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Referencing figures and tables for Postgraduate Taught students: A short guide



How do you go about referring to figures, tables and other visuals in your academic writing? What do you do when you want to include tables that are all your own work, or a table that is adapted from the work of another author?

This Short Guide will either give you the answers, or refer you to other sources of information. Please use it in conjunction with its companion guide from the ASC, Short Guide to using visuals in your writing (University of Birmingham, 2015).

There is no standard practice across the University of Birmingham. Some individual departments will have their own guidelines, and others may have no guidelines at all. So here are a few tips to help you to confidently use tables and figures in your academic writing.

Guidelines - A health warning

This complements whatever you get told by individual lecturers. Obviously, guidance from within your School always takes priority over this general guide to good practice.

Tables and figures

Visuals are normally divided into two categories for use in your writing. Tables are – fairly obviously – columns of words or data that you would create in a package such as Microsoft Word™ or Excel™.

Figures are everything else, for instance pictures, drawings, scanned material, photographs, charts and graphs etc. In some schools, all visual materials may be grouped together and known as ‘Figures’.


Make sure that any reference to percentages always includes the specific number. The normal shorthand is N=45 (where the study refers to 45 respondents).

Referring to your work in the text of your assignment

When you have gone to a lot of trouble to create tables and figures, it is important to make sure that you use them effectively.

So always refer directly to the figure. For instance:

‘Figure 7, above, suggests that...’

‘Table 4, page 19, is a powerful argument for...’

‘Figure 17, over page, provides clear evidence that...’

Who created your table or figure?

Always give a source for your table or figure, or if you have found an image that you want to use after altering it.


Graphic of Belbin roles with source

Figure 2. Belbin roles (Source: Personal collection)



You can normally use copyright material for your private study. However, images you will see on the web are protected by copyright law and cannot be simply cut and pasted into your work. You must always give a source for the figure or table, and never use copyright material without acknowledgement. We strongly advise you to find out more from the University of Birmingham webpage on fair dealing (University of Birmingham, 2015a), and the web page on digital content (University of Birmingham, 2015b).

Images may also be available to you under what is called the Creative Commons agreement. In other words, this is an arrangement for the legal sharing of content which individuals have created. As well as acknowledging the creator of the work, it’s also a good idea to use a low resolution image from a highresolution work. Again, find out more about this at the University website (University of Birmingham 2015b).


Graphic of the dimensions of the beam from Frei

Figure 1.

Dimensions of the cross-section of the beam (Frei, 2012. Used with permission)

Using Creative Commons means you will avoid the risk of copyright theft, and also plagiarism. To learn more, go to the Creative Commons website (Creative Commons, 2014). 

Labelling your work

Unless you are told to the contrary, tables should be labelled sequentially as Table 1, Table 2, Table 3 etc. Everything else is labelled sequentially as Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3 etc.

The label is usually placed beneath the figure or table. But be aware of practice in your own School.

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