How Many Citations Is Good? What Should I Do If Instructions Are Unclear About Sources?

Writing guide
Posted on October 2, 2023

Recall the last situation when you were assigned research at university and ended up asking yourself, “How many references are enough?” Typically, your research instructions will specify the number of required citations. However, if that is not the case, in this article you will find answers to how many citations is good and what factors influence the number of citations.

Pro tip

The number of citations is not equal to the number of references (sources). Citations are the extracts of text you take to your paper. References (sources) are the works of others from which you take these extracts.

How Many Citations Is Good If the Number Is Not Specified?

The number of citations highly depends on a few significant factors. These are:

  •  Your supposed quality of research
  • The supposed number of pages
  • The type of paper
  •  Your role in a scientific community or your year of studying

For instance, here are the approximate citation counts needed for different university years and scientific degrees:

How many citations is good

However, the question of how many citations should a research paper have has an entirely different answer for professional scientists. The absolute minimum some indexed scientific journals require is about 5 to 10 citations from the articles published within the last five years. But here is a more professional journal example for your understanding of scholar papers’ quality. Science Magazine, one of the best academic journals, sets a minimal bar of up to 100 main-text references for a word count of 6000 words.

How Many References Should I Have for an Essay? How Many Citations Are Good?

Let’s specify here that the number of citations is not equal to the number of references (sources). You can use one source as a reference and take a few citations from it.

How many citations do I need per essay page?

You need at least 1 or 2 citations per page or paragraph, and here is why. The essay format supposes both your analysis of the question and your work with the texts of other authors. One to three essay pages (about 275 to 825 words) will have the following approximate structure:

  • An introduction paragraph
  • 2 (for 1 page), 4 (for 2 pages), or about 6 (for 3 pages) body paragraphs
  • Conclusion paragraph

Typically, the citation ratio for essays is 1 citation per claim/ idea. Each essay paragraph must present one coherent idea, and the introduction and conclusion paragraphs must have no citations. Altogether, your approximate citation rate must be about 2 to 6 mentions of other researchers for 1-3 pages of essay, or about 1 to 2 citations per page.

How many references are enough for different essay types?

So, how many references should you have in 4 to 6 paragraphs? The number of citations and references also severely depends on the type of essay and the impact you want to have. Here are some of the most common essay types and approximate number of references they require:

  • Narrative essay0-2 references
  • Descriptive essay0-2 references
  • Compare and contrast essay2-3 references
  • Argumentative essay3-5 references
  • Critical essay3-5 references

The main factor in why citation metrics differ for different essay types lies in their purpose. For instance, what citation can you include in a descriptive essay? This essay type requires your reflections on the topic, so it is not one of the most cited papers. On the contrary, the argumentative essay must convince the reader of the thesis’ validity, so your personal opinion will not be sufficient.

How many references should I have for large and specific essays?

In 3 to 10 pages of an essay of a specific type and complicated topic, you will need to cover about 5 to 15 cited publications. Large-volume essays are typically some of the most cited works, as they require solid research, coherence, and cohesion of thoughts and ideas.

When you write a small 1 to 3-page paper, your teacher wants to briefly check your academic achievements, generic understanding of the topic, or writing abilities. However, if you are assigned a solid 4-10 page essay, the number of citations will significantly differ from the smaller essay papers. Here are some essay types that will require more citations for 3-10 essay pages:

  • Compare and contrast essay
  • Argumentative essay
  • Critical essay
  • Reflective essay
  • Expository essay

How Many Citations Should a Research Paper Have?

An adequate number of citations is a legitimate way to determine the quality of research. While highly cited essays (except for specific types) may not pass the originality requirements, highly cited research is normal. As said below, the typical number of extracts per essay page is about 1 to 2 citations. For a research paper of any volume, double that number. If you still struggle with the correct number, here are a few questions and answers that may be helpful:

  • Q: How many citations do I generally need, regardless of the research type?

A: If you are the author of a research paper for a university class, your work must have about 2 citations per body paragraph.

  • Q: How many citations should a research paper have if I am a first or second-year student?

A: About 4 citations for 1 to 2 pages of a research proposal paper, and about 10 to 15 citations for the 4 to 10 pages of a research paper.

  • Q: How many citations should a research paper have if I am a third or a fourth-year student or a graduate student?

A: About 4 to 8 citations for 1 to 2 pages of research proposal paper, and about 15 to 20 citations for the 4 to 10 pages of a research paper.

Pro tip

Remember that the number of citations for professional, scientific research papers will be drastically different. An average professional peer-reviewed article you can find in Google Academy will have at least 25 sources and up to 100 citations.

How Many Sources Should a Research Paper Have?

Typically, about 4 to 8 sources for the research proposal and 10 to 20 sources for the research paper. You must consider that the reasons for including sources in your research paper differ slightly from those for essays. If you struggle with understanding how you can define the number of citations, this comparison may help you.

Major reasons for essay citations:

  • To back up the thesis statement
  • To provide examples
  • To reinforce the thought
  • To add diversity of positions

About 2 to 4 sources per page are sufficient to cover these reasons.

Major reasons for research citations:

  • The same four reasons as for essays
  • To showcase that the author conducted thorough research before writing
  • To demonstrate the author’s ability to analyze different positions
  • To make sure that the author’s position is credible, relevant, and not made up of thin air

About 4 to 8 sources per page are sufficient to cover these reasons.

Moreover, scientific circles seem to have a “subculture” of citations, with specific ranks and social respect assigned to different citation metrics. Highly cited researchers have a higher Search Engine Result Page ranking, which influences the prestige and credibility of the author, editor, and everyone involved connected to that particular article or blog.

How many references are enough for a research proposal?

The most generic answer is about 4 to 8 references for a brief research proposal. The common advice for your research proposal is to try searching only for the most cited researchers at this point. You probably have no expertise yet in which studies are credible, relevant, and have a good methodology, so it’s better to trust the community’s choice.

Pro tip

Essays with the largest citation counts have either research or persuasive components.

How many references should I have for 3+ pages of a research paper?

You need about 10 to 20 references for 4 to 10 pages of a research paper. However, there are still some points you should consider. Let’s address them by answering the most typical questions.

Q:How many references should a research paper have if my topic belongs to STEM disciplines? 

A: STEM disciplines are typically more evidence-based and accurate in phrasing than humanitarian disciplines. Therefore, you need more references to provide 100% accuracy and relevancy of your claims. Add about 5 extra sources to be sure of your results. In total, it will take about 15 to 25 references. 

Q: How many sources should a research paper have if I have a qualitative, quantitative, or experimental study?

A: The type of yourresearch does not significantly influence the number of sources you must use. You will have more work collecting numerical data, but you can still use about 15 to 25 external sources.

How Many References Should I Have for a Term Paper?

Before thinking about references for a term paper, read this post to make sure that you fully understand what a term paper is. Essentially, a term paper differs from all other paper types because it covers the material you learned during the semester. Your teacher may require a specific number of sources or let you choose how many you need. If you are on option two, take about 10 to 15 sources.

How Many Citations Is Good for a Term Paper?

The main goal for your term paper is to showcase your understanding of the material you covered over the semester. You don’t have to demonstrate the opinions of others. Therefore, consider using about 1 citation per page and then elaborate on your reflection on the reference.

How many citations is good

What Will Happen If I Have No Citations?

If you have little to no citations in the “citation-included” types of writing, it will negatively impact the quality of your paper. Here are a few possible scenarios of what may happen:

  • You will get a revision requirement from your teacher
  • You will have to rewrite the whole work, now using citations and references
  • Your work will be rejected, and you will get 0 points for the assignment with no second chances

Hopefully, you will avoid all these scenarios and successfully submit your assignment with all citations and references included and well-developed.

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