Dissertation Clinic: Writing an Annotated Bibliography

Writing an Annotated Bibliography

Dr. Niall McElwee

November 2013


What exactly is an annotation?

An annotation is more than just a brief summary of an article, book, Web site or other type of publication. An annotation should provide enough information to encourage a reader decide whether he or she would like to read the entire work. In other words, if the reader were exploring the same topic as you, is this material useful and if so, why? If not, why?

How is an annotation different from an abstract?

We are often asked this one! While an abstract also summarizes an article, book, Web site or other type of publication, its purpose is purely descriptive. Although annotations can also be descriptive, crucially they also include distinctive features about a particular item. Annotations can be evaluative and critical.

What is an annotated bibliography?

Now that we understand the difference between an abstract and an annotation, let’s move one stage further. An annotated bibliography is an organized list of sources (just like a reference list). It differs from a straightforward bibliography in that each reference is followed by a paragraph length annotation, somewhere between 100–200 words in length. Annotated bibliographies may be arranged alphabetically or chronologically.

Depending on the assignment, an annotated bibliography might have different purposes:

  • Provide a literature review on a particular subject
  • Help to formulate a thesis on a subject
  • Demonstrate the research you have performed on a particular subject
  • Provide examples of major sources of information available on a topic
  • Describe items that other researchers may find of interest on a topic

Types of annotated bibliographies

There are two major types of annotated bibliographies:

  1. Descriptive or informative
  2. Analytical or critical

Descriptive or informative

A descriptive or informative annotated bibliography describes or summarizes a source as does an abstract, it describes why the source is useful for researching a particular topic or question, its distinctive features. In addition, it describes the author’s main arguments and conclusions without evaluating what the author says or concludes.

For example:

Rugby Union: A Game of Two Halves. (2014, June 9). Economist, 242(3312), 11. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com

This editorial from the Economist describes the controversy surrounding concussion injuries to players in rugby union. The author points out that many players do themselves a disservice by not admitting the full extent of on field injuries during play. The article also points out that many leading doctors in this area are now reporting significant head trauma injuries which were not seen in the past. This article is distinctive in exploring the controversy surrounding concussion injuries as it seeks opinion from medical staff, players, lawyers and coaches.

Please pay attention to the last sentence. While it points out distinctive features about the item it does not analyze the author’s conclusions.

Analytical or critical

An analytical or critical annotation not only summarizes the material, it analyzes what is being said. It examines the strengths and weaknesses of what is presented as well as describing the applicability of the author’s conclusions to the research being conducted.

For most of your annotated bibliographies, however, you will be writing analytical or critical annotations.

For example:

Rugby Union: A Game of Two Halves. (2014, June 9). Economist, 242(3312), 11. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com

This article is a good resource for those wanting to begin to explore the controversy surrounding concussion injuries, however for anyone doing serious research, one should actually examine some of the research studies that have been done in this area rather than simply take the author’s word that players are failing to report their injuries and coaches are hiding this from rugby officials in order to let the players play again in the next scheduled match.

Please pay attention to the last sentence. It criticizes the authors research.

To get started

Now you are ready to begin writing your own annotated bibliography.

  • Choose your sources Before writing your annotated bibliography, you must choose your sources. This involves doing research much like for any other project. Locate records to materials that may apply to your topic.
  • Review the items Then review the actual items and choose those that provide a wide variety of perspectives on your topic. Article abstracts are helpful in this process.
  • Write the citation and annotation When writing your annotation, the complete citation should always come first and the annotation follows. Depending on the type of annotated bibliography you are writing, you will want to include:
    1. The purpose of the work
    2. A summary of its content
    3. For what type of audience the work is written
    4. Its relevance to the topic
    5. Any special or unique features about the material
    6. The strengths, weaknesses or biases in the material

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