Writing an annotated bibliography

An annotated bibliography is a list of sources with brief annotations that summarise, evaluate and state the relevance of the sources. An annotated bibliography/references list takes the same form as a regular bibliography/reference list, but includes extra information that shows you have critically evaluated your sources. The length of annotations may vary as well as the level of detail.

Annotated bibliographies are used in a variety of situations. They may be assigned as a separate assessment task, particularly early in the semester or course to familiarise you with some of the texts. When conducting research projects, writing and maintaining an annotated bibliography is essential because it enables you to record how you have engaged critically with the current scholarship in your research field.

Annotated bibliographies enable you to be assessed on your ability to review the primary literature on a particular subject, to demonstrate your familiarity with the sources available in your discipline, or to indicate how your sources were significant to your purposes in writing up your research.

Writing an annotation

The annotations summarise the content of the source and outline, among other things, the author's argument, methodology and conclusions. In terms of appraising the source, the annotations may focus on the persuasiveness of the author's argument, the reliability of the evidence presented, the relationship of the source to other critics, or the usefulness of its contribution to the discipline's field of inquiry. Based on the description and critical evaluation, you are now in a position to critically assess the value of the source for an essay that you're researching.

When evaluating the reading, focus on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the work, its argument, its theory/methodology, its place within or contribution to the field, and its overall significance. For example, you may comment on the evidence, the data, case studies or examples used. When thinking about what to critique, the following questions may be helpful in helping you decide what to include:

  • Audience: For whom is this text intended?
  • Use: What could this information be used for?
  • Significance: Why is this text important? What does or could it add to discussions in your field?
  • Value: Does this text offer a particularly intelligent and complex argument, a useful update to earlier editions, or an exceptionally clear, detailed, or comprehensive treatment of its subject? Why or why not?
  • Reliability: Is this an original source, an accurate testimony, a well-researched and logical argument, etc.?
  • Theory: Does this text use - or is it influenced by - a particular theory? What are its underlying assumptions? What methodology does it use?

Because annotated bibliographies are brief, you need to be selective in terms of the information you provide. They tend to take the following format:

  • Citation: The annotation begins with a full citation of the text in the chosen referencing style (see more here on Referencing).
  • Summary: Depending on the nature of the assignment, the annotations could contain information on the purpose and scope of the work, the author's argument and main conclusions, the concepts and methods used by the author, and the potential audience for the work.
  • Critical evaluation: In terms of evaluating the source, the annotations can focus on the persuasiveness of the author's argument, the theory/methodology used, the reliability of the evidence presented, the relationship of the source to other critics, or the usefulness of its contribution to the discipline's field of inquiry and its overall significance.
  • Relevance: In terms of appraising the source, you should critically assess the value of the source for your essay. How will you use it and why.

Annotated bibliographies list the sources in alphabetical order by author surname.

Sample annotations

Below are two sample annotations from International Relations and Environmental Science.

International Relations

This first sample is an annotation from the journal article by William Tow and Brendan Taylor. The student is conducting research for an essay with the question: "Using relevant theory, analyze the key components of 'security architecture' in East Asia."

Tow, William and Brendan Taylor. "What is Asian security architecture?" Review of International Studies 36 (2010): 95-116.

This article examines the definition of the term 'security architecture' particularly in the Asian context. It argues that there is no current clear definition and that in order for progress to be made in terms of regional stability and economic performance, there needs to be a clearer understanding of the region's security objectives. After examining current theory and definitions, the article uses the US and Asia as case studies to explore current thinking around security architecture in Asia. The authors propose an alternative perspective using seven characteristics which refer broadly to design, function and structure. In general they argue that any Asian security architecture should be geographically defined, it should be unifying, designed from the "bottom-up" and focused not just on institutions and security. The article gives a comprehensive and clear idea of the current understanding of security architecture in Asia and other regions, however the article was written in 2010 so the region has been influenced by more recent events. The seven point plan is useful for exploring a potential new way of understanding security architecture but the authors do not point out the limitations that these might have in terms of acceptance from key stakeholders. Notwithstanding these weaknesses, this article will be useful in my own research as I develop a clear theoretical framework for security in East Asia and possible ways of framing security architecture for the future.

Notice how the first five sentences give a broad summary of the article including a clear summary of the authors' argument. Next the student outlines some critical evaluation of the article and finally specifically addresses how the article will be useful in answering their essay question.

Environmental Science

In this sample, the student is conducting research on increasing understanding of environmental issues in marine environments.

Cleland, Deborah, Anne Dray, Pascal Perez, and Rollan Geronimo. 2010. SimReef and ReefGame: gaming for integrated reef research and management. In Building capacity in coral reef science: An anthology of CRTR scholars' research 2010, edited by D. Cleland, J. Melbourne-Thomas, M. King and G. Sheehan. St Lucia: University of Queensland.

Deborah et al. presents two participatory gaming tools that address the need for integrative approaches to coral reef management. SimReef is a computer-based role play game designed at regional level. Tested in Mexico with policy makers and industry representatives, the model simulates coastal development trajectories and trade-offs between environmental, social and economic priorities. On the other hand, ReefGame is a local-level model and board game that helped local people and reef managers from the Philippines to explore interactions between livelihoods, reefs and fisheries. These experiences contend that using games with stakeholders can be a powerful way to educate and involve the public in coral reef management. Although the role-play games are implemented in the context of coastal resource management, this article is useful to my research because it proves that the use of visuals and other creative techniques to explore alternative options in resource management are helpful and beneficial. The main weakness of this book chapter is the limited discussion on the required conditions to make its implementation successful. The article will not form the basis of my research; however it will be supplementary information for my methodology, particularly on role-play game.

Firstly the full citation details of the source are given using Chicago style. The student begins by summarising the content of the chapter in a few short sentences. This gives the reader a good idea of what the chapter is about. They then clearly indicates the main argument of the chapter, that "using games with stakeholders can be a powerful way to educate and involve the public in coral reef management." They indicates their critical analysis by pointing out the weaknesses and in two places she states how they will use the chapter in her own research.