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Literature Reviewing

Research Cycle - Discover

Literature reviewing - what it is and what it is not

The literature review represents an overview of your question, giving an account of the state of that subject and the ongoing debates & research at that point in time.  It should be wide ranging, systematic in approach and should use a range of sources  within your field such as books, journal articles, government policies, web pages, theses, conference proceedings, legislation, statistics etc. Your reviewwill involve critical analysis of the arguments and positions, not just a description of the literature. The review should place your own research within its context.

It is :

• A critical evaluation
• A synthesis of available  research                                                                    
• Broad & deep / clear & concise
• Rigorous and consistent in its approach 


It is not:

• A list or annotated bibliography
• An essay
• A simple summary or paraphrasing of works
• Confined to description
• Narrow & shallow


Literature review - Get started

  1. Do a scoping search

  2. Decide on information sources to search & prepare a search plan

  3. Decide on inclusion /exclusion criteria

  4. Write up your initial review

5 Top Tips

  1. Clear about what a literature review is and is not?  It is an iterative process –  re-visit  both search and results frequently.

  2. Allocate plenty time to plan, search and evaluate. Allow 5-10% of your overall project time.

  3. Document search methods, sources used and results achieved. Felds such as health use rigorous literature review reporting guidelines.

  4. Critical appraisal & synthesis of literature requires systematic recording.  Consider the use of  written tables for data extraction, coding, thematic analysis and synthesis.

  5. Have a clear plan for reference management in place before you search and always record references in full as you find them.

Literature Review Types

Traditional or Narrative Literature Review

  • Broad in focus. Does not always address a specific question.

  • Not comprehensive in literature included.

  • Does not always state reasons for inclusion of papers.

  • Not structured in approach to searching for literature or critical appraisal

Example of a traditional /narrative literature review

Integrative Review

  • Reviews, critiques, and synthesises literature on a topic in an integrated way.

  • Summarises past theoretical and empirical literature on a topic.

  • Often combines quantitative / qualitative / mixed methods studies

  • Attempts to generate new frameworks and perspectives on that topic.

  • Does not always use explicit systematic approaches in searching or data analysis,so quicker to complete (compared with systematic reviews).

  • Potential for bias and lack of rigour.

Example of an integrative review

Systematic Review

A review of research literature using  a systematic, explicit,  accountable and documented methodology. Its purpose is to evaluate all research evidence relevant to a  particular question.  Widely used within health  e.g. Cochrane Library methodology.

The key characteristics of a systematic review are:

  • Rigor: use of systematic methods to answer set research questions.

  • Transparency: every search step is described.

  • Replicability: a second researcher should also identify & critically appraise results, arriving at the same conclusions as the first researcher.

Systematic reviews are carried out by at least two individuals, or a team,  and usually take 12 months or more to undertake.

                  Example of a systematic review

Help & Advice

Contact your subject librarian for initial advice on literature reviewing, sources to search and suitable search strategies