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February 17, 2011

What’s a Reference List For?

by Jeff Hume-Pratuch

.rev3 Sometimes APA Style is less about the minutiae of citation and more about the big picture. For example, recently we heard from some students who wanted to know why everything in the reference list had to be cited in the text. They argued that they had read many more books than they could cite and felt that they were not getting full credit for their work.

The APA Publication Manual (6th ed.) says, "Each reference cited in text must appear in the reference list, and each entry in the reference list must be cited in text" (p. 174). To understand this rule, we have to consider the big picture: What’s a reference list for, anyway?

For many students, the purpose of the reference list is to prove that they completed the assignment. They were assigned a research topic; they researched the heck out of it; and the reference list is there to demonstrate their hard work.

In the scholarly disciplines that use the APA Style of author–date citation, however, the purpose of the reference list is twofold: (a) It allows the author to credit the work of others that directly influenced the present work and document any facts that are not common knowledge; and (b) it gives interested readers the information necessary to identify and retrieve those sources. Thus, there is no reason to include uncited sources in the reference list.

Other documentation systems, such as those based on the Chicago Manual of Style, use a bibliography rather than a reference list. A bibliography can be more expansive, covering works that were consulted by the author or recommended for the reader but not cited in the text itself.
If you're writing in APA Style, however, that kind of bibliography is not an option. Keep those extra sources in mind for your next paper, and remember: Cite what you use, use what you cite.


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