How to conduct a narrative synthesis?

Nick Blog

During the writing of the undergraduate or graduate thesis it is likely that you will have to perform a narrative summary of the topic. But what exactly does that mean? How is this summary structured and how can the information found in your work be incorporated?

What is a narrative synthesis?

Narrative synthesis is a method used to gather information and knowledge that already exists in relation to a particular topic or problem. This information can be found through different sources, such as newspaper articles, books, documents and archival material.

Conducting a narrative summary provides an overview of existing knowledge and theories related to the topic of your paper. It also provides a solid scientific basis for your three-year or master’s thesis.

If done properly, it will not simply be a list or summary of existing information. Your goal will be to critically discuss the most relevant ideas and information that you have found as part of the theoretical framework.

What is the difference between a narrative synthesis and a theoretical framework?

The narrative synthesis will be the starting point to analyze the central problem of your three-year or master’s thesis. Depending on the structure of your thesis, it could also be used to develop an exhaustive theoretical framework.

Preliminary exploration of the problem

Once the general idea of the problem and the research questions you would like to deal with in your paper have been established, the first step is to start collecting information about the subject. It is important to be able to orientate yourself in the topic and to refine your knowledge about the problems you will analyze.

The knowledge of information and theories of the matter acquired during the narrative synthesis will help you establish a solid scientific basis for your research.

After identifying the problem and the related questions you want to answer, the next step will be to deepen the knowledge of the subject. It can become a real challenge, given the amount of information you will need to analyze and the little time you will have to write your three-year or master’s thesis. Procedures are as important as possible in the most systematic way.

Action Plan

Following this action plan developed in four fundamental points will help you in this.

  • Preparation
  • Collection of materials
  • Evaluation and selection of materials
  • Material analysis

1. Preparation

The first step is to orientate yourself in the subject in order to have a global view of the scope of the investigation. Also include the preparation of a list of keywords that will serve as the basis for the next step.

Read a recent publication on the subject. Preferably from an author known in the field and who understands as many facets as possible of the topic you discussed. This will allow you to have a complete overview of your research and, for any problem or doubt, contact your speakers.

When reading, it marks the most important and relevant terms.

Also identify the most important and relevant terms for your (initial) problem and the questions you will be answering in your thesis.

Create a list of all these terms: they will be your keywords. For example, if the topic of your thesis is non-verbal communication, the following terms should be part of your keywords:

  • Not verbal communication
  • Non-verbal signals
  • Non-verbal gestures
  • Body language
  • Mimicry

2. Collection of materials

This preparatory work makes it easier to find materials, information and specific sources. Searches often start online, and using the right keywords is essential (that’s why the list of keywords is the first fundamental step).

Search for these keywords in English and in any other language you know. It may also be useful to use synonyms and different combinations of keywords.

There are several types of databases that could be useful to consult:

The online catalog of the library of your institution u university. Most academic libraries have a vast repertoire of physical resources (including books, documents, newspapers and magazines). Many have however extended their catalog by offering additional online resources, including enrollments in academic and newspaper databases (see below). Many institutions allow students to connect via VPN, which allows them to access the online catalog directly from home.

Google Scholar. Via you can access the special Google search engine in the academic world. If the article of your interest is not accessible for free, try to access it through the faculty library.

Specific databases for each country. Some databases are nationwide. For example, the Biblioteca Italiana database, a digital library of texts representative of the Italian cultural and literary tradition from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.

Multidisciplinary databases. JDatabase like JSTOR and EBSCO are digital libraries that contain academic journals, books and primary sources on a wide selection of topics. It is usually possible to access them through academic institutions.

Specific databases by subject. Many databases focus on specific disciplines (or groups of related disciplines). For example, the AGRIS database, which covers a wide range of topics related to the environment and agriculture.

Once you have identified the most useful sources for your research, check the bibliography of the publication to go back to other useful sources this method of research is also called avalanche or chain or snowball). Does an author’s name still pop up? It usually means that this author has carried out numerous studies and research on the subject. Take a look at his personal website or look for his name in online catalogs to make sure you have access to as many results as possible.

3. Evaluation and selection of materials

You’ll probably have to deal with an incredible amount of information. Since you have little time to work on it, it is important to focus only on the most important sources. We suggest that you classify the information first based on their relevance and then on the scientific quality of the information.


A relevant publication fits perfectly into the topic or problem you are dealing with. To determine the relevance of a book or an article without having to read it all, start by reading the introduction and the conclusion. Usually they will provide you with enough information to judge whether the publication is relevant or not with your research.


The quality of a publication is determined by several factors. One of the general rules is to try to use only articles that have been published in the most important newspapers of the sector. Lists like the Journal Quality List will help you identify these newspapers.

Looking at authors’ skills can also help. Experienced authors are often affiliated with an academic institution, publish many texts or articles on the topic and are frequently mentioned by other authors.

Remember that information found on websites is not always reliable, with the exception of sites run by scientific, governmental or intergovernmental institutions. It is also important to use the most recent information possible, otherwise you risk basing your work on obsolete information.

4. Material analysis

Once you identify the information you are going to focus on, the next step will be the analysis of the materials themselves. It is important to start by studying the selected publications and ask yourself the following questions in doing so:

  • What problem is being studied and how is it addressed in research?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What theories or models does the author refer to?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does this publication relate to other publications in this field?
  • How can I use this search for my thesis?

Analyzing your sources in this way will give you a clear picture of the field and how your research fits into it. You then can discuss the literature in a critical and well-founded manner.

The way in which you should present the results of your literature review vary by program. Your department should provide you with the relevant guidelines. For instance, the emphasis should be on defining terms and analyzing theories and models.

How to refer to the sources?

The citation of the sources in the narrative synthesis must be very accurate. Many institutes and universities adopt the American Pscyhological Association (APA) quote style. Use Scribbr’s free APA Generator to create quick and accurate quotes.

If you do not mention your sources correctly, the information used could be considered plagiarism. Plagiarism is considered a very serious crime and can have serious repercussions on your work. Do you have any doubts or do you need a hand? Check Plagiarism – prevention is always better than cure.

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