Writing a research paper (5) – the bibliography

This is the fifth blog post about writing research papers. Today, I will discuss how to select references and write the bibliography of a research paper. I will also explain some common errors and give additional tips.

writing paper references

Why the bibliography is important?

Every research paper must have a bibliography. The purpose of the bibliography is to let the reader know about the sources of information (e.g. research papers, books, webpages) that have been used to write the paper.  More specifically, the bibliography is used to give credit to some ideas that are reused or adapted in the current paper and to cite relevant related papers.

A good bibliography will give a good overview of related work and will give credit to other papers when credit is due. A bad bibliography may contain errors and may omit some important references. Moreover, the references may be cited in an inappropriate way. It is important to prepare well the bibliography of a research paper to increases its chances of getting accepted.

Some common problems

Here are a few common problems found in bibliographies:

  • References contain incorrect information.  For example,  a paper may be cited with the wrong page numbers, or incorrect information about the publisher. To avoid this problem, it is important to double-check all the information to ensure that it is correct. Many researchers will use some website such as Google Scholar to generate bibliographical entries in the appropriate format. Although this can save some time, the generated references often contain errors either in terms of information or format because they are machine-generated.
  •  References are not formatted properly. Generally, a publisher will require that references are formatted in a specific format, or sorted in a specific order (e.g. alphabetical order). It is important to get familiar with and follow these rules. I have seen some journals that have rejected papers just because the references were not in the correct format, and asked to submit them again. Besides, the format must be consistent for all bibliographical entries.
  • References are too old. A bibliography should be up-to-date. If a paper does not cite any papers from the last few years, it generally means that authors are unaware of recent papers. I often see this problem when some authors publish papers a few years after writing their Ph.D. thesis. Often, they will not update the bibliography. Some reviewers think that an out-of-date bibliography is a good enough reason to reject a paper.
  • References are not cited in the text.  All references from a bibliography must be cited in the text.
  • References to Wikipedia or similar websites.  One should avoid citing Wikipedia in a scientific paper.
  • Low quality references.  When possible, it is recommended to not cite papers having a weak research content, or published in journals that do not have a good reputation such as predatory journals (unless there is a good reason to do so). One should prefer citing papers that have good research content or are published in good journals and conferences.
  • Not citing papers in a correct way in the text. There are some researchers that will cite a paper and then copy and paste some text from that paper.  If it is not explicitly mentioned that the text is copied from the original paper using quotation marks and with a citation, then this is plagiarism. This is a very serious issue. There also exists other types of plagiarism such as copying an idea but rewriting it differently without citing the paper. One should avoid doing this.
  • Too many self-citations. It is OK for one to cite his own papers. However, there should not be too many of those self-citations, except when there is a good reason. For example, I have reviewed some papers containing about 30 references but where more than 15 were by the authors. This is way too many self-citations.  It can lead to directly rejecting the paper. A rule of thumb is that not more than about 10 % of the references should be self-citations.
  • Irrelevant references. This is another problem often related to the previous one.  In some cases, an author will cite many of his own papers to increase his citation count, although these papers are not relevant to the current paper. In general, one should only cite relevant papers.

Tips for preparing a bibliography

Some tips:

  • There exists many websites and software that can help to prepare a bibliography.  However, one should be careful when using tools that automatically generate a bibliography, as it may produce errors.
  • When starting a new research project, it is a good habit to keep track of all the papers that one reads and take notes about them. This will facilitate writing about related work and preparing the bibliography.
  • Before submitting a paper, always double-check the requirements of the publisher in terms of format and make sure that the paper is following them.


I have discussed how to write the bibliography of a research paper, common problems and given a few tips. Hope this will be useful. If you think I have missed something, please share it in the comment section.

Philippe Fournier-Viger is a professor of Computer Science and also the founder of the open-source data mining software SPMF, offering more than 145 data mining algorithms.

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