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Formatting References

As unpopular a task as it may be, preparing your manuscript for publication is never complete without properly formatting your references. Citing papers is the interesting part, but without a bit of patience and some tricks up your sleeve, formatting these citations and the full reference list can be a burden you’ll just want to ignore. Unfortunately, of all the formatting problems that see editors sending papers back to the authors for correction, this is one of the most common. So let’s look at a few key things to know about references to make sure you get them right.


What style do I need to use?

The Instructions for Authors on your target journal’s webpage should be your first source for reference formatting info. There is almost always a section describing the preferred format for both citations and full references. This will explain what sources are acceptable to reference, how each should be listed, as well as how any weblinks should be cited.

Formatting References 1

If your target journal doesn’t provide this information, check a few recent sample papers. The style used in recently published articles is likely to be similar to what the journal will require for new submissions.


I keep hearing about Harvard vs Vancouver, what’s the difference?

In short, Harvard style means that your citations will be listed as (author name, year) and the reference list alphabetical, while Vancouver style means that you should list citations numerically in the order they appear in the text. There are other referencing styles as well (Chicago, APA, etc) that are variations on these, and this is a very simplistic description of the two, so always be sure to check the specifics of abbreviations, bold or italic font, and page number listing style for each sample journal to save yourself potentially long and tedious revisions later. Here are some examples of what citations in these different styles can look like:

Formatting References 2


Reference management software

If you have access to reference management software such as RefWorks, Mendeley, EndNote, Zotero, or Papers, your life has just gotten much easier when it comes to formatting references. These programs allow you to insert references as you go along and make moving them around much simpler. They also save you time with respect to formatting your final reference list, as many journals will provide you with downloadable style files to be used in these programs that will automatically put your references in the proper format.

Formatting References 3

Microsoft Word also has a built in reference management tool but, in our experience, it’s a bit tricky to use and can cause more trouble than it’s worth.


Tips & tricks

If you don’t have access to reference management software, fret not. There are still a few things you can do to make organizing your citations easier.

  • When developing your initial draft, put the citation information in a comment bubble with the sentence it refers to rather than listing the citation by name or number in-text yet. This will allow you to move text around easily without worrying about the formatting style or renumbering your citations.
  • Even if your target journal uses a Vancouver/numerical system for citations, you may wish to cite your references using a (name, year) format while you’re writing. It is easier to replace names with numbers than vice versa, especially if the order is not yet final, and then your final reference list can be quickly rearranged to match.
  • Prioritize your citations. If a journal puts limits on the number of citations you can include, you should be able to remove articles easily. Being unsure of the importance or priority of your citations may lead to considerable rewriting and reorganization of your references later if you need to remove them.
  • Familiarize yourself with the common abbreviations for journal names using the Index Medicus list. Many journals want abbreviated journal names for the reference list and knowing the common usage will make this a quicker task.