How to Create an Annotated Bibliography

last updated: sklar/20-jan-2006.

Typically, the first step in doing any research involves conducting a search of the literature in the area(s) related to that in which you wish to conduct your research. This is extremely important because it helps you understand what has been done in the field, what terminology people working in the field typically use, what problems people in the field view as important (and unsolved) and what areas people in the field feel warrant attention. It also helps you find out if anyone has tried your ideas before, and if they did, what their outcomes (and/or problems) were.

Generally, begin by discussing your ideas with your adviser(s), who can hopefully point you to a small number of seminal papers in the area. From there, you begin to build your annotated bibliography. This will be used, as above, to help situate your work within a specific research community (sometimes across several communities), and will help keep your notes and thoughts organized into some kind of reading journal. Once you have your annotated bibliography, it will always be the first place you go for material when you start composing workshop and conference papers, journal articles, proposals, and your thesis!

Below is a structured guideline to creating an annotated bibliography. My advice for using it is as follows: you may want to add questions to the list below, but I would caution against removing any of the questions. If you have good reason(s) for not wanting (or being able) to answer any question(s) for particular papers or fields, then make sure you write that excuse in the annotated bibliography.

For each paper that you read, do the following:

  1. citation
    Note the complete bibliographic information of the work. Include all authors' names, full title of the paper, volume in which it was found (i.e., conference proceedings, journal, magazine or periodical), date when it was published and, if available, the publisher, the page number(s) of the work in the volume in which it appeared and the names of the editor(s) of the volume (or book). Include the same information for a book, but obviously you do not need to include the periodical volume information, since it does not pertain.
  2. objective description of the paper
    What is the paper about? You can sometimes paraphrase the paper's abstract, but sometimes the abstract does not tell the whole story (some authors are better than others at writing an abstract that really describes what is in the paper). What do the authors see as their contribution?
  3. subjective review of the paper
    Did you like the paper? Did you think it was a good paper? What did you like/dislike about it?
  4. personal importance/relevance
    Does the paper relate to your area of research? If so, how? Does it point out new areas that you would like to investigate? Does it confirm or answer questions that you have had? Does the paper present a technique, concept or visualization which might be useful to you, even though perhaps the authors applied it in a different way from how you will use it?
  5. secondary references
    Make note of any follow-up references from the paper, i.e., works that the paper you are reviewing cited and you think might be interesting and or relevant for you to read as well. Note as much bibliographic information as you can in order to aid yourself in locating the paper when you are ready to read it. Often, when you start a literature search, you begin with just a couple of papers, but then by following up on references from these, you quickly develop a large list of references.