5 Tips for Referencing in Scientific Writing

In scientific writing, referencing is the secret to success. Contrary to what it seems, a scientific paper should be easy to follow and all statements should be backed up by “proof”, whether that proof is your own data or another’s.  If it’s not yours, you reference it, and prop yourself up on great science of the past. Done well, this makes your words and science believable. Here are my tips for avoiding easy referencing mistakes and improving your writing!

Disclaimer: I’m a third year biology student. I don’t know everything (yet), so don’t take my tips as the be-all-end-all, they’re just things that’ve helped me in the past.


1. Follow instructions. If you’re writing an essay, your tutor/lecturer/teacher will probably have given you instructions. If they haven’t, ask them what they like. Asking is perfectly reasonable–everyone has their own favoured style of referencing. If you have instructions, follow them.

2. Be consistent. With various styles of referencing available, it’s important to stick to one all the way through. For example, I like to use APA style to write my references. They look like this:

Møller, A. P. (1995). Bumblebee preference for symmetrical flowers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences92(6), 2288-2292.

A different style, MLA looks like this:

Møller, Anders Pape. “Bumblebee preference for symmetrical flowers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 92.6 (1995): 2288-2292.

They’re very similar, but you should never use both. Same for italics, commas, and full stops in the references and in-text references. Find a way and stick to it.

3. Google scholar is your friend. Google scholar is a search engine purely for papers. Underneath every link, there’s a quote mark button, click it to reveal five different styles of references beautifully laid out for you. Make your life easier and don’t write out the citations yourself, just copy and paste. That said, you should still check them as sometimes Google gets it wrong.

4. Three Harvard style examples. Put your in-text references at the end of the sentence or before a comma. You can use Harvard style (the names and dates) or just put in numbers. Here’s three ways you will need if using Harvard style: one author (Peterson, 2019), two authors (Peterson & Snow, 2019), and three or more authors (Peterson et al., 2019). You can italicise the et al or not, it doesn’t really matter so long as you don’t do both.

5. Proofread. Always, always, always proofread. Make sure your references are alphabetised or numbered correctly. Make sure your italics are consistent. Make sure you’ve spelt the surnames right. It’s a boring task, as you’ll probably have a lot of references, but if you don’t, you will miss simple mistakes.


Scientific writing isn’t more difficult than prose or poetry, it’s just a completely different language. Once you get the hang of it, it’s mostly about being methodical and organised. If in doubt, have someone you trust proofread for you!

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