More key skills for the budding addictions researcher. If you read our blog ‘five ways to bring order to your literature review’, you might recall that one of the tips was to keep an annotated bibliography. Below, we describe what this involves, and how it differs to a regular bibliography.

Annotated AND Bibliography

The citations are what you need to refer to; the annotation is your way of making sense out of it all.

There’s something about this particular combination of words …. Annotated … Bibliography … Ugh. Is this what life has become? What happened to playing tag at break-time? There are, however, several reasons why annotated biographies are better than concrete schoolyards. The main draw is that you are (usually) writing for a single person: yourself. You remember all those times when it was gone midnight, you were working on that essay that was due yesterday and you just wanted to write something like “This joker again?! Isn’t she over it by now?”, “This is ridiculous, how ON EARTH does he get this stuff funded?” or “A frankly terrible study – the fact that this was published gives me hope that I might sustain a career in this field after all.”

Well, finally you can write this and call it an essential study skill. Your annotated bibliography contains your thoughts, critiques, and idiosyncrasies. All for an audience of one (a future you) – a reader who will no doubt thank you for your entertaining, to-the-point and stunning insights into the complex (and often – lets face it – boring) literature.

A regular bibliography lists all the sources that you searched for, found, stumbled on or otherwise jotted down on napkins. The studies you gathered when your essay, assignment, dissertation, or thesis was just an idea. It is longer than a reference list, because it will include texts that have influenced your ideas, but that you haven’t necessarily referred to directly in your work.

“Creating an annotated bibliography calls for the application of a variety of intellectual skills: concise exposition, succinct analysis, and informed library research.” How to Prepare an Annotated Bibliography (Cornell University Library, 2021)

An annotated bibliography is different to both of these – it is a list of citations, with a very short (max 150-word) critical description of each source (the word ‘critical’ being very important). An annotated bibliography is not intended to be a summary or synopsis; it is your point of view. The citations are what you need to refer to; the annotation is your way of making sense out of it all.

No right or wrong

The example from the Cornell University library website is quite formal. It’s the kind of annotated biography that you could take home to meet your parents.

How can anyone else tell you that your letter from yourself to yourself is wrong? Revel in this freedom and write your notes in whichever way helps you. As the following examples show, annotated bibliographies can look very different, and very much reflect the voice and needs of the people creating them.

The example from the Cornell University library website is quite formal. It’s the kind of annotated biography that you could take home to meet your parents.

Waite, L., Goldschneider, F., & Witsberger, C. (1986). Nonfamily living and the erosion of traditional family orientations among young adults. American Sociological Review, 51, 541-554.

The authors, researchers at the Rand Corporation and Brown University, use data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Young Women and Young Men to test their hypothesis that nonfamily living by young adults alters their attitudes, values, plans, and expectations, moving them away from their belief in traditional sex roles. They find their hypothesis strongly supported in young females, while the effects were fewer in studies of young males. Increasing the time away from parents before marrying increased individualism, self-sufficiency, and changes in attitudes about families. In contrast, an earlier study by Williams cited below shows no significant gender differences in sex role attitudes as a result of nonfamily living.

In contrast, the example from the University of Leeds library website is more informal and perhaps hangs about with the cool kids at lunchtime. They’re still in the top set for everything though – annoying isn’t it?

Warburton, Penny, ‘Theorising Public Opinion: Elizabeth Hamilton’s Model of Self, Sympathy and Society’, in Women, Writing and the Public Sphere, 1700-1830, ed. by Elizabeth Eger, Charlotte Grant, Clíona Ó Gallchoir and Penny Warburton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 257-73

This article is very attentive to the philosophical nature of Hamilton’s late works. I was unsure whether I needed to read these but Warburton makes a strong case for their importance. She argues that Hamilton’s domestication of philosophical discourse is fundamental to the formation of her authorial voice.

The annot-eight

Writing an annotated bibliography is one of the few times when you can write for yourself, so make the most of it.

Of course, while these wide parameters for style and substance give you a lot of creative freedom, there’s also benefit to having basic rules to follow. Here are a few useful tips for writing an annotated bibliography that might make it easier (or at least less daunting) to start the process:

  1. Choose the appropriate reference style for your field or university, and keep a sample reference to hand. The last thing you want to do is change reference style at the last minute.
  2. While you’re reading your books and articles, think about the relevance, accuracy and quality of the source. Put this in your notes. Assess the risk of bias – it’s a good opportunity to practice this vital skill.
  3. Start your critical description with a summary of the central theme or scope of the material. Tell yourself what it is about – your future self doesn’t want to have to read the article again, they just want some reminders. Think of the reader.
  4. Make sure you put a summary of the methods into your notes. Single words work: survey, qualitative, longitudinal, brain imaging, ethnography, AUDIT-C, guesswork, and so on. You can then use Ctrl+F to find all your ‘surveys’, or ‘qualitative’ studies. This is probably how keywords started now we come to think of it.
  5. If you have made sarcastic, caustic, aggressive or withering notes about prominent researchers in your field, don’t lend them your annotated biography. If they ask if you can share it, pretend you don’t keep notes and say that you simply remember everything and give them a questioning look that says “doesn’t everyone?”. They won’t believe you, but you will have avoided creating a new, and lifelong, academic nemesis.
  6. Same advice for your showing these kinds of notes to your supervisor. They won’t understand and will probably worry.
  7. Add quotes that you know you will need. When Rob started his PhD, he found an awesome quote about robotic surgery training and how it changed how actual surgery was delivered. Over the course of his PhD he must have lost a fortnight trying (and failing) to find the quote. When you find a tasty quote, copy it into your annotated bibliography alongside the words “THIS ONE!!, DON’T FORGET”.
  8. You can (if it works for you) link your annotated bibliography to a reference manager (EndNote, Zotero etc). The internet will probably tell you how to do this. Whilst we’re on this topic, if you are bored of an afternoon, casually ask a colleague which reference manager they use. It’ll soon be time to go home.

Writing an annotated bibliography is one of the few times when you can write for yourself, so make the most of it. It is also an invaluable document for when you return to a literature or subject area that you had forgotten. Finding and reviewing the literature again will take a week, whereas going through your annotated bibliography will take an afternoon. An afternoon where you’ll have the rare pleasure of really agreeing with the author, whilst suppressing nagging thoughts that their notes are uncomfortably naïve.

by Rob Calder and Natalie Davies

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