ProfJoeCain’s style guide for HPSC modules

ProfJoeCain style guide for HPSC modules. Photograph of typewriter.

This is a guide to the style of presentation recommended for assessments in the HPSC modules for which I am module tutor. Students are strongly encouraged to follow this guide as a step towards using professional systems of style. Of the infinite variety of approaches available to writers, the approach described here is meant to be highly efficient for achieving excellent results in short periods of time and under tight constraints for word count.

2023-24 session
September 2023

Specific style guide on format

You submit your essay as one Microsoft Word file, or one file from compatible software. This must be submitted in British English. Your completed essay is uploaded through the module’s Moodle site in the section titled “Submit Assignments Here”.

At the start of your document, provide the following information:

  1. the module number, such as HPSC0023 or HPSC0019
  2. your student or candidate number
  3. title of the essay
  4. number of words in your submission (guidance is provided below on what to include in this word count)

Because UCL asks tutors to mark anonymous work, you should not provide your name on your essay, unless specifically instructed to do so.

Also, to reduce waste, do not create a separate cover page for your essay.

When formatting the essay as a whole document, please include the following:

  • a page number on every page, using continuous pagination
  • use Arial or Times Roman as a font
  • use a font size between 10-12 points
  • use double or 1.5 space line separation
  • use headings for the major sections of your essay
  • align text to the left; do not use full justification
  • use single column format unless otherwise instructed

At the end of your essay:

  • provide a complete list of references, which you label either “List of References” or “Literature Cited” (more specifics below)

Indent quotations longer than 15 words. Shorter quotations should be identified with “double quotation marks”. When a section of a quotation has been removed by you, the part removed should be replaced by three dots (an ellipsis) to signify a deleted portion. Do not put ellipses at the start or end of quotations. Quotations must include a citation identifying the source from which the quotation was extracted. Reference is to the specific source you extracted the quotation from. There is no need to trace a quote back to a first use. Indeed, it’s desirable not to do this if you are drawing a quote from a later use because someone might have edited the original or made a translation and they are responsible for those decisions, so you don’t want to obscure that process.

Illustrations may be placed in your text, or at the end of the text. Use illustrations only when they add substantively to the analysis. Do not use images solely for decorative purposes. All illustrations must have an accompanying picture caption, titled Figure 1, Figure 2, etc., referred to in the text in parentheses, e.g. “(see Figure 1)”. The caption should indicate, where known, the creator of the image, the title in italics, the date, the medium of the original, and the location where the original is located. For example,

Figure 1. Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1533), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.

All figures and tables taken from a published source must have a full citation including the page number. Figures taken from websites must include the title and URL of the site/page from which they were extracted. If the URL is excessively long, reduce it through a shortening URL service, such as tiny ensure the URLs you provide work for locating the source you intend.

Voice and Tense

Use a first person voice and use active verb tenses:

  • “I think,” “I know,” “I argue”

Avoid third person voices and passive verb tenses:

  • “One believes…” should be “I believe”
  • “The case is analysed by the scientist” should be “The scientists analyses the case.”

Also avoid indeterminate writing:

  • “One might take the view…” – be clear on whether or not this is the view you want to defend
  • “It could be argued…” – many things could be argued; what, in fact, is argued in this case?

Word Count

UCL has policies on word count. Those rules give some discretion on what is counted as eligible for marking in a submission. I follow the penalties described in STS Student Handbook.

UCL policy on word counts requires certain penalties. Essays submitted for my modules with word counts farther than +/- 10% from the prescribed amount will receive a 10% penalty after the mark for the work is determined. This penalty may not change a passing mark to a failing one; marks at risk on this penalty will receive the minimum passing mark. In addition, I may disregard any content in excess when giving summative assessment and any mark. For example, if the word count is 1500 words and a submission is 2500 words, I will mark only the first 1500+10% words and ignore the excess. When I disregard content, I will identify material deemed excessive. Time permitting, I may offer formative assessment on excessive material, but this is not always possible.

In my modules, I include in the word count all words in the main body of a text, including citations, footnotes, and endnotes. I exclude from the word count the list of references appearing at the end of an essay, the main title and front matter, all tables and figures, all legends for those tables and figures, all appendices, and any other peripheral elements of a submission. In some assignments, students are given a form to complete; the words provided by blank form are excluded from the word count, too.

Appendices must not continue the substantive work of the essay; they are meant to provide supporting data (such as transcripts or data sets), supplemental material (such as catalogues or image libraries), documentation (such as ethics documentation or methodologies), or lists (such as reference lists for the purposes of bibliography.

Why have a policy to disregard some of the submitted work? It’s an issue of fairness to everyone via comparability. A student who submits an essay of 1500 words, against a 1500-word limit, might be at a disadvantage compared to a student who submits an essay of 2500 words against the same limit. To be sure, the latter student might be able to deliver more content, more argument, and more nuance. But the former can always claim they would have done the same but they chose to follow the prescription. In effect, the former might seem to be penalised for following the rules. Word limits also are used as a way to delimit effort and manage workload across the whole degree.

Additionally, writing is a complex skill. Writing within strict limits is a standard expectation in many careers. The pressure to keep to those limits assists in the development of many transferrable skills. Those word limits help us develop our teaching aims and objectives.

Footnotes vs. Endnotes?

Different disciplines have different conventions regarding the use of footnotes vs. endnotes, and regarding what substance is placed in either setting. Footnotes and endnotes are different formats for the same information.

You are strongly advised to avoid using footnotes or endnotes merely for citation. This is because I include in the word count all footnotes and endnotes, while I exclude lists of references at the end of an essay, among other elements.

To maximise the number of words available for substantive writing, students often choose a citation style such as Chicago or Harvard because that style shifts bibliographic information into uncounted sections of the essay, such as the “List of References” section (see below).

In essays that use a citation style such as Chicago or Harvard, the purpose of footnotes or endnotes is to add substantive content that is peripheral or supplemental to the main argument of your essay. Placing this material in a footnote or endnote offsets that new information so as not to distract most readers but to inform the specialist. As an author, you make a choice to place into footnotes or endnotes additional information that might indicate:

  • you are aware of alternative interpretations[1]
  • you are aware of significant amounts of additional information to bolster the point[2]
  • you are aware of a significant caveat or restriction to the point just made[3]
  • additional facts are required for the interpretation of material presented[4]

Bibliography vs. Reference?

Bibliography and references are tools with different purposes. In academic writing, essays are peppered with citations to source materials. A citation is a notation that identifies a specific source or a specific location within a source. Citations are abbreviations and appear in many formats across academic publishing. Frustratingly, different publishers require different formats. To avoid confusing your reader within a single essay, you must use one, consistent style in a single essay, though you are welcome to vary the style from one essay to the next.

Citations identify sources of information specifically used in an essay. They may note the direct use of source material (e.g., a quote, a statistic, or a research finding). They may note indirect referral (e.g., paraphrasing an argument or idea) to source materials of background or complimentary value. In essence, a citation tells the reader “I found this information at a specific location of this specific source.” 

To minimise the number of words required for a citation, students often prefer the Chicago style for in-text citation. This uses “(Author Date Page)” as a format. For example,

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” (Darwin 1859: 490)

The citation “(Darwin 1859: 490)” directs the reader to a reference provided at the end of the essay in a “List of References” section. That reference provides complete bibliographic information for the source. The level of detail for a reference needs to be sufficient for a reader to identify the source clearly and unambiguously given the purpose of the citation. For instance, I might have extracted the above quotation from any one of a thousand editions of Darwin’s Origin of Species. However, I retrieved it, in fact, from one source, and I should be clear what that specific, individual source was. Moreover, Darwin changed the wording of this excerpt in later editions of his book. Sloppy writers frequently omit to notice this fact, thus depriving readers of a fascinating point for analysis and indicating to experts that a writer lacks a certain degree of scholarly precision. The simple guide for best practice is to cite the source you, in fact, used for the information you provide.

Citations also provide information about any transformations between the original and the reader, as these can prove important for interpretation. For example, when using a translation, who did the translating? When using a later edition, which edition? When a work appears as a blogpost, what was the date of revision or viewing? And so on. Clarity on transformations can insulate you as a writer from criticisms grounded on concerns over their veracity.

Because citations are abbreviations linked to a reference, citations can be coded. In such cases, the link between citation and reference may be arbitrary (created by you as an author), but it must be unambiguous and it should be relevant. For example, where a government document has no obvious author, the in-text citation might be something like “(UNESCO 1950)”, and where the reference at the end of the document treats the arbitrary citation as the author:

UNESCO (1950). Statement by Experts on Race Problems. Unpublished document dated 20 July 1950, UNESCO/SS/1 Paris.

The same practice holds true for Anonymous material. For example, the citation “(Anonymous 1889a)” might refer to the reference:

Anonymous (1889a). Anthropology and Anthropometry. British Medical Journal 1 (1467): 314-315.

As distinct from the citation “(Anonymous 1887)”, which links to reference:

Anonymous (1887). Heredity and Nurture. The Times. London 29 November 1887, 4:5.

Abbreviations can be used for digital resources that lack obvious authors. For example, the citation “(BL 2020)” might source to the reference:

BL (2020). Leeds Digital Festival: Creating captivating data visualisations. British Library website. <>. Created unknown. Viewed 28 September 2020.

A “List of References” must appear at the end of your essay. Guidance on the format for individual references is provided below. You should include in this list only references to citations used in the essay. Do not include references to additional sources unless specifically requested to do so.

Items in the List of References should be listed alphabetically by surname of the author. Do not separate references into subsections.

A list of references is distinct from a bibliography. A bibliography is a mini-essay that describes a wider literature associated with a topic or a research programme. Bibliographies show what you have identified as relevant as part of your research. Sometimes they show what material has influenced your thinking on the topic. A bibliographic essay might be an assignment in itself, sometimes assigned as a “literature review”. They are an important part of any major research project, such as a thesis or book.

Referencing Style

Citations and references allow readers to retrieve information used for your essay.

Different referencing styles have evolved in different disciplines. As STS is an interdisciplinary field, we commonly move across many referencing styles in our learning and research. The specific choice for a referencing system in this module is less important than the consistent use of whichever system you chose.

I strongly recommend the style used by Journal of the History of Biology. (publisher’s site) (style for citation and List of References). The specific referencing style is shown in articles published in the journal. Where this style is unclear, I prefer the Chicago style for additional guidance: Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide on Author-Date: Sample Citations.

In cases when a rule cannot be located, the key standard to apply is that of recovery: can a reader locate the specific source you wish to identify? If the answer is “yes,” then the reference is sufficient. If the answer is “no,” then it is not. When in doubt, ask your personal tutor or the tutor responsible for the essay title. Also, ask in the Moodle chatroom. Students often find frustrating the idiosyncratic decisions of particular styles. It is no consolation, but tutors have the same frustrations.

Referencing websites can be frustrating. As guidance, when a paper equivalent is available (such as for a journal article found via JStor), reference should be made to the paper equivalent and the URL omitted. Students also should search for a “stable URL” or “DOI” for a source, as these are meant to provide unique, lasting, short references to an reference. Where a student has no alternative but to provide a long URL, best practice is to use a URL shortening tool, such as or

Elements of style


The importance of structure in an essay cannot be overstated. Structure lends comprehension to the work and makes clear the evolving logic of your analysis.

Your essay should begin with an one-paragraph introduction. This should identify the central question of the analysis, and it should identify the main conclusions reached in the essay.

The main body of the essay should be divided into several sections, identified with headings. Each section should develop one part of the analysis, when it is one step in a progression, one instance of a generality, or one option of several. When producing a complex argument, sub-sections are recommended.

Essays should end either with a one-paragraph summary or a one-paragraph conclusion. A summary retraces the main steps of the analysis. A conclusion offers climatic insight or reflection. Neither should appear to be an afterthought. Instead, they should be an important component of the text. One useful technique is to refer back to the essay question and describe how the question has been answered.


Thorough citation and referencing reduces the risk of the offence of plagiarism. Plagiarism involves passing off another author’s texts or ideas as one’s own. At UCL, plagiarism detection uses both automated and bespoke methods. The formalities of plagiarism are presented in the STS Student Handbook and UCL Academic Manual.

UCL has a new policy on use of AI tools, such as ChatGBT, that outlines where good practice is and where danger zones are.

UCL has a variety of tools to assist students and staff in avoiding issues associated with plagiarism:


[1] For example, I might place in a footnote the point that other styles are available for use of footnotes and endnotes, and I might give citations where a reading might examine those alternatives.

[2] Likewise, I could give a myriad of examples where footnotes are used to list dozens of sources that agree with a point made. You can use this approach in essays to show you’ve done a lot of research on a topic and most of it agrees with the point you’re making in the main body of the paper.

[3] An example would be the caveat that a certain UK law might only apply in Scotland, and not in the other devolved countries.

[4] For instance, I might write that my conclusion is based on data in hand as of 01 October 2020, noted to accommodate for changes in data patterns thereafter.