What’s the difference between a citation and a reference?

October 18, 2013

Sarah Eaton blog technology researchThere are certain things no one tells you (usually) when you are a university student. You are just expected to know them. When you learn them, suddenly it is as if you are part of an inner circle of respected peers who accept you… but you are not really sure how you got there. The devil is in the details. What sets rookies apart from experts is deep knowledge of details and sublties that others overlook or gloss over. Knowing the difference between a citation and a reference is one of those subtle details that moves you from the category of “novice researcher” to “respected researcher”.

It’s one of those things that you don’t really need to know — until you really want to be taken seriously among a group of experts. It’s akin to car buffs who know the difference between a supercharger and a turbocharger. Unless you are a “gear head” you don’t need to know. But if you want to be taken seriously in that social circle, you might be shunned if you didn’t know.

Regardless of your field, one key element that sets the experts apart from everyone else is their understanding of details in various elements of our work.

For students and scholars, once of these subtleties is knowing the difference between a citation and a reference:


A specific source that you mention in the body of your paper. The format of the citation may change depending on the style you use (e.g. MLA and APA) and the way that you weave the citation into your writing, but the basic elements of the citation that you need to include are:

  •  Name of the author(s)
  • Year of publication
  • Page number or page range

If you quote a source directly you must include the exact page number in your citation or it is incomplete.

Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, presenter, keynote, technology, social media, Calgary, Canada, educator, education, professional development


This is a list of the the sources you have cited. The references come at the end of your paper. In APA style, this is not a list of “works consulted”. Every source that is listed in your references also needs to be cited in the body of your paper.

Every source listed in your references should be accessible by others who read your work. Think of it as a trail of breadcrumbs that you leave for readers to show them where they can go to find the original source material for themselves.

In APA style, not all work that is cited necessarily goes into the references. For example, personal communications get cited in the body of your paper, to show the reader that you have a source for your information. But if the reader can not track that source as a primary document (because, for example, the information is contained within a private e-mail between you and someone else), then it does not go into the reference list.

Alert! It is not very common that sources are cited but not referenced. Use sources such as personal communications sparingly, if at all. The more credible sources you have in your references, the better quality your work will be perceived as having.

In general, there should be an exact match between the sources you cite in the body of your paper and those that appear in your references.

The actual books, articles and other materials you consult are called your sources of information. You need to know how to cite and reference all your sources correctly.

Now you know one of the subtle differences of of terms used in scholarship that sets apart the experts from the rookies. When you use the terms correctly, those who know will quietly nod their head and accept you a member of the scholarly community.


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Success Strategy for Students: How to Cite Class Notes

June 20, 2011

During the course I taught in Effective Learning at the university, the students had to do group presentations. One group, chose to present on time management. As part of their presentation, they drew a diagram on the board that I recognized immediately. At the end of their presentation, I asked where the diagram came from. The students looked at me blankly.

“Where did you get that diagram?” I repeated.

One of the students answered, “One of my profs talked about it in class and drew it on the board.”

“Did the prof tell you where it came from?” I probed.

“I can’t remember.”

“Well, I can tell you where it came from. It’s from Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

As it turned out, none of the students had read the book. But for anyone who is familiar with Covey’s work, the diagram is easily recognizable. Covey talks about diving tasks by their importance and their urgency and then using those criteria to determine which tasks need to be done and in which order.

In case you’re curious, this is the diagram they drew on time management:

We had talked previously in class about plagiarism, but it never occurred to them that informal sources of information could be plagiarized. We had a discussion about always, always, always citing sources, even if they are informal sources, such as class notes. There are various schools of thought on whether students should cite class notes. This is a perfect example of why they should. In this case, the student couldn’t remember if the prof cited the original diagram. If she’d cited her class notes, she would at least have been showing the intent to give credit where it is due.

Here’s a quick, 3-page resource handout that I made for my students on how to cite class notes properly. It contains a brief explanation of how to cite class notes, and some examples, too.

Feel free to share it with your own students:

View this document on Scribd


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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

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