – and that’s where I’m able to help. Over the 20+ years I’ve spent dealing with scientific references in academic papers, business communications and specialist books, I’ve come up with a referencing style that:
- Imparts the essentials
- Follows convention where it’s useful
- Is clear to the reader
- Is easy to apply in practice.
So check below for a quick summary of commonly-encountered formats, or scroll on down for the full no-nonsense guide to the best referencing style to apply when citing academic journals, books, white papers and more in your science-focused B2B literature. (All the examples I’ve shown are genuine cases from the literature).
1. How to format in-line citations
The first step is citations – those bits that you place in the body text to indicate the statement that a source relates to. This is fortunately an easy choice, with just two rules!
Rule 1.1: Use numbered citations
I recommend using numbered citations (like this1), largely because they’re the most commonly used method in the sciences and medicine. But they’re also concise and don’t get in the way of reading the text – unlike the author–date citations (e.g. Jones, 2011), which can be unwieldy and distracting.
Numbered references are also very versatile – you don’t need a named author, and a given citation can contain sub-references, for example if you want to refer to a series of related papers. The only minor drawback is that you can get in a real tangle unless you rely on the referencing tool in your word-processing software to generate the numbers automatically.
Rule 1.2: Use superscript, unbracketed numbers after the punctuation
There are many ways of presenting the number, but my recommendations are:
- Regular numbers rather than Roman numerals – it’s much easier to recognise ‘14’ than ‘xiv’.
- No brackets [ ] – these just add to the character count. But if you do use them, it does make it easier to find where a citation appears with search/replace, because that character string is unlikely to appear in the body text.
- Superscript – this is a necessity if you don’t use brackets, and it also avoids the reference number getting mixed up with the numbers that are commonplace in scientific communications. Compare “as found in ISO 123452” with “as found in ISO 12345(2)”.
- After the punctuation (if any) – this just looks tidier to me, and also avoids problems if you finish a sentence on a superscripted unit (like kg/m3), and then need to add a citation.
- With an unspaced comma between consecutive numbers, and possibly a dash if there are three or more.
2. How to format author names (for all types of references)
It’s conventional in science to acknowledge the author of a document you’re referencing, and it also serves the purpose of enabling a quick check that you’ve got the right document should you come to look at it.
But the ways of presenting them can be unduly complicated, so here’s my take on the best method:
Rule 2.1: Use unspaced full stops after author initials
Although knowing an author’s name is useful, confirming their exact identity is rarely needed, so I think it’s unnecessary to include their first (given) names in the reference. Another reason is that it takes up a lot of space for very little benefit.
I prefer to use a full stop after the initials, as it makes everything easy to understand in cases where surnames are very short, hyphenated or double-barrelled. I also keep the initials unspaced, as it avoids them getting split over a line on the page.
If the first name is double-barrelled, then you simply replace the space with a hyphen:
Rule 2.2: Place author initials before the surname
One stipulation of many style guides that’s never made much sense to me is the use of a ‘surname–initials’ ordering for authors when using a numerical citation scheme.
This is of course helpful if you’re using the author–date format, because it makes the surnames easy to find at the left-hand edge of the reference. However, in numerical referencing this is of no consequence, and so I prefer to retain the ‘initials–surname’ order that is usually used when providing names (in English at least). Doing it this way also means that you’re not tempted to add another comma between the surname and the initials.
Rule 2.3: Use full stops with initials
Some style guides eliminate all the punctuation completely, and although this can work, I find that full-stops (periods) do aid clarity often enough to make them worthwhile.
Surname suffixes (such as ‘Jr’ or ‘III’) should be treated as part of the surname, without a hyphen:
Rule 2.4: Separate authors by commas
To separate one author from the next, I prefer a comma rather than a semi-colon, which I find can contribute to visual overload. Certainly, long strings of authors separated by semi-colons can be difficult to parse when paired with the ‘surname–initials’ structure I criticised above.
To separate the last two authors in the list, I use an ‘and’, because it clearly indicates that the end of the list is coming up, avoiding it getting mixed up with the article title. I don’t use an Oxford comma, for reasons you can read about here.
Rule 2.5: Use ‘et al.’ only when there are seven authors or more
The phrase ‘et al.’, which is short for ‘et alia’ (meaning ‘and others’), and is widely used in references and elsewhere. Because the second part of it is an abbreviation, it should use a full-stop, and as it’s Latin, you can set it in italics if that’s your style.
But when is ‘et al.’ actually necessary? I use it only when I feel the author list is getting a bit long, which in practice is when there are seven authors or more. I then just use the first name immediately followed by ‘et al.’, to avoid the slightly ridiculous situation where you cite the first six authors but then omit the last one or two.
3. How to present hyperlinks (for all types of references)
Including the hyperlink is always a good idea whatever the source, as it enables it to be found easily, and provides an extra degree of reassurance to the reader that it’s genuine. Including hyperlinks is pretty straightforward, but there are a couple of points to be aware of.
Rule 3.1: Use a DOI if available
For journal articles, the job of adding a hyperlink is easy, because they invariably come with a digital object identifier (DOI).
The benefit of using the DOI (rather than the URL of the article page) is that it’s a permalink, and so won’t break if the hosting website is restructured. I add it in full ‘https://’ format, simply because that makes it easier to make the hyperlink active, but either is fine.
Rule 3.2: Find the original source wherever possible
To save time, it may be tempting to simply paste in the link as you found it (for example, an Amazon search result or a file-sharing site). But to make the most of the authority boost, I’d recommend hunting down the page of the original publisher, even if it’s a bit more awkward for the reader to get hold of the file.
Rule 3.3: Shorten or embed very long hyperlinks
No-one wants to see a massive string of letters in a reference list, so if the hyperlink is ridiculously long, cut it down to size it using your favourite online URL shortener, or hyperlink it to a short piece of indicator text.
4. How to format references to journal articles
Journal articles are the backbone of the reference sections of many science-focused articles, in academia and elsewhere. Here’s my take on the best styles to use.
Rule 4.1: Include the title of the article
The title of the paper isn’t often asked for in referencing style guides, but I find it a useful addition. This is because it’s usually a very good indication of the subject matter, and so helps the reader to decide whether it’s worth the bother of hunting down the reference.
Irrespective of the capitalisation style used in the actual paper, I write these titles in sentence case for readability (and to avoid agonising over capitalisation of short words). This means using initial capitals only for proper nouns, names, abbreviations and the like, as well as when a title is split into two with a colon or n-dash.
Rule 4.2: Use the full journal name, in title-case italics
The journal name can indicate the quality of the source, signifying as it does the breadth of the subject-matter and sometimes the geographical scope, overlaid with the reader’s knowledge of journal prestige.
Conventional usage is to use title case for the journal names, and format them in italics to distinguish them from the other text (specifically the article title, mentioned above). I agree with both these points, but where I diverge is on the point of abbreviations.
It’s long been standard practice in science to use an agreed set of abbreviations for journal names, specifically those published by the Chemical Abstracts Service Source Index (CASSI). This made sense in the days when you’d have been familiar with the relatively small number of publications in your field, and when publications were destined to appear in print (where using the abbreviated forms in long reference lists might save some space on the page).
However, the continuing proliferation of journals in recent years (see also this report), combined with the likelihood that you’re publishing your document online, means that these arguments no longer stand. In fact, because of the idiosyncratic way in which similar words are abbreviated in CASSI, finding and using the correct form is a chore, while decoding what they mean is a needless barrier to understanding. For example, ‘Chem.’ stands for ‘Chemistry’ and ‘Chemical’, whereas ‘Proc.’ stands for ‘Proceedings’ but ‘Proced.’ stands for ‘Procedures’… you get my point.
As a result, you might as well give the full title of the journal, and then at least everyone knows what you’re talking about. So we would say:
Rule 4.3: Include the year, volume number and page range
The year is an essential part of any reference, as it establishes the age of the source document, and thus how up-to-date it’s likely to be. The best location for this is after the journal title, preceded by a comma.
The volume number doesn’t serve much purpose these days, but I tolerate it, in order not to stray too far from the familiar reference format. However, the issue number (where present at all) is superfluous and can safely be omitted, because pages are always numbered starting from the beginning of a year, not the beginning of an issue.
The page range indicates the length of the article, which can be useful to the reader. But note that some journals now just provide an article number (often this has a leading ‘0’ or two, which helps you recognise it as such).
In terms of other preferences, to keep things simple I eliminate all brackets and formatting, and use a comma and colon (respectively) between the three elements.
Rule 4.4: Indicate ‘in press’-type references clearly
Not long after journals started to publish their articles online in the late 1990s, there was a move to get the articles up online as soon as possible after acceptance, and so avoid the typesetting, pagination and printing processes holding back the time to publication (used by publishers to attract authors).
This led to the release of articles that had been officially published, but which hadn’t received page numbers. Since then, the situation has changed again, with the publication of articles prior to peer-review.
When referencing, the best way of handling these situations is to provide the year in which the article first appeared online, and then indicate what stage it’s at in parentheses.
For example, if you know what stage it’s at:
Or if you’re unsure:
To summarise these rules, here’s a couple of examples of an entire journal-article reference:
5. How to format references to magazine articles
These can closely follow what you’d do for a journal article, with one additional difference.
Rule 5.1: Add the issue number or date
Magazines tend not to have volume numbers, so as well as the year, it can be helpful to add the issue number or date/month of publication.
Rule 5.2: Be aware of print and online editions
Note also that articles published online may differ from the same article in print, while many ‘magazine-style’ publications are now online only and may not have issues at all (in which case it’s not a bad idea to include the date in full).
Here’s a couple of examples of these principles in action:
6. How to format references to books
Books can take a variety of formats, which makes citing them rather complicated. But here are three general rules:
Rule 6.1: Format the book title in title-case italics
Format book titles just like you would a journal name – that is, in italic title case. I include the edition number in parentheses if there is one.
Rule 6.2: Include the publisher of the book but not the location
For books, it’s normal to include the name of the publisher, because book titles may not be as unique as journal article titles, and it also makes it easier to find them.
However, the convention to include the place of publication is – in these days of publishers with multiple offices worldwide – an anachronism, and can be dispensed with.
Rule 6.3: Add the chapter/page number if needed
In a long book, including the page number at the end of the reference can save the reader trouble in finding the source of the information. Use ‘p.’ for one page, or ‘pp.’ for page ranges.
Here’s an example that brings these points together:
Rule 6.4: Collections of monographs
In most books, there will just be one or two authors, but for more complex publications, such as edited collections of monographs, there would be the following differences:
- The author you cite is the author of the article/chapter
- The editors of the book are cited after the book title, preceded by ‘ed.’ (meaning ‘edited by’).
- The article/chapter title should be added at the start, followed by “in:”.
Rule 6.5: Book series
And if the book is one of a multi-volume series, the series title should also be included after the title, again in parentheses.
7. How to format references to research theses
These are formatted similarly to books, but with a few differences:
Rule 7.1: Replace the book title with the thesis title
For consistency with book titles, I use title case for these.
Rule 7.2: Include the name of the research institution
This replaces the name of the publisher, and the city and/or country should also be included, if not obvious from the name.
Rule 7.3: Indicate the type of thesis
The category of thesis (Ph.D., Masters, etc.) should appear after the article title, preferably in square brackets.
So for example:
8. How to format references to posters and presentations
Although conference posters and presentations can be difficult to get hold of by those not present, citing them is useful when the results are particularly relevant, and haven’t yet appeared in the peer-reviewed literature. Again, there are similarities to book references, with three self-explanatory conventions:
Rule 8.1: The conference title replaces the book title
Rule 8.2: Include the name, location and date of the conference
Rule 8.3: Indicate the type of content
So to summarise by example:
9. How to format references to standard methods
Standard methods – widely used in many fields of science – lack some elements of a typical reference, such as authors, which makes them a bit different from other reference types:
Rule 9.1: Include number, title and organisation
It’s conventional to have the numerical identifier of the standard first, followed by the title and then the other bibliographic information.
Rule 9.2: Preferably be consistent with the year
Sometimes the year of publication is already appended to the numerical identifier. I generally remove it from there and place it at the end of the reference for consistency, but that’s a matter of personal preference. ASTM standards are bit of an exception, as they only encode the last two digits of the year, so I leave those in.
Here are two examples:
10. How to format references to commercial content
A lot of content from commercial sources is published as standalone content on the web in a variety of formats, such as press releases, webinars, white papers, blog posts and the like. This certainly shouldn’t preclude it from being cited (and indeed, it’s frequently more useful than conventional sources because it’s not usually behind a paywall). I apply a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy to these types of references:
- Include the author if one is obvious
- Include the title of the article or name of the document
- Indicate what sort of content it is in square brackets
- Include the organisation’s name
- Include the year of publication if one is obvious, or the exact date if it’s a time-specific publication.
- Include the date you accessed it, if it seems to be a piece of content that is likely to be updated (databases being an obvious example).
There are myriad ways of formatting references, and none are inherently ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. But there are ones that are easier to compile and understand – and with over 20 years of working with them, I have my preferences, which I’ve shared with you here.
You may not agree with every suggestion I’ve made, and that’s fine. But by including the right elements in your chosen reference format, you can make the reference easy to find, while also making it clear that you’re providing links to credible sources of information.
In a world where everyone’s creating content and where the validity of information is increasingly difficult to ascertain, the fact that you’ve made the effort to share reliable sources with your readers will enhance trust and make them value your content all the more.