Key Differences between APA and Harvard Referencing: A Crash Course for a Confused Student

Referencing the ideas of other authors is an integral part of any academic work from Undergraduate essays to PhD thesis writing. To avoid plagiarism, you must always inform your reader about the sources of data you are citing in your draft. The basic rule of thumb here is to provide references for every borrowed idea even if you paraphrase the original quote.

You really cannot go ‘over the top’ with this activity since anti-plagiarism systems in modern universities are getting stricter and stricter every year to prevent academic misconduct and the use of text generation engines. Besides basic compliance, your capability to reference the works of your predecessors reflects your respect and professionalism. Since your work has to identify and address existing gaps in modern knowledge, you must first identify them and explain why you consider your area of research novel and relevant. 

With that being said, many students fail to recognise the significance of proper referencing. This activity is frequently left for the final night before the submission of data as something with the lowest degree of relevance. However, this mistake frequently separates students getting an Upper First-Class degree from a Second-Class one. Proper referencing usually contributes between 5% and 10% to your final grade. Hence, ignoring this aspect can adversely affect your results to the same degree as poor argument development or failing to cover all topics mentioned in your assignment instructions. This guide will help you avoid this outcome and ensure that you will not lose valuable grading points due to referencing issues. It covers the two most popular systems, namely APA referencing and Harvard referencing, and offers a practical introduction to their main elements and key differences. If you follow this guide, you will achieve impeccable referencing quality in no time with minimal effort.


student using APA and harvard referencing in academic writing

Key APA Referencing Characteristics

APA or American Psychological Association referencing is usually used in such subjects as social work, psychology, sociology, anthropology, nursing research, and other behavioural and social sciences. It was introduced in the 1920s and has established itself as one of the most widespread formats for organising quotations from other authors. 

For APA-style in-text references, you need to provide: 

  • Author surname.
  • Publication date.
  • Page number (optional).

E.g. “(Miller, 2018)” or “Miller, 2018, 17).

For references in parentheses, you should include the ampersand sign (&) when citing two authors of a certain work. For three or more authors, you need to use ‘et al.’ citing only the first author for in-text references. E.g. “(Simmons et al., 2017) instead of “(Simmons, Covey, & Parker, 2017)”. 

For APA-style reference lists, you need to provide:

  • Author(s) surname(s) and initials (all authors without et al.).
  • Publication date in parentheses with a full stop after the closing bracket.
  • Publication name in APA 7th format with doi for journal articles and books.


Covey, S. (2013). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Achieng, M., & Malatji, M. (2022). Digital transformation of small and medium enterprises in sub-Saharan Africa: A scoping review. Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa, 18(1), 1-13. 

  • Publication name in APA 7th format for electronic sources:

Marr, B. (2023, February 17). The Top 5 Education Trends in 2023. Forbes. 

Keep in mind that the ampersand sign (&), e.g. (Holt, Snyder, & Hyatt) is followed by a comma when you cite two or more authors. 

Key Harvard Referencing Characteristics

The Harvard referencing system was originally popularised by Harvard University and is widely applied in all areas of science. Similar to APA, it is an author-date system utilising in-text references as well as reference lists or bibliographies provided at the end of the document. 

For in-text references, you need to provide:

  • Author surname.
  • Publication date.
  • Page number with “p.” (optional).


“(Achieng and Malatji, 2022)” or “(Achieng and Malatji, 2022, p.5).

You can use ‘et al.’ for citing four or more authors, e.g. 

“(Simmons et al., 2017) instead of “(Simmons, Jones, Covey and Parker, 2017)”.

For Harvard-style reference lists, you need to provide: 

  • Author surname and initials (for any number of authors).
  • Publication date.
  • Publication name in Harvard format.


Achieng, M. and Malatji, M. (2022) “Digital transformation of small and medium enterprises in sub-Saharan Africa: A scoping review”, Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa, 18 (1), pp. 1-13. 

  • Publication name in Harvard format for electronic sources:

Marr, B. (2023) “The Top 5 Education Trends in 2023”, [online] Available at: [Accessed on 22 January 2024].


Key Differences between APA and Harvard referencing

If you take a quick look at both systems, you will instantly recognise the following key differences. 

APA Harvard
Uses ‘&’ preceded by commas for separating author names. Uses ‘and’ with no commas for separating author names.
Uses full stops after dates in reference lists. No full stops after parentheses in reference lists.
Includes publication dates for electronic sources. Only provides access dates for electronic sources.
Italicises the journal name and journal volume. Italicises journal name only.
Does not use ‘p’ or ‘pp.’ for quoting certain pages in-text or in reference lists. Uses ‘p.’ for in-text references and ‘pp. ’ for reference lists.
Uses et al. for three or more authors. Uses et al. for four or more authors.
In-text author information is referenced differently depending on the parenthesis, e.g.

(Jones & Smith, 2015) vs Jones and Smith (2015).

Similar in-text author information for different uses of parentheses.
Explicit publication reference information including DOI and ISBN identifiers. Only journal and book publisher name and location information.
Mostly used in behavioural research and social sciences. Used in all spheres of modern science.
Used in the majority of US universities. Used in the majority of UK universities.


As you can see, they mostly refer to the format of references such as the use of italics, commas, full stops, and the ampersand sign. The main difference is related to the provision of web article publication dates and DOI/ISBN identifiers in APA.

Why Are These Referencing Style Differences Important?

One of the main problems with APA/Harvard referencing is the fact that students frequently ignore the minor differences quoted above while proofreading their drafts. Small details such as putting a full stop after parentheses in APA dates or using commas are difficult to keep in mind if you do not pay sufficient attention. This is difficult if you leave your referencing write-up to the last several hours preceding the submission. As a professional academic writing service, we frequently hear stories about students failing to receive the marks they want due to the inability to check the integrity of these elements. 

Many mistakes also stem from a haphazard approach to referencing during the writing phase. As you get inspired or find some interesting article, you tend to focus on the ‘important things’ such as the development of your central line of argument. Some students even copy items from article reference lists and paste them directly into their bibliographies without considering their referencing formats. When you have to write up your draft, small discrepancies can easily slip your attention and make their way into the final submission. According to our experience, such issues frequently include: 

  • &/and discrepancies in both in-text references and reference lists.
  • full stop discrepancies in reference lists.
  • lack of DOI information for some journal articles in APA works.
  • wrong use of italics. 
  • incorrect format of publication/access dates.

The main problem with such issues is the fact that they instantly catch the eye of the examiners. They may not see some problems with argumentation but they will instantly see the use of ampersand signs in Harvard referencing or the absence of DOI hyperlinks in APA reference lists. If they are not willing to turn a blind eye to such mistakes, you will lose the aforementioned 5-10% of your grade right away.

The solution to the Referencing Confusion

In some cases, you may not be 100% certain what format you should use. Additionally, many students copy and paste some references and edit them right before the submission. Here are some ideas on how you can reduce the complexity of your referencing work and get a high grade with both systems.

1. Find the Guide

Most universities provide their own APA/Harvard guides with examples. Whenever possible, we always advise to request and use them instead of the ones found online. Some institutions have their unique versions of these popular formats, which should be taken into account to get the best grade possible.

15 writers also have a referencing guide to help you if you are stuck.

2. Make Your Own Reference

As soon as you discover the correct way to reference your work, make a brief self-reference note that you can put right on your desk to instantly check your reference format. For both styles, we would advise you to create examples for books, journal articles, and electronic sources as the most popular items. They should include both in-text and reference list formatting for one and several authors to identify how the ‘et al.’ abbreviation should be used.

3. Edit as You Go

Don't leave your proofreading until the last day. If possible, allocate a revision of your reference list and in-text references for every third or fourth day of work. This way, your sources will be managed on a regular basis and will not require substantial attention afterwards. Multiple revisions also increase the chances of finding minor discrepancies and fixing them prior to your final submission.

4. Develop Your Own Revision Procedure

The easiest way to recognise problems with full stops after parentheses in APA is simply to... use ‘Ctrl+F’ to search through your document and type in ‘).’ as your search query. This will instantly highlight all correct entries and allow you to see the ones missing the point (pun intended). Develop the same procedure for your own recurrent mistakes and you are good to go.

5. Write Down Extra Information

Many students ignore the need to record DOI/ISBN identifiers and other ‘less relevant’ information. This decision gets back at them when they have to frantically search for this data several hours before their submission deadline. Always record such information right away even if you delay your reference list editing until the last day.

Additional Points to Consider When Referencing Academically

Whether your assignment format is Harvard or APA, you should also pay attention to a number of additional factors that may affect your referencing.

1. Page Numbers

Failing to record proper page numbers in both formats is a widespread mistake students make. If you are not certain whether you should or should not use them, consult your university as soon as possible. Keep in mind that direct quotations must always include page numbers even if your assignment requirements do not require page numbers for paraphrased ideas.

2. et al. and Other Abbreviations

Some universities have their unique variants of the two discussed systems. According to them, you may have to write all authors when making in-text references instead of using ‘et al.’ for citations with three or more authors. Make sure to double-check these requirements.

3. Parentheses and Dates

The same relates to the use of parentheses for dates. If your university may have some custom referencing system, you may have to alter these elements. Also, make sure that you follow the proper date format since some guides may request the use of year, month, and day while others may only request the provision of the publication year.

4. DOI and ISBN

For APA referencing, you may need to provide DOI or ISBN identifiers for journal articles and books you cite. Always try to record this information when adding new entries to your bibliography. 

5. Reference Integrity

Finally, the mistake made by many students includes the failure to check whether your in-text references and your reference list fully match. In the heat of the moment, people tend to insert author names into their drafts while failing to also put them into their bibliographies. Always check this integrity by using ‘Ctrl+F’ to search every reference entry in both directions.