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Summarising and paraphrasing

Reasons for summarising

  • To demonstrate your understanding of your reading
  • To establish ideas you will discuss in your writing
  • To inform your readers who might not have read the original text you are summarising
  • To support an idea you are discussing in your work.

Features of a good summary

  • It should offer a balanced coverage of all the main points in the original text
  • It should make the key points of the original clear
  • It should be written in your own words as far as possible and not rely on too many phrases lifted from the original. However, you should not choose obscure, uncommon synonyms just to avoid using words or phrases from the original text. You do not need to change technical, specialised, or conventional terminology or phrases, as these can often only be paraphrased by awkward, inaccurate circumlocutions.
  • It should generally avoid using exactly the same sentence structure as the original
  • It should not overemphasise (or even underemphasise) any of the original points
  • It should not include any extra information which is not in the text you are summarising
  • It should not include details of secondary importance
  • It should not include examples
  • It should be shorter, not longer, than the original text
  • It must contain a citation (reference).

Different types of summary

Informative: These provide the main facts and conclusions of a complete work. They tend to be one or two paragraphs long, eg most academic journal abstracts and dissertation abstracts (although these may be longer).

Example 1

Abstract

Tropical deforestation is a significant driver of global environmental change, given its impacts on the carbon cycle and biodiversity. Loss of the Amazon forest, the focus of this article, is of particular concern because of the size and the rapid rate at which the forest is being converted to agricultural use. In this article, we identify what has been the most important driver of deforestation in a specific colonization frontier in the Brazilian Amazon. To this end, we consider (1) the land-use dynamics of smallholder households, (2) the formation of pasture by large-scale ranchers, and (3) structural processes of land aggregation by ranchers. Much has been written about relations between smallholders and ranchers in the Brazilian Amazon, particularly involving conflict over land, and this article explicates the implications of such social processes for land cover. Toward this end, we draw on panel data (1996-2002) and satellite imagery (1986-1999) to show the deforestation that is attributable to small and large holders, and the deforestation that is attributable to aggregations of property arising from a process that we refer to as frontier stratification. Evidently, most of the recent deforestation in the study area has resulted from the household processes of smallholders, not from conversions to pasture pursuant to the appropriations of smallholders’ property by well-capitalized ranchers of speculators.

Evaluative: In this type of summary you will also describe or inform, but the main difference is that you include your opinion of the original work; you are evaluating the quality of the original work. Evaluative summaries can be long or short, but many of your evaluative summaries will be no more than a paragraph long. They are typically found in your literature review.

Example 2

Hayton (1995) points to increased citizen participation as a means of helping local politicians define the public interest and make better decisions in open government. However, this statement suggests that community involvement is a panacea for weak political leadership or poor administrative skills, which it is not. Community consultation focuses on defined topics relating to regeneration and renewal only, and it is no replacement for the normal democratic or administrative process of local government.

Neutral verbs

When summarising other people’s work you frequently introduce it by mentioning the writer's name and use a neutral (objective) verb that indicates the writer's approach to the topic. These verbs describe or report what has been done by others or what the writer does in their paper.

The following is a list of some neutral reporting verbs. Table 1 shows verbs which are usually followed by ‘that’, and Table 2 shows verbs that are usually followed by a ‘noun phrase’.

Table 1: Neutral reporting verbs usually followed by 'that'
acknowledge
conclude
comment
confirm
demonstrate
establish
explain
find
indicate
note
observe
point out
propose
report
show
state
suggest
     
Table 2: Neutral reporting verbs usually followed by a ‘noun phrase’
analyse
define
describe
discuss
examine
explore
focus on
identify
investigate
list
mention
present
question
review
study
survey
       

Opinion verbs

However, another set of verbs exist for referring to a writer's position or opinion. These can be called 'opinion'(evaluative) verbs. These verbs also tend to be used when a writer is writing a critique of another person's work. Table 3 shows some of these verbs.

Table 3: Opinion reporting verbs
advocate
agree
allege
allude to
argue
assert
assume
believe
challenge
claim
concede
contend
criticise
emphasise
highlight
imply
insist
maintain
refute
suppose

How to summarise effectively

  1. Read the original text until you understand it fully
  2. Make notes of the main points in your own words
  3. Write your summary from your notes without reference to the original
  4. Check your version against the original to ensure that you have covered the content and meaning
  5. If you have included some of the original text in your summary (generally more than three words together), put quotation marks around it
  6. Include the citation. If you incorporate material from other sources into your own text, through summary, paraphrase or quotation, you must cite the source material. Failure to do this is to commit plagiarism.