Manuscript Tips: References

The following is the next installment in a series on writing for publication from Kris Greiner, editor in the Design Center. Explore her suite of editing services.

Next up in this manuscript writing series is the last major component of a paper – the references. There may not be a more difficult aspect of writing a manuscript than getting references properly formatted according to the target journal’s instructions. With reference managers such as EndNote, references should be relatively easy to insert and format. But as many who have wrestled with EndNote or other programs may know, it’s often not as easy as it should be.

Once again, I’m obliged to point out that authors need to follow a journal’s instructions for formatting references. Journals get very picky about this. If you think of it from their perspective, journal editors and copywriters spend a lot of time and energy detailing exactly how references should be cited in the paper and formatted in the list at the end for consistency within their journal’s pages. They detail how many authors to list, proper capitalization of article titles, whether volume numbers should be included, what format must be used for page numbers, journal name abbreviations, and article identifiers, such as PMIDs or DOIs, how to reference websites, book chapters, or other sources. Are reference numbers noted in the text as superscript numerals or in brackets? Whew! It’s a lot of detail.

And downloading a journal’s reference style for EndNote use may seem to immediately solve the problem, right? Unfortunately, no. While EndNote is indeed helpful, authors still need to check that each reference has been formatted properly, especially if the journal does not have their reference style available in EndNote (or another citation management program).

As frustrating as setting up your references can be, your submission will be viewed more favorably if they are properly done. You’ll give reviewers one less issue to mention when they critique your paper and possibly avoid an immediate rejection for not complying with instructions. As for selecting references to support your work, some general advice:

  • always use primary sources; generally it’s best to avoid references review papers
  • if you write several sentences referring to a published source, cite the reference at the first mention of this work
  • use as few references as necessary
  • always cite the most recent works available, unless citing the origin of an idea, instrument, or test method
  • if you cite an article that’s in press or online ahead of print, double-check the citation just before you submit your paper, to be sure it’s still correct

As always, feel free to contact me with any manuscript questions at

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