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Organizing Academic Research Papers: Annotated Bibliography

Definition

An annotated bibliography is a list of citations related to a particular subject area or theme that include a brief descriptive and/or evaluative summary. The annotated bibliography can be arranged chronologically by date of publication or alphabetically by author, with citations to print and/or digital materials, such as, books, newspaper articles, journal articles, dissertations, government documents, pamphlets, web sites, etc., and multimedia sources like films and audio recordings.

Importance of a Good Annotated Bibliography

In lieu of writing a formal research paper, your professor may ask you to develop an annotated bibliography. You may be assigned this for a number of reasons, including to show that you understand the literature underpinning the research problem, to demonstrate that you can conduct an effective review of pertinent literature, or to share sources among your classmates so that, collectively, everyone in the class obtains a comprehensive understanding of key research on the subject. Think of an annotated bibliography as a more deliberate, in-depth review of the literature than what is normally conducted for a research paper.

On a broader level, writing an annotated bibliography can be excellent preparation for conducting a larger research project by allowing you to evaluate what research has already been done and where your proposed study may fit within it. By reading and responding to a variety of sources associated with a research problem, you can begin to see what the issues are and gain a better perspective on what scholars are saying about your topic. As a result, you are better prepared to develop your own point of view and contributions to the literature.

In summary, a good annotated bibliography...

  • Encourages you to think critically about the content of the works you are using, their place within the broader field of study, and their relation to your own research, assumptions, and ideas;
  • Provides evidence that you have read and understood your sources;
  • Establishes validity for the research you have done and you as a researcher;
  • Gives you an opportunity to consider and include key digital, multimedia, or archival materials among your review of the literature;
  • Situates your study and topic in a continuing professional conversation;
  • Provides an opportunity for others to decide whether a source will be helpful for their research; and,
  • Could help interested researchers determine whether they are interested in a topic by providing background information and an idea of the kind of scholarly investigations that have been conducted in a particular area of study.

Annotated Bibliographies. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Annotated Bibliographies. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University.

Structure and Writing Style

I.  Types

  1. Descriptive: This type of annotation describes the source without summarizing the actual argument, hypothesis, or message in the content. Like an abstract, it describes what the source addresses, what issues are investigated, and any special features, such as appendices or bibliographies that are used to supplement the main text. What it does not include is any evaluation or criticism of the content. This type of annotation seeks to answer the question: Does this source cover or address the topic I am researching?
  2. Informative/Summative: This type of annotation summarizes what the content, message, or argument of the source is. It generally contains the hypothesis, methodology, and conclusion or findings, but like the descriptive type, you are not offering your own evaluative comments about such content. This type of annotation seeks to answer these types of questions: What are the author's main arguments? What conclusions did the author draw? 
  3. Evaluative/Critical/Analytical: This type of annotation includes your evaluative statements about the content of a source and is the most common type of annotation your professor will ask you to write. Your critique may focus on describing a source's the strengths and weaknesses or it may describe the applicability of the conclusions to the research problem you are studying. This type of annotation seeks to answer these types of questions: Is the reasoning sound? Is the methodology sound? Does this source address all the relevant issues? How does this source compare to other sources on this topic?

II.  Choosing Sources for Your Bibliography

A good strategy to help build your bibliography is to identify several key scholarly sources and review the sources cited by the author(s); often, this will lead you quickly to related sources about the topic. Note that this strategy only helps identify prior research, so look for the most recent scholarly materials on the topic of your annotated bibliography.

Appropriate sources to include can be anything that has value in regards to understanding the research problem, including non-textual sources, such as, films, maps, photographs, and audio recordings, or, archival materials and primary source materials, such as, diaries, government documents, collections of personal correspondence, meeting minutes, or official memorandums.

Your method for selecting which sources to annotate depends upon the purpose of the assignment and the research problem you select. For example, if the research problem is to compare the social factors that led to protests in Egypt with the social factors that led to protests against the government of the Philippines in  the 1980's, you will have to include non-U.S. and historical sources in your bibliography.


III. Strategies to Define the Scope of your Bibliography

It is important that the sources cited and described in your bibliography are well-defined and sufficiently narrow in scope to ensure that you're not overwhelmed by the volume of items you could possibly include. Many of the general strategies you can use to narrow a topic for a research paper are the same you can use to define what to include in your bibliography. These are:

  • Aspect -- choose one lens through which to view your topic, or look at just one facet of your topic [e.g., rather than writing a bibliography of sources about the role of food in religious rituals; create a bibliography on the role of food in Hindu ceremonies].
  • Time -- the shorter the time period, the more narrow the focus.
  • Geography -- the smaller the region of analysis, the more narrow the focus [e.g., rather than cite sources about trade relations in West Africa, include only sources that examine trade relations between Niger and Cameroon].
  • Relationship -- focus your review sources that examine how two or more different topics relate to one another? [e.g., cause/effect, compare/contrast, etc.]
  • Type -- focus on your bibliography in terms of a specific type or class of people or things [e.g., research on health care provided to elderly men in Japan].
  • Source -- your bibliography includes specific types of materials [e.g., only books, only scholarly journal articles, only films, etc.]. However, be sure to describe why only one type of source is appropriate.
  • Combination -- use two or more of the above strategies to focus your bibliography very narrowly or to broaden coverage of a very specific research problem.

IV.  Assessing the Relevance and Value of Sources

All the items you include in your bibliography should reflect the source's contribution to the research problem or overall issue being addressed. In order to determine how you will use the source or define its contribution, you will need to assess the quality of the central argument within the source. Specific elements to assess include the source’s value, limitations, effectiveness in defining the research problem, the methodology, quality of the evidence in relation to addressing the research problem, and the author’s conclusions and/or recommendations.

With this in mind, determining whether a source should be included in your bibliography depends on how you think about and answer the following questions:

  • Are you interested in the way the source frames its research question or in the way it goes about answering it [the method]?
  • Does it make new connections or promote new ways of understanding a problem?
  • Are you interested in the way the source uses a theoretical framework or a key concept?
  • Does the source gather and analyze a particular body of evidence that you want to cite?
  • How do the source's conclusions bear on your overall investigation of the topic?

V.  Format and Content

The format of an annotated bibliography can differ depending on its purpose and the nature of the assignment. It may be arranged alphabetically by author or chronologically by publication date. Ask your professor for specific guidelines in terms of length, focus, and the type of annotation you are to write [see above].

Introduction
Your bibliography should include a brief introductory paragraph that explains the rationale for selecting the sources and note, if appropriate, what sources were excluded and the reasons why.


Citation
This first part of your entry contains the bibliographic information written in a standard documentation style, such as, MLA, Chicago, or APA. Ask your professor what style is most appropriate and, be consistent!


Annotation
The second part should summarize, in paragraph form, the material contained in the source. What you say about the source is dictated by the type of annotation you are asked to write. In most cases, though, your annotation should provide critical commentary that evaluates the source and its usefulness for your topic and for your paper. Things to think about when writing include: Does the source offer a good introduction on the issue? Does the source effectively address the issue? Would novices find the work accessible or is it intended for an audience already familiar with the topic? What limitations does the source have [reading level, timeliness, reliability, etc.]? What is your overall reaction to the source?


Length
Annotations can vary significantly in length, from a couple of sentences to a couple of pages. However, they are normally about 300 words. The length will depend on the purpose. If you're just writing summaries of your sources, the annotations may not be very long. However, if you are writing an extensive analysis of each source, you'll need to devote more space.


Annotated Bibliographies. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Annotated Bibliographies. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Annotated Bibliography. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Annotated Bibliography. Writing Center. Walden University; Engle, Michael et al. How to Prepare an Annotated Bibliography. Olin Reference, Research and Learning Services. Cornell University Library; Guidelines for Preparing an Annotated Bibliography. Writing Center at Campus Library. University of Washington, Bothell; How to Write an Annotated Bibliography. Information and Library Services. University of Maryland; Knott, Deborah. Writing an Annotated Bibliography. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing from Sources: Writing an Annotated Bibliography. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College.