How do you summarize arguments for academic articles such as a literature review? Clearly, any argument you write should speak to other, previously published texts. You are in a conversation with your field and will want to engage with other scholarly works, theoretical pieces, or bodies of research. Your article’s engagement with these secondary sources will help to bolster your argument and form a basis for your discussion. However, you want to work with these earlier sources in an intelligent and sophisticated way.
First and foremost, you want to research and choose appropriate texts for your piece. This selection is probably the most significant interaction that you have with secondary research. It is a journal article that speaks to your research or larger argument? Are you building upon the article’s previous research? Does it develop theoretical ideas or define concepts that are key to your argument? In addition, if there is a significant article concerning your argument that you don’t include, make sure you have a very clear understanding of why it is not appropriate for your article.
You’ll want to make sure you understand the general thrust of the argument as well as the specifics. You should be able to summarize the goals and findings of the article clearly and in your own language. Do not cherry-pick statements from the sources if they don’t fit the author’s larger points. If you agree or disagree with the findings, you’ll want to illustrate why or how you differ.
There are several different ways to think about using secondary sources. If you summarize arguments to engage with earlier research concerning your article’s topic, you may want to use a myriad of pieces to illustrate broadly the debates within the field. In this case, detailed summaries of secondary sources are not as necessary. For example, if you are discussing the role of women in World War II combat zones, you may cite earlier historical studies on the topic. As long as you are accurate in your usage, you don’t necessarily need to engage in lengthy summaries. In this case, breadth may be more productive than depth. On the other hand, if it is a theoretical piece, or a set of theoretical pieces that provide a basis for your larger argument, your summation may need more complexity. If, in your discussion of WWII combat zones, you choose to use a unique mode of historical analysis, you will want to explore this kind of analysis in complete detail.
In either case, you’ll want to make sure that you summarize arguments without plagiarizing them. A good rule of thumb is, if you use more than three words from the piece in a row, those words should be in quotes. Paraphrasing is usually more productive, unless you are discussing the writer’s language. By paraphrasing, you illustrate a command over the secondary source’s material. Whether you quote or paraphrase, you should make sure to properly cite according to your preferred reference method.