Writing an annotated bibliography for your paper is probably the most annoying, time-consuming and boring task you are going to face throughout your education. Yet, depressing as it is, each serious piece of academic writing is supposed to include one, and even the slightest mistake may call for doing the entire task all over again. If you want to save your time and your sanity, follow these tips.
What Is an Annotated Bibliography?
An annotated bibliography is an alphabetized list of all the information sources you’ve used when writing your paper (books, articles, documents, Internet pages, etc.). Each citation is accompanied by an annotation – a short (normally about 150 words) descriptive paragraph, aimed at evaluating the source relevance, quality and precision. One should note this fact particularly – annotations are not abstracts, they do not simply describe the source in question but are critical in nature.
Why Is an Annotated Bibliography Important?
Academic work is built around the citation and interconnection. No piece of writing exists in isolation – no matter how breakthrough in nature it is, it should be based on pre-existing research and have support in research done by other scientists. An annotated bibliography proves that your work is not just pulled out of a hat but has solid academic foundations in trustworthy sources of information and research. Therefore, it is your goal to provide as many sources as possible and prove that they are reliable.
In addition to that, an annotated bibliography may be an independent piece of academic writing, not a part of a larger research. Writing an annotated bibliography on a subject is a superb preparatory stage for any research project. It is always a good idea to first collect the sources and only then embark on research, but when you have to annotate each source as well, it motivates you to be more careful with your choices and be a more attentive reader.
What Should Be Reflected in an Annotated Bibliography?
Each entry of an annotated bibliography consists of two parts:
- Bibliographic Information
Bibliographic information includes all the information your selected citation style requires about a source of a particular type, formatted according to the style. We will not touch upon the specifics in this guide – there are dozens upon dozens of specific cases, and sorting through all of them will take much more space than this guide can allow. If you want to learn how you should format in each particular case, consult the respective style guide.
An annotation offers a bit more freedom. Depending on a number of factors, it may include the following:
- Summary. Sometimes it is enough to summarize the source without evaluating it: the main issues covered in the source, arguments used by the author, topics he or she elaborates on, the major contents of the source.
- Assessment. If necessary, you may evaluate the source. Was it useful? Was the information in it truthful and reliable? Is there any kind of bias on the part of the author? How valuable is it, compared with other sources? What do you consider the main goal of the author?
- Reflection. Decide how this source relates to your research. Did it contribute much to your argument? Was it helpful? Did it in any way change the way you look upon the subject in question? Can you use it for a research project?
An annotation may consist of any or all of these three parts – it all depends on your goals, the details of your assignment, the type of academic paper you are working on, and so on. The size may also vary – although usually it does not exceed 150 to 200 words; sometimes an annotation may be either a couple of sentences or several pages long. If your only goal is to summarize your sources, a hundred words is plenty. If you are asked to carry out an in-depth analysis of sources, even several pages may not be enough.
What Is the Purpose of an Annotated Bibliography?
Whether it is a separate piece of writing or a supplement for a larger work, an annotated bibliography may pursue a number of goals, and its format is largely dependent on these goals. Here are some of them:
- Review the literature available on a particular subject. This may help you estimate how much data you are going to have if you start a larger project in this area.
- Investigate the subject for further possible research. If you are not very well-versed in the topic in question, it can improve your knowledge.
- Demonstrate the quality of your research. If you show off the number and quality of the sources you’ve used to write your paper, it may serve to your advantage.
- Show examples of other neighboring subjects on the topic. These examples may prove to be interesting for the reader. In other words, provide a list of recommended further reading.
Tips on Evaluating Sources
Usually the assessment of the source’s reliability and quality is the main purpose of writing an annotation. Evaluation is carried out while you read – this way, in case you find out the source isn’t worth your attention halfway through, you will be able to avoid wasting more time than necessary.
As you read, follow these guidelines:
- Look through the index and the table of contents and read the preface. What are the declared intentions of the author? Is your topic covered sufficiently to be useful for your research?
- Look through bibliography in search for other potentially useful sources.
- What is the target audience and the main purpose of the source? Does it relate to facts, opinions or tries to influence the audience? If the source mentions facts, does it refer to other sources that can prove them? Are these sources reliable? Is the source’s style, assumptions and level of information appropriate for the kind of research you do?
- Is the source objective or biased? On the basic level it is seen from the language, but as you get to know the topic better you will be able to find biased opinions even when they are concealed.
- Is the source prone to broad generalizations?
- Is the author clearly supportive of a particular viewpoint without acknowledging other opinions?
- What about the author’s credibility? What do you know about him, organization he represents and the publisher of the source? Is the document anonymous?
- Cross-check. Can the information presented in the source be proved by any other sources?
- Is the source up-to-date? If you are dealing with some time-sensitive information, you wouldn’t want to use outdated data.
- Are all of the author’s conclusions backed up by evidence?
Types of Annotated Bibliographies
There are numerous citation styles, each with its own regulations and peculiarities. Some are more often used in particular areas of knowledge – for example, the APA style is usually associated with social and behavioral sciences – but in most cases the choice of a citation style is a matter of preference of a particular university or organization. In this guide we are going to cover four major styles:
- MLA (Modern Language Association) style;
- APA (American Psychological Association) style;
- CMS (Chicago Manual of Style) or simply Chicago style;
- Harvard style (or parenthetical referencing).
MLA style is mostly used in humanities: primarily in the English language studies, but also in other branches of linguistics, literature, literary criticism, cultural and media studies. Generally it is aimed at advanced writers: professors, graduate students, postgraduates, academic scholars and so on. At present, it is widely accepted among universities, colleges, schools and instructors working in the fields it covers, as well as more than 1,100 scholarly magazines, journals and other publications.
The main characteristics of its bibliography formatting are as follows:
- for every source you should mention its medium of publication (such as Print, Web, Film, DVD and suchlike);
- you should capitalize every word in the titles of sources except articles, conjunctions and prepositions unless one of them is the first word of a title or a subtitle;
- mark the titles of larger works, such as books or magazines, with italics and the titles of shorter works such as articles with quotation marks;
- entries should be sorted alphabetically by the last names of their authors (or editor names in case of collections). Names are typed in the following manner: a surname, first name followed by a middle name or a middle initial. Titles and degrees are omitted. Suffixes like “Senior” or “Junior”, however, should be written after the first or middle name, separated from it by a comma;
- if there are two or more sources by a particular author, list them alphabetically by the title, replacing the author’s name with three hyphens for every entry but the first one;
- sources with authors not known are listed alphabetically by their titles.
The basic format for an entry in the MLA bibliography would look like this:
- Surname, First Name. Book Title. City of Publication: Publisher, Year of Publication. Medium of Publication.
APA is primarily used in social and behavioral sciences, in publications on medicine and public health, and other scientific journals.
Basic rules of this bibliography formatting are as follows:
- all lines after the first line of each entry should be indented a half-inch from the left margin;
- when writing authors’ names, first write the surname, then the first name of each author;
- if the source has up to and including seven authors, write their last names and initials. If there are more than seven authors, write first six names in a usual manner, then put ellipses, then the name of the last author;
- longer works (books, magazines) should be italicized;
- shorter works (articles, essays) are not marked in any way;
- sources are listed alphabetically by the surname of the first author of each source;
- if there are two or more sources by the same author, list them chronologically.
The basic format for an entry in the APA bibliography looks like this:
- Surname, Initials. (Year of Publication). Article Title. Magazine Title, Issue Number, Page Numbers.
Chicago style is one of the most widespread citation styles used in publications, especially in the United States.
Basic rules of bibliography formatting are as follows:
- sources are listed alphabetically according to the first word in each entry;
- if a source has more than one author, use “and” and not ampersand;
- if the source has no known author, cite it by the title;
- write publishers’ names in full;
- write publication dates of printed works. If you cannot ascertain it, write “n.d.”;
- if possible, don’t use URLs to identify web sources. Use DOIs (Digital Object Identifiers) instead;
- entries are not numbered.
The basic format for an entry in the CMS bibliography looks like this:
- Surname, First Name. Book Title. Place of Publication: Publisher. Year of Publication.
The main peculiarity of Harvard style is parenthetical referencing. It means that abbreviated citations enclosed in parentheses are placed directly within the text, sometimes at the end of the sentence they are mentioned, sometimes within a sentence.
Main rules are as follows:
- sources are listed alphabetically by the authors’ surnames;
- journal and book titles are underlines or italicized;
- names are written like this: surname, initials;
- if there are more than two authors, the name of the last one is preceded by an ampersand;
- if the place of publication is an internationally known city (London, New York, etc.), the country is not mentioned. If it is a less known city, you should mention the country it is located in.
The basic format of the Harvard style bibliography entry looks like this:
- Surname, Initials (Year of Publication) Book Title. Edition (if available). Place of publication: Publisher.
As you may see, there is much more to an annotated bibliography than meets an eye. It is not a simple enumeration of all the sources you’ve used or was going to use for writing your paper – it is a much more comprehensive piece of work which challenges your analytical and critical abilities and teaches you how to separate academic wheat from the chaff.