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Formatting Information — An introduction to typesetting with LATEX

Chapter 5: Textual tools

Section 5.3: References and citations

This is one of the most powerful features of LATEX. As we mentioned when discussing Figures and Tables, you can label any point in a document with a name you make up, so that you can refer to it by that name from anywhere else in the document (or even from another document) and LATEX will always work out the right cross-reference number for you, no matter how much you edit the text or move it around.

As we well see later, a similar method is also used to cite documents for a bibliography or list of references, and there are packages to sort and format these in the correct style for different journals or publishers.

5.3.1 Cross-references

You label the place in your document you want to refer to by adding the command \label followed by a short name you make up, in curly braces: exactly as we did for labelling Figures and Tables in § 4.2.2 above.

\section{New Research}

You can then refer to this place from anywhere in the same document with the command \ref followed by the name you used, eg

  • Note the use of the unbreakable space (~) between the \ref and the word before it. This prints a space but prevents the line ever breaking at that point, should it fall close to the end of a line when being typeset.

  • The \S command can be used if you want the section sign § instead of the word ‘section’ (there is also a \P command that produces the paragraph sign or pilcrow ¶).

In section~\ref{newstuff} there is a list of recent 

In section 13.5 there is a list of recent projects.

Labels MUST be unique (that is, each value MUST occur only once as a label within a single document), but you can have as many references to them as you like. If you are familiar with HTML, this is the same concept as the internal linking mechanism using # labels (or IDs in XHTML or HTML5).

Labels in normal text

If the label is in normal text, as above, the reference will give the current chapter/section/subsection/appendix number (depending on the current document class).

Labels in Tables or Figures

If the label is inside a Table or Figure, the reference provides the Table number or Figure number prefixed by the chapter number (remember that in Tables and Figures the \label command MUST come after the \caption command).

The \ref command does not produce the word ‘Figure’ or ‘Table’ for you: you have to type it yourself, or use the varioref package which automates it.

Labels in lists

A label in an item in an enumerated list will provide the item number. In other lists its value is null or undefined.

Labels elsewhere

If there is no apparent countable structure at the point in the document where you put the label (in a bulleted list, for example), the reference will be null or undefined.

The command \pageref followed by any of your label values will provide the page number where the label occurred, instead of the reference number, regardless of the document structure. This makes it possible to refer to something by page number as well as by its \ref number, which is useful in very long documents like this one (varioref automates this too).

Process twice!

LATEX records the label values each time the document is processed, so the updated values will get used the next time the document is processed. You therefore need to process the document one extra time before final printing or viewing, if you have changed or added references, to make sure the values are correctly resolved. Most LATEX editors handle this automatically by typesetting the document twice when needed.

Unresolved references are printed as two question marks, and they also cause a warning message at the end of the log file. There’s never any harm in having \labels you don’t refer to, but using \ref when you don’t have a matching \label is an error, as is defining two labels with the same value.

5.3.2 Bibliographic references

The mechanism used for references to reading lists and bibliographies is very similar to that used for normal cross-references. Instead of using \ref you use \cite or one of the variants explained in § below; and instead of \label, you attach a label value to each of the reference entries for the books, articles, reports, etc that you want to cite. You keep these reference entries in a bibliographic reference database that uses the BIBTEX data format (see § below).

This does away with the time needed to maintain and format references each time you cite them, and dramatically improves accuracy. It means you only ever have to enter the bibliographic details of your references once, and you can then cite them in any document you write, and the ones you cite will get formatted automatically to the style you specify for the document (eg Harvard, Oxford, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Vancouver, Modern Language Association (MLA), American Psychological Association (APA), etc). Choosing between BIBTEX and biblatex

LATEX has two systems for doing citations and references, BIBTEX (old) and biblatex (new): both of them use the same file format, also called BIBTEX. Both support the four common ways of indicating a citation: author-year, numeric, abbreviated alphabetic, and footnoted; plus a wide range of others.


the older BIBTEX has been in use for many decades and is still specified in some publishers’ document classes, especially for journal articles and books, and particularly those which have not been updated for a long time. While it will continue to work, it has several drawbacks:

  1. it doesn’t handle non-ASCII characters easily, so accents and non-Latin words are a problem;

  2. the same applies to the sort-and-extract program it uses (also called bibtex)

  3. the style format files (.bst files) are written in BIBTEX’s own rather strange, unique, and largely undocumented language, making it extremely difficult to modify them or write new ones;

  4. many of the style format files are now very old and out of date;

  5. the range of data fields in references is limited and also out of date.


the newer biblatex system is now a well-established LATEX package to replace almost all of old BIBTEX. The main advantages are:

  1. it uses the same .bib files as for old BIBTEX, but lets you use many new document types and data field names.

  2. it works with UTF-8, so non-ASCII, non-Latin, and other writing systems are handled natively when using XƎLATEX or LuaLATEX.

  3. there is a new sort-and-extract program (biber) to replace bibtex, which also handles UTF-8 natively.

  4. the style format files are written entirely in LATEX syntax, and are under active development, so updating or writing layout formats it is much easier than with BIBTEX.

  5. it supports the four popular citation formats listed above natively, without the need for additional packages.

The only current drawback is that there are still a few uncommon and less-used reference formats that are still only supported in BIBTEX and not yet available in biblatex. If you are required to use one of these, you are going to be stuck with BIBTEX (unless you’d like to write a new biblatex add-on to handle it).

The biblatex package with the biber program is therefore recommended, especially with XƎLATEX or LuaLATEX. From here on, I shall be concentrating on biblatex. The BIBTEX file format

The same file format for BIBTEX files is used for both BIBTEX and biblatex, regardless of whether you use biber or bibtex, so if you have existing BIBTEX files, they will continue to work, but it’s a good idea to update old files with some of the more accurate field names provided by biblatex.

The file format is specified in the original BIBTEX documentation (look on your system for the file btxdoc.pdf). The biblatex package and its updated style formats provide many more fields and document types than we can describe here.

Each BIBTEX entry starts with an @ sign and the type of document (eg @article, @book, etc), followed by the whole entry in a single set of curly braces. The first value MUST be a unique BIBTEX key (label) that you make up, which you will use to cite the reference with; followed by a comma:

@book{fg, ... }

Then comes each field (in any order), using the format:

fieldname = {value},

There MUST be a comma after each line of an entry except the last line:

  title     = {{An Innkeeper’s Diary}}, 
  author    = {John Fothergill}, 
  edition   = 3, 
  publisher = {Penguin}, 
  year      = 1929, 
  address   = {London} 

Some TEX-sensitive editors have a BIBTEX mode which understands these entries and provides menus, templates, and syntax colouring for writing them. The rules are:

  • There MUST be a comma after each line of an entry except the last line;

  • There MUST NOT be a comma after the last field in the entry (only — eg after {London} in the example)

  • Some styles recapitalise the title when they format: to prevent this, enclose the title in double curly braces as in the example;

  • You MUST use extra curly braces to enclose multi-word surnames, otherwise only the last will be used in the sort, and the others will be assumed to be forenames, for example the British explorer can be sorted under T as

    author = {Ranulph {Twisleton Wykeham Fiennes}},
  • Multiple authors MUST go in a single author field, separated by the literal word and (see example below)

  • Values which are purely numeric (eg years) may omit the curly braces;

  • Months and editions MUST be numbers (and may therefore omit the curly braces); DO NOT include ordinal indicators like th or st;

  • Fields MAY occur in any order but the format MUST otherwise be strictly observed;

  • Fields which are not used do not have to be included (so if your editor automatically inserts them as blank or prefixed by OPT [optional], you MAY safely delete them as unused lines)

There is a required minimum set of fields for each of a dozen or so types of document: book, article (in a journal), article (in a collection), chapter (in a book), thesis, report, conference paper (in a Proceedings), etc, exactly as with all other reference management systems. These are all (entry types and entry fields) listed in detail in the biblatex documentation (Lehman, Kime, Boruvka & Wright, 2015, sections 2.1 & 2.2 p.8).

Here’s another example, this time for a book on how to write mathematics — note the multiple authors separated by and. Long entries can spread over several lines: the extra spaces and line-breaks are ignored, so long as the value ends with the matching curly brace (and comma, if needed).

  author    = {Donald E Knuth and Tracey
	       Larrabee and Paul M Roberts}, 
  title     = {{Mathematical Writing}}, 
  publisher = {Mathematical Association of America}, 
  address   = {Washington, DC}, 
  series    =  {MAA Notes 14}, 
  isbn      = {0-88385-063-X}, 
  year      = 1989 

Every reference in your reference database MUST have a unique key value (label or ID): you can make this up, just like you do with normal cross-references, but some bibliographic software automatically assigns a value, usually based on an abbreviation of the author and year. These keys are for your convenience in referencing: in normal circumstances your readers will not see them. You can see these labels in the right-hand-most column and at the bottom of the screenshot in Figure 5.1 below, and in the examples above. You use these labels in your documents when you cite your references (see § below).

There are many built-in options to the biblatex package for adjusting the citation and reference formats, only a few of which are covered here. Read the package documentation for details: it is possible to construct your own style simply by adjusting the settings, with no programming required (unlike the older BIBTEX styles, which are written in a programming language used nowhere else).

Many users keep their BIBTEX files in the same directory as their document[s], but it is also possible to tell LATEX and BIBTEX that they are in a different directory. This is a directory specified by the $BIBINPUTS shell or environment variable set up at installation time. On Unix & GNU/Linux systems (including Apple Macintosh OS X), and in TEX Live for Windows, this is your TEX installation’s texmf/bibtex/bib directory — the same one that old-style BIBTEX .bst style files are kept in — but to avoid permission conflicts you should use your Personal TEX Directory and create a subdirectory of the same name in there for your own .bib files. MiKTEX also uses the same $BIBINPUTS variable, but it is not set on installation: you need to set it using the Windows Systems Settings (see for example Citation commands

The basic command is \cite, followed by the label of the entry in curly braces. You can cite several entries in one command: separate the labels with commas.


For documents with many citations, use the Cite button or menu item in your bibliographic reference manager, which will insert the relevant command for you (you can see it activated for the TEXStudio editor in Figure 5.1 below).

How the citation appears is governed by two things:

  1. the reference format (style) you specify in the options to the biblatex package (see § below)

  2. the type of citation command you use: \cite, \textcite, \parencite, \autocite, \footcite, etc, as shown below.

There are four built-in formats in biblatex:

1. authoryear

There are two basic types of author–year citation:

a. author as text, year in parentheses

used in phrases or sentences where the name of the author is part of the sentence, and the year is only there to identify what is being cited; this command is \textcite{fg} has clearly been shown by Fothergill (1929).

This is sometimes called ‘author-as-noun’ citation.

b. whole citation in parentheses

used where the phrase or sentence is already complete, and the citation is being added in support: this command is \parencite{fg} others have already clearly shown (Fothergill, 1929).

The references at the end of the document are sorted into surname order of the first author, and by year after that.

2. numeric

This format is popular in some scientific disciplines where \cite produces just a number in square brackets, eg [42]. The references at the end of the document are usually numbered either in order of citation or in order of first surname;

3. alphabetic

This format is also popular in some scientific disciplines and \cite produces a three- or four-letter abbreviation of the author’s name and two digits of the year, all in square brackets, eg [Fot29]. The references at the end of the document are sorted using abbreviated key value as their label. This format is also called ‘abbreviated’.

4. footnoted

Footnoted citations are common in History and some other Humanities disciplines, to the extent that scholars in these fields actually call their references ‘footnotes’. The command \footcite produces a superscript number like an ordinary footnote, and a short reference at the foot of the page. It is only relevant when using author-year styles (in numeric style it would just produce the reference number at the foot of the page, which would be misleading). The references at the end of the document are given in full, and are usually sorted alphabetically by first surname.

To direct your reader to a specific page or chapter, you can add a prefix and/or a suffix as optional arguments in square brackets before the label. shown by \textcite[p 12]{mathwrite}.

A prefix gets printed at the start of the citation and the suffix gets printed at the end, but all still within the parentheses, if any. As they are both optional arguments, and as suffixes are far more common than prefixes, when only one optional argument is given, it is assumed to be the suffix. The example above therefore produces: shown by Knuth, Larrabee & Roberts (1989, p 12).

There are many variant forms of the citation commands, either for specific styles like Chicago, Vancouver, Harvard, IEEE, APA, MLA, etc; or for grammatical modifications like capitalising name prefixes, omitting the comma between name and year, or adding multiple notes; or for extracting specific fields from an entry (eg \titlecite). If you have requirements not met by the formats described here, you can find them in the documentation for the biblatex package.

Modern Language Association (MLA) citation is a special case, as it omits the year and instead REQUIRES the location of the citation within the document (eg the chapter, section, page, or line). It may include the title, if there would otherwise be ambiguity. The biblatex format for MLA citation handles the context-dependent formatting with the command \autocite.

Table 5.1: Built-in biblatex style commands and formats

authoryear\parencite{fg}(Fothergill, 1929)
authoryear\textcite{fg}Fothergill (1929)
authoryear\cite{fg}Fothergill 1929

¹ Fothergill 1929.

Figure 5.1: JabRef displaying a file of references, ready to insert a citation of Fothergill’s book into a LATEX document being edited with TEXStudio


Your reference management software will have a display something like Figure 5.1 above (details vary between systems, but they all do roughly the same job in roughly the same way), showing all your references with the data in the usual fields (title, author, date, etc).

Your database, which contains all your bibliographic data, MUST be saved or exported as a BIBTEX format (.bib) file from your reference management software (JabRef uses this format automatically), It looks like the examples in § above. Your .bib file works with both biblatex and BIBTEX, but biblatex provides more field types and document types so that your references can be formatted more accurately.

If your bibliographic management software doesn’t save BIBTEX format direct, save your data in RIS format, then import the .ris file into JabRef and save it as a .bib file from there.


Clea F Rees has written an excellent cheatsheet with virtually everything on it that you need for quick reference to using biblatex. This is downloadable as the package biblatex-cheatsheet from CTAN.

Exercise 5.1 — Using biblatex

  1. Use your bibliographic database program (eg JabRef or similar) to create a file with your references in it (see § above). You could type them by hand if you want, but it's faster and more reliable to use a database.

    Make sure each entry has a unique short keyname (bibtexkey) to make citations with

  2. Save the file with a name ending in .bib (eg myrefs.bib) in the same folder as your LATEX document

  3. Add these two lines to the Preamble of your LATEX document:

  4. In the body of your document, where you want to cite a work, use \parencite{keyname} or \textcite{keyname} as appropriate (see Table 5.1 above for examples)

  5. Towards the end of your document, add the command \printbibliography at the point where you want the bibliography printed

  6. Typeset the document: that is, run xelatex, then biber, and then xelatex again (most editors automate this)

  7. When you’ve got the citations and references working, read the BIBTEX documentation for all the extra things you can do Setting up biblatex with biber

For more complex citation requirements, you may need to set up your document with the following packages:

  1. the babel or polyglossia package with appropriate languages, even if you are only using one language. The default language is American English, so there are commands to map this to other language variants (the example below shows this for British English)

  2. the csquotes package, which automates the use of quotation marks around titles or not, depending on the type of reference;

  3. the biblatex package itself, specifying the biber program and the style of references you want, either numeric, alphabetic, or authoryear; or a publisher’s style; and any options for handling links like DOIs, URIs, and ISBNs;

  4. the language mapping command, if needed (see the documentation for the style you have chosen to find out if you need this)

  5. finally, the name of your BIBTEX file[s] (see the sidebar ‘Bibliographic reference databases’ above) with one or more \addbibresource commands.


At the end of your document you can then add the command \printbibliography (or elsewhere that you want the full list of references you have cited to be output). See § below for details of how LATEX produces the references.

Versions of biber and biblatex

One critically important point to note is that biblatex and biber are step-versioned; that is, each version of the biblatex package only works with a specific version of the biber program. There is a table of these dependencies in the biblatex documentation PDF. If you manually update biblatex for some reason (perhaps to make use of a new feature), you MUST also update your copy of biber to the correct version, and vice versa, otherwise you will not be able to produce a bibliography. Producing the references

Because of the record→extract→format process (the same as used for cross-references), you will get a warning message about ‘unresolved references’ the first time you process your document after adding a new citation for a previously uncited work. LATEX inserts the label of the reference in bold as a marker or placeholder until you run biber and re-typeset the document. This is why most editors have a Build function to do the job for you.

This function should therefore handle the business of running biber and re-running XƎLATEXfor you. If not, here’s how to do it manually in a Command window: you run XƎLATEXthen run biber to extract and sort the details from the BIBTEX file, and then run XƎLATEXagain:

xelatex myreport 
biber myreport 
xelatex myreport

In practice, authors tend to retypeset their documents from time to time during writing anyway, so they can keep an eye on the typographic progress of the document. So long as you remember to click the Build or equivalent button after adding a new \cite command, all subsequent runs ofXƎLATEXwill incrementally incorporate all references without you having to worry about it.

If you work from the command line, the latexmk script automates this, running bibtex or biber and re-running LATEX again when needed.

  1. Be aware that in some disciplines where cross-references are not much used, the word ‘references’ may be used to mean ‘bibliographic references’. 

  2. This section is labelled normalxref, for example. 

  3. So I can refer here to the label of this section as \ref{normalxref} and get the value ‘§ 5.3.1 (this section)’.  

  4. The major differences between BIBTEX’s use of these files and biblatex’s use of them is that biblatex allows many more different types of fields, and is generally more up-to-date; and biber sorts UTF-8 correctly, and is more configurable. 

  5. This can be confusing to outsiders: it’s not clear how they refer to conventional footnotes, or if they even use them.