Scientific Methods: References

“Where’s your reference for that?” – is a commonly asked question on social media wherever there is an intense discussion involving two opposing sides. It is now so embedded within us because of ‘fake news’ that has spread globally.


The importance of referencing and using the correct ones is essential to the scientific process because it is ultimately about transparency of the sources of information. Providing references, be it in an academic paper, a website, a blog (!) or even a newspaper article proves to the reader that the article they are reading has a theoretical basis to it and that the topic can be further explored through the references given. This is why I explain that in order to judge a scientific claim made in an article for yourself one of the first things you should do is check the scientific sources provided.


The inclusion of a reference however doesn’t naturally validate a claim or an article, but rather it provides context such as supporting information or justification, either on a theory or a method. To go back and question each reference means questioning the one that came before and so on and so forth, and this is quite common in disciplines where there are opposing theories. Scientists often discuss publications often debating the limitations or advantages of a method or technique and what this may mean potentially for results. But going back through each reference and questioning each one could turn into a debate on the philosophy of science. For now, though I won’t head there. Instead the principle of peer review and using references has remained for the very reason for validating publications and thus is accepted by the academic and the scientific community.


I am always aim to provide references whenever I write a blog piece here and in good spirits, I want to be transparent about my sources but before I do that here are some tips to identify a good reference, how to write one and what sources are better than others.


1: Consider the reputation of the news outlet to figure out which source to use.

For this, I give you the webpage by the American Council on Science and Health  and its corresponding very useful and insightful infographic!




2: Does the reference contain a reference?

A good reference should be referencing other sources. In other words you should be able to track the thought process from the previous one to your current reference.


3: Are the references within an article you are either reading or writing complete and in full detail?

I find that nothing is more irritating than an incomplete reference in an official or formal article I am reading. Sticking in the URL to a website is not enough if you are listing them at the end of the article. For a blog or something online, it is usually OK to insert it as a hyperlink within the text. But if you are listing them at the end of the article then there will need to be an author or if there isn’t any, the name of the website will do. The date it was written and when you accessed it is important, even if it is only the month and year. There are different referencing styles for different disciplines and differing sources (newspaper, book, journal etc.) which all universities have a guide to. Here is Sheffield University’s.

The important thing here to remember is make your references detailed and complete. It needs to be easy for the reader to find the reference you are including in an article.


OK, so how do I get my references? Well, being an academic I tend to get my references from sources in the top right corner of the above infographic. I’m already subscribed to some of them: Nature and Science, and the New Scientist. As a general rule I stick to academic publications as much as I can, and I might scroll down through main media outlets (such as BBC or The Conversation) to find relevant journal articles. But I have often used media outlets depending on how good it is, so I have used The Guardian and the Huffington Post (I’m careful with the latter) but I will stay away from most other newspapers especially the Daily Mail!

Every so often though, I will use publications from organisations, institutions or societies such as the Royal Society or even from the government. I usually come across these either through other articles on my Twitter feed. In some cases I will have a book to reference (as in the case of my book reviews). In all cases I will insert a reference, but because this is a blog I will insert it as a hyperlink because it’s quick to access for the reader. If I include it at the end of the article I will write out the full reference in detail, which I used to do when I first started out blogging.


Either way, whether you are reading or writing a scientific article, just remember references are important. This is how we combat fake news so keep calm and keep referencing!



Danae Dodge

I received my PhD in Scientific Archaeology from the University of Sheffield in 2011 which specialised in ancient DNA and anthropology. For my profile, see my websites: I started getting involved in Science Brainwaves as a volunteer in 2010. I have volunteered at presentations, events (such as the British Science Festival in 2011) and even participated in the Science is Vital protest march in October 2010. My first blog for Science Brainwaves was "Ancient Humans: Who were they? And who got it on?" which was the written version of a talk I gave for the Natural History Society at the University of Sheffield on 5 December 2011. I also have a public engagement page dedicated to ancient DNA, which I encourage both the public and specialists to join: