Literature Synthesis: Guide To Synthesise & Write Literature Review

Literature synthesis is a crucial skill for researchers and scholars, allowing them to integrate findings from multiple sources into a coherent analysis. Mastering literature synthesis will enhance your research and writing skills. 

This guide will walk you through the process of synthesising and writing a literature review, providing practical steps and insider tips. Learn how to:

  • organise your sources,
  • identify key themes, and
  • create a cohesive narrative that highlights both agreements and disagreements within the existing literature.

Literature Synthesis vs Literature Review

You may be familiar with literature review, and the term literature synthesis may throw you off a bit. Are they a similar thing, or something different from each other?

If you are still unsure about how literature synthesis is different from literature review, here are a couple of points to think about: 

synthesize literature

Approach To Sources

One difference is the approach to sources. In a literature review, you might describe each source separately, detailing its findings and contributions.

With synthesis, you combine the ideas from multiple sources to highlight relationships and gaps.

One example would be you may find that several studies agree on a particular theme but use different methodologies to reach their conclusions.

Organisation

A second difference is the organization. Literature reviews typically follow a structured format, summarizing each source in a new paragraph.

In contrast, synthesis requires organising sources around key themes or topics. This might involve using a synthesis matrix to align findings and theories from different sources into a cohesive analysis.

How To Evaluate Literature

Evaluating the literature also differs. When you write a literature review, you summarise and describe the existing research. Synthesis goes further by:

  • critically evaluating the sources,
  • identifying points of agreement and disagreement, and
  • assessing the overall state of knowledge.

You need to address the methodological approaches used and how they relate to your research questions.

Purpose

In terms of purpose, a literature review provides an overview of what’s known about a topic. It sets the stage for your research by summarising existing knowledge.

Synthesis, meanwhile, aims to create new insights by combining and contrasting different sources. This process helps you identify research gaps and questions that need further investigation.

Writing Process

Finally, the writing process differs. A literature review involves compiling summaries, often following a step-by-step guide.

With synthesis, you need to integrate:

  • findings,
  • theories, and
  • methodologies from various sources.

This involves weaving together different perspectives into a single, cohesive narrative that supports your research aims.

How To Perform Literature Synthesis?

Performing literature synthesis can be daunting, but by breaking it down step by step, you can create a comprehensive and coherent analysis of your topic.

Here’s a guide to help you through the process, with insider details and practical examples that will make your task easier.

Organise Your Sources

First, you need to gather and organise your sources. Start by conducting a thorough search of the existing literature on your topic, using

  • research guides,
  • library databases, and
  • academic journals to find relevant sources.

There are plenty of AI tools that can help with process as well – make sure you check out my guide on best AI tools for literature review.

Record the main points of each source in a summary table. This table should include columns for:

  • the author,
  • publication year,
  • key points,
  • methodologies used, and
  • findings.

By organising your sources in this way, you’ll have a clear overview of the existing literature.

Identify Themes

Once you have your sources organised, it’s time to start synthesising the literature. This means combining the ideas and findings from multiple sources to create a cohesive analysis.

Begin by identifying the key themes that emerge from your sources. These themes will form the basis of your synthesis.

synthesize literature

Suppose you are you’re researching job satisfaction, In this case, you might find recurring themes such as work-life balance, salary, and workplace environment.

Create A Synthesis Matrix

Next, create a synthesis matrix. This tool helps you organize the key points from each source under the identified themes.

Each row in the matrix represents a source, and each column represents a theme.

By filling in the matrix, you can see how different sources relate to each theme. This will help you identify similarities and differences between the sources.

Write Your Literature Synthesis

With your synthesis matrix in hand, you can start writing your literature synthesis.

Begin each paragraph with a clear topic sentence that identifies the theme you’re discussing. Then, weave together the findings from different sources, highlighting points of agreement and disagreement.

One way you may write this include: “While Franz (2008) found that salary is a major factor in job satisfaction, Goldstein (2012) argued that work-life balance plays a more significant role.”

Critically Evaluate Your Sources

Be sure to critically evaluate the sources as you synthesize the literature. This means assessing the methodologies used in each study and considering their impact on the findings.

Let’s say you found that most studies on job satisfaction used qualitative methods, you might question whether the findings would differ if quantitative methods were used. Addressing these methodological differences can help you identify research gaps and areas for further study.

Don’t Just Summarise

As you write your paragraphs, avoid simply summarising each source. Instead, combine the key points from multiple sources to create a more comprehensive analysis.

If we reuse Franz (2008) as example, rather than describing Franz’s study in one paragraph and Goldstein’s study in another, integrate their findings to show how they relate to each other.

This approach will make your synthesis more cohesive and easier to follow.

Address The Broader Context Of The Topic

To create a strong synthesis, you also need to address the broader context of your research. This means considering the theoretical frameworks and empirical evidence that underpin your topic.

If you’re researching job satisfaction, you might discuss how different theories of motivation relate to your findings. By integrating these broader perspectives, you can provide a more comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge.

Keep Questioning Yourself

Throughout the writing process, keep the five key questions in mind:

  • What’s broadly agreed upon within the current research?
  • Where do the disagreements lie?
  • Which theories are central to your research topic?
  • Which contexts have been covered, and which haven’t?
  • What types of research methodologies have been used?

Addressing these questions will help you create a more thorough and insightful synthesis.

Revise & Edit

Finally, revise and edit your work. This means checking for clarity, coherence, and logical flow. Make sure each paragraph has a clear topic sentence and that all sentences within the paragraph relate to that topic.

Remove any unnecessary information and ensure that your synthesis is well-organised and easy to follow.

Your Guide To Synthesise Literature

Performing literature synthesis may seem overwhelming, but by following this step-by-step guide, you can create a comprehensive and cohesive analysis of your topic.

Use tools like summary tables and synthesis matrices to organise your sources, and focus on combining the key points from multiple sources to create a strong synthesis.

With careful planning and critical evaluation, you can produce a literature synthesis that provides valuable insights into your field of study.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.