This study presents an analysis of the use of bibliographic references by individual scientists in three different research areas. The number and type of references that scientists include in their papers are analyzed, the relationship between the number of references and different impact-based indicators is studied from a multivariable perspective, and the referencing patterns of scientists are related to individual factors such as their age and scientific performance. Our results show inter-area differences in the number, type, and age of references. Within each area, the number of references per document increases with journal impact factor and paper length. Top-performance scientists use in their papers a higher number of references, which are more recent and more frequently covered by the Web of Science. Veteran researchers tend to rely more on older literature and non-Web of Science sources. The longer reference lists of top scientists can be explained by their tendency to publish in high impact factor journals, with stricter reference and reviewing requirements. Long reference lists suggest a broader knowledge on the current literature in a field, which is important to become a top scientist. From the perspective of the “handicap principle theory,” the sustained use of a high number of references in an author's oeuvre is a costly behavior that may indicate a serious, comprehensive, and solid research capacity, but that only the best researchers can afford. Boosting papers' citations by artificially increasing the number of references does not seem a feasible strategy.