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Preparing references for proofreading

Posted on 12th February 2016

In my last blog, I looked at preparing a PhD for proofreading but I didn't discuss issues in the reference section. I thought it might be useful to cover some of the main issues I encounter so that if you're finalising a thesis or dissertation, you can look out for these elements.

Some universities don't allow external help on any element of the reference section so it's important you check this before getting the work done. Assuming I'm allowed to check the references, for a proofread*, I highlight inconsistencies and errors but I don't implement styles from scratch. If it's clear you've tried to use a certain style and there are just a few issues, I will correct those. However, if no style is evident, I will just make notes for you to address these, and then who will check once you've worked through it? Some style guides have quite strict rules on the following while others are less prescriptive. If you have a set guideline to follow, stick to it.

  • Capitals. I encounter this issue in almost every reference section I see. Do you want sentence case or initial capitals for the book or article titles? To clarify:
    • Initial caps (sometimes called title case): Around the World in 80 Days
    • Sentence case: Around the world in 80 days
    With sentence case, you would also capitalise proper nouns but that's all. With initial caps, some people might even go for Around The World In 80 Days. This avoids the ambiguity of which 'minor' words aren't capitalised. Some style guides will make all this very clear, for example APA, but others might not. If you have no guidance on this, choose your preference and stick to it.
  • Punctuation. There are so many variations on this, it's impossible to cover all the possible options you might encounter. What's important is that you choose a style and stick to it. With Harvard, for example, there are minor variations between institutions so choose one resource and follow it closely. If you look at this guide from Exeter, you'll see they have a comma between the book title and the city of publication. This version from Anglia Ruskin University, however, has a full stop. They also don't have the same style for brackets around the date. I don't think either is more correct than the other, but this is why it's important to choose your preference and stick to it.
  • When to use et al. This often varies depending on the field of study, but in the reference section, do you need to write all authors' surnames, regardless of how many there are, or is there a limit? Some style guides say to list six authors and then put et al., for example. Whatever version you prefer, as I seem to be saying a lot, stick to it!
  • & or and. Quite a simple one but do you want to use the word 'and' or the ampersand symbol '&' before the final name?
  • Format of initials. Some styles stipulate just using the first initial for the authors, which avoids this issue nicely, but if you choose to use all the initials used by the author, be consistent in the format. I often see the equivalent of AA Milne, A.A. Milne and A. A. Milne. Some might argue that examples 1 and 3 are 'more correct' than 2, but as before, as long as you're consistent, I think it's fine.
  • Accessed dates. All URLs/websites need to include last accessed details. This is obviously not something I can add, nor do I cross-check the links, but it's important because if the website changes or goes offline, you can say that it was correct when you last viewed it.
  • Alphabetical order. Finally, once you have your complete reference list, double-check it's in the right order, usually alphabetical. I will do this too but the more checks that the list gets, the better.

This list isn't exhaustive but summarises some of the key points to look out for. The more complete and consistent the references are when you send the file to me, the more I can do to finalise it rather than just querying items.

* I only offer proofreading if work is to be submitted for assessment, unless you have written permission from your tutor/supervisor to say that copy-editing is permitted. My copy-editing service can involve implementing the style from scratch but the more work I have to do on this section, the more time it will take and therefore the more it will cost. It will therefore save you money if you try to standardise the references before sending to me.

Written by Kate Haigh.