Tips for editors: Academic referencing 101

When I first started out as freelancer at the end of 2016, I did not think that one of the things I would be asked to do would be to edit academic references.

In the beginning, though, I took whatever work I could get, and one of those paths was proofreading books for an academic publisher. And there were references… lots and lots of references.

I learned that publisher’s style for referencing, noticing as I did that were several crucial things that were just not mentioned in their style guide. I badgered project managers till I got answers, and became relatively proficient at doing references for that one publisher.

Then I landed another editing job – this time a long document for a big organisation. They had their own style with (you guessed it) several crucial things not specified. I queried as many things as I could, and in some instances just quietly adopted my own rules for things.

A third client turned out to have several crucial things not specified (yes, really). This time, I badgered no one, and asked no questions. I followed the style as closely as I could, and quietly made up my own rules as I went along.

References can be time-consuming

Now, there are editors I know who flatly refuse to edit references at all, and I can see why they do that. References can be a huge time-sink: the amount of things that can be wrong is large, and the fiddliness of fixing those things can be extreme. Over the course of an editing project, the hours taken to do references can soak up so much time that you end up losing money.

On the other hand, there are people who specialise in editing references, with their own rates for doing that. (The most recent Safrea rates report gives some idea of what those rates are )

I don’t claim to be a referencing specialist – but I don’t turn down work because it has references in it. My approach is pragmatic and case-based. If I think I can bring a job in on time and with a reasonable profit, I will do the references. Over time, I have developed a set of protocols that help to speed things up.

If you are starting out as a proofreader or editor, I hope these general tips about reference editing will help.


Always start with the publication’s own style guide. They might say they follow the Harvard referencing system, but I have never yet encountered a publisher which doesn’t have its own idiosyncratic approach to references: they will always be Harvard-with-twists. (I have never edited actual academic papers for a particular university, but I assume academic institutions might follow systems like Harvard more closely).


Before you start work, generate your own style guide for that document in a way that makes sense for you. Generally though, you’ll want a document that outlines how this particular set of references handles:

Style of inline citations – this is the bit of text in a paragraph that says: The sky is blue (Nkosi 2014). Or, as the case may be (Nkosi, 2014), with a comma.

Author or authors – how are names punctuated? What happens when there is more than one author?

Title of work – italics, or in quotes?

Publication place and date – place of publication first or last: Glorious Publishing Co., New York, or perhaps: New York: Glorious Publishing Co.

How journal entries are handled – this takes in the name of the journal, and how volume and page numbers are handled.

How online references are handled – particularly, is there a date to say when the link was accessed, and how is that date written?

Punctuation – are entries separated by commas, or by full stops?.

Once you have those under your belt (and in your head), you can add refinements as you go along.


Never assume that an inline citation will match the way it is referenced in the list at the end of the chapter or book. This is done fastest in an electronic version of the document. If the inline citation says: (Nkosi 2014), search on the word Nkosi and observe, with a wry smile, that the reference in fact says Nkosi wrote the paper in 2016.


Decide how much work you will do, and how much you will refer back to the author. As a matter of policy, are you going to do a search to establish if the Nkosi paper was written in 2014 or 2016? My own policy is that I will check that reference if there is already a link given. If not, I will raise it as a query in a comment in the document. (Note that there are strict ideas about the extent to which an editor intervenes in a work written by a student for a degree. I am talking here about referencing done in commercial texts of one kind or another).


Consistency is key. This is your friend when a style guide is silent on a crucial aspect of referencing. For instance: Does a set of two initials have a space, or not? D.(space)G. Nkosi or D.G. Nkosi, without a space? Or even DG Nkosi, with no punctuation? If there is no guidance, decide for yourself which you are going to pick and then just apply it rigorously. (Personally, I go for no space). There is a strong likelihood that no one will ever notice that you did this.

There’s a lot more to referencing but I hope this primer has been enough to give the reader an idea of how to do about referencing (and indeed, whether to do it at all).


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Main picture: ilovebutter, Flickr (licence CC-BY 2.0)

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