the e-Assessment Association

Referencing styles: an obstacle to clear referencing? By John Norris, Chartered Insurance Institute

Referencing styles: an obstacle to clear referencing? By John Norris, Chartered Insurance Institute

John Norris is the Assessment Standards coordinator at The Chartered Insurance Institute. 

The Chartered Insurance Institute is a qualification provider dedicated to building public trust in the insurance and financial planning profession. I work to prevent plagiarism by supporting our learners, and by checking that assignments do not contain content which is not their own original work.

I recently hosted a webinar on how to avoid plagiarism (taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own) by using clear referencing - available to view here and below.


One of the key themes was that referencing is a vital tool to avoid plagiarism, but not something we award marks for in of itself. This can be very different for universities, especially at PhD level - with students aspiring to publication in journals and studies, where referencing follows a set of conventions.

But for non-PhD learners, the particularities of, say, the Harvard referencing system can be more a distraction to good referencing practice than a useful tool. We want referencing to be an intuitive process for the learner – not something that they need to look up how to do every time they want to reference sourced material. Referencing should be as intuitive as punctuation or grammar, it should not interrupt the writing process.

Is referencing, in of itself, something we should be assessing? As a professional body, The Chartered Insurance Institute is concerned with assessing industry professionals through qualifications which may specifically be needed to be authorised to practice within the financial services industry.  We are not assessing a learner’s ability to reference – as long as it is clear to the marker which content is not the learners own, and where that content has been sourced from, then we are happy that referencing requirements have been met.

My personal belief is that referencing is simply the method of making it clear to the reader which content is sourced, and where that content comes from; and that a requirement for adherence to particular styles of referencing is an unnecessary distraction to learners, and potentially a detriment to good referencing practice in assignments. I would advocate a simplified approach of just signifying which content is not your own (put quotation marks around it, or format in italics) and state where that content is sourced from (a short citation in parentheses).

Look at Harvard referencing as an example, this style requires author name; or names, date of publication, title (in italics), edition, place of publication, publisher – all in a very specific order, and separated by particular punctuation marks. And this may all vary if citing physical books to eBooks to journals to websites. This is complex to the point of being convoluted.

John Norris Blog

If a learner gets to the stage where they are writing for a peer-reviewed journal, or suchlike, then have a dedicated course at this point to help them learn the required referencing technique. But for the majority of learners, strict adherence to a particular referencing system is often unnecessary; and even counter-productive.

As assessors, we should be mindful of just what we are assessing – of what the key learning outcomes are: what we want our learners to be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of a the end of the qualification. Unintuitive referencing systems are an obstacle to clear referencing, and may lead to unintentional plagiarism from learners.

As open-book assessment becomes more commonplace as we move increasingly towards e-assessment, the need for referencing is more important than ever – so it is vital that referencing be an intuitive process that every learner is comfortable with. As such, it should be considered if a move towards simplified referencing and away from overly complex styles could be more appropriate for learners.