I kind of struggle with my students. I always told them to put the reference number (identification) close to the cited object - to make really clear what is the cited object. For example:

  • The theorem:

    Theorem A [1] is great ...

  • The study:

    In the study [1] it is possible to see that ...

  • The statement:

    It was proven that usage of ... leads to problems [1].

However, my students keep doing something like this:

  • Citation is related to the previous sentence! (probably):

    ... and it was proven. [1] The general idea ...

  • As above, but with extra period:

    ... and it was proven. [1]. The general idea ...

  • After the entire paragraph:

    ... and it was proven. [1]

They are arguing that this referencing is correct according to the ISO norm/suggestions. They keep doing that even though I told them to not do so. And they generally try to comply with my guidelines. This is a real exception. It seems this referencing idea is deeply rooted in their brains.

My questions:

  • Is their way of referencing legal? If yes, where are informations how to read this fuzzy notation? And why it does not appear in top journals?
  • How to tell them that this referencing is really unclear in a way that they will understand.

Note: The students I am struggling with are from all continents/countries, pursuing a university degree in electrical/software/mechanical engineering. I would say they are mostly 22±2 years old.

  • Is their way of referencing legal? — I'm not aware of any laws, in any country, regarding the formatting and placement of references.
    – JeffE
    Jun 22, 2019 at 7:35

3 Answers 3


Ultimately whether a style is acceptable is up to you, or possibly your school. If your school has a defined style to use, then you should enforce it. If not, then it's your call. My personal view is that some teachers and lecturers put far too much importance on the minutiae of referencing styles, and so long as what the student does is understandable and consistent, then it's fine.

If you have specified that your students should follow a particular documented style and they don't, then refer them to the style guide. If you haven't specified this, but you think that what they're doing is poor, then you need to explain why it's poor - and if you feel strongly enough, warn them that you'll deduct marks for this on future work. You might like to have a conversation with one or two of them to find out where (and whether) they have been taught this approach.


The universities with which I am familiar decide at the faculty/school/department level which referencing style will be used in courses that they teach/manage. This means that:

  1. a standard referencing format is set across all courses and classes within that area
  2. students do not have to struggle with different formats within the same subject
  3. referencing guides with comprehensive examples are readily available for the stipulated referencing format
  4. there is no need to argue/justify/negotiate with variations

If this is not the case, choose a popular referencing format (Vancouver style uses numbered citations) and apply that. Give the students a link to a Vancouver style guide such as this, as well as handing out a printed copy at the beginning of the semester.

When/if they then argue that their referencing is correct it can be compared to the established style guide.

To be truly effective (in changing habits) the referencing needs to be included in the assessment rubric.


Your students have to get that idea from somewhere. For perfectly understandable reasons "fresh" students typically have no idea at all on how to cite, so they probably learned it from one of your colleagues. It is a good idea to make sure that in your department you have a uniform way of citing. That seems to be the problem in your department. I would try to find the person that initially teaches the students how to cite, and discuss it with her or him. Try to find out what style (s)he teaches, maybe that part was misunderstood by the students, maybe (s)he thinks her style is better than yours. But than you know, and depending on your local situation you can decide on how to proceed. For example, in my department there is an annual retreat focusing on what we teach, and this would be a great (and probably fairly short) topic that retreat.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .