We are living at a time where content is developed and disseminated at an ever-increasing speed and volume. Easy access and the multichannel infrastructure used to share this wealth of information can, at times, make it difficult to distinguish between genuine content and content that reflects opinions, incorrect facts or outright fiction. Therefore, traceability of information is vital to allow the reader to consult original sources and make an informed decision as to the nature of the content consumed.

In this ultimate guide on how to reference, the following topics are covered:

  • The importance of referencing
  • Choosing adequate sources: primary vs secondary sources
  • Choosing a referencing style
  • How to perform a reference / data check
  • Vancouver referencing style examples

The importance of referencing

Often seen as a necessary, but time-consuming evil, referencing is a fundamental aspect of content development and traceability, especially in the scientific field. No matter by whom (freelance medical writer or PR freelancer), in which setting (medical communications agency or healthcare PR agency) or for which medium (print media, online media, social media) content is developed, correct and suitable referencing indicates the standard of quality and integrity of a publication. The aim is not only to ensure that statements are supported by evidence, but that other people’s work and ideas, whether they are common knowledge and have been widely accepted or not, are suitably acknowledged and not presented as one’s own. In other words, to avoid plagiarism.

While many publications, especially in the online space, do not require referencing, scientific publications require authors to demonstrate that any claims or statements are substantiated by trustworthy and reputable sources and that the publication has been carefully and thoroughly prepared. Not all sources are equally suitable for different types of publications or topics, but more on that later.

Referencing in itself highlights that the topic has been researched extensively and is substantiated with the most adequate and up-to-date evidence to support the publication topic. Referencing should be employed when using direct quotations, and when paraphrasing or summarising published text.

Choosing adequate sources: primary vs secondary sources

The type of source document used to support any piece of content is dependent on the type of publication. Let’s focus on scientific publications routinely prepared by freelance medical writers, scientific PR freelance writers, within virtual PR agencies, healthcare communications agency or healthcare PR agencies. Any piece of work that may be developed in a scientific writing setting, be it press releases, scientific manuscripts, social media contributions, TED talks, reports, congress materials, digital tactics or other materials, do require appropriate referencing. The type of source will have an impact on the credibility of the publication, therefore, it is essential to select suitable sources of information that are available in their entirety, i.e., not only an abstract of a scientific manuscript can be viewed, but the full manuscript.

In scientific work, primary and secondary sources are the most commonly used sources for information gathering and referencing. A primary source is one that reports original content such as a primary manuscript detailing trial outcomes, while a secondary source refers to content first reported in another source, such as a review article summarising findings from various trials. While it is recommended that secondary sources are used sparingly, primary sources may not always be available. Reasons might include that the original work is out of print, unavailable, or available only in another language. However, secondary sources need to be used with caution as they may contain generalisations, analysis, interpretation, and synthesis of primary sources. As a result, secondary sources may be misinterpreted and cited incorrectly to support a particular statement.

While there are certain references that are perfectly suitable for use in scientific publications, others should be avoided for lack of credibility, lack of peer review and proof of information correctness, as well as being poorly researched and containing misinformation.

  • Sources to use:
    • Textbooks
    • Peer-reviewed journal publications (primary manuscripts, review articles, meta-analyses, opinion pieces etc.)
    • Congress publications (abstracts, posters, referenced congress materials)
    • Government reports
    • Regulator reports and guidelines
    • Approved society and association materials
  • Sources to avoid:
    • Non-peer reviewed opinion pieces
    • Online encyclopaedias (e.g. Wikipedia) and dictionaries
    • Website content
    • News articles, magazine articles and blog posts
    • Social media posts and YouTube
    • Verbal communication

Choosing a referencing style

There are many different referencing styles and the format of an in-text citation and the bibliography depends on the reference or citation style used. The three most common referencing styles include APA (American Psychological Association) used by education, psychology and sciences; MLA (Modern Language Association) style used by the humanities and Chicago/Turabian style used by business, history, and the fine arts. However, in healthcare communications the most common style for medical journals is Vancouver style and Harvard style for natural and social sciences journals. At PR-it, we use Vancouver style for all assets from scientific manuscripts to press releases.

The Vancouver referencing style follows rules established by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors and is a numbered system, meaning that the reference will be cited in-text as a number in square/round brackets or superscript as shown in the examples below. This short reference, also called in-text citation, is appropriately placed within the body of the text to provide a key to the full bibliographic details that will follow later in the publication in the footnotes, endnotes, reference list or bibliography. The terms reference list and bibliography are sometimes used interchangeably and refer to the complete list of references or bibliographic details for the sources that were cited.

Please refer to the end of this post for examples of citation formatting for the Vancouver referencing style depending on the type of source cited.

Many journals have created their own referencing style which can be imported into the many different citation software programs available for free or an annual subscription, including EndNote, Zotero, RefMan or Mendeley. These software tools can be immeasurably helpful when referencing within larger publications as they automatically adjust reference numbering and the bibliography when citations are added or removed within the text.

Microsoft Word also allows insertion of references within the text and automatic creation of a bibliography as an endnote to the document; however, the functionality is not as advanced as that in other citation software.

How to perform a reference / data check

Each publication should uphold the highest standards of accurate reporting. Therefore, all data or information reported within a publication needs to be verified for accuracy against the original source document. For a scientific manuscript, this may include any references used in the introduction, methods or discussion sections, as well as data from clinical trial reports or statistical analysis plans used to create the results. It is recommended to compile a file or reference pack containing all relevant documents and highlight all relevant information within each of the source documents. This allows anyone wanting to verify the accuracy of the described information to easily find evidence supporting claims made in the main publication.

Furthermore, clients often require a copy of this file for regulatory purposes and to keep a record of any supporting materials for their publications. In addition, clients may use approval platforms such as Zinc, Datavision or Veeva Promomats which encourage the linking of every statement in an asset to the correlating supporting evidence in the source document. This allows reviewers to immediately assess the validity of a claim.

The preparation of a reference pack is quite straight forward. Throughout the development of a publication, relevant full-length documents are collated in an electronic folder and relevant text passages are highlighted. If calculations were performed, these should be detailed within the relevant source document. The reference pack should be updated when there are changes to the publication draft. The structure of the reference pack depends on client or personal preference and can be organised by order of appearance of each source document within the publication, alphabetically or as numbered source documents within subfolders if the publication is a slide deck with multiple references per slide.

At PR-it we generally organise reference packs in the order the references appear in the reference list at the end of the asset.

How to reference_reference pack screenshot

A data check should be performed at each draft stage, or at least once prior to finalisation of an asset to ensure accuracy of the final deliverable. Ideally an independent person should perform this review to avoid data fatigue and errors through similar data assessment by the same person. However, this may not always be possible. Therefore, it is recommended to leave one day between completion of the project or draft and the data check.

The data check encompasses a thorough assessment of correctness of the information included in the publication. Suitability of the source document should be assessed and whether claims made in the publication are supported by statements in the source document. This ranges from high-level statements used in the introduction or discussion sections to exact data and figures in the results section.

Vancouver referencing style examples

Here are a few examples from Monash University’s Vancouver referencing style guide:

In-text citation

…as one author has put it “the darkest days were still ahead”.[1]

…as one author has put it “the darkest days were still ahead”.(1)

…as one author has put it “the darkest days were still ahead”.1

Bibliography – journal article (<6 or 6 authors)

  • Petitti DB, Crooks VC, Buckwalter JG, Chiu V. Blood pressure levels before dementia. Arch Neurol. 2005 Jan;62(1):112-6.
  • Hallal AH, Amortegui JD, Jeroukhimov IM, Casillas J, Schulman CI, Manning RJ, et al. Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography accurately detects common bile duct stones in resolving gallstone pancreatitis. J Am Coll Surg. 2005 Jun;200(6):869-75.

Bibliography – electronic journal article (without and with DOI)

  • Stockhausen L, Turale S. An explorative study of Australian nursing scholars and contemporary scholarship. J Nurs Scholarsh [Internet]. 2011 Mar [cited 2013 Feb 19];43(1):89-96. Available from: http://search.proquest.com/docview/858241255.
  • Kanneganti P, Harris JD, Brophy RH, Carey JL, Lattermann C, Flanigan DC. The effect of smoking on ligament and cartilage surgery in the knee: a systematic review. Am J Sports Med [Internet]. 2012 Dec [cited 2013 Feb 19];40(12):2872-8. Available from: http://ajs.sagepub.com/content/40/12/2872 DOI: 10.1177/0363546512458223.

 Bibliography – website (homepage or part of website)

  • Diabetes Australia. Diabetes globally [Internet]. Canberra ACT: Diabetes Australia; 2012 [updated 2012 June 15; cited 2012 Nov 5]. Available from: http://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/en/ Understanding-Diabetes/Diabetes-Globally/.
  • Australian Medical Association [Internet]. Barton ACT: AMA; c1995-2012. Junior doctors and medical students call for urgent solution to medical training crisis; 2012 Oct 22 [cited 2012 Nov 5]; [about 3 screens]. Available from: https://ama.com.au/media/junior-doctors -and-medical-students-call-urgent-solution-medical-training-crisis. 

Bibliography – book (print or electronic)

  • Carlson BM. Human embryology and developmental biology. 4th ed. St. Louis: Mosby; 2009. 541p.
  • Shreeve DF. Reactive attachment disorder: a case-based approach [Internet]. New York: Springer; 2012 [cited 2012 Nov 2]. 85p. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-1647-0.

Bibliography – chapter (edited or edited electronic)

  • Blaxter PS, Farnsworth TP. Social health and class inequalities. In: Carter C, Peel JR, editors. Equalities and inequalities in health. 2nd ed. London: Academic Press; 1976. p. 165-78.
  • Halpen-Felsher BL, Morrell HE. Preventing and reducing tobacco use. In: Berlan ED, Bravender T, editors. Adolescent medicine today: a guide to caring for the adolescent patient [Internet]. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co.; 2012 [cited 2012 Nov 3]. Chapter 18. Available from: http://www.worldscientific.com/doi/pdf/10.1142/9789814324496_0018.

Bibliography – poster

  • Zandbelt B, Hoogendam JM, van Buuren M, Sack A, Kahn R, Vink M. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation alters resting-state functional connectivity. Poster session presented at: 15th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping; 2009 Jun 18-23; San Francisco.

Bibliography – presentation

  • Zandbelt B, Hoogendam JM, van Buuren M, Sack A, Kahn R, Vink M. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation alters resting-state functional connectivity. Oral presentation presented at: 15th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping; 2009 Jun 18-23; San Francisco.

Bibliography – abstract

  • Grassby AJ. Health care in the multi-cultural society. In: Walpole R, editor. Rural health. Proceedings of the Rural Health Conference of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners; 1978; Melbourne. Melbourne: The Royal Australian College of Practitioners; 1979. p.49-50.

Bibliography – image

  • Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles on face. [image on Internet]. 2011 [updated 2011 Jan 10; cited 2012 Nov 6]. Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/shingles/about/photos.html.

Bibliography – video

  • Silverstein O. Mothers and sons: the crucial connection [web streaming video]. Hanover (USA): Microtraining Associates; 2005 [cited 2010 May 27]. Available from: http://ctiv.alexanderstreet.com/View/536289.

Bibliography – reports

  • Rowe IL, Carson NE. Medical manpower in Victoria. East Bentleigh (AU): Monash University, Department of Community Practice; 1981. 35 p. Report No.: 4.


Love this post? (We thought you would!) Subscribe below to get more handy tips and guides from Learn-it.