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Why Referencing? Referencing Styles in Medical Writing:

Medical & Scientific Writing

Why Referencing? Referencing Styles in Medical Writing:

Referencing is an essential part of any scientific document. A referencing style is a specific format for presenting your in-text references (footnotes or endnotes), and bibliography. There are many different referencing styles.

Use of referencing:

When a writer puts together a written report or when a speaker delivers a lecture, they are essentially presenting consolidated data and information obtained from a number of sources such as results from clinical trials, surveys etc. All these sources (articles published in scientific journals, statistics reported on healthcare websites etc) which are used by the writer or speaker are presented towards the end of the document or the bottom of each presentation slide.

So, to put it in simple words, referencing is nothing but acknowledging the original sources in your document. It is done for various reasons:

  • As respect to the original author or researcher
  • Avoiding claims of plagiarism
  • Directing readers to the original source should they seek more information
  • Adding credibility to the information contained in your document

Referencing styles:

Hundreds of referencing styles exist and they vary from one organisation to the other. Most editorial departments have in-house referencing style guides or manuals for writers to follow. Should a manual not be available, referencing guidelines from any internationally reputed scientific journal such as the JAMA (Journal of American Medical Association) may be used. Carefully read the referencing style requirements as companies and publishers are very particular about them.

The two most common ways by which references throughout a document are identified are:
1. Using superscripted numbers such as – 1 or 2 etc
2. Enclosing numbers in brackets, such as – (1) or (2) etc

Once all references are identified within the text of the document using any one of the above mentioned ways, a reference list is presented in a numerical order at the end of the document. Each number corresponds to the respective superscripted or bracketed numbers in the document.

How to reference sources from scientific journals?

Any text published in scientific journals being used as source can be identified by some common basic elements. These are: the author’s name, the name of the journal, year published, volume no.,issue no., and the specific page number of the journal.

Following is an example of how referencing can be done and all the above elements included:

Paracetamol is approved for reducing fever in people of all ages1. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that paracetamol only be used to treat fever in children if their temperature is greater than 38.5 °C (101.3 °F)2. The efficacy of paracetamol by itself in children with fevers has been questioned3 and a meta-analysis showed it to be less effective than ibuprofen4.


1. “Acetaminophen”. The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. Retrieved 3 April 2011.
2. “Baby paracetamol asthma concern”. BBC News. September 19, 2008. Retrieved September 19, 2008.
3. Meremikwu M, Oyo-Ita A (2002). Meremikwu, Martin M. ed. “Paracetamol for treating fever in children”. Cochrane Database Syst Rev (2): CD003676. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD003676. PMID 12076499.
4. Perrott DA, Piira T, Goodenough B, Champion GD (June 2004). “Efficacy and safety of acetaminophen vs ibuprofen for treating children’s pain or fever: a meta-analysis”. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 158 (6): 521–6. doi:10.1001/archpedi.158.6.521. PMID 15184213.

Note the following regarding referencing:

  • The journal names are set to italic font. They can also be written in an abbreviated format if space is a constraint.
  • For a paper authored by multiple people, ‘et al’ can be used to represent ‘and others’. Different journals/publishers have their own ways of doing this e.g. papers in JAMA, for example, list all authors if  not more than six. If more than six, their style is to name three and add ‘et al’ after the last name.
  • Should space not be a problem, it is advised to write the title of the article, as in the above references.
  • The issue number (i.e. number in bracket) may or may not be used.

Irrespective of the style of referencing that you choose to use, it is important that you maintain consistency by using only one style throughout the manuscript.

Following are some commonly used referencing styles, which you as a medical writer must be aware of:

Journals are not the only source of information or data used for scientific research. Other sources include books, online journals, CD-ROMs, electronic books etc. Any such non-journal sources if used in a manuscript also require referencing. Again various styles are in use for referencing them. You may refer to this webpage, AMA Style Guide, if you need more information on how to reference non-journal sources.

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