Getting referencing right: applying the 4 Cs

For a variety of reasons, I have been reflecting on principles that undergird good citation practice. So far I’ve come up with “the 4 Cs guide” (I say I’ve come up with them, as I’ve not done any reading on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this or something similar has co-evolved elsewhere).

When advising students or colleagues on appropriate organisation of their references at the end of a document, I encourage them to check that they’ve followed the 4 Cs guide:

Correct: Have they cited the correct sources? This might mean drilling back to the first occurrence of an observation (e.g. in the primary literature) rather than a review article. Clearly we don’t want to be encouraging people to cite the original paper if they’ve not read it, but you sometime see statements such as “Smith and Bloggs have shown…” when actually Smith and Bloggs wrote the review in which they discussed the experimental work of Ramone and Farnes-Barnes who made the observation described.

Complete: Is the citation complete? One of the main points of citation is to allow your reader to go back and check the source. The writer therefore need to ensure that they have included adequate detail in their paper-trail to allow the original material to be located. A classic example here would be failure to include the volume and page numbers for a paper, just naming the journal.

Consistent: Are the citations internally consistent? Several things can spoil a reference list – these include:

  • sometimes listing alphabetically by first name in a list that is otherwise alphabetical by surname
  • full given names v initials
  • including volume and edition numbers v just volume
  • font issues – e.g. sometime having the journal name in italics, sometimes not
  • for websites, formatting of the date on which the site was last accessed
  • journal names that are sometimes given in full, but sometimes abbreviated
  • some names (authors and/or journals) in capitals when equivalent information in another citation is not.

When writers are using tool such as Endnote or Refworks, problems in consistency often stem from sloppy or inconsistent data entry at the time the source was entered into the database. Care at this stage can save hours at a later point in proceedings.

Compliant: Finally, do the references confirm to any specified scheme?  I think the first three points (Correct, Complete and Consistent) are the most important in terms of the value of the list to a reader and the overall presentation quality. In terms of student work, I’d be happy if those three criteria had been achieved. Of course it may be that there is a prescribed (e.g. journal-specific) format for the minutiae of citations. This can relate to things as apparently mundane as:

  • whether or not there is a comma between the author’s surname and their initials
  • whether there is a full stop at the end of each citation
  • whether all authors are named (even if there are dozens of them)

Speaking as a former editor it is helpful if authors comply with these requirement at the time of submission rather than later on – however silly the local rules might seem.

Hopefully these quick notes will be of assistance. Part of me would like to expand the list to seven Cs, purely for the facilitation of puns. Is there anything I’ve missed that might move us towards this landmark?


  1. For students, stop at 3 Cs – that’s all we need. Undergrads are already paranoid about formatting; let’s get them focussed on content.

    • I agree content ought to be the key thing. However it is an important life-skill to follow the prescribed instructions when they exist.

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