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Intro to Review Literature

Research starts with the question

Choose your question then decide the best method to answer that question.

Where to start

If you have already decided to do a scoping or systematic review and have questions, please read over the Systematic Review LibGuide.

If you need search help, for a narrative literature take a look at the "What's my search strategy section" and consider requesting a librarian appointment. You can find your subject specialist or if you have an interdisciplinary topic, you can make a general appointment request. While some librarians may have drop-in times, it is best to give three working days advance notice on a request.

If you have general questions, or would like to contact the author of this guide, see the "Your Librarian" box, bottom left.

If you are considering authoring a review article, and have not decided on the type, take a look at the "What kind of review fits my research?" section.

Traditional or narrative literature review

  • Sidney Samuel Thomas Reading Room Miller Learning CenterCritiques and summarizes a body of literature
  • Identifies trends in the literature, not specific elements of research.
  • Conclusions often relate to the scope of literature, or needs for research -- e.g., " there is a  shortage of studies on ______________."

  • The purpose is typically to identify needs for further research -- either due to gaps or inconsistencies in a body of knowledge
  • Examples: Mining Learning and Crafting Scientific Experiments..., Theories on Child Protection Work..

Scoping review

Scoping Review

  • The purpose may be to gather information, form a topic/hypothesis, set parameters for research, or describe the
  • Good starting point for concept mapping or defining terms
  • Searches are as comprehensive as possible -- grey literature and non-peer reviewed items are often included.
  • The researcher's process can be replicated.
  • Search terms and search history are retained
  • The criteria for including articles is given.

Examples: Understanding nurses dual practice...,

The scoping review process is very similar to systematic reviews.

Systematic review

Systematic Review

Longer overview article: Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses

  • Is more comprehensive and transparent than traditional literature reviews (but they are influencing current narrative reviews)
  • Require specific iterative steps that must be taken and documented (flow/decision charts are recommended)
  • The purpose is typically to analyze data from pre-existing primary research. Secondary research (ex: CDC or Census datasets) analysis is also possible. Data are extracted from the original research articles.This can take many forms.
  • Often used as the basis for evidence-based practice, and popular in health sciences/public health
  • Generally researched by a team due to the large work load

Table of review types

Thisdescriptive table comes from Grant MJ, Booth A. A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Info Libr J. 2009 Jun;26(2):91-108. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x. PMID: 19490148.


Use the basic structure of articles to speed research

Getting familiar with the structure of articles, can help you to:

  • Identify the location of information that you'll need to consider when building a search strategy
    • For example, review searches are sometimes limited to abstract and title fields rather than subject fields. Others are not limited to any fields.
  • Quickly determine the type of study performed, and assess for inclusion
    • For example, a skim of the methodology section helps determine if an article meets inclusion criteria.
    • Traditional narrative reviews used to be quickly identified by the lack of a methodology section. With the influence of systematic reviews, methodology or "protocols" are now being included, but a "what's missing" check is still helpful.

Typical article structure:

  • Title - often long and technical.

  • Author Information - author name, affiliation (ex: university or laboratory) and contact information.

  • Citation - article title, journal or source name, volume and issue information and pagination. Also, DOI numbers are used in APA style.

  • Abstract - a summary of the whole article. 

  • Introduction - outlines the problem being examined -- the purpose or hypothesis.

  • Methodology - how the research or experiment was performed. In order for research to be reproducible, methodology must be thoroughly described.  This may include discussion of materials, instruments, and subject selection. Examination of a methodology section will determine if research is primary (data gathered by the researchers) or secondary (researchers using data sets or other information compiled by others).

  • Data/Results - data in tables, charts, figures, or illustrations.

  • Discussion/Conclusions - explains and interprets the results, drawing a final conclusion about the problem.  Primary research may bring new information to the discipline, or may confirm or dispute previous findings. Review articles may recommend research questions.

  • References - sources given in a consistent style.