How Many Sources Should A 2000 Word Essay Have

Essay referencing can be a headache at university. How many references do you need? When should you use a reference? Should you use references even when you haven't used a direct quotation? How many references are too many? By knowing how to reference properly, you can reduce the stress involved in your essay writing.

To help make essay referencing easier, we've tackled a few of those niggling questions that should make the process a little smoother.

Why does referencing matter?

Including references in your essay is your way to show your markers that you've truly engaged with your subject matter. It is also important as it proves that you've read the key sources which relate to your topic. They additionally show that you've thought carefully about how each source relates to the subject you're writing about. The more helpful references you include, the more well-informed you appear to be about your topic. It’s not always about quantity, either. Quality sources which really inform your essay are really worth including.

Including a bibliography is good academic practice. If you go on to study further, write more about your subject or publish your work, giving kudos to the writers whose work you took information and inspiration from is essential. A bibliography also provides a helpful resource you can go back to and use for future work.

How many references is too many references?

Of course, it is possible to use too many references. If you are using references just to show off all the books you've read, this will be obvious and will not impress your markers. You need to choose the sources which really contribute to your essay; supporting your argument, contesting it or prompting interesting, relevant questions.

Remember, markers also want to see evidence of your own, original thinking. Using too many references does not leave much room for your personal standpoint to shine through. As a general rule, you should aim to use one to three, to support each key point you make. This of course depends on subject matter and the point you are discussing, but acts as a good general guide.
It can be useful to have a best practice breakdown of your essay to help you work out how many references to use. Here's a rough guide to help you get the balance right for any piece of academic work:


  • Your introduction should make up approximately 10% of your essay. You may want to use one or two references to define your topic in this section, depending on your word count.


  • The main body of your essay (which will include the key points in your argument) should make up approximately 75% of your essay. For example: In a 2000 word essay, you will have 1500 words to use. Each main point you make should typically use 1-3 paragraphs, which should average around 200-400 words in total. This will give you room for around 5 key points, each supported by 2 or 3 references. Try and use direct or primary references where possible. Sometimes you’ll need to use in-text references, too.


  • Your conclusion should account for around 15% of your essay. You may wish to use 1-3 references to lend authority to your concluding statements. Of course, it is really hard to suggest exactly how many references your essay should include. This depends totally on the subject matter and word count. A Philosophy essay, for example, may have a lot of critical thinking and be quite theory-heavy, and for this reason you may need more references than a typical English Literature Essay. This is just an example – you’ll need to consider your own subject matter and topic.

When to use references

References aren't just used to give credit for quotations. They can be used to indicate that an idea, concept, fact or theory has come directly from a particular reference. Other instances when references must be used include:

  • Quotes
  • Diagrams
  • Illustrations
  • Charts
  • Pictures

And if you've used any information or ideas from:

  • Websites
  • Books
  • Magazines
  • Essays
  • Newspapers
  • Interviews
  • Television
  • Radio
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Computer programmes
  • Any external source

Stuck with referencing your essay?

At Oxbridge Essays we've written thousands of academically referenced essays. We can work with your course's exact reading materials, or undertake our own research to help you create a perfectly referenced essay with the right amount of references, formatted using your university's chosen system.

Get in touch today to find out how we can help you

How many references

posted about 12 years ago
I'm currently writing up my undergrad dissertation so feel free to ignore this as it's not strictly PhD related. But was wondering if there is a minimum/maximum for number of references you should have. At the moment I have 35 and about 4,500 words, my word count at the end can't be more than 6,000. Is there a point when I should stop or does it not really matter. (It's a science diss btw)
edited about 16 seconds later
posted about 12 years ago
Asking how many references to use is like asking how long a piece of string is. The number of references depend on several things-
1. The popularity of your area (if there are tons of papers in this area, then you will inevitably find more references)
2. How in depth you are going (as its an undergrad dissertation with a 6000 word limit, you will not be going as in depth as if you were writting a PhD literature review, or a critical review paper)
3. Its not the reference list that earns you marks, its the quality of your work, so don't just add references to make the list get longer.
posted about 12 years ago
I also agree with Stu. But on the other hand, I can understand your concern. I recommend reading a few dissertations from past years to see how they used references. You should be able to have access to the selected ones at your Institution's Library. It is also important to refer to journals related to your subject; not only books. Good luck with your work.
posted about 12 years ago
My undergrad dissertation of 20,000 words contained 76 references. Most of these were very relevant but others were simply acknowledgements that several authors had come to same conclusion on some issue.

I tend to find review articles a good benchmark as to the amount of knowledge/literature there is in an area (obviously depending on how closely the review article matches your topic). Hence, if they find only a few references you can safely assume that you're not going to do much better than them.

The best advice I can give is that relevance is they key here rather than the trophy-hunting!
edited about 8 seconds later
posted about 12 years ago
I always tried to put my OWN ideas in. Tended to get a good reception as opposed to the students that went for endless pages of references.
posted about 12 years ago
I personally found there tended to be very little development of students own ideas in written work, with rather a complete reliance on regurgitating someone else's ideas. In my experience students can be quite scared of putting their own ideas down if someone else hasn't said it first. I am obviously proposing this as an alternative academic lifestyle as opposed to the usual student methods [e.g. More is better re references]. Thought that was obvious.
posted about 12 years ago
That helps a lot! Thanks. Most of my references are from my intro where I'm setting up the idea etc, and a few from the disscussion where I'm criticising other papers that did the sameish expereiment but came to different conclusions. Another quick question, is it bad to have references that are quite old? I have the obvious historic ones from 1960s but also a lot are from 1990's. I do have recent ones as well, just not the majority
edited about 18 seconds later
posted about 12 years ago
Not necessarily bad to have old references, but you must check that the research has not been superseded in the meantime. This is where review papers give some steer.

Alternatively, why not stick the said article's title and author into Google Scholar and see who has more recently cited that article and what they were talking about.
edited about 12 seconds later
posted about 12 years ago
Katq, in my field, I need to refer back to the first works in the area, and so some references are old (1950's) but this is the 'story telling' of research, using principles and theory that have been around for ages, whereas 95% of the references are from the last few years. You shouldn't base your research entirely on old references (i.e. your reference list shouldn't be predominantly pre 2000).

Golfpro, you are still missing the point. If you are going to put your own ideas about, you need to substantiate them with references (which argue your point) and if possible actual experimental data.

Katq, your introduction should really be an intro to the work, and a review of the current literature, so nearly all the references will be here. So you don't need to worry about that.
edited about 15 seconds later
posted about 12 years ago
No I got the point Stu. I am just very against disserations-by-numbers. Agree with you re experimental data btw.
edited about 15 seconds later
posted about 12 years ago
Well, I'd pretty much never reference a review, only ever original papers. I know what you mean about undergrads taking all their ideas from references because if you find a well written review it's very difficult not to take the ideas on as your own if you don't know much else(which is kind of the purpose of a good review surely?). But if you are only referencing original papers you need to have drawn your own conclusions/ideas from them anyway.
posted about 12 years ago
I'm not saying you quote the review (unless that review makes conclusions itself). Of more interest are the papers that they read and making sure you read them for yourself. The review is merely an opening into the topic and the state of current knowledge.

I focus my effort on those reviewed papers which have direct relevance to my dissertation.

I'm not boasting about the 76 papers I read over 15 months, but what did appreciate was that reviews frequently quote articles wrongly, or miss the point of the paper, or selectively use those parts which support their own point of view and disregard those whioch don't.

It's also common for a review to be less than comprehensive. I was amazed that a recent review in my field completely ignored a very emminent piece of research that was very relevant. Why? Because that article was written by a competing research group (who themselves were ignoring the first research group's research).

Who said academics were thorough?
edited about 19 seconds later
posted about 12 years ago
onwards&upwards yes your wrong. MSc with dist [2005].

edited about 30 seconds later
posted about 12 years ago
We all shouting about our qualifications now? I can swim 10m unaided
posted about 12 years ago
No sorry if I came across as a little abrassive there O&U. You make a very valid important point. Notwithstanding that it's nice weather for swimming isn't it. Wouldn't it be super in this weather to go to one of those huge open air pools they have in London?
Click here to post a reply

0 thoughts on “How Many Sources Should A 2000 Word Essay Have”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *