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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Reviewing Collected Essays

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.


Collected essays vary in form and content [see below], but they are generally a single volume containing chapters written by a variety of contributing authors. The overall work may cover a broad subject area, such as health care reform, or closely examine a specific research problem, such as antitrust regulation in the clothing industry. Each chapter is written by an expert in the field examining a particular aspect of that topic. Most books of collected essays include a foreword or introductory chapter written by the editor that summarizes current research about the topic and places the essays within a larger scholarly context.

How to Approach Writing Your Review

Types of Collected Works

  1. Conference Proceedings -- a collection of papers published as part of an academic conference or other gathering of professionals. The purpose is to inform a wider audience of the papers presented at the conference as well as to document the work of scholars who have participated in that conference. Many conferences are held annually and, thus, the proceedings are published each year. Some proceedings focus on a particular theme representing a cutting edge issue in the field [e.g., Chun, Soon Ae. Proceedings of the 10th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research: May 17-20, 2009. New York: ACM Press, 2009].
  2. Collection of an Author's Research -- a collection of works by a distinguished scholar. The contents of collected works can take the form of reprints of prior research or of selected reprints with a new introductory chapter by the author or an expert in the field that synthesizes and updates the overall status of research [e.g., The Nature of Politics: Selected Essays of Bertrand de Jouvenel. Edited and with an introduction by Dennis Hale and Marc Landy; Foreword by Wilson Carey McWilliams. New York: Schocken Books, 1987. xxxv, 254 pp.]
  3. Festschrift -- a volume of articles or essays by colleagues and admirers that serve as a tribute or memorial to a preeminent scholar or public figure. The essays usually relate to, or reflect upon, an honoree's contributions to their field of study, but may also include original research by the authors that build upon the research of the honoree [e.g., Social Cognition, Social Identity, and Intergroup Relations: A Festschrift in Honor of Marilynn B. Brewer. Roderick M. Kramer, Geoffrey J. Leonardelli, Robert W. Livingston, editors. New York: Psychology Press, 2011. xi, 423 pp.].
  4. Reader -- a collection of articles, most often reprinted from scholarly journals, representing a cross-section of research about a particular topic. Most readers are intended to be used in the classroom. Readers serve to document the breadth and range of the important research that has developed in a particular area of study and, often, as specified over a period of time [e.g., Companion Reader on Violence Against Women. Claire M. Renzetti, Jeffrey L. Edleson, Raquel Kennedy Bergen, editors. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2012. x, 411 pp.].
  5. Reprints -- sometimes in the form of a multi-volume set, this is a selective collection of previously published materials. Most frequently, reprints contain scholarly journal articles gathered together to form a comprehensive overview of prior research in a particular area of study [e.g., Brooks, Thom, editor. Rawls and Law. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012].
  6. Thematic Articles -- the most common form of collected works in the social sciences, this is a collection of new scholarly essays from multiple authors examining a particular research problem or topic. This can be in the form of a book, a reprint, or a journal [e.g., “Monitoring Social Mobility in the Twenty-First Century.” Edited by David B. Grusky, Timothy M. Smeeding and C. Matthew Snipp. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 657 (January 2015): 1-273].

Developing an Assessment Strategy

The challenge with reviewing a book of collected essays is that you must begin by thinking critically about the research problem that underpins each of the individual essays, synthesizing the arguments of multiple authors, and then clearly organizing those arguments into conceptual categories [themes] as you write your draft.

Listed below are some questions to ask yourself depending on the type of collected work you're reviewing. Note that all types of collected works require you to first identify the overarching subject area or topic under investigation.

  1. Conference Proceedings -- what organization is sponsoring the conference? Is there a specific theme to the conference? Why is that theme important? Was the collection of papers selectively chosen or do the proceedings represent all papers presented at the conference? If not, how were the papers selected? Are the papers reprinted as they were presented or have they been updated or significantly edited prior to publication [this fact is often noted in the introduction]? Are the proceedings online and, if so, how might this facilitate access to additional materials? Is there foreword or an introductory chapter that effectively synthesizes the collection? Is it logically organized and include important front and back matter, such as, a table of contents, profiles of each contributor, and, most importantly, an index to locate information from among all of the papers?
  2. Collection of an Author's Research -- who is the author and why do you believe his or her work is important enough to be gathered together for publication? Is there an underlying theme or does the collection represent a "best of" collection? What may have been ommitted? Are any original works included or are the contents only reprints? Is there a bibliography of the all of the author's writings? Is there a foreword or an introductory chapter written by the author or a guest contributor that effectively synthesizes the collection? Are the contents arranged logically [e.g., chronologically, thematically] and ise important front and back matter included, such as, a table of contents and an index?
  3. Festschrift -- who is being honored and why? Do the contributors represent a diversity of viewpoints or perspectives? Do the contributions represent essays of general tribute or do they represent original research that builds upon the honoree's prior work? Is there a list of contributors and does it include biographical profiles of each that helps determine their relationship to the honoree? Is there a foreword or an introductory chapter that effectively synthesizes the collection? Is it logically organized and include important front and back matter, such as, a table of contents and an index?
  4. Reader -- does the collection represent a broad spectrum of publications about a research topic or only a few? Are there underrepresented areas of research in the collection? Are the sources making up the collection representative of one or only a few areas of study or do they represent an interdisciplinary perspective about the topic? Is there a list of editors/compilers and does it include biographical profiles of each? Are the contents reprinted in their entirety or is the text only excerpted? Are the reprints readily available through other means or do they represent a compilation of hard-to-find publications? Is there a foreword or an introductory chapter that effectively synthesizes the collection? Is it logically organized and include important front and back matter, such as, a table of contents and an index?
  5. Reprints -- does the collection represent reprints from a variety of publications or only a few? Are there underrepresented areas of research in the collection? Are the sources making up the collection representative of one or only a few areas of study or do they represent an interdisciplinary perspective about the topic? Are the reprints readily available through other means or do they represent a compilation of hard-to-find publications? Are the reprints from relatively current or older publications? Is there a foreword or an introductory chapter that effectively synthesizes the collection? Is it logically organized and include important front and back matter such as a table of contents and an index?
  6. Thematic Articles -- how are the contents arranged? Do the contributions survey a broad area of research or do they examine multiple issues associated with a particular research problem? Is there a list of contributors and does it include biographical profiles of each? Do you the contributors come from one or a variety of institutions? Do the contributors all come from the United States or are there any international contributors? Is there foreword or an introductory chapter that effectively synthesizes the collection? Does the work include important front and back matter, such as, a table of contents and an index?

Structure and Writing Style

I. Bibliographic Information

Provide the essential information about the book using the writing style that your professor has asked you to use for the course [e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.]. Depending on how your professor wants you to organize your review, the bibliographic information represents the heading of your review. In general, it would look like this:

El Ghonemy, Mohamad Riad. Anti-Poverty Land Reform Issues Never Die: Collected Essays on Development Economics in Practice. (New York: Routledge, 2010. xx, 223 pp.)

Reviewed by [your name].

II. Scope/Purpose/Content

The first challenge in reviewing any type of collected essay work is to identify and summarize its overarching scope and purpose, with additional focus on describing how the book is organized and whether or not the arrangement of its individual parts facilitates and contributes to an understanding of the subject area. Most collected essays include a general statement of purpose in the foreword or an introductory chapter that describes the overarching themes and summarizes each essay. In some cases, the editor will discuss the scope and purpose at the beginning of each essay.

To help develop your own introductory thesis statement that covers all of the material, start by reviewing and taking notes about the aim and intent of each essay. Once completed, identify key issues and themes. For example, in a compilation of essays on environmental law, you may find the papers examine various legal approaches to environmental protection, describe alternatives to the law, and compare domestic and international issues. By identifying the overall themes, you create a framework from which you can cogently evaluate the contents.

As with any review, your introduction must be succinct, accurate, unbiased, and clearly stated. However, given that you are reviewing a number of parts within a much larger work, you may need several paragraphs to provide a comprehensive overview of the book's overall scope, purpose, and content.

If you find it difficult to discern the overall aims and objectives of the collected essay work [and, be sure to point this out in your review if you believe it to be a deficiency], you may arrive at an understanding of the purpose by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Why did the contributing authors write on this subject rather than on some other subject? Why is it important?
  • From what point of view is the overall work written? Do some essays systematically take one stance while others investigate another, or do the essays just represent a mish-mash of viewpoints?
  • Were each of the authors trying to give information, to explain something technical, or to convince the reader of a belief’s validity by dramatizing it in action?
  • What is the general field or genre, and how does the book fit into it? Review related literature from other books and journal articles to familiarize yourself with the field, if necessary.
  • Who is the intended audience? Is it very specialized or intended for a broader audience?
  • What are each author's style? Do they clash or do they flow together? Is it formal or informal? You can evaluate the quality of the writing style by noting some of the following standards: coherence, clarity, originality, forcefulness, correct use of technical words, conciseness, fullness of development, and fluidity.
  • Scan the table of contents because it can help you understand how the book is organized and will aid in determining the main ideas covered and how they are developed [e.g., chronologically, topically, thematically, etc.]
  • How did the book affect you? Were any prior assumptions you had about the subject changed, abandoned, or reinforced due to this book? Did some essays stand out more than others? In what ways?
  • How is the book related to your own course or personal agenda? What experiences have you had that relate to the subject?
  • How well has the book achieved its goal(s)?
  • What are the main takeaways? Would you recommend the book to others? Why or why not?

III.  Critically Evaluate the Contents

Critical comments should form the bulk of your book review. A good method for reviewing a collection of essays is to follow the arrangement of contents, particularly if the essays are grouped in a particular way, and to frame the analysis in the context of the key issues and themes you identified in the introduction. State whether or not you feel the overall treatment of the subject matter is appropriate for the intended audience. Ask yourself:

  • Has the purpose of the book been achieved?
  • Have all of the essays contributed something important to the overall purpose? If not, how have some author's failed to add something meaningful?
  • What contribution does the book make to the field?
  • Is the treatment of the subject matter fair and unbiased?
  • Are there facts and evidence that have been omitted?
  • What kinds of data, if any, are used to support the author's thesis statement?
  • Can the same data be interpreted to alternate ends?
  • Is the writing style clear and effective?
  • Considered collectively, did the essays cover the topic or research problem thoroughly? If not, what issue or perspective about the topic do you believe has been omitted?
  • Does the book raise important or provocative issues or topics for discussion and further research?

Support your evaluation with evidence from the text and, when possible, in relation to other sources. Do not evaluate each essay one at a time but group the analysis around the key issues and themes you first identified. If relevant, make note of the book's format, such as, layout, binding, typography, etc. Do some or all of the essays include tables, charts, maps, illustrations, or other non-textual elements? Are they clear and do they aid in understanding the research problem?

IV.  Examine the Front Matter and Back Matter

Front matter refers to anything before the first chapter of the book. Back matter refers to any information included after the final chapter of the book. Front matter is most often numbered separately from the rest of the text in lower case Roman numerals [i.e. i-xi]. Critical commentary about front or back matter is generally only necessary if you believe there is something that diminishes the overall quality of the work [e.g., the indexing is poor] or there is something that is particularly helpful in understanding the book's contents [e.g., foreword places the book in an important context].

The following front matter may be included in a book and may be considered for evaluation when reviewing its overall quality:

  • Table of contents -- is it clear? Is it detailed or general? Does it reflect the true contents of the book?
  • Author biographies -- also found as back matter, the biography of author(s) can be useful in determining the authority of the writer and whether the book builds on prior research or represents new research. In a collected work, think about the following: what is the distribution of expertise among authors? Does it represent an interdisciplinary perspective or is the scope of expertise more narrow? Are the authors from a variety of institutions or just a few? Are the author affiliations international in scope or just from one country or region?
  • Foreword -- the purpose of a foreword is to introduce the reader to the author as well as the book itself, and to help establish credibility for both. A foreword may not contribute any additional information about the book's subject matter, but it serves as a means of validating the book's existence. Later editions of a book sometimes have a new foreword prepended [appearing before an older foreword, if there was one], which may be included to explain how the latest edition differs from prior ones.
  • Preface -- generally describes the genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness to people who have helped the author complete the study. Consider, is the preface helpful in understanding the study? Does it provide an effective and thorough framework for understanding what's to follow?
  • Chronology -- also may be found as back matter, a chronology is generally included to highlight key events related to the subject of the book. Do the entries contribute to the overall work? Is it detailed or very general?
  • List of non-textual elements -- a book that contains a lot of charts, photographs, maps, graphs, etc. will often list these items after the table of contents in the order that they appear in the text. Is it useful?

The following back matter may be included in a book and may be considered for evaluation when reviewing the overall quality of the book:

  • Afterword -- this is a short, reflective piece written by the author that takes the form of a concluding section, final commentary, or closing statement. It is worth mentioning in a review if it contributes information about the purpose of the book, gives a call to action, or asks the reader to consider key points made in the book. This is a common feature of collected works because it's an opportunity to reflect upon the contents. If this is the case, does it help in wrapping up the book? Does it leave you thinking about the significance or implications of the contributions?
  • Appendix -- is the supplementary material in the appendix or appendices well organized? Do they relate to the contents or appear superfluous? Does it contain any essential information that would have been more appropriately integrated into the text?
  • Index -- is the index thorough and accurate? Are elements used, such as, bold or italic fonts to help identify specific places in the book? An index is particularly important in collected works because it brings together key terms, concepts, and names from a variety of essays that would otherwise be disconnected without a comprehensive index.
  • Glossary of Terms -- are the definitions clearly written? Is the glossary comprehensive or are key terms missing? Are any terms or concepts mentioned in the text not included?
  • Footnotes/Endnotes -- examine any footnotes or endnotes as you read from chapter to chapter. Do they provide important additional information? Do they clarify or extend points made in the body of the text? Some collected works arrange the citations by chapter at the end of the book. Is this helpful or would it been more effective to list the references and notes after each essay?
  • Bibliography/References/Further Readings -- review any bibliography, list of references to sources used, and/or further readings that are included. What kinds of sources appear [e.g., primary or secondary, recent or old, scholarly or popular, etc.]? How does the editor[s] of the collected work make use of them? Be sure to note important omissions of sources that you believe should have been utilized.

V.  Summarize and Comment

State your general conclusions succinctly. Pay particular attention to any capstone chapter that summarizes the work. Collected essays often have one written by the editor. List the principal topics, and briefly summarize the key themes and issues, main points, and conclusions. If appropriate and to help clarify your overall evaluation, use specific references and quotations to support your statements. If your thesis has been well argued, the conclusion should follow naturally. It can include a final assessment or simply restate your thesis. Do not introduce new information in the conclusion.

NOTE:  The length of a review of a collected work will almost always be longer than a review of a single book. Treat an assignment to review a collected work as a short research paper assignment in terms of the time needed to read and to write a thorough synopsis. Due to the factors noted above, more effort will have to devoted to describing the content of the essays and the thematic relationships among each of them.

Bazerman, Charles. Comparing and Synthesizing Sources. The Informed Writer: Using Sources in the Disciplines. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Book Reviews. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Book Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Writing a Book Review. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Rhetorical Strategies: Comparison and Contrast. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Visvis, Vikki and Jerry Plotnick. The Comparative Essay. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing Book Reviews. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University.