Paraphrasing and evaluating others' work
Adding appraisal & explaining relevance
Summarising a paper in your own way, noting what kind of publication it is and the points that seem most important to you, is a great start, but not sufficient. The next thing to do is add some evaluation – what you think about the text, why you think it should or shouldn’t be included in your review. It’s a really good idea to keep a record of what you think now, because your review in the end is going to be much more than a summary of what others have done and said – it should be primarily about what you think of the research you are reading about. The more you note your responses to readings, the more material you have to work with as you develop your argument (next week).
Why is it important to separate description of what others have said and done from what we think about it, and how we think we might use their work? I’m glad you asked (!). I think (on the basis of much experience working with novice writers) that it’s critically important to recognise what would be agreed by anyone as an accurate summary of what another has written, and what is a personal interpretation. We need to constantly practise and develop ability to distinguish between description and evaluation of reading material, because writing about others’ work is complex and delicate. The last thing you want to end up doing is misrepresenting other researchers – which can easily happen when X gets all mixed up with personal responses to X. Both are important, but we need to be able to recognise whose voice is being presented at any given moment in the discussion.
The next post on the blog illustrates the difference between description of what someone else has said or done, and evaluative response to it, and shows the progression from basic bibliographic entry to annotation.
In this example, you can see three distinct functions of the annotation. First there is a summary of the publication, then a more personal response and evaluation (what I think about it), and finally an explanation of why the source is or isn’t useful to the review I want to write (what I think I might be able to do with this information).
Breene, K 2017, ‘This tiny pacific island is officially the most plastic-polluted place on earth’, WEF, 22 May, viewed 5 March 2018.
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.
The findings of research summarised here are shocking – nowhere on earth is safe from being inundated by plastic garbage, and it poses as great a threat to the world as climate change. The statistics cited here suggest we are now using, and throwing away, 300 times the amount of plastic products than in the 1950s, and no matter where on earth an everyday plastic item is discarded (cigarette lighters, razors, toothbrushes, spoons, baby dummies), it can end up in the ocean and be moved by currents to the middle of the Pacific.
These WEF reports circulate on social media and provide useful introductions to various global issues. Although I don’t need to include this particular text in my review, it’s important because it’s one of the things that led me to the research by Lavers and Bond, and to other reports on entrepreneurial responses to this problem.
Writing this kind of annotation really helps you prepare for writing the critical discussion of literature, as it forces you to consider and note down both the information and your own thoughts about it, and how someone else’s work relates to your own research project. So as a rule, aim to make notes about other researchers’ work in these three ways:
- synopsis of the facts (what authors have done, found and said)
- comments on aspects of their research design or findings that you find interesting, new, important, problematic, limited etc
- comment about how the publication relates to your research project (what seems most useful for your own quest to answer a particular question or articulate a particular problem)
- Do you find it difficult to evaluate the research you are reading about?
- What criteria would you use to evaluate someone else’s research?
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