How Many References?

How many references do you need in a thesis bibliography?

A recent webinar participant was concerned because others were disclosing that their bibliographies contained hundreds and hundreds of references. The participant’s bibliography had far fewer. Their question, from a place of worry and concern, was quite natural to ask.

The most simple response to this concern, how many references do I need?, is to say: you need enough. The actual number varies according to someone’s discipline, the nature of their research, their supervisor’s guidance and many other factors.


In some regards, bibliography size doesn’t matter. You need what you need to support your research, both doing the work and writing it up in your thesis. If it takes a lot, it takes a lot. If you need five hundred references then that’s what was needed.

Bibliography size does matter for viva prep because you still have to consider that information to get ready. 500 papers is a lot to mull over, but then so is 200 – or even one hundred!

To prepare well you have to consider which references help your research the most. Which ones do you need to be mindful of for your viva? What do you need to consider to narrow your focus from hundreds of papers to, say, the top ten that have supported your research?

Bibliography size matters – and it doesn’t matter at all. Make sure you know what you need to for your viva. Make sure you steer your focus where it helps you.