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references and bibliography

What is the Difference between References and a Bibliography?

There is a tendency among us—as students and researchers—to use both references and bibliography synonymously. For several years now, I thought the same too. Admittedly, I have used both bibliography and references as synonyms. Most of us don’t think there is any difference between both. But, as it turns out, that is not really correct.

As students, most of our assignments will require us to make a list of “works cited” or references. Bibliographies are mainly reserved for projects, books, theses and dissertations, and sometimes research papers. If you cite someone’s quote as it is, you would have to put them in quotation marks.

Along with that, you would also have to write down the name of the source you have referred from. This is where you would use your references, citation styles (endnotes, footnotes, intext citations), and bibliography.

When we write academic papers, or course assignments, we are often told to cite. Make a list of sources. Add references. Or list out a bibliographical entry along. Both references and bibliography serve the same purpose. They allow the readers to understand how you build an argument—who you refer to, what they argue, and how you differ from them. All this is a generic academic exercise.

But there is more to it. References usually refer to all the articles you may have directly cited in your research. It should include all the articles, books, newspapers, online sources, etc. We cite them directly—and that’s the catch. It is an act of giving credit to the authors, who may have been directly referenced in your work.

But you would have read too many articles—maybe cursorily. You would have referred to several books while building your case. You may not have had an opportunity to cite them, as they were your background readings. Then, what do you do with them?

So, the bibliography contains all the sources you have referred to while writing the paper. You would have to list all these articles irrespective of whether you have cited them in the paper. The bibliography helps the reader gain information about the literature available on a specific research topic or interest area.

It should ideally inform the reader about the lay of the land. The important books that have influenced your study. The background to the important books that may have influenced your study. All that.

As such, references are authoritative. They convey some important aspects of an argument. They direct their readers to specific readings that have made such cases. But the bibliography does not hold such role. It is more representative.

That is not all. There are different citation stylings that prefer whether you use references (footnotes and endnotes) or bibliography. You should use references if you are writing your article using the APA and MLA citation formats. But, let’s say you are to use Chicago-style citations or Oxford citation styles; in that case, you would have to use a bibliography.

So, irrespective of whether you use references or a bibliography, you would know which citation format you should refer to. Based on the citation handbooks, ideally available online, you should use either references or a bibliography. Despite these differences, there are some similarities.

Both references (if they are endnotes) and bibliographies are listed at the end of your paper, book, article, etc. Sometimes, references and a bibliography list could be in one paper.

Cover Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash


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