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Literature Synthesis: How To Synthesize Existing Research (With Examples)

What is Literature Synthesis?

Literature synthesis, also known as literature review or secondary research, is the process of gathering, analyzing, and summarizing existing research on a specific topic. It involves examining a wide range of scholarly articles, books, and other sources to distill the key findings and insights.

Why is Literature Synthesis Important?

Literature synthesis is crucial for several reasons. It helps researchers:

  • Gain a comprehensive understanding of a topic.

  • Identify gaps in the existing literature.

  • Build on previous research.

  • Support their own research with evidence.

  • Contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

Getting Started

Define Your Research Question

Before diving into the synthesis process, you need to clearly define your research question. What is it that you want to explore or understand better? Having a well-defined question will guide your literature search.

Identify Key Search Terms

Once you have your research question, identify key search terms or keywords related to your topic. These terms will be essential when searching for relevant literature in academic databases.

Literature Review

Conducting a Thorough Literature Search

To begin your literature synthesis, you must conduct a comprehensive search. Utilize academic databases like PubMed, Google Scholar, or your university's library resources. Be diligent in your search to ensure you don't miss essential sources.

Sorting and Organizing Your Sources

After collecting a substantial number of sources, it's crucial to organize them efficiently. You can use reference management software like EndNote or Zotero to keep track of your sources and create a well-structured database.

Synthesis Methods

Narrative Synthesis

Narrative synthesis involves telling the story of your research findings. You present the existing research in a cohesive narrative, highlighting key themes and trends.

Thematic Synthesis

Thematic synthesis involves identifying and categorizing common themes or concepts across various studies. It helps you develop a structured framework for your synthesis.

Conceptual Synthesis

Conceptual synthesis goes a step further by analyzing the theories and concepts presented in the literature. It aims to create a more profound understanding of the subject matter.

Extracting Key Information

Finding Common Themes and Patterns

As you delve into the literature, start identifying common themes, patterns, or ideas that emerge across multiple sources. These will form the basis of your synthesis.

Identifying Key Studies

Distinguish the most influential and relevant studies within your chosen field. These studies will be your anchors when presenting your synthesis.

Creating a Framework

Structuring Your Synthesis

To maintain clarity and cohesiveness in your synthesis, structure it effectively. Consider using headings, subheadings, and a logical flow to guide your readers.

Developing Categories and Subcategories

Organize your synthesis by creating categories and subcategories that encapsulate the various aspects of your research question. This hierarchical structure ensures that no valuable information is overlooked.

Writing the Synthesis

Introducing Your Synthesis

Begin your synthesis with a compelling introduction that provides context and sets the stage for what your readers can expect. Explain the significance of the topic and your research question.

Presenting the Findings

Present your findings systematically, following the framework you've developed. Discuss each category or subcategory with clarity and conciseness.

Discussing Implications

Conclude your synthesis by discussing the implications of the research. How does it contribute to the field, and what potential applications or future research areas does it suggest?

Real-World Examples

Example 1: Synthesizing Research on Climate Change

To illustrate the concept of literature synthesis, let's consider a hypothetical example: synthesizing research on climate change. This example will showcase how various studies on climate change can be synthesized effectively to provide a comprehensive overview.

Example 2: Synthesizing Research on Mental Health

In another example, we'll delve into the synthesis of research related to mental health. This will demonstrate how literature synthesis can be applied to a diverse range of topics and offer insights into the mental health field.

Common Challenges

Avoiding Plagiarism

One of the most significant challenges in literature synthesis is avoiding plagiarism. It's essential to properly attribute sources and provide citations for all borrowed ideas and data.

Dealing with Conflicting Findings

Sometimes, you may encounter conflicting findings in the literature. Addressing these conflicts requires a nuanced approach, carefully examining the methodologies and contexts of the studies in question.

Handling an Overwhelming Amount of Literature

The sheer volume of available literature can be overwhelming. Learn to manage and prioritize your sources to ensure your synthesis remains focused and manageable.

Advanced Techniques


Meta-analysis involves statistically combining the results of multiple studies to derive more robust conclusions. It's a powerful tool for synthesizing quantitative data.

Network Analysis

Network analysis examines how various studies and concepts in a field are interconnected. It provides insights into the broader context of research.


Meta-synthesis goes beyond a single study to synthesize multiple syntheses. It's a meta-level approach that aggregates findings from multiple literature reviews.

Tools and Resources

In the world of literature synthesis, having the right tools and resources at your disposal can significantly enhance your efficiency and the quality of your work. Here are some essential elements to consider:

Reference Management Software

To streamline your literature synthesis process, consider using reference management software. These tools, such as EndNote and Mendeley, allow you to organize and manage your sources efficiently. They help you keep track of citations, generate bibliographies, and collaborate with others on your research.

Online Databases and Repositories

Access to online databases and repositories is crucial for finding relevant literature. Websites like PubMed, Google Scholar, and academic library resources provide a vast collection of scholarly articles, books, and research papers. Utilize advanced search features to pinpoint the most pertinent sources for your synthesis.

Ethical Considerations

Maintaining ethical standards in literature synthesis is paramount. Always give proper credit to the original authors of the sources you include in your synthesis. Plagiarism is a serious offense in academia, and it's vital to avoid it. Additionally, consider the ethical implications of your research topic and ensure that your synthesis respects ethical guidelines and values.

Citing Sources Properly

Citing your sources properly is a fundamental aspect of literature synthesis. Use standardized citation styles, such as APA, MLA, or Chicago, to format your references accurately. This not only adds credibility to your work but also allows readers to trace back to the original sources.

Maintaining Integrity in Synthesis

Maintaining integrity in your synthesis means presenting a fair and balanced representation of the existing research. Avoid cherry-picking or distorting information to fit your narrative. Your synthesis should reflect the diversity of opinions and findings within the literature, even if they don't align with your hypothesis.

Benefits of Effective Synthesis

Effective literature synthesis offers numerous benefits, both to your own research and to your field of study. It helps in:

- Advancing Knowledge: By aggregating and synthesizing existing research, you contribute to the collective understanding of a topic.

- Supporting Your Research: A well-done synthesis provides a strong foundation for your research, helping you build upon existing knowledge.

- Contributing to Your Field: Your synthesis can become a valuable resource for other researchers in your field, guiding them in their work.


In this section, we have covered the essential tools and resources for successful literature synthesis, emphasizing the importance of ethical considerations and proper citation practices. Now that you have a comprehensive understanding of the process, you can embark on your journey of synthesizing existing research.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is the best reference management software for literature synthesis?

- The choice of reference management software depends on your preferences and needs. EndNote, Mendeley, and Zotero are popular options.

2. How can I find reliable online databases for my literature synthesis?

- You can explore databases like PubMed, Google Scholar, and institutional library resources for high-quality literature.

3. What are the key ethical considerations in literature synthesis?

- Ethical considerations include proper citation, avoiding plagiarism, and presenting an unbiased representation of the existing research.

4. Is there a specific citation style I should follow in my synthesis?

- The citation style may vary based on your field of study. Common styles include APA, MLA, and Chicago; choose one that aligns with your discipline.

5. How does effective synthesis contribute to the advancement of knowledge?

- Effective synthesis consolidates existing knowledge, identifies gaps, and provides a comprehensive overview, which benefits both researchers and the academic community.

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