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Literature Reviews

How to understand and write a literature review for an academic paper or research article.

Literature Reviews: Make a Plan

The specific ins and outs of a literature review vary by type, which is determined by your intention in writing one: Are you trying to establish a knowledge of the field for your own research article? Or are you writing a full-length review paper to show the current state of the research on a topic?

 

Either way, the plan is generally the same, though the degree to which you collect and read the literature will vary based on what you're working on:
 

  1. Identify the research question
  2. Develop criteria for inclusion/exclusion
  3. Perform the search
  4. Analyze the literature
  5. Evaluate the work done
  6. Synthesize into a narrative

This guide will give you more information on the different types of review and how to perform the review you need. Also consider looking to articles, review papers or past theses/dissertations in your field to get a sense of how others have structured and written their literature reviews as examples for your own.


Librarian Presentations

"Researching & Writing a Literature Review," February 2021

To download the slides, which are based on the information in this guide, use this Kaltura link.


As seen in the presentations:

Literature Reviews: What They Are and Why They're Important

What They Are

  • A critical summary of the relevant literature of a subject.
  • Depending on your subject, your field, and the type of review you're conducting, the chronological focus can be broad (historical) or narrow (state of the art).
    • Sciences tend to emphasize currency.
  • BUT in whatever field, if there is some fundamental text that defined the field or topic of study, that must usually be included no matter how old it is.
  • Literature reviews range in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages.
    • Or can be extended into an article solely reviewing recent literature, which are called review articles and which can be structured in different ways (see Types of Literature Reviews, below).

 

Why They're Important

  • Think of a review as “[a]nalyzing the past to prepare for the future.” (Webster & Watson, 2002)
  • "Good review papers ... help bring structure and understanding to the often disjointed and contradictory work that is at the forefront of a research field." (Moldwin et al, 2017)
  • To discover the patterns that emerge within the large body of work devoted to one issue.
  • To establish an evidentiary basis of common thought and current questions about a subject at the given moment.

References

Moldwin, M. B., Florindo, F., Okin, G., et al. (2017). Why and how to write a high‐impact review paper: Lessons from eight years of editorial board service to Reviews of Geophysics. Reviews of Geophysics, 55, 860–863. https://doi.org/10.1002/2017RG000587

Webster, J., & Watson, R. (2002). "Analyzing the past to prepare for the future: Writing a literature review." MIS Quarterly 26(2), xiii-xxiii.

Literature Reviews: Types

"Literature review" is the general term for a review of the previous work done on a subject.

However, the method and scope of reviews can vary depending on the purpose of the review. Here are the types of reviews you're likely to come across.

 

  • Traditional/narrative review
    • A critical summary of a body of literature, drawing conclusions about the topic
      • Selective – not everything
      • Where is the topic today? What are the gaps?
         
  • Systematic review
    • A review of "all known knowledge on a topic area" (Grant & Booth, 2009, p. 102).
      • A wide-ranging, thorough examination of the literature
      • Written to answer a specific research question
      • Explicit methodology so others can replicate it
      • Appraisal of the findings of each study with a focus on minimizing bias so as to ensure more reliable results
      • Sometimes includes meta-analysis of the data of each study to establish common conclusions

  • State-of-the-art review
    • A review focused on current issues in a field
      • The main players
      • The major questions and debates being discussed at the moment
      • Can miss major trends if they fall out of the scope of the time period covered in the review (Grant & Booth, 2009, p. 101)
         
  • Scoping review
    • “[A] snapshot of the field and a complete overview of what has been done” (Xiao & Watson, 2019, p. 99; Grant & Booth, 2009)
      • No quality assessment - EVERYTHING written on a subject, not just the good ones
      • Can show a need for a systematic review
      • Shows the gaps in existing literature
      • Helps clarify definitions
      • Shows how research is being done on a subject

 

There are many other types of reviews, from critical to umbrella (see Grant & Booth, 2009, for a full list, and the other articles listed below go into detail about typologies as well). Some reviews are more map than narrative but the approach you will use depends on your assignment and your discipline.

References

Cronin, P., Ryan, F., & Coughlan, M. (2008). Undertaking a literature review: a step-by-step approach. British Journal of Nursing 17(1), 38-43.

Grant, M. J. and Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal 26, 91-108. doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x

Kastner, M., Tricco, A.C., Soobiah, C. et al. (2012). What is the most appropriate knowledge synthesis method to conduct a review? Protocol for a scoping review. BMC Medical Research Methodology 12(114). doi:10.1186/1471-2288-12-114

Xiao, Y., & Watson, M. (2019). Guidance on conducting a systematic literature review. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 39(1), 93–112. doi:10.1177/0739456X17723971


For more information:

The First Literature Review?

A clip of James Lind's A Treatise on Scurvy, 1783, from jameslindlibrary.orgScottish doctor James Lind, writing in 1753, realized that he couldn't write a short essay about scurvy without getting into a discussion of all the other work published on the subject, including weeding out the unreliable advice. "Indeed," said he, "before this subject could be set in a clear and proper light, it was necessary to remove a great deal of rubbish. Thus, what was first intended as a short paper to be published in the memoirs of our navy-society, has now swelled to a volume, not altogether suitable to the plan and institution of that laudable and learned body.” [See the original text at right, taken from jameslindlibrary.org.]

Lind also included a bibliography: “The Bibliotheca Scorbutica, or the collection of authors on the scurvy, is placed at the latter end of the book, as proper to be consulted in the dictionary-way.”


References

Grant, M. J. and Booth, A. (2009), A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 26: 91-108. doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x

Lind, J. (1753). A Treatise of the Scurvy. In three parts, containing an inquiry into the nature, causes and cure, of that disease. Together with a critical and chronological view of what has been published on the subject. Retrieved from http://www.jameslindlibrary.org/lind-j-1753/

Reference Books on Academic Research and Writing

These Library ebooks include or focus on the literature review and how to perform one.

Note: off-campus users will be prompted to log in using their myStevens username and password.

Bibliography

Carnwell, R., & Daly, W. (2001). Strategies for the construction of a critical review of the literature. Nurse Education in Practice, 1, 57-63. doi:10.1054/nepr.2001.0008

Cronin, P., Ryan, F., & Coughlan, M. (2008). Undertaking a literature review: A step-by-step approach. British Journal of Nursing, 17(1), 38-43. doi:10.12968/bjon.2008.17.1.28059

Froese, A. D., Gantz, B. S., & Henry,  A. L. (1998). Teaching students to write literature reviews: A meta-analytic model. Teaching of Psychology, 25, 102-105.

Grant, M. J. and Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: An analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 26, 91-108. doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x

Kastner, M., Tricco, A.C., Soobiah, C. et al. (2012). What is the most appropriate knowledge synthesis method to conduct a review? Protocol for a scoping review. BMC Medical Research Methodology 12(114). doi:10.1186/1471-2288-12-114

McKenzie, J. E., & Brennan, S. E. (2017). Overviews of systematic reviews: Great promise, greater challenge. Systematic Reviews, 6, 185. doi:10.1186/s13643-017-0582-8

Moher, D., Stewart, L., & Shekelle, P. (2015). All in the family: Systematic reviews, rapid reviews, scoping reviews, realist reviews, and more. Systematic Reviews, 4, 183. doi:10.1186/s13643-015-0163-7

Munn, Z., Peters, M. D. J., Stern, C., Tufanaru, C., McArthur, A., & Aromataris, E. (2018). Systematic review or scoping review? Guidance for authors when choosing between a systematic or scoping review approach. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 18(1), 143. doi: 10.1186/s12874-018-0611-x

Webster, J., & Watson, R. (2002). Analyzing the past to prepare for the future: Writing a literature review. MIS Quarterly, 26(2), xiii-xxiii.

Xiao, Y., & Watson, M. (2019). Guidance on conducting a systematic literature review. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 39(1), 93–112. doi.org/10.1177/0739456X17723971

Instruction & Scholarly Communication Librarian

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Vicky Ludas Orlofsky
Contact:
Research Services Department
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