In academic writing, synthesising is merging the various perspectives you have found while researching your topic. Your job as a writer is to make it clear to the reader how the ideas or research of various authors are connected, including discussing the similarities and differences between their ideas.
What does a well synthesised paragraph look like?
Assignment question: Should Australia invest in a high-speed rail network between Sydney and Melbourne?
Picard (2015) argues that a high-speed rail network is still too expensive for a population as small as Australia. In addition, the amount of environmental damage caused by construction would be extremely high during the estimated 20 years it would take to link Sydney and Melbourne. Lee (2019) further adds that in order to recoup the cost of construction and maintenance, ticket prices for the high-speed train would be prohibitively high for most travellers. Therefore, most of the population is unlikely to choose the high-speed rail option when airfares are considerably lower. On the other hand, the cost of building and maintaining a high-speed rail network could be offset by a carbon tax on air travel which may also go towards subsidising the price of rail tickets (Subinur, 2020). Moreover, Patel (2016) and Subinur (2020) maintain that the current transport infrastructure in Australia will not be able to keep up with the population growth, therefore the cost of upgrading it is unavoidable. Finally, Patel posits that the environmental impact of expanding the air travel industry is much greater than any temporary problems caused by rail construction, making a high-speed rail network a more environmentally sustainable option than air travel.
‘..argues that..’ indicates that a particular view is being taken by the first piece of research based on the assignment question.
Lee (2019) further adds
More recent research is now used which suggests ways to deal with the problem of cost identified by the previous author.
On the other hand
The writer then introduces a different perspective from an even more recent paper on the issue of dealing with costs. Note that in this sentence the in-text reference comes at the end of the sentence (which is fine).
The whole paragraph deals with the same basic problem of costs. By using views from different authors between 2015 and 2020, the discussion is brought up to date and covers different aspects that are relevant to the assignment question.
How do I synthesise effectively?
Ask yourself the following questions when trying to synthesise the ideas of various scholars into your writing. Please check each question to check the answer.
How are my sources connected to each other?
Ideas can be connected in different ways, such as:
areas in which authors agree/disagree (illustrated in the table below),
changes in perspective on the topic that have occurred over time (e.g. perspectives from 2010 compared with perspectives from 2020),
new ideas that have developed as a result of further research into the topic.
In the example below, the four different authors used in the paragraph above have been grouped into either ‘agreeing’ or ‘disagreeing’ with the thesis: Australia should invest in high-speed rail between Sydney and Melbourne.
- Australian population is growing. Current infrastructure will not cope with growth.
- Rail network is better for the environment in the long-term.
- Current infrastructure planning too short sighted in light of Australia’s growing population.
- Carbon tax could be placed on air travel to fund high speed rail and subsidise rail users.
- Too costly for Australia’s small population.
- Too much environmental damage during 20-year construction period.
- Ticket prices would be too high for travellers.
- Airfares still cheaper and more available.
Have I organised my sources logically in my writing?
In the above example, Picard and Lee both believe that high speed rail is not a good solution. The writer uses specific reporting verbs and transition signals to group ideas that are similar and to separate those that are different:
First, the writer starts with the disagreement side of the argument by stating Picard’s perspective using the reporting verb ‘argue’: Picard (2015) argues that…
Then, to show that Lee also holds the same opinion as Picard but with an extra viewpoint, the phrase ‘further adds’ is used:
Lee (2019) further adds that…
Next, the writer uses the transition signal ‘on the other hand…’ to clearly indicate a change in the discussion from ideas that disagree with the thesis to those that agree.
In conclusion, reporting verbs and transition signals greatly help in organising your information logically to make your writing flow better. For further explanation and examples on reporting verbs and transition signals, please click on the following links:
How do I synthesise across multiple paragraphs?
In the above example, if the writer wanted to include more in-depth analysis of each side of the argument, the logical structure would be to group those scholars who agree with the writer’s thesis in one paragraph, and then group the scholars who disagree in another paragraph. This planning should be done before you start writing your draft, to ensure that you have a clear overview of the topic and the various perspectives on that topic.
Remember to explain how the points in each paragraph link to the assignment topic and to the surrounding paragraphs. For example, a paragraph about the advantages of high speed rail might end with the following sentence: ‘While there are some strong supporters of high speed rail in Australia, many experts remain to be convinced.’ This final sentence of the paragraph links to both the assignment question (Should Australia invest in high speed rail?), as well as the topic of the paragraph that will follow (an overview of the reasons why high speed rail may not be a good solution for Australia’s transport issues).