How to Synthesize Literature

If I had a dollar for every time I was asked, “What is synthesis?” I would probably have enough money to retire. Ok…not really, but hopefully you get the point. Synthesis eludes many graduate students who are learning how to write a research paper, thesis, or dissertation.

You might find yourself asking….

Is it summarizing?

Is it some sort of sorcery?

What IS it?

 

Well, let me first tell you what synthesis is not. Synthesis is not:

  • reporting research findings one paragraph at a time;

  • summarizing research studies;

  • reporting the results of an annotated bibliography in paragraph form; or

  • letting other authors speak for you (i.e., using quotes with no context or framing).

Synthesized writing offers up new information that you have discovered through reading and analyzing literature. It is your well-reasoned and supported take on the literature. In other words, you are combining various “parts” of the literature to form a “new whole” based on observations and conclusion you’ve drawn from the literature.  With that said, different researchers with different agendas might read the same literature and write a completely different literature review.

Same literature + different researchers with different agendas = different literature review

Features of well-synthesized writing:

  • the author’s claims are connected to evidence;

  • findings from multiple research studies are integrated to support a claim;

  • trends, patterns, differences, new understandings, and gaps are identified;

  • claims and evidence are relevant to the author’s research agenda; and

  • the author draws implications from the studies and relates them to the need for the proposed study.

Bottom line: When you synthesize you must integrate evidence and information from various studies to make connections and describe relationships between the studies. You can do this by identifying patterns (similarities, trends), differences/discrepancies, and knowledge gaps.

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