A literature review can form a part of any assignment but it is perhaps more commonly associated with work at dissertation and Masters levels. It should represent an overview of a specific question , sketching out the state of that subject and the ongoing debates and research at that point in time. Your literature search will have been wide ranging and systematic in approach and may use sources as wide ranging as books, journal articles, government policies, web pages, theses etc. Your review of the literature will involve critical analysis of the arguments and positions, not just a description of the literature.
Look at the powerpoint slides below for a brief outline of literature reviewing.
In health and social care the two main types of literature review are the narrative or integrative literature review and the systematic review.
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
A review of research literature using a systematic, explicit, accountable and dcocumented methodology.
The key characteristics of a systematic review are:
Rigor: use of systematic methods to answer set research question
Transparency: every step is described; nothing left to reader’s imagination
Replicability: a second researcher should arrive at the same conclusions
Systematic reviews are carried out by a team, or at least two, individuals and usually take 12 months or more to undertake.
Students undertaking undergraduate, Masters or PhD dissertations should take a systematic approach to reviewing the literature but they will not be expected to complete a full systematic review following full Cochrane Library methodologies.
A good literature review should:
Here are 5 top tips towards a stress free literature review
Identify an area from practice that you are interested in – ideally something the practice area can benefit from.
The question you develop from this topic should be focused, manageable and answerable within the timescales you have.
There are two frameworks that are commonly used to formulate research questions:
PICO - (quantitative research)
Leeds University Library (2015) The PICO model. Leeds: The Library.
SPIDER (qualititative or mixed methods research)
University of Leeds. Leeds Institute of Health Sciences (2016) Search Concept Tools.
Cooke, A. Smith, D, and Booth, A (2012) Advancing qualitative methods: beyond PICO: the SPIDER tool for qualitative evidence synthesis Qualitative Health Research 22 1435-1443,
Decide on the types of literature relevant to your question
Draw up a search strategy (1) : keywords, phrases, concept identification
Search Strategy (2): Decide on Inclusion /Exclusion Criteria
What countries are you including or excluding? Do you need to go back 5, 10, or 20 years or more and can you explain why? Are you concerned with a particular age group of client? What types of research are you including/excluding - qualitative or quantitative or mixed methods? Are you limiting your search to certain languages?
Search Strategy (3): List the sources to search
The evidence sources you search will depend on your topic. You should be searching more than one of the subject specific databases in your field using a combination of the keywords and phrases from your search plan. There is a full list of appropriate evidence sources /databases on the Home page of this LibGuide.
You can automatically record & save the search strategy you type into a database. This can be printed as an Appendix in your assessment and demonstrates your planned, systematic approach to your literature search.
Keeping track of literature
Writing a literature review will mean that you will collect a large number of pieces of information from many sources. Before you begin searching, give some thought as to how you are going to manage this information.You will need to manage both the full text that you download, and the references. You can do this manually, on your computer, or we would recommend using specialist reference management software.
Reference management software will enable you to automatically export references you collect from database searches and store them in the reference manager. Once you have read each paper you can then make personal research notes and store these within each reference inside the reference manager.
Use the software to format the citations within the text of your review. It will also produce the reference list at the end of your document formatted in a style of your choosing eg APA7th.
See our Reference Management LibGuide on how to get started with Endnote or Mendeley, Edinburgh Napier’s referencing management software.
NHS Scotland users can also use the Refworks ref management software supplied on the NHS Knowledge network site instead of Endnote, if they would prefer.
What is critical appraisal? Why do we do it?
Following retrieval of all pertinent research papers from your literature search, critical appraisal will identify the strengths and weaknesses of what you have found. Authors may exaggerate their findings or there may be methodological flaws in the research. Critical appraisal lets you make informed decisions about the quality of the research evidence.
Critical appraisal is often carried out using checklists that help signpost areas to look for while reading a paper. There are different types of checklist depending on the type of research you are reviewing.
Critical Appraisal Tools / Checklists
CASP - eight critical appraisal tools for use when reading different types of research. The most well known list from the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme
Understanding Health Research - appraisal checklist from Univ of Glasgow / MRC / CSO
Cardiff University - Critical Appraisal Checklists
SIGN - six lists from the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network
Equator Network - guidelines to promote transparent and accurate reporting of health research
CEBM - four lists from Oxford's Centre for Evidence Based Medicine
Critical Appraisal Resources
Greehalgh, T (2019) How to read a paper : the basics of evidence-based medicine. 6th ed. Wiley Blackwell
Two excellent videos from Andrew Booth at SCHARR at the University of Sheffield. These take you through the actual process of appraising papers using the CASP tool.
Appraising a Quantitative Study [13 mins]