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Research Guides

Information Literacy & Library Research: Information Synthesis

Information literacy is the ability to know when information is needed and to be able to identify, locate and evaluate, and then legally and responsibly use and share that information.

Introduction: Scholarship is a Conversation

the synthesize portion of the research process with the steps of: identify key ideas, synthesize key ideas, and cite information sources.Research is a social process where researchers exchange thoughts, ideas, and information through presentations and publications. When you are entering a research conversation (by writing a paper, or giving a presentation), you need to identify the ideas in that research area to make connections between sources, and use your own voice to write about your interpretation of these ideas. This activity is called information synthesis.

Information synthesis is the process of analyzing and evaluating information from various sources, making connections between the information found, and combining the recently acquired information with prior knowledge to create something new. Without information synthesis strategies, we cannot derive new knowledge from these large amounts of data. Effective information synthesis is also vital in developing effective writing and communication skills to share new knowledge.

Here is an example of a paragraph where the authors have synthesized information across several sources on the idea of information synthesis. Note also how connector words are used to make the writing flow.

Information synthesis is a key skill for participants in our knowledge society and requires complex processing (Fitzgerald, 2004; Goldman, 2004). Yet information literacy instruction and practice tend to favor easily-defined skills that often only emphasize the search component of the research process, leaving out higher order processes like information synthesis (Lloyd, 2007; Montiel-Overall, 2007). Similarly, in the writing classroom, teachers are largely unfamiliar with how to teach synthesis sometimes implying it is a linear process (McGinley, 1992), leading Mateos and Sole (2009) to call for a “unique, careful teaching approach” (p. 448).

Creating the Information Synthesis Matrix

Important questions to answer when you are reading your sources are: What are the major themes or ideas? How are these ideas related to each other? What are my assertions based on what I’ve learned about these ideas and my prior knowledge on this topic?

Keeping track of ideas gets more complex the more sources you are using. This is where the information synthesis matrix comes in. It is a table where the first column collects the ideas, and all the other columns are taken up by your sources, one source per column. Each row represents a unique idea. In the intersection of sources and ideas, the cells of the matrix, you provide short descriptions of how this idea is represented in that source (adding the page number at the end of the description can also remind you where you got the idea).You leave the cell blank if that idea does not appear in a source. If you find an existing idea that already has a row, find the cell where your new source and that idea intersect, and put the description there. Make sure that your descriptions are in your own words so they can easily be used when writing a synthesized paragraph for your paper and are not plagiarized. 

a sample synthesis matrix with 5 sources, showing how not all boxes are filled and difference sources work together.

This is an abbreviated matrix but you can view more complete synthesis matrix examples to help you understand how to create your own.

Note for INFO 1010:

For the Synthesize: Module 5 Assignment you create a synthesis matrix using the sources you found for your paper. The synthesis matrix is a good way to keep track of the ideas you read about in your sources which will be very helpful when you create an outline for your paper and write a first draft. 

Shortened video (9:47):

Full Length Video (21:44):

Paraphrasing, Summarizing, and Quoting

When creating your synthesis matrix, it is best for you to keep the information in each cell shorter, so the size of the matrix stays manageable. This can be done by summarizing or paraphrasing how your sources talk about each main idea. Summarizing and paraphrasing are also good ways to make sure you use your own voice more, which is an important part of synthesis. An added benefit of using your own voice is that you are avoiding plagiarism. Please keep quotes to a minimum as professors are interested in reading your original thoughts and interpretations. 

Paraphrasing is when you use different words to say the same thing without actually quoting the source. It involves fully understanding the original source and then using your own words to convey the same idea. Make sure to add the page number of the source (if possible) in the cell with your paraphrase.

Summarizing is when you give an overview of the text. It will always reduce the content to the important points without using details or examples. Summarizing is ideal for your synthesis matrix because you will be able to get the idea of how that source talks about the main point without taking a lot of space. Including the page number from the original source will help you know where to return for those details when you start to write your paper.

Quoting is when you take the exact wording used by your source and use it in your paper. Quoting is good for providing strong evidence to support your point. However, use quotes sparingly or not at all. Good things to quote are definitions or text that is written so beautifully you want to frame it to hang on your wall. When deciding to use a quote in your matrix, put it in quotation marks and include the page number. This way you will know it is a quote and not accidentally plagiarize later, and quotes require an in-text citation with a page number. If the quote is too long for the cell, include part of the quote and add [...] to show there is more and then end with the page number (p. #).


Writing Using the Information Synthesis Matrix

Once you have read enough sources and you have added them to your synthesis matrix, it is time to use the matrix to write your paper. Because you have collected all the interesting ideas in your matrix (in first column, one idea per row), you can now use that first column to create an outline for your paper by determining a logical order in which to discuss the ideas. Next, you can use each row to write a paragraph or section on that idea, integrating information from all the sources that had something on that idea. Finally, you can also easily see when you don’t have enough sources for an idea. In some cases, the idea might not be that important for your paper. Other times the idea is something that you want to include in your paper so you go out and find more sources, specifically on that idea.

When you write a paragraph in which you synthesize ideas, you can use so-called transition words that: 1) add to an idea (e.g. furthermore, moreover, in addition); 2) introduce information (e.g. for example, for instance, including, as an illustration); 3) compare and contrast (e.g. similarly, in the same way, conversely, however); 4) make a concession (e.g. nevertheless, even though, despite this). See for more information.

A more detailed description on creating and using an information synthesis matrix in the writing process, was created by Utah State University: