Section 4.1: Synthesis of the Literature | Research


Fundamentals of Social Research

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.


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The term synthesis means to make a whole from separate parts.  This term is frequently used by researchers (and English teachers) to refer to a paper that must be constructed from a variety of different sources.  The social scientific literature review is such a paper.  When social scientists refer to the “literature,” they are talking about the scholarly papers and books related to a specific topic.  Many of these will be research reports.

A key element for the writer to keep in mind is that literature reviews are topical, and should be organized around particular topics, not particular sources.  When a writer lists a source, summarizes that source, then moves on to another source, the result is called an annotated bibliography.  These are useful but are quite different than a literature review.  When a professor assigns a paper with no further instructions, you can assume that a literature review is expected.

The idea of a literature review paper, then, is to first analyze the literature and then synthesize it into a cohesive paper.  Recall that to analyze something means to break it down and examine the component parts.  In research situations, these literature reviews are leading the reader to a point.  Often, the point of a literature review is to provide background for a research hypothesis that the author is evaluating later in the paper.

It is also common to see literature reviews standing alone; the purpose of these articles, when found in scholarly journals, is to clarify and summarize an often messy and disjointed body of literature.  Often such articles will try to identify themes, describe the current state of the art, and suggest directions for future research. Often, researchers write articles that pose more questions than answers.  When an important question exists and no research exists to answer it, a gap exists in the literature.  Gaps in the literature provide an excellent source of ideas for researchers looking for a research topic.

When preparing to write a literature review (or any scholarly paper) several things should be considered before the actual writing begins.     

Audience

The first thing an author should do before writing is to consider the audience.  Who will read the paper, article, or book once it is finished?  Effective writers tailor their writing to the audience for which it is written.  The most important aspect of writing for a particular audience is readability.  Can the audience make sense of the material that is presented without too much effort? 

The audience also affects the tone and style of writing.  Writers in the social sciences will most always use a formal tone because they want to be seen by their audience as credible.  Often, social science writers are writing for several audiences. Most writers presume to be writing only for a community of scholars.  If the work is important, this scope is too narrow. Journalists, politicians, students, and concerned citizens may all wish to read social scientific writing.  In addition, writing intended for publication must take editors and peer reviewers into consideration. Careful writers ask several questions about their audience before writing.  Some of these are as follows:

  • Can knowledge of the terminology and concepts being used be assumed, or should they be explicitly defined?
  • Should extensive background information be provided, or is a brief summary adequate?
  • What expectations does the audience have?
  • Does the audience insist on certain writing practices, styles, and conventions?
  • What is the reading level of the audience?
  • Is the audience likely to agree or disagree with the points made?

Readability

Almost every style manual available encourages writers to use plain English.  Often writers use words and sentences that are pompous in an effort to sound formal or sophisticated.  The simple fact is that people will not read unnecessarily difficult material. This is not necessarily because they do not have the reading skill, but merely because it is not worth the effort.  Several factors influence academic writers to write bloated, pompous prose that is generally not readable. The most obvious culprit is higher education.

Most social scientists are academics of some sort.  They are likely to have spent years reading the “classics.”  These classics generally embody what it is to write such that the average person will not attempt to read.  One needs only to turn to Blackstone’s Commentaries to verify this point.  Young scholars read the classics and determine that good professional writing requires the use of big words, complex sentences, and ample jargon.  Most editors come from the same background as writers and see to it that these terrible myths are perpetuated. There seems to be an unwritten rule that intelligent people write this way naturally.  However, as Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.” Alternatively, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

Several scholars have devised methods of assessing just how readable writing is.  This is most often accomplished by assigning a reading level to a piece of writing.  Many word processors (such is Microsoft’s Word) now make this relatively painless.  Several measures of readability are included in the software.  If a piece of writing is over an eighth or ninth grade reading level, it is too complicated for the average person to bother reading.  Some simple practices can do much to improve readability:

  1.  Keep sentences short.

This does not mean that writers should resort to sentences of the “see spot run” variety.  The writer must make a judgment call as to whether the length is a hindrance to understanding.

  1.  Prefer the active tense to the passive.

This results in shorter sentences that are more easily understood.

  1.  Prefer verbs to nouns.

Why would a prisoner “effect an escape” when he can more easily “flee?”

  1.  Prefer familiar words.

This is the point most painful for scholars to accept.  All too often archaic terms and jargon are used to create a formal tone.  

  1.  Avoid synonyms in strings.

Lawyers are especially guilty of this practice.  Why are contracts “null and void?” This redundancy leaves the reader wondering if there is a technical difference between “null” and “void.”

  1.  Avoid ambiguity.

Simplicity is desirable, but should not be used as an excuse for lack of precision.  Writers should state precisely what they mean, but do it in the simplest way possible.

Types and Purposes of Writing

For the professional writer in the social sciences, writing creates a visible and permanent record of ideas.  Most often, the purpose of this writing is simply to inform and explain. Thus, informative writing focuses on the topic being discussed.  This purpose stands out in stark contrast to persuasive writing. Persuasive writers seek to convince readers that their ideas are correct or superior to another.  The majority of professional writing in the social sciences is informative, often regarded as scientific. It is expected that informative writers present their topic with a minimum amount of bias.  The aim is to teach, not to preach. This obviously is not always the case. Police ethics, for example, is ultimately subjective and to treat it as scientific would amount to sophistry. This lack of objective standards does not, however, relieve the author of the responsibility to present information completely and clearly.

A common pitfall of professional writing is to allow personal biases—especially concerning strongly held beliefs—to cloud professional objectivity.  This objectivity, however, is of great importance to the writer. Once the reader detects bias in the writer’s prose, the writer’s credibility as a scholar comes into question.  Obvious ex post facto compilations of facts and figures to support a previously held belief amounts to a sermon, not a scholarly paper.  The scholar is expected to gather all information on all sides of an issue, and, like blind lady justice, carefully weigh the evidence and draw conclusions based on careful judgment.  Of course, some bias is bound to slip into even the most careful writer’s prose. Yet, when the intent of the work is to inform and not to persuade, then authors should take care to eliminate as much bias as possible.

When persuasion is the desired result, it is not enough to merely state an opinion.  As with informative writing, convincing information must be offered. This information must support the author’s point of view.

Plagiarism (another reminder)

Plagiarism means not giving credit for words or ideas borrowed from others.  When such credit is not given, the reader can only assume that the words and ideas expressed are those of the authors.  Thus, plagiarism amounts to the theft of intellectual property. Most writers know that using someone else’s exact words is wrong.  Many do not understand that using the ideas of others without giving them credit is also wrong. Generally, it is not necessary to cite sources for well-known ideas such as natural law or easily accessible facts such as the date of the last federal execution.  Less general ideas and facts, however, should be cited. Whether or not to cite a reference is often a gray area. When in doubt, cite the source.

Modification History

File Created:  07/25/2018

Last Modified:  07/25/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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