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Literature reviews

Information providing guidance on starting a literature review, including resources, techniques and approaches to searching the literature and writing the review.

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What is a literature review?

Broadly defined, a literature review is an analysis of the scholarly writings (the literature) which are relevant to your research topic. It usually forms the foundation of a research project (whether this is a research proposal, thesis, dissertation or a journal article) as it provides the context for your research. 

The overall purpose of a literature review is to: 

  • position your research in the context of the scholarly work that has been conducted and the knowledge that has been reached in your research area 
  • identify a gap in the existing knowledge 
  • situate your planned research within this context. This entails indicating where your planned research fits in relation to the gap and therefore why your research is original and significant. 

A literature review analyses relevant sources critically. It does not simply summarise different sources. It also needs to evaluate the literature. As such, a literature review differs from an annotated bibliography as it does not constitute a list of summaries of relevant sources. 

Types of reviews

There are a number of different types of reviews, following is a brief description of some review types.

Literature review - A literature review, also known as a narrative review, is the most common review type. Generally, it provides an examination of current literature of a topic area. The completeness and comprehensiveness of the literature included is subjective. Searches are usually limited and do not include quality assessment of the material. Typically, the synthesis is narrative, and analysis may be chronological, conceptual, thematic, etc.

The library guide Literature reviews provides guidance on starting a literature review, including resources, techniques and approaches to searching the literature and writing the review.

Systematic review - A systematic review seeks to systematically search for, appraise, and synthesise research evidence, adhering to guidelines on the conduct of a review. Aims for exhaustive, comprehensive searching. Quality assessment is carried out. Typically, narrative with tabular accompaniment. Synthesis outlines what is known and recommendations for practice, as well as recommendations for future research.

The library guide Systematic reviews outlines the process for conducting a systematic review.

Meta-analysis - A meta-analysis is a technique that statistically combines the results of quantitative studies to provide a more precise effect of the results. Aims for exhaustive, comprehensive searching. May use a funnel plot to assess completeness. Quality assessment is carried out. Synthesis is graphical and tabular with narrative commentary. Numerical analysis of measures of effect are provided.

The library guide Systematic reviews briefly refers to meta-analyses.

Scoping review - A scoping review is a preliminary assessment of potential size and scope of available research literature. Aims to identify the nature and extent of research evidence by characterising quantity and quality of literature, perhaps by study design. Completeness of searching determined by time/scope constraints. No formal quality assessment is carried out. Synthesis is typically tabular with some narrative commentary. Attempts to specify a viable review.

Rapid review - A rapid review is an assessment of what is already known about a policy or practice issue, by using systematic review methods to search and critically appraise existing research. Completeness of searching determined by time constraints. Timeā€limited formal quality assessment. Synthesis is typically tabular with some narrative commentary.

Further reading

Grant, M. J., & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 26(2), 91-108.

Paré, G., Trudel, M.-C., Jaana, M., & Kitsiou, S. (2015). Synthesizing information systems knowledge: A typology of literature reviews. Information & Management, 52(2), 183-199.

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