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Summarising others' work

Simple note-taking

While it helps to copy the published abstract of journal articles into your bibliography (to remember what the paper is about), it helps much more to paraphrase that summary into your own words, because this process creates memory. You won’t have time to write careful annotations for everything you read, but it’s definitely worth doing so for publications that seem most important for your review.

A simple and effective technique for paraphrasing is to read a paper, or even just the abstract, then look away from the text and write down what you remember:

  • what is the study about?

  • what problem does it address?

  • how did they conduct the research?

  • what were the main findings?

  • why is it important?

If you can’t recall all this from one reading, go back to the text and try again. Say out loud what you recall, and write it down. Even if your paraphrasing is imperfect, just putting yourself through this process, often, trains your mind. It makes you pay attention when you read if you have to recall and write a summary, and answering these questions makes you very aware of the structure of research articles. Most importantly, this process creates a working memory of the texts read, which builds your ability to write a review. The assignment this week is based on this process.


I’m adding annotations to the bibliography that I’m developing on my blog. Starting with publication details for what looks like an interesting paper, I first copy the published abstract under the reference:

Breene, K 2017, ‘This tiny pacific island is officially the most plastic-polluted place on earth’, WEF, 22 May, viewed 5 March 2018, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/05/the-untouched-south-pacific-island-choking-on-38-million-bits-of-plastic/

An uninhabited Pacific island thousands of miles away from the nearest city has been named as the most plastic-polluted place on earth. The beaches of the World Heritage-listed Henderson Island, in the Pitcairn Group off South America, contain an estimated 38 million items of debris with a total weight of 17 tonnes. The scientists who discovered the extraordinary level of pollution say this gives the island the highest density of plastic rubbish anywhere in the world. They believe their study is a wake-up call that plastic pollution is as grave a threat as climate change.

To check that I can recall what this paper is about, I stop looking at that abstract and write a paraphrase:

This is a short report published online by the World Economic Forum last year, highlighting the extraordinary amount of plastic garbage accumulating in the oceans. It summarises a recent investigation which found more plastic garbage (in terms of density per square meter) on a remote uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean than on the mainlands from where it originates. It describes the impact of plastics pollution on wildlife, gives statistics on the increase in plastics production since the 1950s, and also refers to a 2016 report that predicts there will be more plastics than fish in the oceans by 2050.

I found the paper easy to recall because it left a strong impression on me when I first read it, but the aim here is not to repeat what is in the abstract. The point of writing my own summary of the report is to clarify to myself how it’s useful to my review. So I note the kind of publication, and the points I find important at this point in time.

To annotate your own bibliography in a way that helps you develop your thinking and writing, start by just summarising the key readings that you’re finding. Just note the facts first, keeping personal opinion out of it (we’ll look at evaluation in the next step).

Conversation starter

  • Do you find it easy or difficult to summarise and paraphrase academic papers?

  • Would it help to play with paraphrasing software? Why / why not?

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This article is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong