An annotated bibliography can be thought of as a summary of the research that is available on any given topic. Writing an annotated bibliography is a common task given to university students and tests their ability to research different sources, create a brief account of each one, and evaluate its merit compared to other examples.

This can sound overwhelming at first, but there is no reason to worry. Setting up an annotated bibliography can be simplified by knowing what they are for, what needs to be included, and what format they need to be in. Think of it like a cake recipe that has to be followed step by step.

Annotated bibliographies can form part of a bigger project or be a single assignment depending on what the lecturer is looking for. You can be asked to not only evaluate research resources but also critique them with supporting arguments and other conclusions.

This is how to write an annotated bibliography step by step:

Step 1: Knowing what an annotated bibliography is for

The ultimate goal of setting up an annotated bibliography is to get the student or writer more familiar with the knowledge available out there on any set topic. There are certain things that a course instructor could be looking for when reading a submitted annotated bibliography, such as:

  • Does the student have an in-depth understanding of the material included?
  • Have they added multiple different types of sources (journals, books, websites, etc)?
  • Did they highlight any sources that are particularly relevant or unique?
  • Did they organize their sources to be suitable for further research?

For you, it’s key to go into research and evaluation with the above in mind. These questions should be a driving force behind all details put into the list of sources. It helps to think about what the topic is that needs to be investigated and to weigh each source for its relevance.

Consider the reasons for including this resource in the annotated bibliography, and ask what they will bring to the table in terms of your topic. The most emphasis should be put on doing a literature review within the given field of study and noting their greatest contribution.

Step 2: How much to write in an annotated bibliography

Before starting the bibliography, it’s important to know how much to write in the first place. This is where the instructions given by the lecturer will come in handy.

An annotated bibliography is not an essay. The goal is to be concise but to still capture the main principles of the source being analyzed within a sentence or two. Annotations, in this case, should be no more than a single paragraph unless specified otherwise in the marking rubric or by a lecturer.

Only the most significant details need to be added, but full grammar rules will still apply so avoid writing in half-sentences and abbreviations. This is a test measuring how well the thesis statement is understood and what implications that research may have in the future. These are the expectations that need to be met.

It’s also worth noting that when dealing with prolific researchers and journal authors, it’s not necessary to list their other works or inspirations. The focus is on the single text at hand, so cross-referencing and in-text citations are typically not used in this kind of assignment. You only summarize the most important information here. Here's an example of a journal citation in the Harvard style:

Presser, L. and Sandberg, S. (2019) “Narrative criminology as critical criminology”, Critical criminology, 27(1), pp. 131–143.

Step 3: Evaluate research sources

Prior to writing the annotated bibliography, it’s essential to take a closer look at the sources that will be included. There are several strategies that can be used to streamline this process more effectively.

Shortlist all the sources that are most suitable to be included in the bibliography, and then make note of their strengths and weaknesses. This will help narrow down the ones that will make the final cut. Not all information is reliable information, and with the ease of self-publishing available today you need to ensure that you are using a source that will stand up to questioning.

If there is any question as to whether the research is biased or affected in another way, it's best to address this immediately and remove it from the assignment.

Some tips for finding reliable academic sources include looking for articles published exclusively in peer-reviewed journals, using educational source finders like Google Scholar, and comparing studies to cornerstone research. If all else fails, it may be useful to reach out to the lecturer directly for advice. They can recommend journal articles that are in line with the topic and reliable to use.

There is a short test used by some academics to determine whether a research source is valid or not that can be used to evaluate sources during the writing process. Known as the CRAAP test, it measures:

  • Currency of the source - it’s best not to use sources older than 5 years in most cases
  • Reliability - is it opinion or fact-based?
  • Authority - where is the source coming from?
  • Accuracy - is there supporting evidence for the research thesis?
  • Purpose - why does this research exist?

Every source used in the annotated bibliography should ideally be tested via this checklist. Take a closer look at this example:

Pridemore, W. A., Makel, M. C. and Plucker, J. A. (2018) “Replication in criminology and the social sciences”, Annual review of criminology, 1(1), pp. 19–38.

Another thing that may be helpful include looking for repeated ideas throughout the text to find the main focus points.

Step 4: Understanding the types of annotated bibliographies

There are several variations of the annotated bibliography, and they can have very different purposes and outcomes. You need to be sure exactly which one they are dealing with to avoid wasting time.

Some bibliographies are targeted towards summarization only and do not require you to add your own thoughts and evaluations. Others may require you to pick up on similarities between sources or to treat each source independently.

You may be able to add a preface with their intentions and goals or have to avoid this option altogether.

The bibliography topic will give you guidelines as to which type of write-up is needed. What matters most is that a variety of perspectives are shown and assessed in an evaluative annotation.

Reyns, B. W. (2013) “Online routines and identity theft victimization: Further expanding routine activity theory beyond direct-contact offenses”, The journal of research in crime and delinquency, 50(2), pp. 216–238.

Step 5: Structuring an annotated bibliography

Every annotated bibliography starts with the full details of the research source, followed by a short annotation or summary.

Each annotation needs to be sorted alphabetically according to the author’s last name, and be under around 200 words. Depending on the word limit given with the assignment, there are set things that need to be included such as:

  • A full bibliographic citation
  • A summary of the scope of the text
  • An outlined argument
  • Discussion of academic merit
  • Statements regarding the limitations of the source

And this is only the beginning.  As the writer of an annotated bibliography, there will also be a call to add a personal view regarding these sources.

Now let’s take a look at how a sample annotation is structured.

Firstly, it’s key to adhere to the citation style preferred by the academic department this bibliography will be submitted to. This may be APA, MLA, Harvard, or another citation method.

Lau, T. F. T..(2020) "The Concept of Anomie in Explaining Crime", Bellarmine Law Society Review11(1). Available at: https://ejournals.bc.edu/index.php/blsr/article/view/12829 (Accessed 10 February 2021).

In this article, Lau reviews different classical sociological theories surrounding anomie and how they relate to sociocultural changes throughout history. The findings of the study indicate that anomie and strain theory are still pervasive explanations for the causes of criminal tendencies today. This study provides useful supplementary information regarding research on the causes of crime.

Depending on the assignment put forward and the type of bibliography needed, the summary above can contain even further information drawn from the journal.

Step 6: Format, proofread, finalize

The final step when all has been said and done is to do the formatting of the annotated bibliography, proofread it for errors and finalize the copy before handing it in.

Formatting will largely depend on the citation style being used and requirements set by the lecturer. You need to ensure you have a clear idea of what is expected here or risk being disappointed on the day assignments are returned!

In terms of proofreading, you need to check whether they have adhered to a single citation style all throughout the bibliography and that all spelling and typing errors have been remedied.

This is often the section that is easiest to check but where students needlessly lose the most marks. It's important to use critical evaluation skills when getting ready to judge academic sources, no matter how credible they may look at first glance.

Frequently Asked Questions about annotated bibliographies

🥇 How do you write an annotated bibliography?

You'll need to give a brief overview of each literature piece included in the bibliography, providing a few different perspectives on your topic. Try to find evidence for and against it and discuss it in detail.

💬 What are the 3 parts of an annotated bibliography?

Your annotated bibliography will need to include a citation, an overview of the methods and findings, and an evaluation of the work. These three parts need to be present for every source you want to discuss.

🤼 What does an annotated bibliography look like?

The layout is similar to a reference page but includes an annotation under each listed citation. This annotation will give an overview of the citation, how the research was conducted and your opinion about it.

🔢 What are 3 types of annotations found in an annotated bibliography?

Informative, evaluative, or a combination of the two types.

Informative annotations provide a summary of the source, while evaluative annotations summarize and judge ideas positively or negatively.

📌 Do you have to in-text cite in an annotated bibliography?

You only need to include in-text citations if you refer to a separate work from the one cited in the annotation. In general, you will only make use of full citations in annotated bibliographies.

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