Best Practice

How to Write an Annotated Bibliography for Research

Turn your literature review into real insights about existing research with an annotated bibliography. This article looks at what goes into an annotated bibliography and how to format and analyze it for your research.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Introduction
  2. What is an annotated bibliography?
  3. Writing an annotated bibliography
  4. Analyzing an annotated bibliography


A literature review is more than just a collection of articles that inform your research project. For a literature review to benefit your research, you need to structure it in a way that organizes scientific knowledge and synthesizes this knowledge to justify your research project.

An annotated bibliography is one tool that provides that organization. In this article, we will explore why it's important to craft an annotated bibliography for your research and what to put into one so it can serve as a foundation for your future research inquiries.

An annotated bibliography is an important foundational step in identifying new research inquiries.

What is an annotated bibliography?

Annotated bibliographies are a tool to organize existing research in a way that helps you to demonstrate your familiarity with a particular research topic. Each annotated bibliography entry outlines each study in your literature review and includes your analysis of the study.

A bibliography refers to the full list of references included in your literature review. An annotation refers to notes, summaries, and reflections about each reference. Thus, an annotated bibliography consists of the references in your literature review and your notes on each reference.

How is it different from a literature review?

A literature review is a collection of articles on the latest research and the subsequent synthesis of the theoretical developments arising from that research. An annotated bibliography can help you achieve that synthesis by organizing the information in a systematic way and providing space for your analysis (and critiques, where appropriate).

How long is an annotated bibliography?

An annotated bibliography includes all the relevant contemporary research conducted on the topics covered by the research questions you want to address. Ultimately, the current state of the research area you are addressing will dictate the length of your literature review and annotated bibliography.

Research topics that have greater theoretical coherence will have more relevant studies, while less-explored research questions will have fewer studies. In the end, it is the up to the researcher's judgment to determine whether they have collected sufficient research for their annotated bibliography.

A well-structured annotated bibliography organizes the most relevant research in one collection. Photo by Robert Anasch.

Organization of knowledge

We've all likely made the mistake of simply downloading journal articles and other scholarly publications relevant to our research and throwing them in a folder on our computer, seldom to be read until it comes time to write our paper. At this point, these articles are just a jumble of information that is difficult to sift through. Of course, it is possible to synthesize knowledge without using annotated bibliographies, but the process will be time-consuming and tedious.

Think of information that you collect for an annotated bibliography as unstructured data that needs to be organized in a way that facilitates the identification of useful insights. Having all the existing research distilled into a succinct form is important, but providing a structure that organizes that knowledge will make it much easier to synthesize theory and present theory in your resulting research manuscripts or presentations.

Writing an annotated bibliography

An annotated bibliography is more of a visual organizer for your thoughts about the existing research than it is a required element in your paper or presentation. That said, there should be an intentional process applied to the writing of annotated bibliographies that is important to outline in this section.

Conducting a literature review

The literature review informs the annotated bibliography and the subsequent research inquiries that it provokes. Ultimately, you will want to search for the most recent scholarly articles containing the most relevant information that pertains to the concept or theory you want to research.

When putting together a literature review, remember to search for the most recent research articles outlining important theoretical developments relevant to your research question. Be sure to consult various web sites, scholarly databases, and bibliographies of key articles for research that aligns with your research interests.

How do you format an annotated bibliography?

While there is no particular standard used to write annotations, there are a few common criteria used to analyze existing research sources:

  • Bibliographic citation. Citing research papers is an important part of the research publication process. By providing a reference in the proper citation format now, you can make it easier to copy and paste this reference entry into your paper later.
  • Keywords. Articles often come with a list of keywords that make it easy for you to search for when conducting your literature review. They are also useful for determining what aspects of your research inquiry are and aren't being explored by the collected research.
  • Study description. A brief summary (typically one paragraph) of each research paper can help you conduct your literature review. Complete sentences may not be necessary, but writing your own understanding of each paper now can make writing your background section easier later on.
  • Research context. Context is important because cultural influences, historical factors, and other sociocultural resources inform the data collection and analysis. Be sure to outline the relevant details of the place in which the study was conducted.
  • Methods. The various methods employed in qualitative research look at phenomena in profoundly different ways. Make sure to list the methods for each study to identify any methodological gaps when analyzing your annotated bibliography.
  • Potential critiques. Use this space in your annotated bibliography to note what each study has overlooked in terms of theory or methods. These critiques will contribute to the problem statement that defines your research question and the resulting study.

Other items to include in your reference list might include DOI numbers, theoretical frameworks, study limitations, and any other information that would be worth sorting or filtering when you conduct your analysis.

Ultimately, the annotated bibliography format is either determined by your assignment guidelines (if it is a requirement of your coursework) or your own judgment (when you are distilling research for designing a study). Some annotated bibliographies are written in paragraph form like a series of little essays, each describing a particular bibliographic citation. Others can also take the form of a table that visually organizes the information in a form where it is easy to spot patterns and limitations.

Whatever you decide, the format should be consistent across each annotated bibliography entry. The effort it takes to consistently format your bibliography will save time later on as your collected research will be easier to read and synthesize.

If you do use your annotated bibliography in your research paper for publication, ensure that your citations conform to Modern Language Association (MLA) format, American Psychological Association (APA) format, or the reference format used in the journal to which you are submitting your research. You can refer to a publication manual like the MLA Handbook, but it's probably more helpful to look for annotated bibliography examples online that can serve as models for your own bibliography.

Doing a quick search for journal articles that synthesize existing research in a literature review might give you some useful annotated bibliography examples.

Scholarly research published online can provide many useful resources for crafting your annotated bibliography. Photo by Selina.

Analyzing an annotated bibliography

Once you have organized your literature review in an annotated bibliography, the next step is identifying useful pathways for your own research to explore. Locating the gaps in the current scholarship is a necessary task for formulating a research question, defining your theoretical framework, and designing your overall study.

The Code-Document Analysis tool in ATLAS.ti can serve as a good annotated bibliography generator. Code your collected studies and analyze those codes in the Code-Document Analysis tool to gain a sense of what theories and developments are discussed in each study. By generating a visual understanding of the current state of research, you can make it easier to define subsequent lines of research inquiry that justify the study you want to conduct.

The Code-Document Analysis tool in ATLAS.ti can serve as a good visual aid for your annotated bibliography.