Synthesizing Sources

Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate how good source synthesis and integration builds credibility

What is Synthesis?

Synthesis is the combining of two or more things to produce something new. When you read and write, you will be asked to synthesize by taking ideas from what you read and combining them to form new ideas.

Synthesizing Sources

Once you have analyzed the texts involved in your research and taken notes, you must turn to the task of writing your essay. The goal here is not simply to summarize your findings. Critical writing requires that you communicate your analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of those findings to your audience.

You analyze and synthesize even before you compose your first draft. In an article called, “Teaching Conventions of Academic Discourse,” Teresa Thonney outlines six standard features of academic writing. Use the list to help frame your purpose and to ensure that you are adopting the characteristics of a strong academic writer as you synthesize from various sources:

  1. Writers state the value of their work and announce their plan for their papers.
  2. Writers adopt a voice of authority.
  3. Writers respond to what others have said about their topic.
  4. Writers acknowledge that others might disagree with the position they have taken.
  5. Writers use academic and discipline-specific vocabulary.
  6. Writers emphasize evidence, often in tables, graphs, and images.

Cooking With Your Sources

Let’s return to the example of Marvin, who is working on his research assignment. Marvin already learned from the online professor that he should spend time walking with his sources (knowing where to find them) and talking to his sources (knowing who is conversing about them and what they are saying). Now Marvin will learn the importance of cooking with his sources, or creating the right recipe for an excellent paper.

O-Prof: Let’s take a look at the third metaphor: cooking. When you cook with sources, you process them in new ways. Cooking, like writing, involves a lot of decisions. For instance, you might decide to combine ingredients in a way that keeps the full flavor and character of each ingredient.

Marvin: Kind of like chili cheese fries? I can taste the flavor of the chili, the cheese, and the fries separately.

O-Prof: Yes. But other food preparation processes can change the character of the various ingredients. You probably wouldn’t enjoy gobbling down a stick of butter, two raw eggs, a cup of flour, or a cup of sugar (well, maybe the sugar!). But if you mix these ingredients and expose them to a 375-degree temperature, chemical reactions transform them into something good to eat, like a cake.

Marvin: You’re making me hungry. But what do chili cheese fries and cakes have to do with writing?

O-Prof: Sometimes, you might use direct quotes from your sources, as if you were throwing walnuts whole into a salad. The reader will definitely “taste” your original source. Other times, you might paraphrase ideas and combine them into an intricate argument. The flavor of the original source might be more subtle in the latter case, with only your source documentation indicating where your ideas came from. In some ways, the writing assignments your professors give you are like recipes. As an apprentice writing cook, you should analyze your assignments to determine what “ingredients” (sources) to use, what “cooking processes” to follow, and what the final “dish” (paper) should look like. Let’s try a few sample assignments. Here’s one:

Assignment 1: Critique (given in a human development course)

We’ve read and studied Freud’s theory of how the human psyche develops; now it’s time to evaluate the theory. Read at least two articles that critique Freud’s theory, chosen from the list I provided in class. Then, write an essay discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Freud’s theory.

Assume you’re a student in this course. Given this assignment, how would you describe the required ingredients, processes, and product?

Marvin thinks for a minute, while chewing and swallowing a mouthful of apple.

Marvin: Let’s see if I can break it down:


  • everything we’ve read about Freud’s theory
  •  our class discussions about the theory 
  • two articles of my choice taken from the list provided by the instructor

Processes: I have to read those two articles to see their criticisms of Freud’s theory. I can also review my notes from class, since we discussed various critiques. I have to think about what aspects of Freud’s theory explain human development well, and where the theory falls short—like in class, we discussed how Freud’s theory reduces human development to sexuality alone.

Product: The final essay needs to include both strengths and weaknesses of Freud’s theory. The professor didn’t specifically say this, but it’s also clear I need to incorporate some ideas from the two articles I read—otherwise why would she have assigned those articles?

O-Prof: Good. How about this one?

Assignment 3: Research Paper (given in a health and environment course)

Write a 6–8-page paper in which you explain a health problem related to water pollution (e.g., arsenic poisoning, gastrointestinal illness, skin disease, etc.). Recommend a potential way or ways this health problem might be addressed. Be sure to cite and document the sources you use for your paper.


Ingredients: No specific guidance here, except that sources have to relate to water pollution and health. I’ve already decided I’m interested in how bottled water might help with health where there’s water pollution. I’ll have to pick a health problem and find sources about how water pollution can cause that problem. Gastrointestinal illness sounds promising. I’ll ask the reference librarian where I’d be likely to find good articles about water pollution, bottled water, and gastrointestinal illness.

Process: There’s not very specific information here about what process to use, but our conversation’s given me some ideas. I’ll use scholarly articles to find the connection between water pollution and gastrointestinal problems, and whether bottled water could prevent those problems.

Product: Obviously, my paper will explain the connection between water and gastrointestinal health. It’ll evaluate whether bottled water provides a good option in places where the water’s polluted, then give a recommendation about what people should do. The professor did say I should address any objections readers might raise—for instance, bottled water may turn out to be a good option, but it’s a lot more expensive than tap water. Finally, I’ll need to provide in-text citations and document my sources in a reference list.

O-Prof: You’re on your way. Think for a minute about these assignments. Did you notice that the “recipes” varied in their specificity?

Marvin: Yeah. The first assignment gave me very specific information about exactly what source “ingredients” to use. But in the second assignment, I had to figure it out on my own. And the processes varied, too. In the second assignment—my own assignment—I’ll have to use content from my sources to support my recommendation.

O-Prof: Different professors provide different levels of specificity in their writing assignments. If you have trouble figuring out the “recipe,” ask the professor for more information. Keep in mind that when it comes to “cooking with sources,” no one expects you to be an executive chef the first day you get to college. Over time, you’ll become more expert at writing with sources, more able to choose and use sources on your own. 

Watch It

Watch this video to learn more about the synthesis process.

You can view the transcript for “Synthesis: Definition & Examples” here (opens in new window).

Building Credibility through Source Integration

Writers are delighted when they find good sources because they know they can use those sources to make their writing stronger. Skillful integration of those sources adds to an argument’s persuasiveness but also builds the credibility of the argument and the writer.

Well-integrated sources build credibility in several ways. First, the source material adds evidence and support to your argument, making it more persuasive. Second, the signal phrase highlights the reputation and qualifications of the source, thereby adding to the source material’s credibility. Third, effective citation makes it easy for your reader to find and investigate the original source, building your credibility as a trustworthy writer. Finally, your thorough explanation of the source’s relevance to your argument demonstrates your critical thinking and reasoning, another avenue to increased credibility.

Notice in the example below how the student is able to synthesize multiple sources on the minimum wage in the United States in order to demonstrate familiarity with and respond to other voices on the topic. The writer is also able to state with authority their own perspective on the minimum wage and economic inequality based on the effective discussion and synthesis of sources.

In the activity below, you’ll practice building your synthesis based on your analysis and thinking about other source material.

Try It

Examine the use of signal phrases, direct quotations from an outside source, citation, and explanation of relevance to consider how well the writer’s source integration builds credibility.

Synthesis, then, is the final step in the process of using sources. Good writers strive to include other voices in conversation, and they do so using direct quotes, paraphrase, and summary. The most important step, however, in integrating source material, is synthesis where we compare, contrast, and combine those other voices in order to fairly and accurately represent the existing conversation on the topic and thus to demonstrate how our ideas fit into or respond to that existing conversation.