Numbers are often used to add structure to a document by labelling sections, references, equations, tables or figures. This helps readers navigate within your document or through references. The below exercise provides several examples of helpful number use.

Exercise 1 – numbers for navigation:

Read both examples and as you read try to describe the location of:

  • A description of the methodology
  • The Jones and Mallen paper in the reference list
  • The figures of the flowchart for the current paper
  • The characteristics of the selected studies

Example (i) – Numbers used for clarity: We used the methodology provided on pages 7–9 of Jones and Mallen [3], but updated the searched time period to 2000–2016 to provide more recent results. Figures 3 and 4 illustrate the flowchart of the systematic search and selection of studies from [3] and for the current paper, respectively. Table 1 below provides the assessment criteria for determining study quality. Additional information regarding study characteristics (see Table 2) and findings (see Table 3) will be discussed in Section 3.

Example (ii) – No numbers, difficult for readers: We used the methodology provided in Jones and Mallen, but updated the searched time period to provide more recent results. The above Figures illustrate the flowchart of the systematic search and selection of studies from Jones and Mallen and for the current paper, respectively. The Table below provides the assessment criteria for determining study quality. Additional information regarding study characteristics and findings will be discussed in a later Section.

Ask yourself, which example made it easier to describe the locations?

Answer to exercise 1: In Example (i), the methodology is clearly labelled as being found on pages 7-9 of the Jones and Mallen study, which is listed as the third reference in the bibliography list. The use of numbers to detail the location of these objects makes it easy for the reader to find them. Rather than having to look through the entire reference list, the reader can go straight to number 3 in the list. Rather than having to read the entire Jones and Mallen study, the reader can go directly to page 7 and start reading. With Example (ii), the reader does not know where the Jones and Mallen study will be in the list of references (which could be a very long list) and may have to read the whole study to find the methodology being referred to.

Similarly, from Example (i), the reader knows to look for the flowchart in Figure 3. Since the Figures will be in order throughout the paper, the reader can easily locate the Figure. To find the study characteristics, the reader is directed to Table 2, which will also be in order.

Don’t mix numbering styles for the same items

Common error: Mixed numbering styles make reading more difficult. Don’t mix numbering styles to refer to the same thing such as below:

1. Introduction
In this thesis, Chapter II describes…

Fixed below: Consistent numbering styles make reading easy. Keep the numbering style and reference consistent like this:

1. Introduction
In this thesis, Chapter 2 describes…

Alternatively, if Roman numerals are permitted by your style guide, you may prefer the following:

I. Introduction
In this thesis, Chapter II describes…

Label items sequentially without gaps

Common error: Labelling tables or figures in non-sequential order or skipping numbers, such as “Table 1, Table 3, Table 4” or “Table 1, Table 3, Table 2”.

Fix: Reading through the document and noting each table and figure as they are first mentioned, and then checking that this list is in sequential order (Table 1, Table 2, etc.)

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