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Literature Reviews

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

Question and Criteria

Identify your research focus and scope

That is: “what exactly is of interest and why” (Cronin, Ryan, & Coughlan, 2008, p. 38)

  • Is there enough material on the topic?
  • Is it interdisciplinary?

Keep in mind: Your research focus may evolve as you start looking for material.


Depending on review type, identify criteria for inclusion/exclusion –be transparent!

Part of the review process is deciding what studies fit your criteria and what do not. This process is made easier by developing a detailed appraisal process.

In a presentation on scoping reviews, Heather Colquhoun (2016; see her article linked below) said this:

Consider very carefully decisions that reduce the scope (depth and breadth) of the review.

  • Resources and time alone are not adequate to reduce scope
  • Limits must be consistent with the question asked[.]
What material will best answer the question you've developed? The resources below on scoping reviews may offer some guidance, even if you're not writing that particular type of review.
Factors to consider:
  • Time frame
  • Language
  • Source type and focus
    • Articles? Books? Only peer-reviewed? Review articles? Grey literature?

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

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.


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:

Examples of Literature Reviews

One of the best ways to prepare for your own literature review is to read review papers in your field, not just for their bibliographies, which are useful sources of articles for your own review, but also for the structure and method of the review itself.

If you're writing a thesis or dissertation, consider looking for those done by previous students to get a similar idea of what will be expected of you.

Review papers

Search in Scopus for your topic and limit to review papers:

Use the DOCTYPE(re) limiter:

Example: arthroscopy AND DOCTYPE(re)

Look in journals and repositories:



Theses and dissertations

Stevens theses and dissertations:

The database below will give you immediate access to the recent work of Stevens students/alumni; if you'd ever like to read a thesis or dissertation that's only in print, email Ted Houghtaling for more help.

Theses & dissertations from outside of Stevens: