How to write a Bibliography:

8 Common Mistakes

By Katherine Molnar-Kimber, Ph.D.

Learning how to write a Bibliography avoids these 8 common mistakes in choosing, citing, and formatting the references. Writing a bibliography also includes the accurate summary of the most relevant references in the text, formatting of the citation in the text, and formatting the list of cited references in the requested journal style.

Here are 8 common mistakes made in the bibliography.

1. The authors did not take into account the background and knowledge of the readers of the target journal or document.

Several journals, such as Science, Nature, New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), serve a very diverse audience and each publication begins with a broader overview of the problem. In contrast, readers of many specialty journals such as Cancer Research, J. Immunology, and J. Virology have a fairly complex knowledge of the subject. Authors can delve immediately into the intricacies of the subject.

2. Formatting of the bibliography was not consistent throughout the reference list.

The format of the references in the bibliography must follow the scientific journal’s or publishers’ guidelines. Common formats include numbered citations of references in the text or citations with author and year. Following the detailed instructions is essential.

Software programs such as Endnote and Reference manager can download references from your specified database, such as Pubmed.

After inserting the correct endnote or reference manager tag for the correct scientific article for each citation into the text, you click “update citations and bibliography” and the software changes the format of the references to match the chosen journal style. Obviously, the authors or medical writer need to ensure that the journal style chosen in the software exactly matches the journal’s or publisher’s guidelines. Alternatively, I often edit a common style to exactly match the requested citation and bibliography styles of the target journal.

Can you find the 11 types of differences between the 2 citations in the right column?

3. Many references were more than 10 years old.

Older references are fine if they are the most recently published relevant data on the subject. Most references in published scientific or clinical articles in rapidly evolving fields will be within 2 years, or at least less than five years old.

4. Most references cited in the bibliography were written by the authors’ labs.

Authors did not cite published articles by competing laboratories. Since advancement of scientific knowledge builds on prior publications, citing the correct reference for previously described relevant results, ideas, and hypotheses shows the reviewers that the authors are up to date and understand the minute complexities of the subject at hand.

5. Failure to cite references with different perspectives or inconsistent data.

The introduction can cite inconsistent results between published studies or major differences in outcomes as part of the rationale for the current study. The purpose of the Discussion section is to compare, contrast, and offer possible reasons for the differences between studies. Hopefully this study investigated both modalities to show that the differences in the agents, methods, or subjects (molecules, cells, animals, mice) significantly affected the outcome.

Alternatively, the tested differences may not correlate with previous studies, and the results raise additional questions.

6. Authors who present subgroup analysis of a clinical study failed to cite the original publication describing the main outcomes from the clinical study.

Although it is common to perform subgroup analyses on large clinical studies, it is essential to also cite the initial original article on the primary outcome from the analyses of full patient population.

7. Authors assumed that the abstract included all the essential features and nuances of the cited publications.

The abstract is usually 150 -400 words and thus can not contain all the nuances of the methods and any differences in results between subgroups such as differences in responses in different cell lines, mouse strains, patient populations, reagents, and assay conditions.

Authors need to read the full article before citing it.

8. The cited reference in the bibliography did not support the statement in the text.

If the data provide supporting evidence, but you and the authors of the study differ in the interpretation, then you can easily show the readers by the following sentence. The results were …..xxxxx[1], and suggested yyyy (by the authors of the study)[1]. An alternate interpretation is…zzzz and requires no reference citation if the idea is new.

In summary, learning how to write a bibliography is an essential skill for the final step in your research: publication.

Writing a bibliography actually begins with searching for the correct references to cite in the Introduction, Methods, and Discussion sections. Results sections rarely cite any references.

Authors (or medical writers) need to choose the most relevant references to provide fair balance and support the rationale of the study.

Please note that these errors are just the basic mistakes I've encountered as a peer reviewer.

I routinely use Endnote X4 software to format the citations in the text and the list of references in the bibliography. Their updated library of journal guidelines is listed at

Endnote styles. However, sometimes a journal will change its reference style. Thus, it’s best to compare the reference format in the author guidelines with the endnote style file retrieved from this database as some styles have not been updated recently. Occassionally the endnote style file of a specific journal will need modifications.

A free article in the journal Chest also discusses how to write a bibliography.

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Bibliography Puzzle:

There are at least 11 types of differences between the two formats for the reference list:

Scherer HU, Dorner T, Burmester GR. 2010. "Patient-tailored therapy in rheumatoid arthritis: an editorial review." Curr Opin Rheumatol 22:237-245.

Scherer, H. U., T. Dorner and G. R. Burmester (2010). "Patient-tailored therapy in rheumatoid arthritis: an editorial review." Curr Opin Rheumatol 22(3): 237-45.

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