An annotated bibliography is an alphabetical list of information sources (e.g. journal articles or book chapters), formatted like a bibliography or a reference list, accompanied by a commentary on each source (which is called an annotation).
The specific elements that you need to incorporate, as well as the structures required, vary between units. This includes the number and type of sources, the referencing styles, as well as what you need to discuss in the annotation. It is very important that you carefully check the specific requirements of your task so that you understand exactly what is required.
This tutorial will outline some of the basic elements of an annotated bibliography.
The purpose of an annotated bibliography
In general, the purpose is to:
- learn about a particular topic through critically reviewing the literature
- provide an overview of the main issues, arguments and research within a particular area
- encourage deeper engagement with individual sources in order to develop your analytical skills
An annotated bibliography is sometimes given as an assessment task at the beginning of a research project to encourage you to survey and reflect on what has already been discovered about your topic. However, it might also be given as a stand-alone assignment to develop your research and critical thinking skills.
Structuring an annotated bibliography
Generally speaking, an annotated bibliography is made up of two parts: a reference (in some faculties this is referred to as a citation), and an annotation.
It is important to note that what is included in the reference and annotation will vary between disciplines, so it is essential to check with your assignment instructions or lecturer as to what is expected.
Writing the reference
The reference will present the details of your source (for example, a book or journal article) in accordance with the referencing style you are required to use (for example, APA or MHRA). The references are usually arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ surnames, just like in a bibliography or reference list.
For example, the reference might look like this, using MHRA style:
Halsall, Guy, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West 376-568 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Or in APA style, the same reference would look like this:
Halsall, G. (2008). Barbarian migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge University Press.
Detailed guidelines on how to properly format references are found in the Library guide on Citing and referencing.
Writing the annotation
The annotation may include one or more of the following components:
- summary or description of the source
- evaluation and analysis of the study
- reflection on its usefulness to your research
Remember, what is included depends on what your lecturer specifically asks for, so read the instructions carefully!
Activity: Elements of an annotated bibliography
Annotation: Writing a summary
The first part of an annotation is usually a summary or description. This involves briefly outlining the author’s main points, as well as providing an overview of the approach or methodology they have used.
Check the particular instructions you have been given to identify whether you need to include a summary of the source or not.
As you read each source, focus on understanding the main ideas. Take notes on the following questions, in your own words, and this will then form the basis of your summary:
- What was the aim of the research?
- What research methodologies have been used? (i.e. How was the research conducted? What methods of collecting and analysing data were used?)
- What is the main argument or research findings?
- What is the scope of the research? (i.e. What is included in the research and what is left out? What are the limitations of the research?)
- What evidence is being used to support the conclusions?
- Why was the research done? What issues were addressed?
- If appropriate to your subject area, are there any quotations that summarise the main argument?
Another way of tackling summaries is the 5WH approach:
Note that you don’t need to summarise everything in your annotated bibliography. It will usually comprise a single coherent paragraph, but sometimes you will be asked to provide a shorter summary in just one or two sentences. The information you include will depend on what you’ve been asked to do, and the purpose of the task.
The summary or description may look something like this (see below in bold). Note that the length of each is different because each entry was written to meet different requirements.
This example uses APA style
Sarkar, S. (2007). Potential of kefir as a dietetic beverage: a review. British Food Journal, 109(4), 280-290. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/00070700710736534
Sarkar (2007) examined the literature in order to determine the nutritional characteristics of kefir, as well as its potential to offer positive health benefits.
This example uses MHRA style
Goldthwaite, Richard, ‘The Florentine Palace as Domestic Architecture’, The American Historical Review, 77 (1972), 977-1012.
This article focuses on ‘domestic architecture’ in fifteenth-century Florence, namely the numerous palaces built in this period by the patriciate. Goldthwaite argues that a shift took place in the style of architecture during this period as a result of increasing individualism within society, and the breakdown of traditional family structures.
This example uses CSIRO style
Moreira, A., Diógenes, M. J., de Menonça, A., Nuno, L. and Barros, H. (2016) Chocolate consumption is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 53, 85-93. doi: 10.3233/JAD-160142
Cocoa and chocolate products have been claimed to have a number of health benefits, including on cognitive health. Moreira et al. (2016) explored the relationship between cognitive decline and chocolate consumption among 309 older people (age ≥ 65 years at commencement of study). Baseline, and follow-up (at between 2 and 9 years after baseline) data were collected for each participant through individual interviews, as well as medical examinations. Two validated tools were used in data collection: the Frequent Food Questionnaire was used to determine consumption of chocolate bars, snacks and cocoa powder over a year prior to baseline. The mini-mental state examination (MMSE) tool was used to determine cognitive function, including measure of attention, recall and language. It was found that one third of participants experienced some cognitive decline (defined as a decrease of 2 or less in MMSE score), but very few reached levels of cognitive impairment (decrease of more than 2 points in MMSE score). Detailed statistical analysis suggested that those participants with some chocolate consumption (less than one standard portion per week) had a relative risk of cognitive decline 40% lower than those who did not consume chocolate.
Activity: Identify the summary
Annotation: Writing an evaluation or critical analysis
In some units you will be asked to include an evaluation or critical analysis in your annotated bibliography.
When asked to evaluate or critically analyse a source, you are being asked to consider its strengths and limitations.
When reading the source, in addition to the questions that you have already been asking, consider also:
- What assumptions has the author made? Have they clearly expressed these assumptions?
- Does the argument flow logically? Is it complete?
- What are the limitations of the methodology being used? Is it appropriate for this study?
- Is the evidence strong enough to be lead to these conclusions?
- How does this study contribute to scholarly discussion or debate on the topic?
See the italicised section in the extract below for an example of what the evaluation or critical analysis might look like.
Dixon, S. (2007). Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. The MIT Press.
In this book, Dixon and Smith focus on the history and significance of ‘digital performance’ which they define as being ‘where computer technologies play a key role rather than a subsidiary one…’ (p. 3). The book covers both history and theory, and also considers specific case studies and artists. The authors do criticise postmodern interpretations of the arts, and digital performance in particular, but in doing so, they seem to underestimate how postmodernist theory can actually enhance our understanding of the arts.
Activity: Description or analysis
Annotation: Writing a reflection
In some units, you will be asked to include a reflection in your annotated bibliography. Most often, this is a reflection on how useful the source is for your own research (for instance, if you are writing the annotated bibliography in preparation for a research essay). However, you could be asked to reflect on how the source relates to the themes in your unit. It is important that you read your instructions carefully.
In instances where you are asked to reflect on how useful the source is for your own research, you will usually write a sentence or two stating whether or not the source will be helpful, and a brief explanation of why or why not. For example:
This article assisted me in understanding the relationship between medieval religious spaces and the performance of religious ritual. Although it did not examine French convents, which is the focus of my essay, the methodology used by the author might be applied to my own study.
This study will be useful for my assignment as it presents a detailed overview of similar literature, and contributes to the overall discussion on the role of chocolate in human wellbeing.
Activity: Identify the components A
Activity: Identify the components B
This tutorial has covered the essential components of an annotated bibliography. An annotated bibliography will usually include a reference (in some units this is referred to as a citation) and an annotation. However, it is important to read the specific instructions you have been given, as what needs to be included, and how you will structure the information, differs between units.