Why you should use numbered references in your thesis (if you have a choice)

If your university or department specifies a preferred referencing style, use it. Or if you’re submitting a paper for publication, follow their submission guidelines. But if you have the freedom to choose a referencing style, I would go for numbered references.

Some sentences or paragraphs may have several references associated with them. This can get very cumbersome if you list every author and date. For example;

Since the invention of scanning probe microscopy techniques in the 1980s [Binning, G. & Rohrer, H., 1981, Binnig, G., Quate, C.F. & Gerber, Ch.,1986], there has been a concerted effort to extend their functionality beyond imaging. This includes manipulation of individual atoms on surfaces [Stroscio, J. A. & Eigler, D. M., 1991]…

Almost half the paragraph here is taken up by bibliographic information, and it would be worse if the papers cited had more authors. This breaks up the flow of the text and makes it hard to read, even with ony three references.

Also, if the reader wants to look up all of these articles – listed alphabetically in the bibliography – the first two references will be under “B”, the third under “S”.

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This means extra work hunting around in the bibliography for the right paper, trying to remember the names of the first authors of all the papers listed. This gets even more complicated if you cite many papers by the same authors.

But if we use numbered references…

Since the invention of scanning probe microscopy techniques in the 1980s [1,2], there has been a concerted effort to extend their functionality beyond imaging. This includes manipulation of individual atoms on surfaces [3]…

The text is much easier to read. and the references will be grouped together in the bibliography. It’s much easier to remember “1-3”, than “Binnig & Rohrer 1981, Binnig, Quate & Gerber 1986, Stroscio & Eigler 1991”.

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5 thoughts on “Why you should use numbered references in your thesis (if you have a choice)

  1. I completely second the opinion of using numbered references in papers/thesis, for –

    a) they are in continuous order, make a smooth flow of paper-reading together with finding appropriate references
    b) In case of citing two or three papers of the same first author in the same year e.g. Kaur et al, 2016a, Kaur et al, 2016b etc. will definitely make you look them up anyway.
    c) God damn! numbering references save so much writing space! :))

    In short, that makes life so much easier! Nature journals do a good job adopting numbered style bibliography.

    Happy writing and citing! 😉

  2. I don’t prefer using numbered reference either. My university also recommends the name/year system. The main advantage is that in case something goes wrong with the citation manager or it crashes (which often happens by Murphy’s Law), then it is easier to recover the references. Also easier to manage additions and deletions.

    As a research student reading up journal papers, I prefer the name/year system as it helps me look up the references more easily.

    • Don’t you find it easier to look up references if they are grouped together in the bibliography, rather than alphabetically?

      Of course, stick with the system your university recommends (as I said at the start of the post).

  3. I don’t agree. As a thesis examiner, especially one familiar with the field, I want to know what papers are being cited as I read the text. Especially in the thesis – where referring to a bibliography at the end, is tedious. Also you don’t need to include all the authors. The first author et al. with no initials, is far preferable. I recommend that my students use a style like Cell rather than a numbered style.

    to you use your example:

    Since the invention of scanning probe microscopy techniques in the 1980s [Binning & Rohrer, 1981; Binnig et al,1986], there has been a concerted effort to extend their functionality beyond imaging. This includes manipulation of individual atoms on surfaces [Stroscio & Eigler, 1991]

    • Fair enough. I’m assuming that many references the examiner (or other reader) won’t know, in which case it’s a pain to search through and alphabetical list. Also, Binnig, Rohrer and Eigler have all written a lot of papers so you have to look them up anyway.

      I agree that you don’t need all the authors and that first author, date is preferable, but sometimes the first author will be a relative unknown in the field, while the final author is famous, so you don’t always know where the paper has come from is you only name the first author (so again you need to look it up anyway).

      I just think it’s a pain to look up several references in an alphabetical list, but I guess if you know the majority of them anyway then it isn’t an issue.

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