What’s on Your Bib? Annotated Bibliographies, Changing by Degrees

Series of books all laid out with pages open

The purpose of this article is to present an overview of why annotated bibliographies are needed in higher education, especially in doctoral education programs. The necessity for emerging scholars to build an annotated bibliography is paramount to the development of their research study. However, there are numerous types of annotated bibliographies. This article will discuss the different types of annotations and which format best facilitates the development of a ­­­­dissertation.

An annotated bibliography is a list of references supplemented with an analysis of the content of the source to reflect the utility of that source for a specific purpose (Capella University Writing Center, 2008; Stacks et al., 2018). The analysis can be focused notes, facts, or a critique of the quality or efficacy of the source. The reference information should include enough information that the reader can locate the source.

The purpose of the annotations always remains the same. An annotated bibliography develops, supports, and provides argumentation for developing a thesis. However, the annotated bibliography at the doctoral level is often used to prepare for writing a literature review and developing a research design as part of a dissertation. In this article, we present the need for doctoral annotations to be analytical in design, in order to facilitate dissertation writing.

Annotations in Higher Education

A bachelor’s degree provides foundational knowledge of broad and specific topical areas (U.S. Department of Education, 2008a). A bachelor’s-level annotated bibliography may gather foundational information from reviewed articles, books, and other sources. In some respects, the bachelor’s-level annotated bibliography is like a collection of brief book reports that describe what article, book, or other source contributed to a discussion of the theme. Annotation bibliographies at the undergraduate level should relate to a specific topic. The annotations should explain how the reviewed source relates to the topic. Karakey (2012) noted that, at a minimum, an annotated bibliography should identify the thesis and main claims or arguments of the source along with the relevance of the source to the topic of the annotated bibliography.

A master’s degree provides knowledge of broad and specific topical areas, often for application, and may be classified as professional or research-based degrees (U.S. Department of Education, 2008b). The master’s-level annotated bibliography typically gathers foundational information from reviewed articles, books, and other sources, including or adding relevant nuances for application. They often include foundational theories, models, or concepts and relevant topical background to demonstrate scope of knowledge of the topic (Torpey & Terrell, 2015).

A doctoral dissertation adds to the academic body of knowledge, including empirical research and foundational theories, models, or concepts, reflecting broad and specific topical areas (U.S. Department of Education, 2008c).   A doctoral-level annotated bibliography differs from an undergraduate and graduate annotated bibliography in that the annotation at this level includes elements of the research methodology, design, and foundational literature. Typically, a doctoral degree annotation should include sample size and strategy, assumptions and limitations, and opportunities for future research.

Types of Annotation

There are at least two major types of annotated bibliographies: descriptive and analytical (UMUCL, 2019). A descriptive annotation, sometimes referred to as a summative annotation, provides an overview or summary of the source. Descriptive annotations do not analyze the findings of the content. However, they should describe the methodology and design. These types of annotations may be stand-alone entries, or they may be comparative, referencing the other entries to give a total picture of how different articles on the topic are in conversation with each other.

An analytical, also referred to as evaluative, annotation summarizes the content, as well as analyzes the findings of the research. The author should present a narrative that includes the quality of the source and the argumentative position of the researcher. Length of annotations can also vary, from approximately 150-word paragraph to one- or two-page annotations, depending on the purpose. Doctoral level annotations typically are longer entries, given the depth of the annotation and analysis.

Annotation Format

Descriptive annotations often include three paragraphs, one for each summary element; analytical annotations are longer, depending on the purpose of the evaluation. Each annotation is for one source and should interpret the article within the theme or context. In a descriptive annotated bibliography, the annotation for each source should begin with a summary of the context and the key points of that source. The topic, method, design, foundational theory, model, or concept, and the conclusions of the study are included in this section.

Table 2 may be useful as a guide for the types of data a researcher might collect prior to drafting an annotated bibliography or literature review for an article or dissertation.

Table 2: Examples of columns that may be included in a data collection tool for an annotated bibliography

Column HeadingDescription
APA ReferenceThe reference information for each source to be reviewed
Year PublishedThe year of publication for the source
Source TypeThe type of source. Examples: dissertation, book, text book, article.
ReferencesThe number of references included in the source’s reference list.
Cited byThe number of times the source has been cited.
Lit ReviewFlag this column if used in the Review of the Literature section.
RelFlag this column if used anywhere in the manuscript.
MethodologyThe methodology used in the source: Qualitative, Quantitative or Mixed
DesignThe design used in the study.
Foundation The foundational theory, model, or concept used for the study may be >1
Literature Review ThemesThe themes discussed in the source’s review of the literature.
Variables or PhenomenonThe variables (a quantitative study) or the phenomenon (a qualitative study).
Data SourceHow the authors collected their data, i.e., specific instruments, interviews, focus groups, unnamed questionnaires, observations, or archival data or documents.
SampleThe sample for the study and the method used to select the sample.
Data AnalysisHow the authors analyzed their data.
What was made known?The results of the study.
What emerged unknown?A topic for future research, for example.
AssumptionsAssumptions were made in the study.
LimitationsThe limitations and delimitations of the study.
Key Authors CitedOn whose prior research did the study build?
Utility to Proposed StudyHow might this source be useful for your potential study?
GapFlag if the source substantiates your asserted gap in the academic literature.
BackgroundFlag if the source is historical background for your potential study.
FoundationFlag if the source is foundational for your potential study or provides relevant context for that foundation.
MethodFlag if the source supports your choice of method for your potential study.
DesignFlag if the source supports your choice of design for your potential study.
Data SourceFlag of the source supports your proposed data source.
Data CollectionFlag if the source supports your proposed data collection.
Data AnalysisFlag if the source supports your proposed data analysis.
EthicsFlag if the source provides relevant ethical considerations for your potential study
Themes 1-10: Flag if the source provides content relevant to the indicated theme for your potential study.

Knowing the purpose of the annotation is essential to compiling data from articles, books, and other sources for use in an annotated bibliography or literature review. If the purpose is to substantiate the need for a proposed empirical study or to craft a literature review for a dissertation, then more detail will be useful.


Dr. Donna Graham is a university professor and dissertation chair.   Dr. Graham holds a B.A. in Psychology and Education from Rosemont College, a M.S. in Counseling from Villanova University, a M.Ed. in Educational Technology from Rosemont College and a Doctorate in Philosophy from Capella University. 

Dr. John Bryan is a university professor, editor, and dissertation chair. Dr. Bryan holds a BA in Chemistry from University of California, San Diego, an MBA in Operations and Marketing from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey,  and a DBA in Leadership from the University of Phoenix.


Capella University. (2008). Annotated Bibliographies. Minneapolis, MN: Self. Retrieved from www.capella.edu/interactivemedia/onlineWritingCenter/downloads/annotatedBibliography.pdf

Kansas University. (2017). Bibliographies. Retrieved from http://writing.ku.edu/bibliographies

Karakey, G. (2012). Annotated bibliography: Why you should prepare one [weblog]. Retrieved May 20, 2018 from karakey.com/phdadvice/annotated-bibliography-why-you-should-prepare-one/

Stacks, G., Karper, E., Bisignani, D., & Brizee, A. (2018). Annotated bibliographies. Purdue University. Retrieved May 20, 2018 from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/614/01/

Torpey, E., & Terrell, D.(2015). Should I get a master’s degree? Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2015/article/should-i-get-a-masters-degree.htm

University of New England. (n.d.). Writing an annotated bibliography. Retrieved from https://aso-resources.une.edu.au/assignment-types/writing-an-annotated-bibliography/

U.S. Department of Education. (2008a). Structure of the U.S. Education System: Bachelor’s Degrees. U.S. Department of Education: self. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about//offices/list/ous/international/usnei/bachelors.doc

U.S. Department of Education. (2008b). Structure of the U.S. Education System: Master’s Degrees. U.S. Department of Education: self. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about//offices/list/ous/international/usnei/master.doc

U.S. Department of Education. (2008c). Structure of the U.S. Education System: Research Doctorate Degrees. U.S. Department of Education: self. Retrieved from www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ous/international/usnei/us/doctorate.doc

University of Maryland University College Library (UMUCL). (2019). How to write an annotated bibliography. Largo, MD: Self. Retrieved from https://sites.umuc.edu/library/libhow/bibliography_tutorial.cfm

University Writing Center. (2018). Annotated bibliographies. Texas A&M University: self. Retrieved May 29, 2018 from http://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/Alphabetical-List-of-Guides/Academic-Writing/Annotated-Bibliographies