References vs Bibliography vs “Works Cited”

What’s The Difference?

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Reviewers: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | June 2024

When writing a dissertation or thesis, you’ll often hear the terms reference list, bibliography – and sometimes even “works cited” – used interchangeably. While all three of these are similar, they are not the same thing. In this post, we’ll explain the differences (and similarities) using straightforward language and practical examples.

The Commonalities

All three of these concepts – reference list, bibliography and works cited – relate to and describe the resources that you drew on for any given piece of writing, be it a lengthy dissertation or a comparatively short research paper.

In practical terms, these components usually feature toward the end of the document and provide a consistently formatted list of the relevant resources (e.g., journal articles, conference proceedings, etc.). However, the exact contents covered here will vary depending on whether you’re presenting a reference list, bibliography or a list of works cited. So, let’s look at each of these.

What is a reference list?

A reference list details the key information regarding the sources you have cited (paraphrased) or quoted verbatim in your paper, using in-text citations. In other words, a reference list provides a precise snapshot of the works you actively engaged with and each entry in your reference list corresponds to a specific in-text citation. For example, if you have an in-text citation of Smith’s 2020 study on research methodologies in your literature review, “Smith (2020)” will appear in your reference list.

In practical terms, the reference list allows anyone reading your work to locate the source you referred to, fostering transparency and academic integrity. Moreover, the “one-to-one” relationship between the in-text citations and the reference list means that readers can easily fact-check any claim you make within your document. The easiest way to build a reference list is to use a reference management tool such as Mendeley or Zotero.

What is a bibliography?

While a reference list only lists the resources you’ve cited or quoted (using in-text citations), a bibliography is a bit more comprehensive. Specifically, it includes not only the source data of your in-text citations, but also any other sources you consulted during your research. This could, for example, consist of background reading, influential works, or other sources that informed your understanding, even if you didn’t cite them.

Sticking with our previous example, if you read Jones’s 2019 book on research methods, but didn’t include it as an in-text citation, Jones (2019) would still appear in your bibliography. In a nutshell, your bibliography showcases the full spectrum of materials that shaped your thinking, offering readers insight into the depth and breadth of your reading and preparation.

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What is a “Works Cited” page?

Last but not least, we’ve got the list of works cited. While this might sound like a mysterious third option, it’s simply a reference list specific to documents that utilise the Modern Language Association (MLA) format. MLA is commonly used in the humanities, particularly in literature, arts, and related disciplines.

As with a standard reference list, the “Works Cited” section lists all the sources which you included as in-text citations, similar to a reference list in APA (American Psychological Association) format. However, there is a very specific formatting requirement for how (and what) information is presented. If you’d like to learn more about MLA formatting, we cover that here.

PS – a small but important caveat. While we’ve drawn clear distinctions between a reference list, bibliography and list of works cited here, it’s worth noting that terminology can vary between institutions and software packages. So, if you’re unsure, be sure to check with your institution and follow their instructions, even if they adopt different terminology.

Key Takeaways

To recap the key points:

  1. A reference list details the resources that you included as in-text citations in your document
  2. A bibliography details all the resources that you consulted while developing your work
  3. A list of works cited is simply the MLA equivalent of a reference list

If you’re working on a dissertation or thesis, be sure to check out our collection of free templates and resources. Alternatively, if you’d like hands-on help with your research project, our flagship Private Coaching Service is for you.

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