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  • Synthesizing Sources | Examples & Synthesis Matrix

Synthesizing Sources | Examples & Synthesis Matrix

Published on July 4, 2022 by Eoghan Ryan . Revised on May 31, 2023.

Synthesizing sources involves combining the work of other scholars to provide new insights. It’s a way of integrating sources that helps situate your work in relation to existing research.

Synthesizing sources involves more than just summarizing . You must emphasize how each source contributes to current debates, highlighting points of (dis)agreement and putting the sources in conversation with each other.

You might synthesize sources in your literature review to give an overview of the field or throughout your research paper when you want to position your work in relation to existing research.

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Table of contents

Example of synthesizing sources, how to synthesize sources, synthesis matrix, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about synthesizing sources.

Let’s take a look at an example where sources are not properly synthesized, and then see what can be done to improve it.

This paragraph provides no context for the information and does not explain the relationships between the sources described. It also doesn’t analyze the sources or consider gaps in existing research.

Research on the barriers to second language acquisition has primarily focused on age-related difficulties. Building on Lenneberg’s (1967) theory of a critical period of language acquisition, Johnson and Newport (1988) tested Lenneberg’s idea in the context of second language acquisition. Their research seemed to confirm that young learners acquire a second language more easily than older learners. Recent research has considered other potential barriers to language acquisition. Schepens, van Hout, and van der Slik (2022) have revealed that the difficulties of learning a second language at an older age are compounded by dissimilarity between a learner’s first language and the language they aim to acquire. Further research needs to be carried out to determine whether the difficulty faced by adult monoglot speakers is also faced by adults who acquired a second language during the “critical period.”

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To synthesize sources, group them around a specific theme or point of contention.

As you read sources, ask:

  • What questions or ideas recur? Do the sources focus on the same points, or do they look at the issue from different angles?
  • How does each source relate to others? Does it confirm or challenge the findings of past research?
  • Where do the sources agree or disagree?

Once you have a clear idea of how each source positions itself, put them in conversation with each other. Analyze and interpret their points of agreement and disagreement. This displays the relationships among sources and creates a sense of coherence.

Consider both implicit and explicit (dis)agreements. Whether one source specifically refutes another or just happens to come to different conclusions without specifically engaging with it, you can mention it in your synthesis either way.

Synthesize your sources using:

  • Topic sentences to introduce the relationship between the sources
  • Signal phrases to attribute ideas to their authors
  • Transition words and phrases to link together different ideas

To more easily determine the similarities and dissimilarities among your sources, you can create a visual representation of their main ideas with a synthesis matrix . This is a tool that you can use when researching and writing your paper, not a part of the final text.

In a synthesis matrix, each column represents one source, and each row represents a common theme or idea among the sources. In the relevant rows, fill in a short summary of how the source treats each theme or topic.

This helps you to clearly see the commonalities or points of divergence among your sources. You can then synthesize these sources in your work by explaining their relationship.

If you want to know more about ChatGPT, AI tools , citation , and plagiarism , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

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synthesize in literature definition

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Synthesizing sources means comparing and contrasting the work of other scholars to provide new insights.

It involves analyzing and interpreting the points of agreement and disagreement among sources.

You might synthesize sources in your literature review to give an overview of the field of research or throughout your paper when you want to contribute something new to existing research.

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

Topic sentences help keep your writing focused and guide the reader through your argument.

In an essay or paper , each paragraph should focus on a single idea. By stating the main idea in the topic sentence, you clarify what the paragraph is about for both yourself and your reader.

At college level, you must properly cite your sources in all essays , research papers , and other academic texts (except exams and in-class exercises).

Add a citation whenever you quote , paraphrase , or summarize information or ideas from a source. You should also give full source details in a bibliography or reference list at the end of your text.

The exact format of your citations depends on which citation style you are instructed to use. The most common styles are APA , MLA , and Chicago .

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Ryan, E. (2023, May 31). Synthesizing Sources | Examples & Synthesis Matrix. Scribbr. Retrieved February 12, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/working-with-sources/synthesizing-sources/

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synthesize in literature definition

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How to Write a Literature Review

  • 6. Synthesize
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Synthesis Visualization

Synthesis matrix example.

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  • Synthesis Worksheet

About Synthesis

Approaches to synthesis.

You can sort the literature in various ways, for example:

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How to Begin?

Read your sources carefully and find the main idea(s) of each source

Look for similarities in your sources – which sources are talking about the same main ideas? (for example, sources that discuss the historical background on your topic)

Use the worksheet (above) or synthesis matrix (below) to get organized

This work can be messy. Don't worry if you have to go through a few iterations of the worksheet or matrix as you work on your lit review!

Four Examples of Student Writing

In the four examples below, only ONE shows a good example of synthesis: the fourth column, or  Student D . For a web accessible version, click the link below the image.

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Using evidence: synthesis, synthesis video playlist.

Note that these videos were created while APA 6 was the style guide edition in use. There may be some examples of writing that have not been updated to APA 7 guidelines.

Basics of Synthesis

As you incorporate published writing into your own writing, you should aim for synthesis of the material.

Synthesizing requires critical reading and thinking in order to compare different material, highlighting similarities, differences, and connections. When writers synthesize successfully, they present new ideas based on interpretations of other evidence or arguments. You can also think of synthesis as an extension of—or a more complicated form of—analysis. One main difference is that synthesis involves multiple sources, while analysis often focuses on one source.

Conceptually, it can be helpful to think about synthesis existing at both the local (or paragraph) level and the global (or paper) level.

Local Synthesis

Local synthesis occurs at the paragraph level when writers connect individual pieces of evidence from multiple sources to support a paragraph’s main idea and advance a paper’s thesis statement. A common example in academic writing is a scholarly paragraph that includes a main idea, evidence from multiple sources, and analysis of those multiple sources together.

Global Synthesis

Global synthesis occurs at the paper (or, sometimes, section) level when writers connect ideas across paragraphs or sections to create a new narrative whole. A literature review , which can either stand alone or be a section/chapter within a capstone, is a common example of a place where global synthesis is necessary. However, in almost all academic writing, global synthesis is created by and sometimes referred to as good cohesion and flow.

Synthesis in Literature Reviews

While any types of scholarly writing can include synthesis, it is most often discussed in the context of literature reviews. Visit our literature review pages for more information about synthesis in literature reviews.

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Literature reviews: synthesis.

  • Criticality

Synthesise Information

So, how can you create paragraphs within your literature review that demonstrates your knowledge of the scholarship that has been done in your field of study?  

You will need to present a synthesis of the texts you read.  

Doug Specht, Senior Lecturer at the Westminster School of Media and Communication, explains synthesis for us in the following video:  

Synthesising Texts  

What is synthesis? 

Synthesis is an important element of academic writing, demonstrating comprehension, analysis, evaluation and original creation.  

With synthesis you extract content from different sources to create an original text. While paraphrase and summary maintain the structure of the given source(s), with synthesis you create a new structure.  

The sources will provide different perspectives and evidence on a topic. They will be put together when agreeing, contrasted when disagreeing. The sources must be referenced.  

Perfect your synthesis by showing the flow of your reasoning, expressing critical evaluation of the sources and drawing conclusions.  

When you synthesise think of "using strategic thinking to resolve a problem requiring the integration of diverse pieces of information around a structuring theme" (Mateos and Sole 2009, p448). 

Synthesis is a complex activity, which requires a high degree of comprehension and active engagement with the subject. As you progress in higher education, so increase the expectations on your abilities to synthesise. 

How to synthesise in a literature review: 

Identify themes/issues you'd like to discuss in the literature review. Think of an outline.  

Read the literature and identify these themes/issues.  

Critically analyse the texts asking: how does the text I'm reading relate to the other texts I've read on the same topic? Is it in agreement? Does it differ in its perspective? Is it stronger or weaker? How does it differ (could be scope, methods, year of publication etc.). Draw your conclusions on the state of the literature on the topic.  

Start writing your literature review, structuring it according to the outline you planned.  

Put together sources stating the same point; contrast sources presenting counter-arguments or different points.  

Present your critical analysis.  

Always provide the references. 

The best synthesis requires a "recursive process" whereby you read the source texts, identify relevant parts, take notes, produce drafts, re-read the source texts, revise your text, re-write... (Mateos and Sole, 2009). 

What is good synthesis?  

The quality of your synthesis can be assessed considering the following (Mateos and Sole, 2009, p439):  

Integration and connection of the information from the source texts around a structuring theme. 

Selection of ideas necessary for producing the synthesis. 

Appropriateness of the interpretation.  

Elaboration of the content.  

Example of Synthesis

Original texts (fictitious): 

  

Synthesis: 

Animal experimentation is a subject of heated debate. Some argue that painful experiments should be banned. Indeed it has been demonstrated that such experiments make animals suffer physically and psychologically (Chowdhury 2012; Panatta and Hudson 2016). On the other hand, it has been argued that animal experimentation can save human lives and reduce harm on humans (Smith 2008). This argument is only valid for toxicological testing, not for tests that, for example, merely improve the efficacy of a cosmetic (Turner 2015). It can be suggested that animal experimentation should be regulated to only allow toxicological risk assessment, and the suffering to the animals should be minimised.   

Bibliography

Mateos, M. and Sole, I. (2009). Synthesising Information from various texts: A Study of Procedures and Products at Different Educational Levels. European Journal of Psychology of Education,  24 (4), 435-451. Available from https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03178760 [Accessed 29 June 2021].

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How to Synthesize Written Information from Multiple Sources

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When you write a literature review or essay, you have to go beyond just summarizing the articles you’ve read – you need to synthesize the literature to show how it all fits together (and how your own research fits in).

Synthesizing simply means combining. Instead of summarizing the main points of each source in turn, you put together the ideas and findings of multiple sources in order to make an overall point.

At the most basic level, this involves looking for similarities and differences between your sources. Your synthesis should show the reader where the sources overlap and where they diverge.

Unsynthesized Example

Franz (2008) studied undergraduate online students. He looked at 17 females and 18 males and found that none of them liked APA. According to Franz, the evidence suggested that all students are reluctant to learn citations style. Perez (2010) also studies undergraduate students. She looked at 42 females and 50 males and found that males were significantly more inclined to use citation software ( p < .05). Findings suggest that females might graduate sooner. Goldstein (2012) looked at British undergraduates. Among a sample of 50, all females, all confident in their abilities to cite and were eager to write their dissertations.

Synthesized Example

Studies of undergraduate students reveal conflicting conclusions regarding relationships between advanced scholarly study and citation efficacy. Although Franz (2008) found that no participants enjoyed learning citation style, Goldstein (2012) determined in a larger study that all participants watched felt comfortable citing sources, suggesting that variables among participant and control group populations must be examined more closely. Although Perez (2010) expanded on Franz’s original study with a larger, more diverse sample…

Step 1: Organize your sources

After collecting the relevant literature, you’ve got a lot of information to work through, and no clear idea of how it all fits together.

Before you can start writing, you need to organize your notes in a way that allows you to see the relationships between sources.

One way to begin synthesizing the literature is to put your notes into a table. Depending on your topic and the type of literature you’re dealing with, there are a couple of different ways you can organize this.

Summary table

A summary table collates the key points of each source under consistent headings. This is a good approach if your sources tend to have a similar structure – for instance, if they’re all empirical papers.

Each row in the table lists one source, and each column identifies a specific part of the source. You can decide which headings to include based on what’s most relevant to the literature you’re dealing with.

For example, you might include columns for things like aims, methods, variables, population, sample size, and conclusion.

For each study, you briefly summarize each of these aspects. You can also include columns for your own evaluation and analysis.

summary table for synthesizing the literature

The summary table gives you a quick overview of the key points of each source. This allows you to group sources by relevant similarities, as well as noticing important differences or contradictions in their findings.

Synthesis matrix

A synthesis matrix is useful when your sources are more varied in their purpose and structure – for example, when you’re dealing with books and essays making various different arguments about a topic.

Each column in the table lists one source. Each row is labeled with a specific concept, topic or theme that recurs across all or most of the sources.

Then, for each source, you summarize the main points or arguments related to the theme.

synthesis matrix

The purposes of the table is to identify the common points that connect the sources, as well as identifying points where they diverge or disagree.

Step 2: Outline your structure

Now you should have a clear overview of the main connections and differences between the sources you’ve read. Next, you need to decide how you’ll group them together and the order in which you’ll discuss them.

For shorter papers, your outline can just identify the focus of each paragraph; for longer papers, you might want to divide it into sections with headings.

There are a few different approaches you can take to help you structure your synthesis.

If your sources cover a broad time period, and you found patterns in how researchers approached the topic over time, you can organize your discussion chronologically .

That doesn’t mean you just summarize each paper in chronological order; instead, you should group articles into time periods and identify what they have in common, as well as signalling important turning points or developments in the literature.

If the literature covers various different topics, you can organize it thematically .

That means that each paragraph or section focuses on a specific theme and explains how that theme is approached in the literature.

synthesizing the literature using themes

Source Used with Permission: The Chicago School

If you’re drawing on literature from various different fields or they use a wide variety of research methods, you can organize your sources methodologically .

That means grouping together studies based on the type of research they did and discussing the findings that emerged from each method.

If your topic involves a debate between different schools of thought, you can organize it theoretically .

That means comparing the different theories that have been developed and grouping together papers based on the position or perspective they take on the topic, as well as evaluating which arguments are most convincing.

Step 3: Write paragraphs with topic sentences

What sets a synthesis apart from a summary is that it combines various sources. The easiest way to think about this is that each paragraph should discuss a few different sources, and you should be able to condense the overall point of the paragraph into one sentence.

This is called a topic sentence , and it usually appears at the start of the paragraph. The topic sentence signals what the whole paragraph is about; every sentence in the paragraph should be clearly related to it.

A topic sentence can be a simple summary of the paragraph’s content:

“Early research on [x] focused heavily on [y].”

For an effective synthesis, you can use topic sentences to link back to the previous paragraph, highlighting a point of debate or critique:

“Several scholars have pointed out the flaws in this approach.” “While recent research has attempted to address the problem, many of these studies have methodological flaws that limit their validity.”

By using topic sentences, you can ensure that your paragraphs are coherent and clearly show the connections between the articles you are discussing.

As you write your paragraphs, avoid quoting directly from sources: use your own words to explain the commonalities and differences that you found in the literature.

Don’t try to cover every single point from every single source – the key to synthesizing is to extract the most important and relevant information and combine it to give your reader an overall picture of the state of knowledge on your topic.

Step 4: Revise, edit and proofread

Like any other piece of academic writing, synthesizing literature doesn’t happen all in one go – it involves redrafting, revising, editing and proofreading your work.

Checklist for Synthesis

  •   Do I introduce the paragraph with a clear, focused topic sentence?
  •   Do I discuss more than one source in the paragraph?
  •   Do I mention only the most relevant findings, rather than describing every part of the studies?
  •   Do I discuss the similarities or differences between the sources, rather than summarizing each source in turn?
  •   Do I put the findings or arguments of the sources in my own words?
  •   Is the paragraph organized around a single idea?
  •   Is the paragraph directly relevant to my research question or topic?
  •   Is there a logical transition from this paragraph to the next one?

Further Information

How to Synthesise: a Step-by-Step Approach

Help…I”ve Been Asked to Synthesize!

Learn how to Synthesise (combine information from sources)

How to write a Psychology Essay

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  • Lit Review Prep Use this template to help you evaluate your sources, create article summaries for an annotated bibliography, and a synthesis matrix for your lit review outline.

Synthesize your Information

Synthesize: combine separate elements to form a whole.

Synthesis Matrix

A synthesis matrix helps you record the main points of each source and document how sources relate to each other.

After summarizing and evaluating your sources, arrange them in a matrix or use a citation manager to help you see how they relate to each other and apply to each of your themes or variables.  

By arranging your sources by theme or variable, you can see how your sources relate to each other, and can start thinking about how you weave them together to create a narrative.

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3.2 Synthesizing literature

Learning objectives.

  • Connect the sources you read with key concepts in your research question and proposal
  • Systematize the information and facts from each source you read

Putting the pieces together

Combining separate elements into a whole is the dictionary definition of synthesis. It is a way to make connections among and between numerous and varied source materials. A literature review is not an annotated bibliography, organized by title, author, or date of publication. Rather, it is grouped by topic and argument to create a whole view of the literature relevant to your research question.

puzzle pieces on a table, unassembled

Your synthesis must demonstrate a critical analysis of the papers you collected, as well as your ability to integrate the results of your analysis into your own literature review. Each source you collect should be critically evaluated and weighed based on the criteria from Chapter 2 before you include it in your review.

Begin the synthesis process by creating a grid, table, or an outline where you will summarize your literature review findings, using common themes you have identified and the sources you have found. The summary, grid, or outline will help you compare and contrast the themes, so you can see the relationships among them as well as areas where you may need to do more searching. A basic summary table is provided in Figure 3.2. Whichever method you choose, this type of organization will help you to both understand the information you find and structure the writing of your review. Remember, although “the means of summarizing can vary, the key at this point is to make sure you understand what you’ve found and how it relates to your topic and research question” (Bennard et al., 2014, para. 10).

table with research question on top, numbered sources in the rows and purpose, methods, and results in the columns

As you read through the material you gather, look for common themes as they may provide the structure for your literature review. And, remember, writing a literature review is an iterative process. It is not unusual to go back and search academic databases for more sources of information as you read the articles you’ve collected.

Literature reviews can be organized sequentially or by topic, theme, method, results, theory, or argument. It’s important to develop categories that are meaningful and relevant to your research question. Take detailed notes on each article and use a consistent format for capturing all the information each article provides. These notes and the summary table can be done manually using note cards. However, given the amount of information you will be recording, an electronic file created in a word processing or spreadsheet (like this example Literature Search Template ) is more manageable. Examples of fields you may want to capture in your notes include:

  • Authors’ names
  • Article title
  • Publication year
  • Main purpose of the article
  • Methodology or research design
  • Participants
  • Measurement
  • Conclusions

Other fields that will be useful when you begin to synthesize the sum total of your research:

  • Specific details of the article or research that are especially relevant to your study
  • Key terms and definitions
  • Strengths or weaknesses in research design
  • Relationships to other studies
  • Possible gaps in the research or literature (for example, many research articles conclude with the statement “more research is needed in this area”)
  • Finally, note how closely each article relates to your topic. You may want to rank these as high, medium, or low relevance. For papers that you decide not to include, you may want to note your reasoning for exclusion, such as small sample size, local case study, or lacks evidence to support conclusions.

An example of how to organize summary tables by author or theme is shown in Table 3.1.

Here is an example summary table template .

Creating a topical outline

An alternative way to organize your articles for synthesis it to create an outline. After you have collected the articles you intend to use (and have put aside the ones you won’t be using), it’s time to extract as much as possible from the facts provided in those articles. You are starting your research project without a lot of hard facts on the topics you want to study, and by using the literature reviews provided in academic journal articles, you can gain a lot of knowledge about a topic in a short period of time.

a person writing down notes in a journal while seated

As you read an article in detail, try copying the information you find relevant to your research topic in a separate word processing document. Copying and pasting from PDF to Word can be a pain because PDFs are image files not documents. To make that easier, use the HTML version of the article, convert the PDF to Word in Adobe Acrobat or another PDF reader, or use “paste special” command to paste the content into Word without formatting. If it’s an old PDF, you may have to simply type out the information you need. It can be a messy job, but having all of your facts in one place is very helpful for drafting your literature review.  Of course, you will not be using other authors’ words in your own literature review, but this is a good way to start compiling your notes.

You should copy and paste any fact or argument you consider important. Some good examples include definitions of concepts, statistics about the size of the social problem, and empirical evidence about the key variables in the research question, among countless others. It’s a good idea to consult with your professor and the syllabus for the course about what they are looking for when they read your literature review. Facts for your literature review are principally found in the introduction, results, and discussion section of an empirical article or at any point in a non-empirical article. Copy and paste into your notes anything you may want to use in your literature review.

Importantly, you must make sure you note the original source of that information. Nothing is worse than searching your articles for hours only to realize you forgot to note where your facts came from. If you found a statistic that the author used in the introduction, it almost certainly came from another source that the author cited in a footnote or internal citation. You will want to check the original source to make sure the author represented the information correctly. Moreover, you may want to read the original study to learn more about your topic and discover other sources relevant to your inquiry.

Assuming you have pulled all of the facts out of multiple articles, it’s time to start thinking about how these pieces of information relate to each other. Start grouping each fact into categories and subcategories as shown in Figure 3.3. For example, a statistic stating that homeless single adults are more likely to be male may fit into a category of gender and homelessness. For each topic or subtopic you identified during your critical analysis of each paper, determine what those papers have in common. Likewise, determine which ones in the group differ. If there are contradictory findings, you may be able to identify methodological or theoretical differences that could account for the contradiction. For example, one study may sample only high-income earners or those in a rural area. Determine what general conclusions you can report about the topic or subtopic, based on all of the information you’ve found.

Create a separate document containing a topical outline that combines your facts from each source and organizes them by topic or category. As you include more facts and more sources into your topical outline, you will begin to see how each fact fits into a category and how categories are related to each other. Your category names may change over time, as may their definitions. This is a natural reflection of the learning you are doing.

A complete topical outline is a long list of facts, arranged by category about your topic. As you step back from the outline, you should understand the topic areas where you have enough information to make strong conclusions about what the literature says. You should also assess in what areas you need to do more research before you can write a robust literature review. The topical outline should serve as a transitional document between the notes you write on each source and the literature review you submit to your professor. It is important to note that they contain plagiarized information that is copied and pasted directly from the primary sources. That’s okay because these are just notes and are not meant to be turned in as your own ideas. For your final literature review, you must paraphrase these sources to avoid plagiarism. More importantly, you should keep your voice and ideas front-and-center in what you write as this is your analysis of the literature. Make strong claims and support them thoroughly using facts you found in the literature. We will pick up the task of writing your literature review in section 3.3.

Additional resources for synthesizing literature

There are many ways to approach synthesizing literature. We’ve reviewed two examples here: summary tables and topical outlines. Other examples you may encounter include annotated bibliographies and synthesis matrices. As you are learning research, find a method that works for you. Reviewing the literature is a core component of evidence-based practice in social work at any level. See the resources below if you need some additional help:

Literature Reviews: Using a Matrix to Organize Research  / Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota

Literature Review: Synthesizing Multiple Sources  / Indiana University

Writing a Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix  / Florida International University

Sample Literature Reviews Grid  / Complied by Lindsay Roberts

Killam, Laura (2013) . Literature review preparation: Creating a summary table . Includes transcript.

Key Takeaways

  • It is necessary to take notes on research articles as you read. Try to develop a system that works for you to keep your notes organized, such as a summary table.
  • Summary tables and topical outlines help researchers synthesize sources for the purpose of writing a literature review.

Image attributions

Pieces of the puzzle by congerdesign cc-0, adult diary by pexels cc-0.

  • Figure 3.2 copied from Frederiksen, L. & Phelps, S. F. (2018). Literature reviews for education and nursing graduate students. Shared under a CC-BY 4.0 license. ↵
  • This table was adapted from the work of Amanda Parsons ↵

Guidebook for Social Work Literature Reviews and Research Questions Copyright © 2020 by Rebecca Mauldin and Matthew DeCarlo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Literature Reviews

  • Introduction: What, Who & Why
  • Define a topic
  • Identify keywords
  • More search tips
  • Understand & Analyse

How to synthesise

Synthesis, a written example, synthesising tools.

  • More resources
  • Accessing help
  • Systematic Style Reviews Guide

Synthesis & theme

synthesize in literature definition

Synthesising the content of your analysis means you need to explain and provide an original interpretation of what you've read by highlighting relationships (or lack thereof), between your sources.

Organise and categorise your content into themes or patterns. Examples of themes include:

  • Chronological
  • Geographical
  • Theory, issue or question
  • Importance (most to least); or
  • Topical (general to specific).
  • Synthesis Matrix
  • 5 ways to tame the literature dragon
  • Using a matrix to organise your notes

synthesize in literature definition

How not to write.

Smith (1970) reported that bilbies come out at night and eat chocolates. Jones (1972) described the variety of beetles eaten by bilbies on their daytime trips. Wheeler (1974) reported that bilbies eat only apples.

How to write.

The elusive bilby has provoked considerable disagreement over such essential facts as whether it is diurnal or nocturnal, and what constitutes its staple diet. Smith (1970) considered them to be nocturnal whereas Jones (1972) reported that they are daytime foragers. A similar disagreement about food preference can be observed in Smith (1970) who  reported bilbies had a fondness for chocolate, and in Jones (1974) who believed bilbies eat beetles and Wheeler (1974) who maintained that apples were the staple food. However, neither chocolate nor apples are indigenous to the bilby habitat, and it seems improbable that they are the main foodstuffs for bilbies.

Grouping papers by theme

Use this matrix to group papers according to themes you have identified in your topic.

  • Literature review matrix by theme

Answering a specific question

Use this matrix to group papers according to the questions you asked when analysing your sources.

  • Literature review matrix by question

 Remember, it is common to use more than one method to record your notes.

Evaluating or scoring resources as you go can be helpful, you may like to add a column to your matrix for recording some type of coding system such as a + or -  or numerical value.

Spreadsheets: Creating Matrixes using spreadsheets can be useful if you have a lot of resources and you need to sort the information you have collected.

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Acknowledgement of Country

Grad Coach

Literature Syntheis 101

How To Synthesise The Existing Research (With Examples)

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewer: Eunice Rautenbach (DTech) | August 2023

One of the most common mistakes that students make when writing a literature review is that they err on the side of describing the existing literature rather than providing a critical synthesis of it. In this post, we’ll unpack what exactly synthesis means and show you how to craft a strong literature synthesis using practical examples.

This post is based on our popular online course, Literature Review Bootcamp . In the course, we walk you through the full process of developing a literature review, step by step. If it’s your first time writing a literature review, you definitely want to use this link to get 50% off the course (limited-time offer).

Overview: Literature Synthesis

  • What exactly does “synthesis” mean?
  • Aspect 1: Agreement
  • Aspect 2: Disagreement
  • Aspect 3: Key theories
  • Aspect 4: Contexts
  • Aspect 5: Methodologies
  • Bringing it all together

What does “synthesis” actually mean?

As a starting point, let’s quickly define what exactly we mean when we use the term “synthesis” within the context of a literature review.

Simply put, literature synthesis means going beyond just describing what everyone has said and found. Instead, synthesis is about bringing together all the information from various sources to present a cohesive assessment of the current state of knowledge in relation to your study’s research aims and questions .

Put another way, a good synthesis tells the reader exactly where the current research is “at” in terms of the topic you’re interested in – specifically, what’s known , what’s not , and where there’s a need for more research .

So, how do you go about doing this?

Well, there’s no “one right way” when it comes to literature synthesis, but we’ve found that it’s particularly useful to ask yourself five key questions when you’re working on your literature review. Having done so,  you can then address them more articulately within your actual write up. So, let’s take a look at each of these questions.

Free Webinar: Literature Review 101

1. Points Of Agreement

The first question that you need to ask yourself is: “Overall, what things seem to be agreed upon by the vast majority of the literature?”

For example, if your research aim is to identify which factors contribute toward job satisfaction, you’ll need to identify which factors are broadly agreed upon and “settled” within the literature. Naturally, there may at times be some lone contrarian that has a radical viewpoint , but, provided that the vast majority of researchers are in agreement, you can put these random outliers to the side. That is, of course, unless your research aims to explore a contrarian viewpoint and there’s a clear justification for doing so. 

Identifying what’s broadly agreed upon is an essential starting point for synthesising the literature, because you generally don’t want (or need) to reinvent the wheel or run down a road investigating something that is already well established . So, addressing this question first lays a foundation of “settled” knowledge.

Need a helping hand?

synthesize in literature definition

2. Points Of Disagreement

Related to the previous point, but on the other end of the spectrum, is the equally important question: “Where do the disagreements lie?” .

In other words, which things are not well agreed upon by current researchers? It’s important to clarify here that by disagreement, we don’t mean that researchers are (necessarily) fighting over it – just that there are relatively mixed findings within the empirical research , with no firm consensus amongst researchers.

This is a really important question to address as these “disagreements” will often set the stage for the research gap(s). In other words, they provide clues regarding potential opportunities for further research, which your study can then (hopefully) contribute toward filling. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a research gap, be sure to check out our explainer video covering exactly that .

synthesize in literature definition

3. Key Theories

The next question you need to ask yourself is: “Which key theories seem to be coming up repeatedly?” .

Within most research spaces, you’ll find that you keep running into a handful of key theories that are referred to over and over again. Apart from identifying these theories, you’ll also need to think about how they’re connected to each other. Specifically, you need to ask yourself:

  • Are they all covering the same ground or do they have different focal points  or underlying assumptions ?
  • Do some of them feed into each other and if so, is there an opportunity to integrate them into a more cohesive theory?
  • Do some of them pull in different directions ? If so, why might this be?
  • Do all of the theories define the key concepts and variables in the same way, or is there some disconnect? If so, what’s the impact of this ?

Simply put, you’ll need to pay careful attention to the key theories in your research area, as they will need to feature within your theoretical framework , which will form a critical component within your final literature review. This will set the foundation for your entire study, so it’s essential that you be critical in this area of your literature synthesis.

If this sounds a bit fluffy, don’t worry. We deep dive into the theoretical framework (as well as the conceptual framework) and look at practical examples in Literature Review Bootcamp . If you’d like to learn more, take advantage of our limited-time offer to get 60% off the standard price.

synthesize in literature definition

4. Contexts

The next question that you need to address in your literature synthesis is an important one, and that is: “Which contexts have (and have not) been covered by the existing research?” .

For example, sticking with our earlier hypothetical topic (factors that impact job satisfaction), you may find that most of the research has focused on white-collar , management-level staff within a primarily Western context, but little has been done on blue-collar workers in an Eastern context. Given the significant socio-cultural differences between these two groups, this is an important observation, as it could present a contextual research gap .

In practical terms, this means that you’ll need to carefully assess the context of each piece of literature that you’re engaging with, especially the empirical research (i.e., studies that have collected and analysed real-world data). Ideally, you should keep notes regarding the context of each study in some sort of catalogue or sheet, so that you can easily make sense of this before you start the writing phase. If you’d like, our free literature catalogue worksheet is a great tool for this task.

5. Methodological Approaches

Last but certainly not least, you need to ask yourself the question: “What types of research methodologies have (and haven’t) been used?”

For example, you might find that most studies have approached the topic using qualitative methods such as interviews and thematic analysis. Alternatively, you might find that most studies have used quantitative methods such as online surveys and statistical analysis.

But why does this matter?

Well, it can run in one of two potential directions . If you find that the vast majority of studies use a specific methodological approach, this could provide you with a firm foundation on which to base your own study’s methodology . In other words, you can use the methodologies of similar studies to inform (and justify) your own study’s research design .

On the other hand, you might argue that the lack of diverse methodological approaches presents a research gap , and therefore your study could contribute toward filling that gap by taking a different approach. For example, taking a qualitative approach to a research area that is typically approached quantitatively. Of course, if you’re going to go against the methodological grain, you’ll need to provide a strong justification for why your proposed approach makes sense. Nevertheless, it is something worth at least considering.

Regardless of which route you opt for, you need to pay careful attention to the methodologies used in the relevant studies and provide at least some discussion about this in your write-up. Again, it’s useful to keep track of this on some sort of spreadsheet or catalogue as you digest each article, so consider grabbing a copy of our free literature catalogue if you don’t have anything in place.

Looking at the methodologies of existing, similar studies will help you develop a strong research methodology for your own study.

Bringing It All Together

Alright, so we’ve looked at five important questions that you need to ask (and answer) to help you develop a strong synthesis within your literature review.  To recap, these are:

  • Which things are broadly agreed upon within the current research?
  • Which things are the subject of disagreement (or at least, present mixed findings)?
  • Which theories seem to be central to your research topic and how do they relate or compare to each other?
  • Which contexts have (and haven’t) been covered?
  • Which methodological approaches are most common?

Importantly, you’re not just asking yourself these questions for the sake of asking them – they’re not just a reflection exercise. You need to weave your answers to them into your actual literature review when you write it up. How exactly you do this will vary from project to project depending on the structure you opt for, but you’ll still need to address them within your literature review, whichever route you go.

The best approach is to spend some time actually writing out your answers to these questions, as opposed to just thinking about them in your head. Putting your thoughts onto paper really helps you flesh out your thinking . As you do this, don’t just write down the answers – instead, think about what they mean in terms of the research gap you’ll present , as well as the methodological approach you’ll take . Your literature synthesis needs to lay the groundwork for these two things, so it’s essential that you link all of it together in your mind, and of course, on paper.

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Literature Reviews pp 59–84 Cite as

Literature Synthesis

  • Ana Paula Cardoso Ermel   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-3874-9792 5 ,
  • D. P. Lacerda   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-8011-3376 6 ,
  • Maria Isabel W. M. Morandi   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-1337-1487 7 &
  • Leandro Gauss   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-5708-5912 8  
  • First Online: 31 August 2021

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  • The original version of this chapter was revised: Figure 5.1 was moved to section 5.2.9. The correction to this chapter can be found at https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-75722-9_10

This chapter addresses the concept of Literature Synthesis and classifies it as Configurative and Aggregative based upon the research approach and objectives. For each type of synthesis, its main characteristics, techniques, and applications are pointed out.

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06 february 2022.

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Reading & Writing Purposes

Reading & writing to synthesize, synthesis defined.

synthesize in literature definition

The concept of a “coherent whole” is essential to synthesis. When you synthesize in writing, you examine different types of information (ideas, examples, statistics, etc., from different sources) and different themes (perspectives and concepts) from different sources with the purpose of blending them together to help explain one main idea. So you have to look for relationships 1) among the sources’ themes and 2) between these themes and your own ideas in order to blend all of the pieces to make a coherent whole.

The concept of a “coherent whole” is important in terms of language, too. Once you examine content and choose the parts to synthesize, you need to express those parts in your own language in order to create a coherent whole in terms of writing style.

Synthesis is like combining different ingredients to make a stew. If you choose and combine carefully, with the end result (supporting your main idea) in mind, the ingredients will be both separate and well-blended, with all ingredients contributing as they should to the final taste.

View the following video for a basic definition of, and introduction to, the concept of synthesis.

As stated in the video, synthesis means combining similar information to create something new.  Reading and writing to synthesize means that you read information from many sources relating to a particular topic, question, insight, or assertion.  You extract appropriate pieces of information from each source, information that relates to your insight in some way (supporting it, negating it, offering additional detail).  You react to those pieces of information and relate them to your insight, to create something new–your own reasoned argument.

One standard example of reading and writing to synthesize is a research paper–a basic assignment in many college courses.  Skills that you develop in researching and synthesizing information also transfer to writing a business report or proposal. When you research a topic, you find information from many different sources which informs your personal thoughts and assertion about that topic.  However, reading and writing to synthesize involves more than just finding information and inserting it into an essay, report, or proposal.  You use the information you find to help create and support your own, unique thoughts.

Example of Synthesis in an Academic Setting

A research paper is the classic example of synthesis in an academic setting. You may be assigned to write a research paper in a sociology course, for example.  You may have read a number of selections dealing with different cultures, and the assignment asks you to synthesize information from these articles along with information from at least four other sources, to support your unique thesis. You start with a main idea in order to start the synthesis. You might create the following main idea: People within a culture have to both assimilate and adapt to their cultural and physical environments in order to thrive . You then might combine appropriate parts from different reading selections:

  • definition and examples of assimilation from a chapter in a sociology textbook
  • examples from researched articles on assimilation, cultural adaptation
  • examples from interviews with people who have assimilated

Your research paper would blend themes from all of these sources to support your original insight and assertion (thesis) about assimilation and adaptation.

Example of  Synthesis in a Business Setting

After receiving more than ten different requests for flex time over the last year, you’ve decided that it makes sense to institute flexible hours for the fifty workers you supervise in your department.  You research a number of other businesses and examples of companies moving to flex time, quote or summarize those, and put them all into a document, which you send to your boss.  Your request is denied, because while your boss understood that flex time worked in other companies, she could not relate your research to the actual situation in your department. If you had offered your own analysis of how different companies’ strategies would benefit your own department, the outcome might have been different and your proposal approved.  It’s worth saying again: it’s important to blend the information you find with your own purpose, whether that is a proposal at work or an essay designed to offer your own, unique thoughts, supported by research.

Reading to Synthesize

synthesize in literature definition

Synthesis builds upon analysis.  You need to be able to read and analyze the quality of a text in order to decide whether you want to bring that text into the conversation. However, reading to synthesize moves in almost an opposite direction from analysis.  As you analyze, you break the text down into its parts in order to evaluate the text.  Analysis is like taking a puzzle apart and examining each piece, or analyzing a cake to find out what the ingredients are and how they work together.

On the other hand, as you read with the purpose of synthesizing, you search for thoughts about the same focused topic, thoughts which can be similar or different, in order to get a picture of the whole ongoing conversation about that topic. Then you decide if you agree or disagree with those thoughts–you join the conversation or discourse. Synthesis is like examining puzzle pieces with the purpose of putting the whole picture together, or baking a cake with ingredients that complement each other.

The process of reading to synthesize, in itself, blends or synthesizes many reading skills, which may include the following:

  • skimming texts
  • preview questions and answers
  • reading for main idea (which may involve annotating, note taking, and more)
  • summarizing
  • analyzing the quality of the texts
  • applying chosen texts to your insight
  • reacting to the ideas in the texts

The main thing to remember as you read with the purpose of synthesizing is that your task is to find relationships among ideas.  Reading to synthesize does not merely consist of finding appropriate quotations and plugging them into an essay; instead, ideas from multiple texts need to be considered thoughtfully and linked with your own insights, reactions, and commentary.

Use an Idea Matrix to Synthesize Ideas

A idea matrix supports reading to synthesize, especially if you are reading multiple texts about a topic.  An idea matrix is a table that helps you identify and organize ideas from those texts according to their themes. It allows you to compare and contrast different insights about those themes. An idea matrix is a useful graphic, since one source may include ideas about many different themes.

Here’s one example of an idea matrix which synthesizes information from multiple sources around a specific focus.

Focus of Reading: Lessons Learned from the 1918 flu pandemic

To create an idea matrix, identify a topic around which your texts converge and state it clearly above the matrix. When you identify this focus, make sure it’s not too broad (e.g., pandemics – you’d have thousands of texts to read) or too narrow (e.g., number of U.S. deaths from the 1918 flu – you’d just need to consult one valid text for that information). The focus should be something that is part of a conversation happening among a manageable number of texts (e.g., lessons learned from the 1918 flu ).

The text column lists each source’s exact name.  It should also include the author, publication information for an eventual bibliography, url, and any other important identifying information.

The themes emerge from the sources you’ve read. You may choose to note them as paraphrases, summaries, and/or quotations.

Link to additional examples of idea matrices about different themes:

  • Anxiety in Graduate Students from Ashford University’s Writing Center
  • Thesis that makes an assertion about Democratic and Coaching Styles of Leadership

An idea matrix for reading can help you synthesize information from many texts, identify idea relationships within that information, and eventually help you formulate your own thoughts to add to the conversation.

Writing to Synthesize

Writing to synthesize involves taking those related ideas that you’ve extracted from multiple texts and incorporating them into a research paper, report, or proposal that’s structured around your own main insight, assertion, or thesis.

Don’t Do This:

In writing a document that synthesizes ideas from multiple texts, it’s the impulse of many students to summarize or paraphrase a paragraph or a whole article, insert the summary, and then move on to the next text and summary.  That’s not good practice, since it doesn’t link ideas in terms of their themes, and doesn’t focus on how those themes relate to your own ideas.

Instead , Do This:

Work from the idea matrix you built as you read different texts.  For a college research paper, turn your topic or focus statement at the top of the matrix into a thesis sentence , a sentence that makes an assertion or provides an insight offering your own informed views on the topic.  Offering your own perspective is key.  You’ll then structure the body of your essay using the groups of supporting ideas/themes you noted in the idea matrix, in whatever order you choose.  Each group gets its own topic sentence and unit of support.  And each group of supporting ideas includes your own thoughts, applications, and reactions to the texts included in that group.  One general rule is that you always structure “writing to synthesize” around your own ideas, and that you always offer your own ideas about information from each text used – that’s your contribution to the conversation.

The following video offers a clear discussion and examples to reinforce the concept of writing to synthesize.

This video about writing to synthesize researched sources incorporates information about using an idea matrix:

They Say/I Say Approach to Synthesis

Another way to think of synthesis is as though you’re joining a conversation; you’re listening to (reading) different texts, and bringing your own insight and experience to that conversation.  One good way of understanding synthesis in terms of reading and writing is to consider the “They Say/I Say” format created by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, which helps you synthesize your own ideas with the text’s. The following video, although somewhat lengthy, provides a summary of Graff’s and Birkenstein’s text.

The video below explains how to write a synthesis applying the They Say/I Say framework. There’s a useful extended example showing how a writer incorporated appropriate pieces of different texts into an essay. (Note – don’t get too caught up in the MLA/APA format details at this point – focus on the concept of synthesis and how to synthesize texts in an essay.)

Summary: Reading & Writing to Synthesize

  • Synthesis means that you’re coordinating different pieces (themes, ideas, types of information) to create a coherent and new whole.
  • All of the pieces you synthesize in a piece of writing for college need to focus around your own insight/assertion/ thesis.
  • Often, a research essay assignment will expect that you synthesize information to address and offer your unique insight about a debatable issue.
  • Synthesis itself involves blending many reading and thinking skills, such as skimming, annotating, summarizing, and analyzing, among others.
  • There are different approaches to synthesis that may help you read and write about multiple texts.  They Say/I Say helps you blend your own ideas with ideas in other texts.  An Idea Matrix helps you organize ideas from multiple texts around the focus of your own main idea.
  • Reading & Writing to Synthesize. Authored by : Susan Oaks. Project : Introduction to College Reading & Writing. License : CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial
  • video Synthesizing Information. Provided by : GCFLearnFree.org. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dEGoJdb6O0 . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
  • video They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Authored by : jilljitsu81. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2s8SWS-SZDw . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
  • image of man's face on a puzzle, with one piece askew. Authored by : Richard Reid. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : https://pixabay.com/photos/puzzle-jigsaw-jigsaw-puzzle-1487340/ . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
  • video Strategies for Synthesis. Authored by : Mary Lourdes Silva. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7HtCHtQ9w0 . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
  • video Synthesis: Definition and Examples. Provided by : WUWritingCenter. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLhkalJe7Zc . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
  • video Research Synthesis. Provided by : USU Libraries - Utah State University. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObK6J7vGnw8 . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
  • image of woman with laptop and pie chart showing relationship of parts to whole. Authored by : Tumisu. Provided by : p. Located at : https://pixabay.com/photos/analytics-charts-business-woman-3265840/ . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved

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A Guide to Evidence Synthesis: What is Evidence Synthesis?

  • Meet Our Team
  • Our Published Reviews and Protocols
  • What is Evidence Synthesis?
  • Types of Evidence Synthesis
  • Evidence Synthesis Across Disciplines
  • Finding and Appraising Existing Systematic Reviews
  • 0. Develop a Protocol
  • 1. Draft your Research Question
  • 2. Select Databases
  • 3. Select Grey Literature Sources
  • 4. Write a Search Strategy
  • 5. Register a Protocol
  • 6. Translate Search Strategies
  • 7. Citation Management
  • 8. Article Screening
  • 9. Risk of Bias Assessment
  • 10. Data Extraction
  • 11. Synthesize, Map, or Describe the Results
  • Evidence Synthesis Institute for Librarians
  • Open Access Evidence Synthesis Resources

What are Evidence Syntheses?

What are evidence syntheses.

According to the Royal Society, 'evidence synthesis' refers to the process of bringing together information from a range of sources and disciplines to inform debates and decisions on specific issues. They generally include a methodical and comprehensive literature synthesis focused on a well-formulated research question.  Their aim is to identify and synthesize all  of the scholarly research on a particular topic, including both published and unpublished studies. Evidence syntheses are conducted in an unbiased, reproducible way to provide evidence for practice and policy-making, as well as to identify gaps in the research. Evidence syntheses may also include a meta-analysis, a more quantitative process of synthesizing and visualizing data retrieved from various studies. 

Evidence syntheses are much more time-intensive than traditional literature reviews and require a multi-person research team. See this PredicTER tool to get a sense of a systematic review timeline (one type of evidence synthesis). Before embarking on an evidence synthesis, it's important to clearly identify your reasons for conducting one. For a list of types of evidence synthesis projects, see the next tab.

How Does a Traditional Literature Review Differ From an Evidence Synthesis?

How does a systematic review differ from a traditional literature review.

One commonly used form of evidence synthesis is a systematic review.  This table compares a traditional literature review with a systematic review.

Video: Reproducibility and transparent methods (Video 3:25)

Reporting Standards

There are some reporting standards for evidence syntheses. These can serve as guidelines for protocol and manuscript preparation and journals may require that these standards are followed for the review type that is being employed (e.g. systematic review, scoping review, etc). ​

  • PRISMA checklist Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) is an evidence-based minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
  • PRISMA-P Standards An updated version of the original PRISMA standards for protocol development.
  • PRISMA - ScR Reporting guidelines for scoping reviews and evidence maps
  • PRISMA-IPD Standards Extension of the original PRISMA standards for systematic reviews and meta-analyses of individual participant data.
  • EQUATOR Network The EQUATOR (Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of health Research) Network is an international initiative that seeks to improve the reliability and value of published health research literature by promoting transparent and accurate reporting and wider use of robust reporting guidelines. They provide a list of various standards for reporting in systematic reviews.

Video: Guidelines and reporting standards

PRISMA Flow Diagram

The  PRISMA  flow diagram depicts the flow of information through the different phases of an evidence synthesis. It maps the search (number of records identified), screening (number of records included and excluded), and selection (reasons for exclusion).  Many evidence syntheses include a PRISMA flow diagram in the published manuscript.

See below for resources to help you generate your own PRISMA flow diagram.

  • PRISMA Flow Diagram Tool
  • PRISMA Flow Diagram Word Template
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Chapter 7: Synthesizing Sources

Learning objectives.

At the conclusion of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • synthesize key sources connecting them with the research question and topic area.

7.1 Overview of synthesizing

7.1.1 putting the pieces together.

Combining separate elements into a whole is the dictionary definition of synthesis.  It is a way to make connections among and between numerous and varied source materials.  A literature review is not an annotated bibliography, organized by title, author, or date of publication.  Rather, it is grouped by topic to create a whole view of the literature relevant to your research question.

synthesize in literature definition

Your synthesis must demonstrate a critical analysis of the papers you collected as well as your ability to integrate the results of your analysis into your own literature review.  Each paper collected should be critically evaluated and weighed for “adequacy, appropriateness, and thoroughness” ( Garrard, 2017 ) before inclusion in your own review.  Papers that do not meet this criteria likely should not be included in your literature review.

Begin the synthesis process by creating a grid, table, or an outline where you will summarize, using common themes you have identified and the sources you have found. The summary grid or outline will help you compare and contrast the themes so you can see the relationships among them as well as areas where you may need to do more searching. Whichever method you choose, this type of organization will help you to both understand the information you find and structure the writing of your review.  Remember, although “the means of summarizing can vary, the key at this point is to make sure you understand what you’ve found and how it relates to your topic and research question” ( Bennard et al., 2014 ).

Figure 7.2 shows an example of a simplified literature summary table. In this example, individual journal citations are listed in rows. Table column headings read: purpose, methods, and results.

As you read through the material you gather, look for common themes as they may provide the structure for your literature review.  And, remember, research is an iterative process: it is not unusual to go back and search information sources for more material.

At one extreme, if you are claiming, ‘There are no prior publications on this topic,’ it is more likely that you have not found them yet and may need to broaden your search.  At another extreme, writing a complete literature review can be difficult with a well-trod topic.  Do not cite it all; instead cite what is most relevant.  If that still leaves too much to include, be sure to reference influential sources…as well as high-quality work that clearly connects to the points you make. ( Klingner, Scanlon, & Pressley, 2005 ).

7.2 Creating a summary table

Literature reviews can be organized sequentially or by topic, theme, method, results, theory, or argument.  It’s important to develop categories that are meaningful and relevant to your research question.  Take detailed notes on each article and use a consistent format for capturing all the information each article provides.  These notes and the summary table can be done manually, using note cards.  However, given the amount of information you will be recording, an electronic file created in a word processing or spreadsheet is more manageable. Examples of fields you may want to capture in your notes include:

  • Authors’ names
  • Article title
  • Publication year
  • Main purpose of the article
  • Methodology or research design
  • Participants
  • Measurement
  • Conclusions

  Other fields that will be useful when you begin to synthesize the sum total of your research:

  • Specific details of the article or research that are especially relevant to your study
  • Key terms and definitions
  • Strengths or weaknesses in research design
  • Relationships to other studies
  • Possible gaps in the research or literature (for example, many research articles conclude with the statement “more research is needed in this area”)
  • Finally, note how closely each article relates to your topic.  You may want to rank these as high, medium, or low relevance.  For papers that you decide not to include, you may want to note your reasoning for exclusion, such as ‘small sample size’, ‘local case study,’ or ‘lacks evidence to support assertion.’

This short video demonstrates how a nursing researcher might create a summary table.

7.2.1 Creating a Summary Table

synthesize in literature definition

  Summary tables can be organized by author or by theme, for example:

For a summary table template, see http://blogs.monm.edu/writingatmc/files/2013/04/Synthesis-Matrix-Template.pdf

7.3 Creating a summary outline

An alternate way to organize your articles for synthesis it to create an outline. After you have collected the articles you intend to use (and have put aside the ones you won’t be using), it’s time to identify the conclusions that can be drawn from the articles as a group.

  Based on your review of the collected articles, group them by categories.  You may wish to further organize them by topic and then chronologically or alphabetically by author.  For each topic or subtopic you identified during your critical analysis of the paper, determine what those papers have in common.  Likewise, determine which ones in the group differ.  If there are contradictory findings, you may be able to identify methodological or theoretical differences that could account for the contradiction (for example, differences in population demographics).  Determine what general conclusions you can report about the topic or subtopic as the entire group of studies relate to it.  For example, you may have several studies that agree on outcome, such as ‘hands on learning is best for science in elementary school’ or that ‘continuing education is the best method for updating nursing certification.’ In that case, you may want to organize by methodology used in the studies rather than by outcome.

Organize your outline in a logical order and prepare to write the first draft of your literature review.  That order might be from broad to more specific, or it may be sequential or chronological, going from foundational literature to more current.  Remember, “an effective literature review need not denote the entire historical record, but rather establish the raison d’etre for the current study and in doing so cite that literature distinctly pertinent for theoretical, methodological, or empirical reasons.” ( Milardo, 2015, p. 22 ).

As you organize the summarized documents into a logical structure, you are also appraising and synthesizing complex information from multiple sources.  Your literature review is the result of your research that synthesizes new and old information and creates new knowledge.

7.4 Additional resources:

Literature Reviews: Using a Matrix to Organize Research / Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota

Literature Review: Synthesizing Multiple Sources / Indiana University

Writing a Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix / Florida International University

 Sample Literature Reviews Grid / Complied by Lindsay Roberts

Select three or four articles on a single topic of interest to you. Then enter them into an outline or table in the categories you feel are important to a research question. Try both the grid and the outline if you can to see which suits you better. The attached grid contains the fields suggested in the video .

Literature Review Table  

Test yourself.

  • Select two articles from your own summary table or outline and write a paragraph explaining how and why the sources relate to each other and your review of the literature.
  • In your literature review, under what topic or subtopic will you place the paragraph you just wrote?

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Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students Copyright © by Linda Frederiksen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Literature Review How To

  • Things To Consider
  • Synthesizing Sources
  • Video Tutorials
  • Books On Literature Reviews

What is Synthesis

What is Synthesis? Synthesis writing is a form of analysis related to comparison and contrast, classification and division. On a basic level, synthesis requires the writer to pull together two or more summaries, looking for themes in each text. In synthesis, you search for the links between various materials in order to make your point. Most advanced academic writing, including literature reviews, relies heavily on synthesis. (Temple University Writing Center)  

How To Synthesize Sources in a Literature Review

Literature reviews synthesize large amounts of information and present it in a coherent, organized fashion. In a literature review you will be combining material from several texts to create a new text – your literature review.

You will use common points among the sources you have gathered to help you synthesize the material. This will help ensure that your literature review is organized by subtopic, not by source. This means various authors' names can appear and reappear throughout the literature review, and each paragraph will mention several different authors. 

When you shift from writing summaries of the content of a source to synthesizing content from sources, there is a number things you must keep in mind: 

  • Look for specific connections and or links between your sources and how those relate to your thesis or question.
  • When writing and organizing your literature review be aware that your readers need to understand how and why the information from the different sources overlap.
  • Organize your literature review by the themes you find within your sources or themes you have identified. 
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What Synthesis Methodology Should I Use? A Review and Analysis of Approaches to Research Synthesis

Kara schick-makaroff.

1 Faculty of Nursing, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada

Marjorie MacDonald

2 School of Nursing, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada

Marilyn Plummer

3 College of Nursing, Camosun College, Victoria, BC, Canada

Judy Burgess

4 Student Services, University Health Services, Victoria, BC, Canada

Wendy Neander

Associated data, additional file 1.

When we began this process, we were doctoral students and a faculty member in a research methods course. As students, we were facing a review of the literature for our dissertations. We encountered several different ways of conducting a review but were unable to locate any resources that synthesized all of the various synthesis methodologies. Our purpose is to present a comprehensive overview and assessment of the main approaches to research synthesis. We use ‘research synthesis’ as a broad overarching term to describe various approaches to combining, integrating, and synthesizing research findings.

We conducted an integrative review of the literature to explore the historical, contextual, and evolving nature of research synthesis. We searched five databases, reviewed websites of key organizations, hand-searched several journals, and examined relevant texts from the reference lists of the documents we had already obtained.

We identified four broad categories of research synthesis methodology including conventional, quantitative, qualitative, and emerging syntheses. Each of the broad categories was compared to the others on the following: key characteristics, purpose, method, product, context, underlying assumptions, unit of analysis, strengths and limitations, and when to use each approach.

Conclusions

The current state of research synthesis reflects significant advancements in emerging synthesis studies that integrate diverse data types and sources. New approaches to research synthesis provide a much broader range of review alternatives available to health and social science students and researchers.

1. Introduction

Since the turn of the century, public health emergencies have been identified worldwide, particularly related to infectious diseases. For example, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in Canada in 2002-2003, the recent Ebola epidemic in Africa, and the ongoing HIV/AIDs pandemic are global health concerns. There have also been dramatic increases in the prevalence of chronic diseases around the world [1] – [3] . These epidemiological challenges have raised concerns about the ability of health systems worldwide to address these crises. As a result, public health systems reform has been initiated in a number of countries. In Canada, as in other countries, the role of evidence to support public health reform and improve population health has been given high priority. Yet, there continues to be a significant gap between the production of evidence through research and its application in practice [4] – [5] . One strategy to address this gap has been the development of new research synthesis methodologies to deal with the time-sensitive and wide ranging evidence needs of policy makers and practitioners in all areas of health care, including public health.

As doctoral nursing students facing a review of the literature for our dissertations, and as a faculty member teaching a research methods course, we encountered several ways of conducting a research synthesis but found no comprehensive resources that discussed, compared, and contrasted various synthesis methodologies on their purposes, processes, strengths and limitations. To complicate matters, writers use terms interchangeably or use different terms to mean the same thing, and the literature is often contradictory about various approaches. Some texts [6] , [7] – [9] did provide a preliminary understanding about how research synthesis had been taken up in nursing, but these did not meet our requirements. Thus, in this article we address the need for a comprehensive overview of research synthesis methodologies to guide public health, health care, and social science researchers and practitioners.

Research synthesis is relatively new in public health but has a long history in other fields dating back to the late 1800s. Research synthesis, a research process in its own right [10] , has become more prominent in the wake of the evidence-based movement of the 1990s. Research syntheses have found their advocates and detractors in all disciplines, with challenges to the processes of systematic review and meta-analysis, in particular, being raised by critics of evidence-based healthcare [11] – [13] .

Our purpose was to conduct an integrative review of the literature to explore the historical, contextual, and evolving nature of research synthesis [14] – [15] . We synthesize and critique the main approaches to research synthesis that are relevant for public health, health care, and social scientists. Research synthesis is the overarching term we use to describe approaches to combining, aggregating, integrating, and synthesizing primary research findings. Each synthesis methodology draws on different types of findings depending on the purpose and product of the chosen synthesis (see Additional File 1 ).

3. Method of Review

Based on our current knowledge of the literature, we identified these approaches to include in our review: systematic review, meta-analysis, qualitative meta-synthesis, meta-narrative synthesis, scoping review, rapid review, realist synthesis, concept analysis, literature review, and integrative review. Our first step was to divide the synthesis types among the research team. Each member did a preliminary search to identify key texts. The team then met to develop search terms and a framework to guide the review.

Over the period of 2008 to 2012 we extensively searched the literature, updating our search at several time points, not restricting our search by date. The dates of texts reviewed range from 1967 to 2015. We used the terms above combined with the term “method* (e.g., “realist synthesis” and “method*) in the database Health Source: Academic Edition (includes Medline and CINAHL). This search yielded very few texts on some methodologies and many on others. We realized that many documents on research synthesis had not been picked up in the search. Therefore, we also searched Google Scholar, PubMed, ERIC, and Social Science Index, as well as the websites of key organizations such as the Joanna Briggs Institute, the University of York Centre for Evidence-Based Nursing, and the Cochrane Collaboration database. We hand searched several nursing, social science, public health and health policy journals. Finally, we traced relevant documents from the references in obtained texts.

We included works that met the following inclusion criteria: (1) published in English; (2) discussed the history of research synthesis; (3) explicitly described the approach and specific methods; or (4) identified issues, challenges, strengths and limitations of the particular methodology. We excluded research reports that resulted from the use of particular synthesis methodologies unless they also included criteria 2, 3, or 4 above.

Based on our search, we identified additional types of research synthesis (e.g., meta-interpretation, best evidence synthesis, critical interpretive synthesis, meta-summary, grounded formal theory). Still, we missed some important developments in meta-analysis, for example, identified by the journal's reviewers that have now been discussed briefly in the paper. The final set of 197 texts included in our review comprised theoretical, empirical, and conceptual papers, books, editorials and commentaries, and policy documents.

In our preliminary review of key texts, the team inductively developed a framework of the important elements of each method for comparison. In the next phase, each text was read carefully, and data for these elements were extracted into a table for comparison on the points of: key characteristics, purpose, methods, and product; see Additional File 1 ). Once the data were grouped and extracted, we synthesized across categories based on the following additional points of comparison: complexity of the process, degree of systematization, consideration of context, underlying assumptions, unit of analysis, and when to use each approach. In our results, we discuss our comparison of the various synthesis approaches on the elements above. Drawing only on documents for the review, ethics approval was not required.

We identified four broad categories of research synthesis methodology: Conventional, quantitative, qualitative, and emerging syntheses. From our dataset of 197 texts, we had 14 texts on conventional synthesis, 64 on quantitative synthesis, 78 on qualitative synthesis, and 41 on emerging syntheses. Table 1 provides an overview of the four types of research synthesis, definitions, types of data used, products, and examples of the methodology.

Although we group these types of synthesis into four broad categories on the basis of similarities, each type within a category has unique characteristics, which may differ from the overall group similarities. Each could be explored in greater depth to tease out their unique characteristics, but detailed comparison is beyond the scope of this article.

Additional File 1 presents one or more selected types of synthesis that represent the broad category but is not an exhaustive presentation of all types within each category. It provides more depth for specific examples from each category of synthesis on the characteristics, purpose, methods, and products than is found in Table 1 .

4.1. Key Characteristics

4.1.1. what is it.

Here we draw on two types of categorization. First, we utilize Dixon Woods et al.'s [49] classification of research syntheses as being either integrative or interpretive . (Please note that integrative syntheses are not the same as an integrative review as defined in Additional File 1 .) Second, we use Popay's [80] enhancement and epistemological models .

The defining characteristics of integrative syntheses are that they involve summarizing the data achieved by pooling data [49] . Integrative syntheses include systematic reviews, meta-analyses, as well as scoping and rapid reviews because each of these focus on summarizing data. They also define concepts from the outset (although this may not always be true in scoping or rapid reviews) and deal with a well-specified phenomenon of interest.

Interpretive syntheses are primarily concerned with the development of concepts and theories that integrate concepts [49] . The analysis in interpretive synthesis is conceptual both in process and outcome, and “the product is not aggregations of data, but theory” [49] , [p.12]. Interpretive syntheses involve induction and interpretation, and are primarily conceptual in process and outcome. Examples include integrative reviews, some systematic reviews, all of the qualitative syntheses, meta-narrative, realist and critical interpretive syntheses. Of note, both quantitative and qualitative studies can be either integrative or interpretive

The second categorization, enhancement versus epistemological , applies to those approaches that use multiple data types and sources [80] . Popay's [80] classification reflects the ways that qualitative data are valued in relation to quantitative data.

In the enhancement model , qualitative data adds something to quantitative analysis. The enhancement model is reflected in systematic reviews and meta-analyses that use some qualitative data to enhance interpretation and explanation. It may also be reflected in some rapid reviews that draw on quantitative data but use some qualitative data.

The epistemological model assumes that quantitative and qualitative data are equal and each has something unique to contribute. All of the other review approaches, except pure quantitative or qualitative syntheses, reflect the epistemological model because they value all data types equally but see them as contributing different understandings.

4.1.2. Data type

By and large, the quantitative approaches (quantitative systematic review and meta-analysis) have typically used purely quantitative data (i.e., expressed in numeric form). More recently, both Cochrane [81] and Campbell [82] collaborations are grappling with the need to, and the process of, integrating qualitative research into a systematic review. The qualitative approaches use qualitative data (i.e., expressed in words). All of the emerging synthesis types, as well as the conventional integrative review, incorporate qualitative and quantitative study designs and data.

4.1.3. Research question

Four types of research questions direct inquiry across the different types of syntheses. The first is a well-developed research question that gives direction to the synthesis (e.g., meta-analysis, systematic review, meta-study, concept analysis, rapid review, realist synthesis). The second begins as a broad general question that evolves and becomes more refined over the course of the synthesis (e.g., meta-ethnography, scoping review, meta-narrative, critical interpretive synthesis). In the third type, the synthesis begins with a phenomenon of interest and the question emerges in the analytic process (e.g., grounded formal theory). Lastly, there is no clear question, but rather a general review purpose (e.g., integrative review). Thus, the requirement for a well-defined question cuts across at least three of the synthesis types (e.g., quantitative, qualitative, and emerging).

4.1.4. Quality appraisal

This is a contested issue within and between the four synthesis categories. There are strong proponents of quality appraisal in the quantitative traditions of systematic review and meta-analysis based on the need for strong studies that will not jeopardize validity of the overall findings. Nonetheless, there is no consensus on pre-defined criteria; many scales exist that vary dramatically in composition. This has methodological implications for the credibility of findings [83] .

Specific methodologies from the conventional, qualitative, and emerging categories support quality appraisal but do so with caveats. In conventional integrative reviews appraisal is recommended, but depends on the sampling frame used in the study [18] . In meta-study, appraisal criteria are explicit but quality criteria are used in different ways depending on the specific requirements of the inquiry [54] . Among the emerging syntheses, meta-narrative review developers support appraisal of a study based on criteria from the research tradition of the primary study [67] , [84] – [85] . Realist synthesis similarly supports the use of high quality evidence, but appraisal checklists are viewed with scepticism and evidence is judged based on relevance to the research question and whether a credible inference may be drawn [69] . Like realist, critical interpretive syntheses do not judge quality using standardized appraisal instruments. They will exclude fatally flawed studies, but there is no consensus on what ‘fatally flawed’ means [49] , [71] . Appraisal is based on relevance to the inquiry, not rigor of the study.

There is no agreement on quality appraisal among qualitative meta-ethnographers with some supporting and others refuting the need for appraisal. [60] , [62] . Opponents of quality appraisal are found among authors of qualitative (grounded formal theory and concept analysis) and emerging syntheses (scoping and rapid reviews) because quality is not deemed relevant to the intention of the synthesis; the studies being reviewed are not effectiveness studies where quality is extremely important. These qualitative synthesis are often reviews of theoretical developments where the concept itself is what is important, or reviews that provide quotations from the raw data so readers can make their own judgements about the relevance and utility of the data. For example, in formal grounded theory, the purpose of theory generation and authenticity of data used to generate the theory is not as important as the conceptual category. Inaccuracies may be corrected in other ways, such as using the constant comparative method, which facilitates development of theoretical concepts that are repeatedly found in the data [86] – [87] . For pragmatic reasons, evidence is not assessed in rapid and scoping reviews, in part to produce a timely product. The issue of quality appraisal is unresolved across the terrain of research synthesis and we consider this further in our discussion.

4.2. Purpose

All research syntheses share a common purpose -- to summarize, synthesize, or integrate research findings from diverse studies. This helps readers stay abreast of the burgeoning literature in a field. Our discussion here is at the level of the four categories of synthesis. Beginning with conventional literature syntheses, the overall purpose is to attend to mature topics for the purpose of re-conceptualization or to new topics requiring preliminary conceptualization [14] . Such syntheses may be helpful to consider contradictory evidence, map shifting trends in the study of a phenomenon, and describe the emergence of research in diverse fields [14] . The purpose here is to set the stage for a study by identifying what has been done, gaps in the literature, important research questions, or to develop a conceptual framework to guide data collection and analysis.

The purpose of quantitative systematic reviews is to combine, aggregate, or integrate empirical research to be able to generalize from a group of studies and determine the limits of generalization [27] . The focus of quantitative systematic reviews has been primarily on aggregating the results of studies evaluating the effectiveness of interventions using experimental, quasi-experimental, and more recently, observational designs. Systematic reviews can be done with or without quantitative meta-analysis but a meta-analysis always takes place within the context of a systematic review. Researchers must consider the review's purpose and the nature of their data in undertaking a quantitative synthesis; this will assist in determining the approach.

The purpose of qualitative syntheses is broadly to synthesize complex health experiences, practices, or concepts arising in healthcare environments. There may be various purposes depending on the qualitative methodology. For example, in hermeneutic studies the aim may be holistic explanation or understanding of a phenomenon [42] , which is deepened by integrating the findings from multiple studies. In grounded formal theory, the aim is to produce a conceptual framework or theory expected to be applicable beyond the original study. Although not able to generalize from qualitative research in the statistical sense [88] , qualitative researchers usually do want to say something about the applicability of their synthesis to other settings or phenomena. This notion of ‘theoretical generalization’ has been referred to as ‘transferability’ [89] – [90] and is an important criterion of rigour in qualitative research. It applies equally to the products of a qualitative synthesis in which the synthesis of multiple studies on the same phenomenon strengthens the ability to draw transferable conclusions.

The overarching purpose of emerging syntheses is challenging the more traditional types of syntheses, in part by using data from both quantitative and qualitative studies with diverse designs for analysis. Beyond this, however, each emerging synthesis methodology has a unique purpose. In meta-narrative review, the purpose is to identify different research traditions in the area, synthesize a complex and diverse body of research. Critical interpretive synthesis shares this characteristic. Although a distinctive approach, critical interpretive synthesis utilizes a modification of the analytic strategies of meta-ethnography [61] (e.g., reciprocal translational analysis, refutational synthesis, and lines of argument synthesis) but goes beyond the use of these to bring a critical perspective to bear in challenging the normative or epistemological assumptions in the primary literature [72] – [73] . The unique purpose of a realist synthesis is to amalgamate complex empirical evidence and theoretical understandings within a diverse body of literature to uncover the operative mechanisms and contexts that affect the outcomes of social interventions. In a scoping review, the intention is to find key concepts, examine the range of research in an area, and identify gaps in the literature. The purpose of a rapid review is comparable to that of a scoping review, but done quickly to meet the time-sensitive information needs of policy makers.

4.3. Method

4.3.1. degree of systematization.

There are varying degrees of systematization across the categories of research synthesis. The most systematized are quantitative systematic reviews and meta-analyses. There are clear processes in each with judgments to be made at each step, although there are no agreed upon guidelines for this. The process is inherently subjective despite attempts to develop objective and systematic processes [91] – [92] . Mullen and Ramirez [27] suggest that there is often a false sense of rigour implied by the terms ‘systematic review’ and ‘meta-analysis’ because of their clearly defined procedures.

In comparison with some types of qualitative synthesis, concept analysis is quite procedural. Qualitative meta-synthesis also has defined procedures and is systematic, yet perhaps less so than concept analysis. Qualitative meta-synthesis starts in an unsystematic way but becomes more systematic as it unfolds. Procedures and frameworks exist for some of the emerging types of synthesis [e.g., [50] , [63] , [71] , [93] ] but are not linear, have considerable flexibility, and are often messy with emergent processes [85] . Conventional literature reviews tend not to be as systematic as the other three types. In fact, the lack of systematization in conventional literature synthesis was the reason for the development of more systematic quantitative [17] , [20] and qualitative [45] – [46] , [61] approaches. Some authors in the field [18] have clarified processes for integrative reviews making them more systematic and rigorous, but most conventional syntheses remain relatively unsystematic in comparison with other types.

4.3.2. Complexity of the process

Some synthesis processes are considerably more complex than others. Methodologies with clearly defined steps are arguably less complex than the more flexible and emergent ones. We know that any study encounters challenges and it is rare that a pre-determined research protocol can be followed exactly as intended. Not even the rigorous methods associated with Cochrane [81] systematic reviews and meta-analyses are always implemented exactly as intended. Even when dealing with numbers rather than words, interpretation is always part of the process. Our collective experience suggests that new methodologies (e.g., meta-narrative synthesis and realist synthesis) that integrate different data types and methods are more complex than conventional reviews or the rapid and scoping reviews.

4.4. Product

The products of research syntheses usually take three distinct formats (see Table 1 and Additional File 1 for further details). The first representation is in tables, charts, graphical displays, diagrams and maps as seen in integrative, scoping and rapid reviews, meta-analyses, and critical interpretive syntheses. The second type of synthesis product is the use of mathematical scores. Summary statements of effectiveness are mathematically displayed in meta-analyses (as an effect size), systematic reviews, and rapid reviews (statistical significance).

The third synthesis product may be a theory or theoretical framework. A mid-range theory can be produced from formal grounded theory, meta-study, meta-ethnography, and realist synthesis. Theoretical/conceptual frameworks or conceptual maps may be created in meta-narrative and critical interpretive syntheses, and integrative reviews. Concepts for use within theories are produced in concept analysis. While these three product types span the categories of research synthesis, narrative description and summary is used to present the products resulting from all methodologies.

4.5. Consideration of context

There are diverse ways that context is considered in the four broad categories of synthesis. Context may be considered to the extent that it features within primary studies for the purpose of the review. Context may also be understood as an integral aspect of both the phenomenon under study and the synthesis methodology (e.g., realist synthesis). Quantitative systematic reviews and meta-analyses have typically been conducted on studies using experimental and quasi-experimental designs and more recently observational studies, which control for contextual features to allow for understanding of the ‘true’ effect of the intervention [94] .

More recently, systematic reviews have included covariates or mediating variables (i.e., contextual factors) to help explain variability in the results across studies [27] . Context, however, is usually handled in the narrative discussion of findings rather than in the synthesis itself. This lack of attention to context has been one criticism leveled against systematic reviews and meta-analyses, which restrict the types of research designs that are considered [e.g., [95] ].

When conventional literature reviews incorporate studies that deal with context, there is a place for considering contextual influences on the intervention or phenomenon. Reviews of quantitative experimental studies tend to be devoid of contextual considerations since the original studies are similarly devoid, but context might figure prominently in a literature review that incorporates both quantitative and qualitative studies.

Qualitative syntheses have been conducted on the contextual features of a particular phenomenon [33] . Paterson et al. [54] advise researchers to attend to how context may have influenced the findings of particular primary studies. In qualitative analysis, contextual features may form categories by which the data can be compared and contrasted to facilitate interpretation. Because qualitative research is often conducted to understand a phenomenon as a whole, context may be a focus, although this varies with the qualitative methodology. At the same time, the findings in a qualitative synthesis are abstracted from the original reports and taken to a higher level of conceptualization, thus removing them from the original context.

Meta-narrative synthesis [67] , [84] , because it draws on diverse research traditions and methodologies, may incorporate context into the analysis and findings. There is not, however, an explicit step in the process that directs the analyst to consider context. Generally, the research question guiding the synthesis is an important factor in whether context will be a focus.

More recent iterations of concept analysis [47] , [96] – [97] explicitly consider context reflecting the assumption that a concept's meaning is determined by its context. Morse [47] points out, however, that Wilson's [98] approach to concept analysis, and those based on Wilson [e.g., [45] ], identify attributes that are devoid of context, while Rodgers' [96] , [99] evolutionary method considers context (e.g., antecedents, consequences, and relationships to other concepts) in concept development.

Realist synthesis [69] considers context as integral to the study. It draws on a critical realist logic of inquiry grounded in the work of Bhaskar [100] , who argues that empirical co-occurrence of events is insufficient for inferring causation. One must identify generative mechanisms whose properties are causal and, depending on the situation, may nor may not be activated [94] . Context interacts with program/intervention elements and thus cannot be differentiated from the phenomenon [69] . This approach synthesizes evidence on generative mechanisms and analyzes contextual features that activate them; the result feeds back into the context. The focus is on what works, for whom, under what conditions, why and how [68] .

4.6. Underlying Philosophical and Theoretical Assumptions

When we began our review, we ‘assumed’ that the assumptions underlying synthesis methodologies would be a distinguishing characteristic of synthesis types, and that we could compare the various types on their assumptions, explicit or implicit. We found, however, that many authors did not explicate the underlying assumptions of their methodologies, and it was difficult to infer them. Kirkevold [101] has argued that integrative reviews need to be carried out from an explicit philosophical or theoretical perspective. We argue this should be true for all types of synthesis.

Authors of some emerging synthesis approaches have been very explicit about their assumptions and philosophical underpinnings. An implicit assumption of most emerging synthesis methodologies is that quantitative systematic reviews and meta-analyses have limited utility in some fields [e.g., in public health – [13] , [102] ] and for some kinds of review questions like those about feasibility and appropriateness versus effectiveness [103] – [104] . They also assume that ontologically and epistemologically, both kinds of data can be combined. This is a significant debate in the literature because it is about the commensurability of overarching paradigms [105] but this is beyond the scope of this review.

Realist synthesis is philosophically grounded in critical realism or, as noted above, a realist logic of inquiry [93] , [99] , [106] – [107] . Key assumptions regarding the nature of interventions that inform critical realism have been described above in the section on context. See Pawson et al. [106] for more information on critical realism, the philosophical basis of realist synthesis.

Meta-narrative synthesis is explicitly rooted in a constructivist philosophy of science [108] in which knowledge is socially constructed rather than discovered, and what we take to be ‘truth’ is a matter of perspective. Reality has a pluralistic and plastic character, and there is no pre-existing ‘real world’ independent of human construction and language [109] . See Greenhalgh et al. [67] , [85] and Greenhalgh & Wong [97] for more discussion of the constructivist basis of meta-narrative synthesis.

In the case of purely quantitative or qualitative syntheses, it may be an easier matter to uncover unstated assumptions because they are likely to be shared with those of the primary studies in the genre. For example, grounded formal theory shares the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of grounded theory, rooted in the theoretical perspective of symbolic interactionism [110] – [111] and the philosophy of pragmatism [87] , [112] – [114] .

As with meta-narrative synthesis, meta-study developers identify constructivism as their interpretive philosophical foundation [54] , [88] . Epistemologically, constructivism focuses on how people construct and re-construct knowledge about a specific phenomenon, and has three main assumptions: (1) reality is seen as multiple, at times even incompatible with the phenomenon under consideration; (2) just as primary researchers construct interpretations from participants' data, meta-study researchers also construct understandings about the primary researchers' original findings. Thus, meta-synthesis is a construction of a construction, or a meta-construction; and (3) all constructions are shaped by the historical, social and ideological context in which they originated [54] . The key message here is that reports of any synthesis would benefit from an explicit identification of the underlying philosophical perspectives to facilitate a better understanding of the results, how they were derived, and how they are being interpreted.

4.7. Unit of Analysis

The unit of analysis for each category of review is generally distinct. For the emerging synthesis approaches, the unit of analysis is specific to the intention. In meta-narrative synthesis it is the storyline in diverse research traditions; in rapid review or scoping review, it depends on the focus but could be a concept; and in realist synthesis, it is the theories rather than programs that are the units of analysis. The elements of theory that are important in the analysis are mechanisms of action, the context, and the outcome [107] .

For qualitative synthesis, the units of analysis are generally themes, concepts or theories, although in meta-study, the units of analysis can be research findings (“meta-data-analysis”), research methods (“meta-method”) or philosophical/theoretical perspectives (“meta-theory”) [54] . In quantitative synthesis, the units of analysis range from specific statistics for systematic reviews to effect size of the intervention for meta-analysis. More recently, some systematic reviews focus on theories [115] – [116] , therefore it depends on the research question. Similarly, within conventional literature synthesis the units of analysis also depend on the research purpose, focus and question as well as on the type of research methods incorporated into the review. What is important in all research syntheses, however, is that the unit of analysis needs to be made explicit. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

4.8. Strengths and Limitations

In this section, we discuss the overarching strengths and limitations of synthesis methodologies as a whole and then highlight strengths and weaknesses across each of our four categories of synthesis.

4.8.1. Strengths of Research Syntheses in General

With the vast proliferation of research reports and the increased ease of retrieval, research synthesis has become more accessible providing a way of looking broadly at the current state of research. The availability of syntheses helps researchers, practitioners, and policy makers keep up with the burgeoning literature in their fields without which evidence-informed policy or practice would be difficult. Syntheses explain variation and difference in the data helping us identify the relevance for our own situations; they identify gaps in the literature leading to new research questions and study designs. They help us to know when to replicate a study and when to avoid excessively duplicating research. Syntheses can inform policy and practice in a way that well-designed single studies cannot; they provide building blocks for theory that helps us to understand and explain our phenomena of interest.

4.8.2. Limitations of Research Syntheses in General

The process of selecting, combining, integrating, and synthesizing across diverse study designs and data types can be complex and potentially rife with bias, even with those methodologies that have clearly defined steps. Just because a rigorous and standardized approach has been used does not mean that implicit judgements will not influence the interpretations and choices made at different stages.

In all types of synthesis, the quantity of data can be considerable, requiring difficult decisions about scope, which may affect relevance. The quantity of available data also has implications for the size of the research team. Few reviews these days can be done independently, in particular because decisions about inclusion and exclusion may require the involvement of more than one person to ensure reliability.

For all types of synthesis, it is likely that in areas with large, amorphous, and diverse bodies of literature, even the most sophisticated search strategies will not turn up all the relevant and important texts. This may be more important in some synthesis methodologies than in others, but the omission of key documents can influence the results of all syntheses. This issue can be addressed, at least in part, by including a library scientist on the research team as required by some funding agencies. Even then, it is possible to miss key texts. In this review, for example, because none of us are trained in or conduct meta-analyses, we were not even aware that we had missed some new developments in this field such as meta-regression [117] – [118] , network meta-analysis [119] – [121] , and the use of individual patient data in meta-analyses [122] – [123] .

One limitation of systematic reviews and meta-analyses is that they rapidly go out of date. We thought this might be true for all types of synthesis, although we wondered if those that produce theory might not be somewhat more enduring. We have not answered this question but it is open for debate. For all types of synthesis, the analytic skills and the time required are considerable so it is clear that training is important before embarking on a review, and some types of review may not be appropriate for students or busy practitioners.

Finally, the quality of reporting in primary studies of all genres is variable so it is sometimes difficult to identify aspects of the study essential for the synthesis, or to determine whether the study meets quality criteria. There may be flaws in the original study, or journal page limitations may necessitate omitting important details. Reporting standards have been developed for some types of reviews (e.g., systematic review, meta-analysis, meta-narrative synthesis, realist synthesis); but there are no agreed upon standards for qualitative reviews. This is an important area for development in advancing the science of research synthesis.

4.8.3. Strengths and Limitations of the Four Synthesis Types

The conventional literature review and now the increasingly common integrative review remain important and accessible approaches for students, practitioners, and experienced researchers who want to summarize literature in an area but do not have the expertise to use one of the more complex methodologies. Carefully executed, such reviews are very useful for synthesizing literature in preparation for research grants and practice projects. They can determine the state of knowledge in an area and identify important gaps in the literature to provide a clear rationale or theoretical framework for a study [14] , [18] . There is a demand, however, for more rigour, with more attention to developing comprehensive search strategies and more systematic approaches to combining, integrating, and synthesizing the findings.

Generally, conventional reviews include diverse study designs and data types that facilitate comprehensiveness, which may be a strength on the one hand, but can also present challenges on the other. The complexity inherent in combining results from studies with diverse methodologies can result in bias and inaccuracies. The absence of clear guidelines about how to synthesize across diverse study types and data [18] has been a challenge for novice reviewers.

Quantitative systematic reviews and meta-analyses have been important in launching the field of evidence-based healthcare. They provide a systematic, orderly and auditable process for conducting a review and drawing conclusions [25] . They are arguably the most powerful approaches to understanding the effectiveness of healthcare interventions, especially when intervention studies on the same topic show very different results. When areas of research are dogged by controversy [25] or when study results go against strongly held beliefs, such approaches can reduce the uncertainty and bring strong evidence to bear on the controversy.

Despite their strengths, they also have limitations. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses do not provide a way of including complex literature comprising various types of evidence including qualitative studies, theoretical work, and epidemiological studies. Only certain types of design are considered and qualitative data are used in a limited way. This exclusion limits what can be learned in a topic area.

Meta-analyses are often not possible because of wide variability in study design, population, and interventions so they may have a narrow range of utility. New developments in meta-analysis, however, can be used to address some of these limitations. Network meta-analysis is used to explore relative efficacy of multiple interventions, even those that have never been compared in more conventional pairwise meta-analyses [121] , allowing for improved clinical decision making [120] . The limitation is that network meta-analysis has only been used in medical/clinical applications [119] and not in public health. It has not yet been widely accepted and many methodological challenges remain [120] – [121] . Meta-regression is another development that combines meta-analytic and linear regression principles to address the fact that heterogeneity of results may compromise a meta-analysis [117] – [118] . The disadvantage is that many clinicians are unfamiliar with it and may incorrectly interpret results [117] .

Some have accused meta-analysis of combining apples and oranges [124] raising questions in the field about their meaningfulness [25] , [28] . More recently, the use of individual rather than aggregate data has been useful in facilitating greater comparability among studies [122] . In fact, Tomas et al. [123] argue that meta-analysis using individual data is now the gold standard although access to the raw data from other studies may be a challenge to obtain.

The usefulness of systematic reviews in synthesizing complex health and social interventions has also been challenged [102] . It is often difficult to synthesize their findings because such studies are “epistemologically diverse and methodologically complex” [ [69] , p.21]. Rigid inclusion/exclusion criteria may allow only experimental or quasi-experimental designs into consideration resulting in lost information that may well be useful to policy makers for tailoring an intervention to the context or understanding its acceptance by recipients.

Qualitative syntheses may be the type of review most fraught with controversy and challenge, while also bringing distinct strengths to the enterprise. Although these methodologies provide a comprehensive and systematic review approach, they do not generally provide definitive statements about intervention effectiveness. They do, however, address important questions about the development of theoretical concepts, patient experiences, acceptability of interventions, and an understanding about why interventions might work.

Most qualitative syntheses aim to produce a theoretically generalizable mid-range theory that explains variation across studies. This makes them more useful than single primary studies, which may not be applicable beyond the immediate setting or population. All provide a contextual richness that enhances relevance and understanding. Another benefit of some types of qualitative synthesis (e.g., grounded formal theory) is that the concept of saturation provides a sound rationale for limiting the number of texts to be included thus making reviews potentially more manageable. This contrasts with the requirements of systematic reviews and meta-analyses that require an exhaustive search.

Qualitative researchers debate about whether the findings of ontologically and epistemological diverse qualitative studies can actually be combined or synthesized [125] because methodological diversity raises many challenges for synthesizing findings. The products of different types of qualitative syntheses range from theory and conceptual frameworks, to themes and rich descriptive narratives. Can one combine the findings from a phenomenological study with the theory produced in a grounded theory study? Many argue yes, but many also argue no.

Emerging synthesis methodologies were developed to address some limitations inherent in other types of synthesis but also have their own issues. Because each type is so unique, it is difficult to identify overarching strengths of the entire category. An important strength, however, is that these newer forms of synthesis provide a systematic and rigorous approach to synthesizing a diverse literature base in a topic area that includes a range of data types such as: both quantitative and qualitative studies, theoretical work, case studies, evaluations, epidemiological studies, trials, and policy documents. More than conventional literature reviews and systematic reviews, these approaches provide explicit guidance on analytic methods for integrating different types of data. The assumption is that all forms of data have something to contribute to knowledge and theory in a topic area. All have a defined but flexible process in recognition that the methods may need to shift as knowledge develops through the process.

Many emerging synthesis types are helpful to policy makers and practitioners because they are usually involved as team members in the process to define the research questions, and interpret and disseminate the findings. In fact, engagement of stakeholders is built into the procedures of the methods. This is true for rapid reviews, meta-narrative syntheses, and realist syntheses. It is less likely to be the case for critical interpretive syntheses.

Another strength of some approaches (realist and meta-narrative syntheses) is that quality and publication standards have been developed to guide researchers, reviewers, and funders in judging the quality of the products [108] , [126] – [127] . Training materials and online communities of practice have also been developed to guide users of realist and meta-narrative review methods [107] , [128] . A unique strength of critical interpretive synthesis is that it takes a critical perspective on the process that may help reconceptualize the data in a way not considered by the primary researchers [72] .

There are also challenges of these new approaches. The methods are new and there may be few published applications by researchers other than the developers of the methods, so new users often struggle with the application. The newness of the approaches means that there may not be mentors available to guide those unfamiliar with the methods. This is changing, however, and the number of applications in the literature is growing with publications by new users helping to develop the science of synthesis [e.g., [129] ]. However, the evolving nature of the approaches and their developmental stage present challenges for novice researchers.

4.9. When to Use Each Approach

Choosing an appropriate approach to synthesis will depend on the question you are asking, the purpose of the review, and the outcome or product you want to achieve. In Additional File 1 , we discuss each of these to provide guidance to readers on making a choice about review type. If researchers want to know whether a particular type of intervention is effective in achieving its intended outcomes, then they might choose a quantitative systemic review with or without meta-analysis, possibly buttressed with qualitative studies to provide depth and explanation of the results. Alternately, if the concern is about whether an intervention is effective with different populations under diverse conditions in varying contexts, then a realist synthesis might be the most appropriate.

If researchers' concern is to develop theory, they might consider qualitative syntheses or some of the emerging syntheses that produce theory (e.g., critical interpretive synthesis, realist review, grounded formal theory, qualitative meta-synthesis). If the aim is to track the development and evolution of concepts, theories or ideas, or to determine how an issue or question is addressed across diverse research traditions, then meta-narrative synthesis would be most appropriate.

When the purpose is to review the literature in advance of undertaking a new project, particularly by graduate students, then perhaps an integrative review would be appropriate. Such efforts contribute towards the expansion of theory, identify gaps in the research, establish the rationale for studying particular phenomena, and provide a framework for interpreting results in ways that might be useful for influencing policy and practice.

For researchers keen to bring new insights, interpretations, and critical re-conceptualizations to a body of research, then qualitative or critical interpretive syntheses will provide an inductive product that may offer new understandings or challenges to the status quo. These can inform future theory development, or provide guidance for policy and practice.

5. Discussion

What is the current state of science regarding research synthesis? Public health, health care, and social science researchers or clinicians have previously used all four categories of research synthesis, and all offer a suitable array of approaches for inquiries. New developments in systematic reviews and meta-analysis are providing ways of addressing methodological challenges [117] – [123] . There has also been significant advancement in emerging synthesis methodologies and they are quickly gaining popularity. Qualitative meta-synthesis is still evolving, particularly given how new it is within the terrain of research synthesis. In the midst of this evolution, outstanding issues persist such as grappling with: the quantity of data, quality appraisal, and integration with knowledge translation. These topics have not been thoroughly addressed and need further debate.

5.1. Quantity of Data

We raise the question of whether it is possible or desirable to find all available studies for a synthesis that has this requirement (e.g., meta-analysis, systematic review, scoping, meta-narrative synthesis [25] , [27] , [63] , [67] , [84] – [85] ). Is the synthesis of all available studies a realistic goal in light of the burgeoning literature? And how can this be sustained in the future, particularly as the emerging methodologies continue to develop and as the internet facilitates endless access? There has been surprisingly little discussion on this topic and the answers will have far-reaching implications for searching, sampling, and team formation.

Researchers and graduate students can no longer rely on their own independent literature search. They will likely need to ask librarians for assistance as they navigate multiple sources of literature and learn new search strategies. Although teams now collaborate with library scientists, syntheses are limited in that researchers must make decisions on the boundaries of the review, in turn influencing the study's significance. The size of a team may also be pragmatically determined to manage the search, extraction, and synthesis of the burgeoning data. There is no single answer to our question about the possibility or necessity of finding all available articles for a review. Multiple strategies that are situation specific are likely to be needed.

5.2. Quality Appraisal

While the issue of quality appraisal has received much attention in the synthesis literature, scholars are far from resolution. There may be no agreement about appraisal criteria in a given tradition. For example, the debate rages over the appropriateness of quality appraisal in qualitative synthesis where there are over 100 different sets of criteria and many do not overlap [49] . These differences may reflect disciplinary and methodological orientations, but diverse quality appraisal criteria may privilege particular types of research [49] . The decision to appraise is often grounded in ontological and epistemological assumptions. Nonetheless, diversity within and between categories of synthesis is likely to continue unless debate on the topic of quality appraisal continues and evolves toward consensus.

5.3. Integration with Knowledge Translation

If research syntheses are to make a difference to practice and ultimately to improve health outcomes, then we need to do a better job of knowledge translation. In the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) definition of knowledge translation (KT), research or knowledge synthesis is an integral component [130] . Yet, with few exceptions [131] – [132] , very little of the research synthesis literature even mentions the relationship of synthesis to KT nor does it discuss strategies to facilitate the integration of synthesis findings into policy and practice. The exception is in the emerging synthesis methodologies, some of which (e.g., realist and meta-narrative syntheses, scoping reviews) explicitly involve stakeholders or knowledge users. The argument is that engaging them in this way increases the likelihood that the knowledge generated will be translated into policy and practice. We suggest that a more explicit engagement with knowledge users in all types of synthesis would benefit the uptake of the research findings.

Research synthesis neither makes research more applicable to practice nor ensures implementation. Focus must now turn seriously towards translation of synthesis findings into knowledge products that are useful for health care practitioners in multiple areas of practice and develop appropriate strategies to facilitate their use. The burgeoning field of knowledge translation has, to some extent, taken up this challenge; however, the research-practice gap continues to plague us [133] – [134] . It is a particular problem for qualitative syntheses [131] . Although such syntheses have an important place in evidence-informed practice, little effort has gone into the challenge of translating the findings into useful products to guide practice [131] .

5.4. Limitations

Our study took longer than would normally be expected for an integrative review. Each of us were primarily involved in our own dissertations or teaching/research positions, and so this study was conducted ‘off the sides of our desks.’ A limitation was that we searched the literature over the course of 4 years (from 2008–2012), necessitating multiple search updates. Further, we did not do a comprehensive search of the literature after 2012, thus the more recent synthesis literature was not systematically explored. We did, however, perform limited database searches from 2012–2015 to keep abreast of the latest methodological developments. Although we missed some new approaches to meta-analysis in our search, we did not find any new features of the synthesis methodologies covered in our review that would change the analysis or findings of this article. Lastly, we struggled with the labels used for the broad categories of research synthesis methodology because of our hesitancy to reinforce the divide between quantitative and qualitative approaches. However, it was very difficult to find alternative language that represented the types of data used in these methodologies. Despite our hesitancy in creating such an obvious divide, we were left with the challenge of trying to find a way of characterizing these broad types of syntheses.

6. Conclusion

Our findings offer methodological clarity for those wishing to learn about the broad terrain of research synthesis. We believe that our review makes transparent the issues and considerations in choosing from among the four broad categories of research synthesis. In summary, research synthesis has taken its place as a form of research in its own right. The methodological terrain has deep historical roots reaching back over the past 200 years, yet research synthesis remains relatively new to public health, health care, and social sciences in general. This is rapidly changing. New developments in systematic reviews and meta-analysis, and the emergence of new synthesis methodologies provide a vast array of options to review the literature for diverse purposes. New approaches to research synthesis and new analytic methods within existing approaches provide a much broader range of review alternatives for public health, health care, and social science students and researchers.

Acknowledgments

KSM is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta. Her work on this article was largely conducted as a Postdoctoral Fellow, funded by KRESCENT (Kidney Research Scientist Core Education and National Training Program, reference #KRES110011R1) and the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta.

MM's work on this study over the period of 2008-2014 was supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Applied Public Health Research Chair Award (grant #92365).

We thank Rachel Spanier who provided support with reference formatting.

List of Abbreviations (in Additional File 1 )

Conflict of interest: The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest in this article.

Authors' contributions: KSM co-designed the study, collected data, analyzed the data, drafted/revised the manuscript, and managed the project.

MP contributed to searching the literature, developing the analytic framework, and extracting data for the Additional File.

JB contributed to searching the literature, developing the analytic framework, and extracting data for the Additional File.

WN contributed to searching the literature, developing the analytic framework, and extracting data for the Additional File.

All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Additional Files: Additional File 1 – Selected Types of Research Synthesis

This Additional File is our dataset created to organize, analyze and critique the literature that we synthesized in our integrative review. Our results were created based on analysis of this Additional File.

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Summarizing and synthesizing

Part 3: Chapter 10

Questions to consider

A. What distinguishes a synthesis from a summary?

B. How much “author voice” is present relative to source material?

C. What is the nature of the material contributed to a synthesis by the author?

The purpose of synthesizing

Combining separate elements into a whole is the basic dictionary definition of synthesis. It is a way to make connections between numerous and varied source materials. A literature review presents a synthesis of material, grouped by topic, to create a broad and comprehensive view of the literature relevant to a research question. Here, the research questions are often modified to the realities of the information, or information may be selected or rejected based on relevance. This organizational approach helps in understanding the information and structuring the review.

Because research is an iterative process, it is not unusual to go back and search information sources for more material while remaining within the parameters of the topic and research questions. It can be difficult to cope with “everything” on a topic; the need to carefully select based on relevancy is ongoing.

The synthesis must demonstrate a critical analysis of the papers assembled as well as an integration of the analytical results. All included sources must be directly relevant and the synthesis writer should make a significant contribution. As part of an introduction or literature review, the syntheses not only illustrate the evolution of research on an issue, but the writer’s own commentary on what this information means .

Many writers begin the synthesis process by creating a grid, table, or an outline organizing summaries of the source material to discover or extend common themes with the collection. The summary grid or outline provides a researcher an overview to compare, contrast and otherwise investigate the relationships and potential deficiencies. [1]

Language in Action

  • How many different sources are used in the synthesis (excerpted from “Does international work experience pay off? The relationship between international work experience, employability and career success: A 30-country, multi-industry study” ) that follows? (IWE: international work experience)
  • How do the sources contribute to the message of the paragraph?
  • What are the elements of a strong synthesis?
  • What information is contributed by the authors themselves?

1 Taking stock of the literature, several characteristics stand out that limit our understanding of the IWE−career success relationship. 2 First, many studies focus on individuals soon after their return from an IWE or while they are still expatriates (Kraimer et al., 2016). 3 These findings may therefore report results pertaining to a short-lived career phase. 4 Given that careers develop over time, and success, especially in the form of promotions and salary increases, may take some time to materialise, it is perhaps not surprising that findings have been mixed. 5 Some authors note that there are short-term, career-related costs of IWE and the career ‘payoff’ occurs after a time lag for which cross-sectional studies may not account (Benson & Pattie, 2008; Biemann & Braakmann, 2013). 6 Second, the majority of studies use samples consisting only of individuals with IWE (Jokinen et al., 2008; Stahl et al., 2009; Suutari et al., 2018). 7 Large samples that include both individuals with and without IWE are needed to provide the variance needed to identify the influence of IWE on career success (e.g., Andresen & Biemann, 2013). 8 Third, studies tend to focus on the baseline question of whether IWE or IWE-specific characteristics (e.g., host country, developmental nature of assignment) are related to a particular career success variable (e.g., Bücker et al., 2016; Jokinen et al., 2008; Stahl et al., 2009). 9 Yet there may be an indirect relationship between IWE and career success (Zhu et al., 2016). 10 More complex models that examine the possible impact of mediating variables are thus needed (Mayrhofer et al., 2012). 11 Lastly, while studies acknowledge that findings from specific countries/nationalities, industries, organisations or occupational roles may not be transferable to all individuals with IWE (Biemann & Braakmann, 2013; Schmid & Wurster, 2017; Suutari et al., 2018), the specific role of national context is rarely considered. 12 However, careers do not develop in a vacuum. 13 Contextual factors play an important role in moderating the career impact of various career experiences such as IWE (Shen et al., 2015). [2]

Organizing the material

Beginning the synthesis process by creating a grid, table, or an outline for summaries of sources offers an overview of the material along with findings and common themes. The summary, grid, or outline will allow quick comparison of the material and reveal gaps in information. [3]

synthesize in literature definition

The process of building a “library” from which to draw information is critical in developing the defense, argument or justification of a research study. While field and laboratory research is often engaging and interesting, understanding the backstory and presenting it as an explanation of a proposed method or approach is essential in obtaining funding and/or the necessary committee approval.

Returning to the foundational skill of producing a summary , and combining that with the maintenance of a system to manage source material and details, an annotated bibliography can be both an intellectual structure that reveals connections among sources and a means to initiating – on a manageable level – the arduous writing.

Example – Two entries from an annotated bibliography

Nafisi, A. (2003). Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. New York: Random House.

A brave teacher in Iran met with seven of her most committed female students to discuss forbidden Western classics over the course of a couple of years, while Islamic morality squads staged raids, universities fell under the control of fundamentalists, and artistic expression was suppressed. This powerful memoir weaves the stories of these women with those of the characters of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov and extols the liberating power of literature.

Obama, B. (2007). Dreams from My Father. New York: Random House.

This autobiography extends from a childhood in numerous locations with a variety of caregivers (a single parent, grandparents, boarding school) to an exploration of individual heritage and family in Africa, revealing a broken/blended family, abandonment and reconnection, and unresolved endings. Obama describes his existence on the margins of society, the racial tension within his biracial family, and his own identity conflict and turmoil.

Using a chart or grid

Below is a model of a basic table for organizing source material.

Exercise #1

  • Read the excerpts from three sources below. Determine the common topic and themes.
  • Complete a table like the one above using information from these three sources.

1 Completion of a dissertation is an intense activity. 2 For both groups [completers and non-], the advisor and the student’s family and spouse served as the major source of emotional support and are most heavily invested in the dissertation. 3 Other students and the balance of the dissertation committee were rated as providing little support. 4 Since work on the dissertation is highly individual and there are no College organized groups of students working on the dissertation that meet regularly, the process can be a lonely one. 5 Great independence and a strong sense of direction is required. 6 Although many students rated themselves as having little experience with research, students are dependent on their own resources and on those closest to them. 7 It was noted that graduates rated emotional support from all sources more highly than students rated it. 8 This may be a significant factor associated with dissertation completion.

9 The scales and checklists suggest that there are identifiable differences between the two groups. 10 Since the differences are not great, the implications are that with some modification of procedures, a greater proportion of students can become graduates. 11 Emotional support, financial support, experience with research, familiarity with university and college dissertation requirements, and ready access to university resources and advisors may be factors to build into a modified system to achieve a greater proportion of graduates.

Kluever, R., Green, K. E., Lenz, K., Miller, M. M., & Katz, E. (1995). Graduates and ABDs in colleges of education: Characteristics and implications for the structure of doctoral programs. In  Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. San Francisco, CA. Retrieved from the ERIC database .

1 In this writing group, students evaluated their goal achievement, reflected on the obstacles before them, and set new targets. 2 This process encouraged them to achieve their goals, and they could modify or start a new target instead of giving up. 3 The students also received positive feedback and support from other members of the group. 4 This positive environment helped the students view failure as part of the nature of writing a thesis.

5 On the other hand, daily monitoring encouraged the students to focus more on the process and less on the outcome; therefore, they experienced daily success instead of feeling a failure when the goals were not achievable.

Patria, B., & Laili, L. (2021). Writing group program reduces academic procrastination: a quasi-experimental study.  BMC Psychology ,  9 (1), 1–157. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-021-00665-9

1 The promotion of awareness of the tension between core qualities and ideals, and inner obstacles, in particular limiting thoughts, in combination with guidelines for overcoming the tension by being aware of one’s ideals and character strengths is characteristic of the core reflection approach and appears to have a strong potential for diminishing academic procrastination behavior. 2 These results make clear that a positive psychological approach focusing on strengths can be beneficial for diminishing students’ academic procrastination. 3 In particular, supporting and regenerating character strengths can be an effective approach for overcoming academic procrastination.

Visser, L., Schoonenboom, J., & Korthagen, F. A. J. (2017). A Field Experimental Design of a Strengths-Based Training to Overcome Academic Procrastination: Short- and Long-Term Effect. Frontiers in Psychology , 8, 1949–1949. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01949

A topical outline is another tool writers may use to organize their material. It begins as a simple list of facts gleaned from various sources and arranged by category. [4]

A topical outline might look like this:

a. fact #1/source #1

b. fact #2/source #1

a. fact #3/source #1

b. fact #4/source #2

Exercise #2

Identify relevant facts presented by the three sources in Exercise #1. Determine the relationships between them. Consider how to categorize and arrange them in order to support or extend a related concept.

Exercise #3

A word about primary sources

Primary source material is information conveyed by the author(s) of the publication. The information they use to support or extend their ideas – their source material – is secondary source material for their readers. Anything considered for inclusion in research writing should be derived from primary sources. When writers find very valuable material cited, they retrieve the original work rather than paraphrase what has already been paraphrased.

Example – Synthesis

The excerpted synthesis below is the work of Joellen E. Coryell, Maria Cinque, Monica Fedeli, Angelina Lapina Salazar, and Concetta Tino. The two primary sources they use in the paragraph were authored by Niehaus and Williams (2016), and Urban, Navarro, and Borron (2017). Because research writers are urged to only use primary sources, further investigation into the paper of Niehaus and Williams would be required in order to use their work as a source. As discussed in Identifying and deploying source material , an effective strategy in finding useful sources is to explore the references of particularly valuable articles or papers.

University Teaching in Global Times: Perspectives of Italian University Faculty on Teaching International Graduate Students

1 Other researchers (Niehaus & Williams, 2016; Urban et al., 2017) offered analyses of faculty’s experiences participating in various training programs for internationalization of their courses.  2 Niehaus and Williams (2016) studied a 4-year global faculty development program aimed at transforming faculty perspectives and internationalizing the curriculum.  3 Findings indicated that participants integrated international and comparative topics to support their learners’ development of global perspectives.  4 They worked to integrate international students’ viewpoints on research, and participants reported professional and personal gains defined by expanded professional networks of faculty members and higher standing that comes with teaching international students.  5 Similarly, Urban et al. (2017) reported findings from a training program that assisted teaching staff to internationalize their courses.  6 The program included a 12-day field trip to a different country.  7 Semi-structured interviews with faculty members, 6 years after participating in the program, affirmed updated course content, new and broader perspectives, and a supportive environment for implementing the internationalized courses and teaching activities.

Primary source:

Coryell, J. E., Cinque, M., Fedeli, M., Lapina Salazar, A., & Tino, C. (2022). University Teaching in Global Times: Perspectives of Italian University Faculty on Teaching International Graduate Students. Journal of Studies in International Education , 26(3), 369–389. https://doi.org/10.1177/1028315321990749

Secondary sources:

Niehaus, E., & Williams, L. (2016). Faculty Transformation in Curriculum Transformation: The Role of Faculty Development in Campus Internationalization. Innovative Higher Education, 41(1), 59–74. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-015-9334-7

Urban, E., Navarro, M., & Borron, A. (2017). Long-term Impacts of a Faculty Development Program for the Internationalization of Curriculum in Higher Education. Journal of Agricultural Education, 58(3), 219–238. https://doi.org/10.5032/jae.2017.03219

synthesize in literature definition

Experienced researchers often have a strong hypothesis and search for evidence that supports or extends this. However, students often learn about their topic during the research process and formulate a hypothesis as they learn what is established in the field on their topic. Both approaches are acceptable, as is a hybrid.

Discovery phase

Researchers typically begin by paraphrasing any important facts or arguments, tracking their discoveries in a table, outline or spreadsheet. Some good examples include definitions of concepts, statistics regarding relevance, and empirical evidence about the key variables in the research question. The original source information (citations in the appropriate style and format) is as important as the content under consideration.  As shown in the model syntheses here, multiple sources often support a common finding.

Evaluation and analysis phase

A strong synthesis must demonstrate a critical analysis of the papers as well as an integration of analytical results; this is the voice of the synthesis writer, interpreting the relationships of the cited works as they are assembled. Each paper under consideration should be critically evaluated according to its relevancy to the topic and the quality of its content.

Writers first establish relationships between cited concepts and facts by continuously considering these questions:

A. Where are the similarities within each topic or subtopic?

B. Where are the differences?

C. Are the differences methodological or theoretical in nature?

The answers will produce general conclusions for each topic or subtopic as the entire group of studies relate to it.

As the material is organized logically using a grid, table or outline, the most logical order must be determined. That order might be from general to specific, sequential or chronological, or from cause to result. [5]

Review and Reinforce

Summarizing and synthesizing are key building blocks in research writing. Read with an awareness of

A. what information has been added for support;

B. what the source of that information is; and

C. how the information was incorporated (quotations or summaries) and documented (integral or parenthetical citations) into the material.

Research writing is a process itself that synthesizes new information, stylistic tendencies, and established conventions with the background knowledge of the researcher.

Media Attributions

  • chameleon © Frontierofficial is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license
  • 5182866555_18ae623262_c © rarebeasts is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license
  • Adapted from Frederiksen, L., & Phelps, S. F. (2017). Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students . Open Textbook Library. ↵
  • Andresen, M., Lazarova, M., Apospori, E., Cotton, R., Bosak, J., Dickmann, M., Kaše, R., & Smale, A. (2022). Does international work experience pay off? The relationship between international work experience, employability and career success: A 30-country, multi-industry study. Human Resource Management Journal , 32(3), 698–721. https://doi.org/10.1111/1748-8583.12423 ↵
  • Adapted from DeCarlo, M. (2018). Scientific Inquiry in Social Work . Open Textbook Library. ↵
  • Adapted from DeCarlo, M. (2018). Scientific Inquiry in Social Work. Open Textbook Library. ↵
  • Adapted from Frederiksen, L., & Phelps, S. F. (2017). Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students . Open Textbook Library.   ↵

combining separate elements into a whole, generally new, result

a condensed version of a longer text

a list of sources on a particular topic, formatted in the field specific format, which includes a brief summary of each reference

a reference presenting their own data and information

reference material used and cited by a primary source

Sourcing, summarizing, and synthesizing:  Skills for effective research writing  Copyright © 2023 by Wendy L. McBride is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Synthesizing Sources

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When you look for areas where your sources agree or disagree and try to draw broader conclusions about your topic based on what your sources say, you are engaging in synthesis. Writing a research paper usually requires synthesizing the available sources in order to provide new insight or a different perspective into your particular topic (as opposed to simply restating what each individual source says about your research topic).

Note that synthesizing is not the same as summarizing.  

  • A summary restates the information in one or more sources without providing new insight or reaching new conclusions.
  • A synthesis draws on multiple sources to reach a broader conclusion.

There are two types of syntheses: explanatory syntheses and argumentative syntheses . Explanatory syntheses seek to bring sources together to explain a perspective and the reasoning behind it. Argumentative syntheses seek to bring sources together to make an argument. Both types of synthesis involve looking for relationships between sources and drawing conclusions.

In order to successfully synthesize your sources, you might begin by grouping your sources by topic and looking for connections. For example, if you were researching the pros and cons of encouraging healthy eating in children, you would want to separate your sources to find which ones agree with each other and which ones disagree.

After you have a good idea of what your sources are saying, you want to construct your body paragraphs in a way that acknowledges different sources and highlights where you can draw new conclusions.

As you continue synthesizing, here are a few points to remember:

  • Don’t force a relationship between sources if there isn’t one. Not all of your sources have to complement one another.
  • Do your best to highlight the relationships between sources in very clear ways.
  • Don’t ignore any outliers in your research. It’s important to take note of every perspective (even those that disagree with your broader conclusions).

Example Syntheses

Below are two examples of synthesis: one where synthesis is NOT utilized well, and one where it is.

Parents are always trying to find ways to encourage healthy eating in their children. Elena Pearl Ben-Joseph, a doctor and writer for KidsHealth , encourages parents to be role models for their children by not dieting or vocalizing concerns about their body image. The first popular diet began in 1863. William Banting named it the “Banting” diet after himself, and it consisted of eating fruits, vegetables, meat, and dry wine. Despite the fact that dieting has been around for over a hundred and fifty years, parents should not diet because it hinders children’s understanding of healthy eating.

In this sample paragraph, the paragraph begins with one idea then drastically shifts to another. Rather than comparing the sources, the author simply describes their content. This leads the paragraph to veer in an different direction at the end, and it prevents the paragraph from expressing any strong arguments or conclusions.

An example of a stronger synthesis can be found below.

Parents are always trying to find ways to encourage healthy eating in their children. Different scientists and educators have different strategies for promoting a well-rounded diet while still encouraging body positivity in children. David R. Just and Joseph Price suggest in their article “Using Incentives to Encourage Healthy Eating in Children” that children are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they are given a reward (855-856). Similarly, Elena Pearl Ben-Joseph, a doctor and writer for Kids Health , encourages parents to be role models for their children. She states that “parents who are always dieting or complaining about their bodies may foster these same negative feelings in their kids. Try to keep a positive approach about food” (Ben-Joseph). Martha J. Nepper and Weiwen Chai support Ben-Joseph’s suggestions in their article “Parents’ Barriers and Strategies to Promote Healthy Eating among School-age Children.” Nepper and Chai note, “Parents felt that patience, consistency, educating themselves on proper nutrition, and having more healthy foods available in the home were important strategies when developing healthy eating habits for their children.” By following some of these ideas, parents can help their children develop healthy eating habits while still maintaining body positivity.

In this example, the author puts different sources in conversation with one another. Rather than simply describing the content of the sources in order, the author uses transitions (like "similarly") and makes the relationship between the sources evident.

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Definition of synthesis

  • amalgamation
  • combination
  • intermixture

Examples of synthesis in a Sentence

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'synthesis.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Greek, from syntithenai to put together, from syn- + tithenai to put, place — more at do

1589, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Phrases Containing synthesis

synthesis gas

Dictionary Entries Near synthesis

Cite this entry.

“Synthesis.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/synthesis. Accessed 14 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition

Kids definition of synthesis, medical definition, medical definition of synthesis, more from merriam-webster on synthesis.

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to form (a material or abstract entity) by combining parts or elements (opposed to analyze ): to synthesize a statement.

Chemistry . to combine (constituent elements) into a single or unified entity.

to treat synthetically .

to make or form a synthesis .

Origin of synthesize

  • Also synthetize ; especially British , syn·the·sise .

Other words from synthesize

  • syn·the·si·za·tion, noun
  • non·syn·the·sized, adjective
  • re·syn·the·size, verb (used with object), re·syn·the·sized, re·syn·the·siz·ing.
  • un·syn·the·sized, adjective

Words Nearby synthesize

  • synthesis gas
  • synthesizer
  • synthespian
  • synthetic biology

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2024

How to use synthesize in a sentence

Its team helped us analyze the data we collected and synthesize the information.

Although more controversial than synthesizing meat from everyday plant materials like soy or wheat, the technology is growing fast.

At present this relies on synthesizing DNA in the lab, and while costs are falling rapidly, this is still a complicated and expensive business.

Once synthesized, the sequences then have to be carefully stored in vitro until they’re ready to be accessed again, or they can be spliced into living cells using CRISPR gene editing technology.

If we could design and synthesize artificial mRNA and deliver them into cells, it’s possible in theory to hijack our cells’ own protein-building system to make any protein we want—even those that are foreign, such as viral proteins.

My talent is being able to synthesize this information to become understandable to myself and then therefore to the layperson.

Wade, as chief chemist, you are to synthesize a little coffee and heat-treat a few eggs for us.

Diverse facts would synthesize , and when the letter came from Havana, perhaps the whole thing would start to form one pattern.

There were ways to synthesize Earth-normal food, but they were still hopelessly inefficient.

All we've been able to find is some strange isotope but we don't know how to reproduce it or synthesize it.

The plants here synthesize cyanophyll instead of chlorophyll; that's why the leaves are blue instead of green.

British Dictionary definitions for synthesize

Synthetize , synthesise or synthetise.

/ ( ˈsɪnθɪˌsaɪz ) /

to combine or cause to combine into a whole

(tr) to produce by synthesis

Derived forms of synthesize

  • synthesization , synthetization , synthesisation or synthetisation , noun

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

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  • http://orcid.org/0000-0003-4808-3880 Andrew Booth 1 , 2 ,
  • Isolde Sommer 3 , 4 ,
  • Jane Noyes 2 , 5 ,
  • Catherine Houghton 2 , 6 ,
  • Fiona Campbell 1 , 7
  • The Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group and Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group (CQIMG)
  • 1 EnSyGN Sheffield Evidence Synthesis Group , University of Sheffield , Sheffield , UK
  • 2 Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group (CQIMG) , London , UK
  • 3 Department for Evidence-based Medicine and Evaluation , University for Continuing Education Krems , Krems , Austria
  • 4 Cochrane Rapid Reviews Group & Cochrane Austria , Krems , Austria
  • 5 Bangor University , Bangor , UK
  • 6 University of Galway , Galway , Ireland
  • 7 University of Newcastle upon Tyne , Newcastle upon Tyne , UK
  • Correspondence to Professor Andrew Booth, Univ Sheffield, Sheffield, UK; a.booth{at}sheffield.ac.uk

This paper forms part of a series of methodological guidance from the Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group and addresses rapid qualitative evidence syntheses (QESs), which use modified systematic, transparent and reproducible methodsu to accelerate the synthesis of qualitative evidence when faced with resource constraints. This guidance covers the review process as it relates to synthesis of qualitative research. ‘Rapid’ or ‘resource-constrained’ QES require use of templates and targeted knowledge user involvement. Clear definition of perspectives and decisions on indirect evidence, sampling and use of existing QES help in targeting eligibility criteria. Involvement of an information specialist, especially in prioritising databases, targeting grey literature and planning supplemental searches, can prove invaluable. Use of templates and frameworks in study selection and data extraction can be accompanied by quality assurance procedures targeting areas of likely weakness. Current Cochrane guidance informs selection of tools for quality assessment and of synthesis method. Thematic and framework synthesis facilitate efficient synthesis of large numbers of studies or plentiful data. Finally, judicious use of Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation approach for assessing the Confidence of Evidence from Reviews of Qualitative research assessments and of software as appropriate help to achieve a timely and useful review product.

  • Systematic Reviews as Topic
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Data availability statement

No data are available. Not applicable. All data is from published articles.

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See:  http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ .

https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjebm-2023-112620

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WHAT IS ALREADY KNOWN ON THIS TOPIC

Rapid Qualitative Evidence Synthesis (QES) is a relatively recent innovation in evidence synthesis and few published examples currently exists.

Guidance for authoring a rapid QES is scattered and requires compilation and summary.

WHAT THIS STUDY ADDS

This paper represents the first attempt to compile current guidance, illustrated by the experience of several international review teams.

We identify features of rapid QES methods that could be accelerated or abbreviated and where methods resemble those for conventional QESs.

HOW THIS STUDY MIGHT AFFECT RESEARCH, PRACTICE OR POLICY

This paper offers guidance for researchers when conducting a rapid QES and informs commissioners of research and policy-makers what to expect when commissioning such a review.

Introduction

This paper forms part of a series from the Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group providing methodological guidance for rapid reviews. While other papers in the series 1–4 focus on generic considerations, we aim to provide in-depth recommendations specific to a resource-constrained (or rapid) qualitative evidence synthesis (rQES). 5 This paper is accompanied by recommended resources ( online supplemental appendix A ) and an elaboration with practical considerations ( online supplemental appendix B ).

Supplemental material

The role of qualitative evidence in decision-making is increasingly recognised. 6 This, in turn, has led to appreciation of the value of qualitative evidence syntheses (QESs) that summarise findings across multiple contexts. 7 Recognition of the need for such syntheses to be available at the time most useful to decision-making has, in turn, driven demand for rapid qualitative evidence syntheses. 8 The breadth of potential rQES mirrors the versatility of QES in general (from focused questions to broad overviews) and outputs range from descriptive thematic maps through to theory-informed syntheses (see table 1 ).

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Glossary of important terms (alphabetically)

As with other resource-constrained reviews, no one size fits all. A team should start by specifying the phenomenon of interest, the review question, 9 the perspectives to be included 9 and the sample to be determined and selected. 10 Subsequently, the team must finalise the appropriate choice of synthesis. 11 Above all, the review team should consider the intended knowledge users, 3 including requirements of the funder.

An rQES team, in particular, cannot afford any extra time or resource requirements that might arise from either a misunderstanding of the review question, an unclear picture of user requirements or an inappropriate choice of methods. The team seeks to align the review question and the requirements of the knowledge user with available time and resources. They also need to ensure that the choice of data and choice of synthesis are appropriate to the intended ‘knowledge claims’ (epistemology) made by the rQES. 11 This involves the team asking ‘what types of data are meaningful for this review question?’, ‘what types of data are trustworthy?’ and ‘is the favoured synthesis method appropriate for this type of data?’. 12 This paper aims to help rQES teams to choose methods that best fit their project while understanding the limitations of those choices. Our recommendations derive from current QES guidance, 5 evidence on modified QES methods, 8 13 and practical experience. 14 15

This paper presents an overview of considerations and recommendations as described in table 2 . Supplemental materials including additional resources details of our recommendations and practical examples are provided in online supplemental appendices A and B .

Recommendations for resource-constrained qualitative evidence synthesis (rQES)

Setting the review question and topic refinement

Rapid reviews summarise information from multiple research studies to produce evidence for ‘the public, researchers, policymakers and funders in a systematic, resource-efficient manner’. 16 Involvement of knowledge users is critical. 3 Given time constraints, individual knowledge users could be asked only to feedback on very specific decisions and tasks or on selective sections of the protocol. Specifically, whenever a QES is abbreviated or accelerated, a team should ensure that the review question is agreed by a minimum number of knowledge users with expertise or experience that reflects all the important review perspectives and with authority to approve the final version 2 5 11 ( table 2 , item R1).

Involvement of topic experts can ensure that the rQES is responsive to need. 14 17 One Cochrane rQES saved considerable time by agreeing the review topic within a single meeting and one-phase iteration. 9 Decisions on topics to be omitted are also informed by a knowledge of existing QESs. 17

An information specialist can help to manage the quantity and quality of available evidence by setting conceptual boundaries and logistic limits. A structured question format, such as Setting-Perspective-Interest, phenomenon of-Comparison-Evaluation or Population-Interest, phenomenon of-Context helps in communicating the scope and, subsequently, in operationalising study selection. 9 18

Scoping (of review parameters) and mapping (of key types of evidence and likely richness of data) helps when planning the review. 5 19 The option to choose purposive sampling over comprehensive sampling approaches, as offered by standard QES, may be particularly helpful in the context of a rapid QES. 8 Once a team knows the approximate number and distribution of studies, perhaps mapping them against country, age, ethnicity, etc), they can decide whether or not to use purposive sampling. 12 An rQES for the WHO combined purposive with variation sampling. Sampling in two stages started by reducing the initial number of studies to a more manageable sampling frame and then sampling approximately a third of the remaining studies from within the sampling frame. 20

Sampling may target richer studies and/or privilege diversity. 8 21 A rich qualitative study typically illustrates findings with verbatim extracts from transcripts from interviews or textual responses from questionnaires. Rich studies are often found in specialist qualitative research or social science journals. In contrast, less rich studies may itemise themes with an occasional indicative text extract and tend to summarise findings. In clinical or biomedical journals less rich findings may be placed within a single table or box.

No rule exists on an optimal number of studies; too many studies makes it challenging to ‘maintain insight’, 22 too few does not sustain rigorous analysis. 23 Guidance on sampling is available from the forthcoming Cochrane-Campbell QES Handbook.

A review team can use templates to fast-track writing of a protocol. The protocol should always be publicly available ( table 2 , item R2). 24 25 Formal registration may require that the team has not commenced data extraction but should be considered if it does not compromise the rQES timeframe. Time pressures may require that methods are left suitably flexible to allow well-justified changes to be made as a detailed picture of the studies and data emerge. 26 The first Cochrane rQES drew heavily on text from a joint protocol/review template previously produced within Cochrane. 24

Setting eligibility criteria

An rQES team may need to limit the number of perspectives, focusing on those most important for decision-making 5 9 27 ( table 2 , item R3). Beyond the patients/clients each additional perspective (eg, family members, health professionals, other professionals, etc) multiplies the additional effort involved.

A rapid QES may require strict date and setting restrictions 17 and language restrictions that accommodate the specific requirements of the review. Specifically, the team should consider whether changes in context over time or substantive differences between geographical regions could be used to justify a narrower date range or a limited coverage of countries and/or languages. The team should also decide if ‘indirect evidence’ is to substitute for the absence of direct evidence. An rQES typically focuses on direct evidence, except when only indirect evidence is available 28 ( table 2 , item R4). Decisions on relevance are challenging—precautions for swine influenza may inform precautions for bird influenza. 28 A smoking ban may operate similarly to seat belt legislation, etc. A review team should identify where such shared mechanisms might operate. 28 An rQES team must also decide whether to use frameworks or models to focus the review. Theories may be unearthed within the topic search or be already known to team members, fro example, Theory of Planned Behaviour. 29

Options for managing the quantity and quality of studies and data emerge during the scoping (see above). In summary, the review team should consider privileging rich qualitative studies 2 ; consider a stepwise approach to inclusion of qualitative data and explore the possibility of sampling ( table 2 , item R5). For example, where data is plentiful an rQES may be limited to qualitative research and/or to mixed methods studies. Where data is less plentiful then surveys or other qualitative data sources may need to be included. Where plentiful reviews already exist, a team may decide to conduct a review of reviews 5 by including multiple QES within a mega-synthesis 28 29 ( table 2 , item R6).

Searching for QES merits its own guidance, 21–23 30 this section reinforces important considerations from guidance specific to qualitative research. Generic guidance for rapid reviews in this series broadly applies to rapid QESs. 1

In addition to journal articles, by far the most plentiful source, qualitative research is found in book chapters, theses and in published and unpublished reports. 21 Searches to support an rQES can (a) limit the number of databases searched, deliberately selecting databases from diverse disciplines, (b) use abbreviated study filters to retrieve qualitative designs and (c) employ high yield complementary methods (eg, reference checking, citation searching and Related Articles features). An information specialist (eg, librarian) should be involved in prioritising sources and search methods ( table 2 , item R7). 11 14

According to empirical evidence optimal database combinations include Scopus plus CINAHL or Scopus plus ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global (two-database combinations) and Scopus plus CINAHL plus ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global (three-database combination) with both choices retrieving between 89% and 92% of relevant studies. 30

If resources allow, searches should include one or two specialised databases ( table 2 , item R8) from different disciplines or contexts 21 (eg, social science databases, specialist discipline databases or regional or institutional repositories). Even when resources are limited, the information specialist should factor in time for peer review of at least one search strategy ( table 2 , item R9). 31 Searches for ‘grey literature’ should selectively target appropriate types of grey literature (such as theses or process evaluations) and supplemental searches, including citation chaining or Related Articles features ( table 2 , item R10). 32 The first Cochrane rQES reported that searching reference lists of key papers yielded an extra 30 candidate papers for review. However, the team documented exclusion of grey literature as a limitation of their review. 15

Study selection

Consistency in study selection is achieved by using templates, by gaining a shared team understanding of the audience and purpose, and by ongoing communication within, and beyond, the team. 2 33 Individuals may work in parallel on the same task, as in the first Cochrane rQES, or follow a ‘segmented’ approach where each reviewer is allocated a different task. 14 The use of machine learning in the specific context of rQES remains experimental. However, the possibility of developing qualitative study classifiers comparable to those for randomised controlled trials offers an achievable aspiration. 34

Title and abstract screening

The entire screening team should use pre-prepared, pretested title and abstract templates to limit the scale of piloting, calibration and testing ( table 2 , item R11). 1 14 The first Cochrane rQES team double-screened titles and abstracts within Covidence review software. 14 Disagreements were resolved with reference to a third reviewer achieving a shared understanding of the eligibility criteria and enhancing familiarity with target studies and insight from data. 14 The team should target and prioritise identified risks of either over-zealous inclusion or over-exclusion specific to each rQES ( table 2 , item R12). 14 The team should maximise opportunities to capture divergent views and perspectives within study findings. 35

Full-text screening

Full-text screening similarly benefits from using a pre-prepared pretested standardised template where possible 1 14 ( table 2 , item R11). If a single reviewer undertakes full-text screening, 8 the team should identify likely risks to trustworthiness of findings and focus quality control procedures (eg, use of additional reviewers and percentages for double screening) on specific threats 14 ( table 2 , item R13). The Cochrane rQES team opted for double screening to assist their immersion within the topic. 14

Data extraction

Data extraction of descriptive/contextual data may be facilitated by review management software (eg, EPPI-Reviewer) or home-made approaches using Google Forms, or other survey software. 36 Where extraction of qualitative findings requires line-by-line coding with multiple iterations of the data then a qualitative data management analysis package, such as QSR NVivo, reaps dividends. 36 The team must decide if, collectively, they favour extracting data to a template or coding direct within an electronic version of an article.

Quality control must be fit for purpose but not excessive. Published examples typically use a single reviewer for data extraction 8 with use of two independent reviewers being the exception. The team could limit data extraction to minimal essential items. They may also consider re-using descriptive details and findings previously extracted within previous well-conducted QES ( table 2 , item R14). A pre-existing framework, where readily identified, may help to structure the data extraction template. 15 37 The same framework may be used to present the findings. Some organisations may specify a preferred framework, such as an evidence-to-decision-making framework. 38

Assessment of methodological limitations

The QES community assess ‘methodological limitations’ rather than use ‘risk of bias’ terminology. An rQES team should pick an approach appropriate to their specific review. For example, a thematic map may not require assessment of individual studies—a brief statement of the generic limitations of the set of studies may be sufficient. However, for any synthesis that underpins practice recommendations 39 assessment of included studies is integral to the credibility of findings. In any decision-making context that involves recommendations or guidelines, an assessment of methodological limitations is mandatory. 40 41

Each review team should work with knowledge users to determine a review-specific approach to quality assessment. 27 While ‘traffic lights’, similar to the outputs from the Cochrane Risk of Bias tool, may facilitate rapid interpretation, accompanying textual notes are invaluable in highlighting specific areas for concern. In particular, the rQES team should demonstrate that they are aware (a) that research designs for qualitative research seek to elicit divergent views, rather than control for variation; (b) that, for qualitative research, the selection of the sample is far more informative than the size of the sample; and (c) that researchers from primary research, and equally reviewers for the qualitative synthesis, need to be thoughtful and reflexive about their possible influences on interpretation of either the primary data or the synthesised findings.

Selection of checklist

Numerous scales and checklists exist for assessing the quality of qualitative studies. In the absence of validated risk of bias tools for qualitative studies, the team should choose a tool according to Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group (CQIMG) guidance together with expediency (according to ease of use, prior familiarity, etc) ( table 2 , item R15). 41 In comparison to the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme checklist which was never designed for use in synthesis, 42 the Cochrane qualitative tool is similarly easy to use and was designed for QES use. Work is underway to identify an assessment process that is compatible with QESs that support decision-making. 41 For now the choice of a checklist remains determined by interim Cochrane guidance and, beyond this, by personal preference and experience. For an rQES a team could use a single reviewer to assess methodological limitations, with verification of judgements (and support statements) by a second reviewer ( table 2 , item R16).

The CQIMG endorses three types of synthesis; thematic synthesis, framework synthesis and meta-ethnography ( box 1 ). 43 44 Rapid QES favour descriptive thematic synthesis 45 or framework synthesis, 46 47 except when theory generation (meta-ethnography 48 49 or analytical thematic synthesis) is a priority ( table 2 , item R17).

Choosing a method for rapid qualitative synthesis

Thematic synthesis: first choice method for rQES. 45 For example, in their rapid QES Crooks and colleagues 44 used a thematic synthesis to understand the experiences of both academic and lived experience coresearchers within palliative and end of life research. 45

Framework synthesis: alternative where a suitable framework can be speedily identified. 46 For example, Bright and colleagues 46 considered ‘best-fit framework synthesis’ as appropriate for mapping study findings to an ‘a priori framework of dimensions measured by prenatal maternal anxiety tools’ within their ‘streamlined and time-limited evidence review’. 47

Less commonly, an adapted meta-ethnographical approach was used for an implementation model of social distancing where supportive data (29 studies) was plentiful. 48 However, this QES demonstrates several features that subsequently challenge its original identification as ‘rapid’. 49

Abbrevations: QES, qualitative evidence synthesis; rQES, resource-constrained qualitative evidence synthesis.

The team should consider whether a conceptual model, theory or framework offers a rapid way for organising, coding, interpreting and presenting findings ( table 2 , item R18). If the extracted data appears rich enough to sustain further interpretation, data from a thematic or framework synthesis can subsequently be explored within a subsequent meta-ethnography. 43 However, this requires a team with substantial interpretative expertise. 11

Assessments of confidence in the evidence 4 are central to any rQES that seeks to support decision-making and the QES-specific Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation approach for assessing the Confidence of Evidence from Reviews of Qualitative research (GRADE-CERQual) approach is designed to assess confidence in qualitative evidence. 50 This can be performed by a single reviewer, confirmed by a second reviewer. 26 Additional reviewers could verify all, or a sample of, assessments. For a rapid assessment a team must prioritise findings, using objective criteria; a WHO rQES focused only on the three ‘highly synthesised findings’. 20 The team could consider reusing GRADE-CERQual assessments from published QESs if findings are relevant and of demonstrable high quality ( table 2 , item R19). 50 No rapid approach to full application of GRADE-CERQual currently exists.

Reporting and record management

Little is written on optimal use of technology. 8 A rapid review is not a good time to learn review management software or qualitative analysis management software. Using such software for all general QES processes ( table 2 , item R20), and then harnessing these skills and tools when specifically under resource pressures, is a sounder strategy. Good file labelling and folder management and a ‘develop once, re-use multi-times’ approach facilitates resource savings.

Reporting requirements include the meta-ethnography reporting guidance (eMERGe) 51 and the Enhancing transparency in reporting the synthesis of qualitative research (ENTREQ) statement. 52 An rQES should describe limitations and their implications for confidence in the evidence even more thoroughly than a regular QES; detailing the consequences of fast-tracking, streamlining or of omitting processes all together. 8 Time spent documenting reflexivity is similarly important. 27 If QES methodology is to remain credible rapid approaches must be applied with insight and documented with circumspection. 53 54 (56)

Ethics statements

Patient consent for publication.

Not applicable.

Ethics approval

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Supplementary materials

Supplementary data.

This web only file has been produced by the BMJ Publishing Group from an electronic file supplied by the author(s) and has not been edited for content.

  • Data supplement 1

Contributors All authors (AB, IS, JN, CH, FC) have made substantial contributions to the conception and design of the guidance document. AB led on drafting the work and revising it critically for important intellectual content. All other authors (IS, JN, CH, FC) contributed to revisions of the document. All authors (AB, IS, JN, CH, FC) have given final approval of the version to be published. As members of the Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group and/or the Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group all authors (AB, IS, JN, CH, FC) agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Competing interests AB is co-convenor of the Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group. In the last 36 months, he received royalties from Systematic Approaches To a Successful Literature Review (Sage 3rd edition), honoraria from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and travel support from the WHO. JN is lead convenor of the Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group. In the last 36 months, she has received honoraria from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and travel support from the WHO. CH is co-convenor of the Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group.

Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.

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  1. Synthesis

    At the very basic level, synthesis refers to combining multiple sources and ideas. As a writer, you will use information from several sources to create new ideas based on your analysis of what you have read. How is synthesis different from summarizing?

  2. Synthesizing Sources

    Synthesizing sources involves combining the work of other scholars to provide new insights. It's a way of integrating sources that helps situate your work in relation to existing research. Synthesizing sources involves more than just summarizing.

  3. 6. Synthesize

    A self-guided tutorial that walks you through the process of conducting a Literature Review. Synthesize This is the point where you sort articles by themes or categories in preparation for writing your lit review.

  4. Synthesis

    Global synthesis occurs at the paper (or, sometimes, section) level when writers connect ideas across paragraphs or sections to create a new narrative whole. A literature review, which can either stand alone or be a section/chapter within a capstone, is a common example of a place where global synthesis is necessary. However, in almost all ...

  5. Synthesis

    Synthesis is an important element of academic writing, demonstrating comprehension, analysis, evaluation and original creation. With synthesis you extract content from different sources to create an original text. While paraphrase and summary maintain the structure of the given source (s), with synthesis you create a new structure.

  6. How To Write Synthesis In Research: Example Steps

    Synthesizing simply means combining. Instead of summarizing the main points of each source in turn, you put together the ideas and findings of multiple sources in order to make an overall point. At the most basic level, this involves looking for similarities and differences between your sources.

  7. Synthesize

    Synthesize: combine separate elements to form a whole. Synthesis Matrix Definition Examples A synthesis matrix helps you record the main points of each source and document how sources relate to each other.

  8. 3.2 Synthesizing literature

    [1] As you read through the material you gather, look for common themes as they may provide the structure for your literature review. And, remember, writing a literature review is an iterative process. It is not unusual to go back and search academic databases for more sources of information as you read the articles you've collected.

  9. Literature Reviews

    How to synthesise. Organise and categorise your content into themes or patterns. Examples of themes include: Topical (general to specific). Evaluate or score resources as you go - you may like to add a column to your matrix for recording some type of coding system such as a + or - or numerical value.

  10. Literature Synthesis 101: How To Guide + Examples

    Simply put, literature synthesis means going beyond just describing what everyone has said and found. Instead, synthesis is about bringing together all the information from various sources to present a cohesive assessment of the current state of knowledge in relation to your study's research aims and questions.

  11. Literature Synthesis

    As posed by Pawson et al. ( 2005 ), it consists of a technique composed of five steps: (1) explain the scope; (2) search for evidence; (3) evaluate primary studies and extract data; (4) synthesize evidence and conclude; and (5) disseminate, implement and evaluate. In the first step, the review question is defined.

  12. Synthesize Definition & Meaning

    : to produce (something, such as music) by an electronic synthesizer intransitive verb : to make a synthesis Did you know? Synthesize is a very common word in chemistry, since chemists are constantly synthesizing new compounds—that is, synthetic compounds—including drugs and industrial chemicals.

  13. Reading & Writing to Synthesize

    As The American Heritage Dictionary states, synthesis means "the combining of separate elements or substances to form a coherent whole." The concept of a "coherent whole" is essential to synthesis.

  14. A Guide to Evidence Synthesis: What is Evidence Synthesis?

    They generally include a methodical and comprehensive literature synthesis focused on a well-formulated research question. Their aim is to identify and synthesize all of the scholarly research on a particular topic, including both published and unpublished studies. Evidence syntheses are conducted in an unbiased, reproducible way to provide ...

  15. Chapter 7: Synthesizing Sources

    7.1.1 Putting the Pieces Together Combining separate elements into a whole is the dictionary definition of synthesis. It is a way to make connections among and between numerous and varied source materials. A literature review is not an annotated bibliography, organized by title, author, or date of publication.

  16. LibGuides: Literature Review How To: Synthesizing Sources

    Synthesis writing is a form of analysis related to comparison and contrast, classification and division. On a basic level, synthesis requires the writer to pull together two or more summaries, looking for themes in each text. In synthesis, you search for the links between various materials in order to make your point.

  17. What Synthesis Methodology Should I Use? A Review and Analysis of

    Types of Research Synthesis: Key Characteristics: Purpose: Methods: Product: CONVENTIONAL Integrative Review: What is it? "The integrative literature review is a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated" [, p.356]. ...

  18. Summarizing and synthesizing

    The purpose of synthesizing Combining separate elements into a whole is the basic dictionary definition of synthesis. It is a way to make connections between numerous and varied source materials.

  19. Conducting a Literature Review: Synthesize

    Organize and synthesize literature related to your topic using your synthesis matrix; Synthesize and Apply. When writing a literature review, your objective is to provide an overview of the current state of knowledge about your topic. Throughout the research process, you will identify a variety of resources that reveal what is known, and what ...

  20. Synthesizing Sources

    Research Overview Synthesizing Sources Synthesizing Sources When you look for areas where your sources agree or disagree and try to draw broader conclusions about your topic based on what your sources say, you are engaging in synthesis.

  21. Synthesis Definition & Meaning

    1 a : the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole b : the production of a substance by the union of chemical elements, groups, or simpler compounds or by the degradation of a complex compound c : the combining of often diverse conceptions into a coherent whole also : the complex so formed 2 a : deductive reasoning b

  22. SYNTHESIZE Definition & Usage Examples

    completely puzzling or perplexing. strictly required, as by etiquette, usage, or fashion. TAKE THE QUIZ TO FIND OUT Origin of synthesize 1 First recorded in 1820-30; synthes (is) + -ize Also synthetize; especially British, syn·the·sise . Other words from synthesize syn·the·si·za·tion, noun non·syn·the·sized, adjective

  23. 4.2 Synthesizing literature

    Putting the pieces together. Combining separate elements into a whole is the dictionary definition of synthesis. It is a way to make connections among numerous and varied source materials. A literature review is not organized by author, title, or date of publication like an annotated bibliography. Rather, it is grouped by topic and argument to ...

  24. Rapid reviews methods series: guidance on rapid qualitative evidence

    This paper forms part of a series of methodological guidance from the Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group and addresses rapid qualitative evidence syntheses (QESs), which use modified systematic, transparent and reproducible methodsu to accelerate the synthesis of qualitative evidence when faced with resource constraints. This guidance covers the review process as it relates to synthesis of ...