bibliography v. reference list … just semantics?

So here’s the thing. What’s the difference between a bibliography and a reference list?


I was always taught there was an important difference between a bibliography and a reference list. The reference list is the stuff you actually cite in the paper. The bibliography is all of the books you read, some/a lot of which actually aren’t cited. There are also bibliographies, annotated or not, which are a list of books somebody thinks are the definitive guide to a topic.

I notice that a lot of university guides for students – you know those online how-to-do-academic-work compendia that all undergrads are meant to look at – maintain that distinction. A bibliographic list tells your tutor all the stuff you read, while your references are confined to the things you used. My own university for example says

The term bibliography is the term used for a list of sources (e.g. books, articles, websites) used to write an assignment (e.g. an essay). It usually includes all the sources consulted even if they not directly cited (referred to) in the assignment.

Indeed, as an undergrad history student, many many moons ago, I had to submit both bibliographic and reference lists for assessment purposes. No wonder the difference is cemented into my memory! And as a supervisor I often ask PhDders to send me their bibliographies so I can see what they are reading, and planning to read.

Harvard and APA style guides make the same distinction. A bibliography is the total, the lot, the whole shebang and the reference list the selected, the particular.

However, the definitions that are offered for bibliography and references in dictionaries often conflate the two. References are given as a synonym for a bibliography. A bibliography is defined as the list of actual citations in a text. What’s more, I often see academic writing advice in print and online which also equates the two. Even more important perhaps is the fact that I very often see theses where the reference list is called the bibliography. Does this suggest that supervisors too don’t share views on what the two terms actually mean?

But I realised recently as I blanched at yet another piece of writing advice which referred to a reference list as a bibliography that the question of nomenclature is one of my correctional lexical moments, an instance where I have a kind of visceral red pen compulsion. Right or wrong, convention bound as it probably is, I want to see a reference list called references.

And as something of a justification for that view… a semantic differentiation between the two – the citations versus the total of texts read – does recognise that we usually read a great deal more than we actually cite. Both broad and deep bibliographic reading is essential to get our heads around a field, its debates and its idiosyncrasies. We can’t possibly hope to refer to all of these readings at once – particularly in a word-restricted journal article – but even in the more generous word limits of a thesis.We’ve all generally got much bigger bibliographies than reference lists.  (And, can I just whisper, if we cite everything we have read on a topic it is either a paper which is weighed down with brackets and is just about unreadable, or we just haven’t read enough. )

But perhaps this distinction is just a personal foible. A throwback to wanting correct and absolute writing practice. Or perhaps not. Reference list, bibliography – what’s in a name.


Image: Peta Hopkins, Flickr Commons

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in bibliography, citations, reference list and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to bibliography v. reference list … just semantics?

  1. Sue says:

    Thanks, Pat. Very helpful to have this distinction. Do you know to what extent requirements vary across PhDs/universities? I’ve been told I must include a reference list (though the term used was bibliography). I mustn’t list anything that isn’t cited – but that there’s nearly always a way to shoehorn most of what you’ve read into the text. The influences on my research have been far and wide, often too subtle or indirect to cite; I’d like to be able to represent this and it feels more ethical to do so. Would love to hear other perspectives on the advice I’ve been given.


  2. Susan Barber Skinner says:

    I wholeheartedly support your efforts to observe the distinction between the bibliography and reference list, in word and in deed. I’ve recently observed students working on dissertations ask “how many more articles do I need,” perhaps suggesting they are not actually delving into the literature on their topic but identifying citations. From those students I would very much like a bibliography.


    • lenandlar says:

      Susan, you’d still need to be convinced they actually engaged the bibliography listed? What’s the purpose of the Bibliography then? And would we not forget some of what we read? Would it not sometimes be difficult to draw the line? What do you I include and leave out?


  3. lenandlar says:

    The question for me is how can i validate a list of books/articles etc that students say they read but did not cite? This is a puzzle for me every semester. Students ‘randomly’ list articles and books and there’s hardly any way to tell if they actually engaged them or not. What’s the real utility of the Bibliography then?


  4. Your distinction is, in my view, a correct one and yes, the two terms have become conflated. For thesis work, having references, an acknowledgement of those works to which individuals have referred, or from which they have quoted is critical. But beyond that, materials or sources which may be informative can be listed as an aggregate of potentially useful things to which the intrepid researcher can refer. There remains, in my view, considerable merit in teaching the distinction between the two terms because it teaches students to filter the general and the specific. But most importantly, as your musings hinted, Pat, signposting specific references allows parentheses (brackets) for citations to come into an annoying realm of their own. My preference apropos those little critters, is that they should appear at the end of a sentence and not a word or three into the beginning of a sentence.


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