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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Annotated Bibliography

This guide provides advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social and behavioral sciences.

Definition

An annotated bibliography is a list of cited resources related to a particular topic or arranged thematically that include a brief descriptive 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., multimedia sources like films and audio recordings, or documents and materials preserved in archival collections.


Harner, James L. On Compiling an Annotated Bibliography. 2nd edition. New York: Modern Language Association, 2000.

Importance of a Good Annotated Bibliography

In lieu of writing a formal research paper or in preparation for a larger writing project, your professor may ask you to develop an annotated bibliography. An annotated bibliography may be assigned for a number of reasons, including:

  1. To show that you can identify and evaluate the literature underpinning a research problem;
  2. To demonstrate that you can identify and conduct an effective and thorough review of pertinent literature;
  3. To develop skills in discerning the most relevant research studies from those which have only superficial relevance to your topic;
  4. To explore how different types of sources contribute to understanding the research problem;
  5. To be thoroughly engaged with individual sources in order to strengthen your analytical skills; or,
  6. To share sources among your classmates so that, collectively, everyone in the class obtains a comprehensive understanding of research about a particular topic.

On a broader level, writing an annotated bibliography can lay the foundation for conducting a larger research project. It serves as a method to evaluate what research has been conducted and where your proposed study may fit within it. By critically analyzing and synthesizing the contents of a variety of sources, you can begin to evaluate what the key issues are in relation to the research problem and, by so doing, gain a better perspective about the deliberations taking place among scholars. As a result this analysis, you are better prepared to develop your own point of view and contributions to the literature.

In summary, creating 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;
  • Gives you practical experience conducting a thorough review of the literature concerning a research problem;
  • Provides evidence that you have read and understood your sources;
  • Establishes validity for the research you have done and of you as a researcher;
  • Gives you the opportunity to consider and include key digital, multimedia, or archival materials among your review of the literature;
  • Situates your study and underlying research problem in a continuing conversation among scholars;
  • Provides an opportunity for others to determine whether a source will be helpful for their research; and,
  • Could help 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.

In addition, writing an annotated bibliography helps you develop skills related to critically reading and identifying the key points of a research study and to effectively synthesize the content in a way that helps the reader determine its validity and usefulness in relation to the research problem or topic of investigation.


Annotated Bibliographies. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Annotated Bibliographies. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Annotated Bibliography. The Waldin Writing Center. Waldin University; Hartley, James. Academic Writing and Publishing: A Practical Guide. (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 127-128; Writing an Annotated Bibliography. Assignment Structures and Samples Research and Learning Online, Monash University.

Structure and Writing Style

I.  Types

  1. Descriptive: This 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 being 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? Collectively, this type of annotated bibliography synthesizes prior research about a topic or serves as a review of the literature before conducting a broader research study.
  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 are the key findings? What conclusions or recommended actions did the author state? Collectively, this type of annotated bibliography summarizes the way in which scholars have studied and documented outcomes about a topic.
  3. Evaluative/Critical/Analytical: This annotation includes your own evaluative statements about the content of a source. It is the most common type of annotation your professor will ask you to write. Your critique may focus on describing a study's 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? Collectively, this type of annotated bibliography offers a detailed analysis and critical assessment of the research literature about a topic.

NOTE:  There are a variety of strategies you can use to critically evaluate a source based on its content, purpose, and format. A description of these strategies can be found here.


II.  Choosing Sources for Your Bibliography

There are two good strategies to begin identifying possible sources for your bibliography--one that looks back into the literature and one that looks forward.

  1. The first strategy is to identify several recently published [within the past few years] scholarly books using the USC Libraries catalog or journal articles using a comprehensive database like ProQuest Multiple about the topic of your annotated bibliography and review the sources cited by the author(s). The list of references to sources used by the author(s) can help you identify prior research sources about the topic.
  2. The second strategy is to identify one or more important books, book chapters, journal articles, research reports, or other documents on your topic and paste the title of the item into Google Scholar [e.g., from Negotiation Journal, entering the title of the article, "Civic Fusion: Moving from Certainty through Not Knowing to Curiosity"]. If it is a short title or it uses a lot of common words, place quotation marks around the title so Google Scholar searches as a phrase rather than a combination of individual words. Below the citation may be a "Cited by" reference link followed by a number. This number refers you to a list of study's that have cited that particular item after it was published.

Your method for selecting which sources to annotate depends on the purpose of the assignment and the research problem you are investigating. 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 consider including non-U.S., historical, and, if possible, foreign language sources in your bibliography.

NOTE:  Appropriate sources to include can be anything that you believe has value in understanding the research problem. Be creative in thinking about possible sources, including non-textual items, such as, films, maps, photographs, and audio recordings, or archival documents and primary source materials, such as, diaries, government documents, collections of personal correspondence, meeting minutes, and official memorandums. Consult with a librarian if you're not sure how to locate these types of materials for your bibliography.


III.  Strategies to Define the Scope of your Bibliography

It is important that the scope of sources cited and summarized in your bibliography are well-defined and sufficiently narrow in coverage to ensure that you're not overwhelmed by the number of potential items to consider including. Many of the general strategies used to narrow a topic for a research paper are the same that you can use to define the scope of what to include in an annotated bibliography. Examples include:

  • Aspect -- choose one lens through which to view the research problem, or look at just one facet of your topic [e.g., rather than 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 to be covered, the more narrow the focus [e.g., rather than political scandals of the 20th century, cite literature on political scandals during 1980s].
  • Comparative -- a list of resources that focus on comparing two or more issues related to the broader research topic can be used to narrow the scope of your bibliography [e.g., rather than college student activism during the 20th century, cite literature that compares student activism in the 1930s and the 1960s]
  • Geography -- the smaller the area of analysis, the fewer items there are to consider including in your bibliography [e.g., rather than cite sources about trade relations in West Africa, include only sources that examine trade relations between Niger and Cameroon].
  • Type -- focus your bibliography on a specific type or class of people, places, or things [e.g., rather than health care provision in Japan, cite research on health care provided to the elderly in Japan].
  • Source -- your bibliography includes specific types of materials [e.g., only books, only scholarly journal articles, only films, only archives, 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 [e.g., cite literature only about political scandals during the 1980s that took place in Great Britain].

IV.  Assessing the Relevance and Value of Sources

All the items included in your bibliography should reflect the source's contribution to understanding the research problem. In order to determine how you will use the source or define its contribution, you will need to critically evaluate the quality of the central argument within the source or, in the case of including non-textual items, determine how the source contributes to understanding the research problem [e.g., a film that profiles the life of a homeless person]. Specific elements to assess a research study include an item’s overall value in relation to other sources on the topic, its limitations, its effectiveness in defining the research problem, the methodology used, the quality of the evidence, 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 related to its content:

  • Are you interested in the way the author(s) frame the research questions or in the way the author goes about investigating the questions [the method]?
  • Does the research findings make new connections or promote new ways of understanding the problem?
  • Are you interested in the way the author(s) use a theoretical framework or a key concept?
  • Does the source refer to and analyze a particular body of evidence that you want to cite?
  • How are the author's conclusions relevant to 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. Contents may be listed alphabetically by author, arranged chronologically by publication date, or arranged under headings that list different types of sources [i.e., books, articles, research reports, etc.]. If the bibliography includes a lot of sources, items may also be subdivided thematically, by time periods of coverage or publication, or by source type. If you are unsure, ask your professor for specific guidelines in terms of length, focus, and the type of annotation you are to write.

Introduction
Your bibliography should include an introduction that describes the research problem or topic being covered by the bibliography, including any limits placed on items to be included [e.g., only material published in the last ten years], explains the method used to identify possible sources [such as databases you searched or methods used to identify sources], the rationale for selecting the sources, and, if appropriate, an explanation stating why specific types of sources were deliberately excluded. The introduction's length depends, in general, on the complexity of the topic and the variety of sources included.

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! If your professor does not have a preferred citation style, choose the type you are most familiar with or that is used predominantly within your major or area of study.

Annotation
The second part of your entry should summarize, in paragraph form, the content of the source. What you say about the source is dictated by the type of annotation you are asked to write [see above]. In most cases, however, your annotation should describe the content and provide critical commentary that evaluates the source and its relationship to the topic.

In general, the annotation should include one to three sentences about the item in the following order: 1) an introduction of the item; 2) a brief description of what the study was intended to achieve and the research methods used to gather information; 3) the scope of study [i.e., limits and boundaries of the research related to sample size, area of concern, targeted groups examined, or extent of focus on the problem]; 4) a statement about the study's usefulness in relation to your research and the topic; 5) a note concerning any limitations found in the study; 6) a summary of any recommendations or further research offered by the author(s); and, 7) a critical statement that elucidates how the source clarifies your topic or pertains to the research problem.

Things to think critically about when writing the annotation 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.]?
  • Are any special features, such as, appendices or non-textual elements effectively presented?
  • What is your overall reaction to the source?
  • If it's a website or online resource, is it up-to-date, well-organized, and easy to read, use, and navigate?

Length
An annotation can vary in length from a few sentences to a couple of pages. However, they are normally about 300 words--the length a standard paragraph. The length will depend on the purpose of the annotated bibliography [critical assessments are generally lengthier than descriptive annotations] and the type of source [e.g., books generally require a more detailed annotation than a magazine article]. If you are 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; Annotated Bibliography. Writing Skills, Student Support and Development, University of New South Wales; 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; Harner, James L. On Compiling an Annotated Bibliography. 2nd edition. New York: Modern Language Association, 2000; 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; Norton, Donna. Top 32 Effective Tips for Writing an Annotated Bibliography Top-notch study tips for A+ students blog; Writing from Sources: Writing an Annotated Bibliography. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College.