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summary of literature review meaning

Not every source you found should be included in your annotated bibliography or lit review. Only include the most relevant and most important sources.

Get Organized

  • Lit Review Prep Use this template to help you evaluate your sources, create article summaries for an annotated bibliography, and a synthesis matrix for your lit review outline.

Summarize your Sources

Summarize each source: Determine the most important and relevant information from each source, such as the findings, methodology, theories, etc.  Consider using an article summary, or study summary to help you organize and summarize your sources.

Paraphrasing

  • Use your own words, and do not copy and paste the abstract
  • The library's tutorials about plagiarism are excellent, and will help you with paraphasing correctly

Annotated Bibliographies

     Annotated bibliographies can help you clearly see and understand the research before diving into organizing and writing your literature review.        Although typically part of the "summarize" step of the literature review, annotations should not merely be summaries of each article - instead, they should be critical evaluations of the source, and help determine a source's usefulness for your lit review.  

Definition:

A list of citations on a particular topic followed by an evaluation of the source’s argument and other relevant material including its intended audience, sources of evidence, and methodology
  • Explore your topic.
  • Appraise issues or factors associated with your professional practice and research topic.
  • Help you get started with the literature review.
  • Think critically about your topic, and the literature.

Steps to Creating an Annotated Bibliography:

  • Find Your Sources
  • Read Your Sources
  • Identify the Most Relevant Sources
  • Cite your Sources
  • Write Annotations

Annotated Bibliography Resources

  • Purdue Owl Guide
  • Cornell Annotated Bibliography Guide
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  • Last Updated: Sep 26, 2023 10:25 AM
  • URL: https://guides.library.jhu.edu/lit-review

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Literature Reviews

  • What is a literature review?
  • Steps in the Literature Review Process
  • Define your research question
  • Determine inclusion and exclusion criteria
  • Choose databases and search
  • Review Results
  • Synthesize Results
  • Analyze Results
  • Librarian Support

What is a Literature Review?

A literature or narrative review is a comprehensive review and analysis of the published literature on a specific topic or research question. The literature that is reviewed contains: books, articles, academic articles, conference proceedings, association papers, and dissertations. It contains the most pertinent studies and points to important past and current research and practices. It provides background and context, and shows how your research will contribute to the field. 

A literature review should: 

  • Provide a comprehensive and updated review of the literature;
  • Explain why this review has taken place;
  • Articulate a position or hypothesis;
  • Acknowledge and account for conflicting and corroborating points of view

From  S age Research Methods

Purpose of a Literature Review

A literature review can be written as an introduction to a study to:

  • Demonstrate how a study fills a gap in research
  • Compare a study with other research that's been done

Or it can be a separate work (a research article on its own) which:

  • Organizes or describes a topic
  • Describes variables within a particular issue/problem

Limitations of a Literature Review

Some of the limitations of a literature review are:

  • It's a snapshot in time. Unlike other reviews, this one has beginning, a middle and an end. There may be future developments that could make your work less relevant.
  • It may be too focused. Some niche studies may miss the bigger picture.
  • It can be difficult to be comprehensive. There is no way to make sure all the literature on a topic was considered.
  • It is easy to be biased if you stick to top tier journals. There may be other places where people are publishing exemplary research. Look to open access publications and conferences to reflect a more inclusive collection. Also, make sure to include opposing views (and not just supporting evidence).

Source: Grant, Maria J., and Andrew Booth. “A Typology of Reviews: An Analysis of 14 Review Types and Associated Methodologies.” Health Information & Libraries Journal, vol. 26, no. 2, June 2009, pp. 91–108. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x.

Meryl Brodsky : Communication and Information Studies

Hannah Chapman Tripp : Biology, Neuroscience

Carolyn Cunningham : Human Development & Family Sciences, Psychology, Sociology

Larayne Dallas : Engineering

Janelle Hedstrom : Special Education, Curriculum & Instruction, Ed Leadership & Policy ​

Susan Macicak : Linguistics

Imelda Vetter : Dell Medical School

For help in other subject areas, please see the guide to library specialists by subject .

Periodically, UT Libraries runs a workshop covering the basics and library support for literature reviews. While we try to offer these once per academic year, we find providing the recording to be helpful to community members who have missed the session. Following is the most recent recording of the workshop, Conducting a Literature Review. To view the recording, a UT login is required.

  • October 26, 2022 recording
  • Last Updated: Oct 26, 2022 2:49 PM
  • URL: https://guides.lib.utexas.edu/literaturereviews

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Writing a Literature Review

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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.

Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?

There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.

A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.

Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.

What are the parts of a lit review?

Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.

Introduction:

  • An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
  • A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
  • Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
  • Summarize and synthesize: Give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: Don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically Evaluate: Mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: Use transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.

Conclusion:

  • Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
  • Connect it back to your primary research question

How should I organize my lit review?

Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:

  • Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
  • Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
  • Qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
  • Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.

What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?

Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .

As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.

Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:

  • It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
  • Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
  • Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
  • Read more about synthesis here.

The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.

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  • What is a Literature Review? | Guide, Template, & Examples

What is a Literature Review? | Guide, Template, & Examples

Published on 22 February 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on 7 June 2022.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research.

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarise sources – it analyses, synthesises, and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

Why write a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1: search for relevant literature, step 2: evaluate and select sources, step 3: identify themes, debates and gaps, step 4: outline your literature review’s structure, step 5: write your literature review, frequently asked questions about literature reviews, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a dissertation or thesis, you will have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position yourself in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your dissertation addresses a gap or contributes to a debate

You might also have to write a literature review as a stand-alone assignment. In this case, the purpose is to evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of scholarly debates around a topic.

The content will look slightly different in each case, but the process of conducting a literature review follows the same steps. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research objectives and questions .

If you are writing a literature review as a stand-alone assignment, you will have to choose a focus and develop a central question to direct your search. Unlike a dissertation research question, this question has to be answerable without collecting original data. You should be able to answer it based only on a review of existing publications.

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research topic. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list if you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can use boolean operators to help narrow down your search:

Read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

To identify the most important publications on your topic, take note of recurring citations. If the same authors, books or articles keep appearing in your reading, make sure to seek them out.

You probably won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on the topic – you’ll have to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your questions.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models and methods? Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • How does the publication contribute to your understanding of the topic? What are its key insights and arguments?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible, and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can find out how many times an article has been cited on Google Scholar – a high citation count means the article has been influential in the field, and should certainly be included in your literature review.

The scope of your review will depend on your topic and discipline: in the sciences you usually only review recent literature, but in the humanities you might take a long historical perspective (for example, to trace how a concept has changed in meaning over time).

Remember that you can use our template to summarise and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using!

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It’s important to keep track of your sources with references to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography, where you compile full reference information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

You can use our free APA Reference Generator for quick, correct, consistent citations.

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To begin organising your literature review’s argument and structure, you need to understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly-visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat – this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organising the body of a literature review. You should have a rough idea of your strategy before you start writing.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological

The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarising sources in order.

Try to analyse patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organise your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological

If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources

Theoretical

A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text, your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

If you are writing the literature review as part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate your central problem or research question and give a brief summary of the scholarly context. You can emphasise the timeliness of the topic (“many recent studies have focused on the problem of x”) or highlight a gap in the literature (“while there has been much research on x, few researchers have taken y into consideration”).

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, make sure to follow these tips:

  • Summarise and synthesise: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole.
  • Analyse and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole.
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources.
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transitions and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts.

In the conclusion, you should summarise the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasise their significance.

If the literature review is part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate how your research addresses gaps and contributes new knowledge, or discuss how you have drawn on existing theories and methods to build a framework for your research. This can lead directly into your methodology section.

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a dissertation , thesis, research paper , or proposal .

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarise yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your  dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

Cite this Scribbr article

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McCombes, S. (2022, June 07). What is a Literature Review? | Guide, Template, & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 27 May 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/thesis-dissertation/literature-review/

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  • Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide
  • Introduction

Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide — Introduction

  • Getting Started
  • How to Pick a Topic
  • Strategies to Find Sources
  • Evaluating Sources & Lit. Reviews
  • Tips for Writing Literature Reviews
  • Writing Literature Review: Useful Sites
  • Citation Resources
  • Other Academic Writings

What are Literature Reviews?

So, what is a literature review? "A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries." Taylor, D.  The literature review: A few tips on conducting it . University of Toronto Health Sciences Writing Centre.

Goals of Literature Reviews

What are the goals of creating a Literature Review?  A literature could be written to accomplish different aims:

  • To develop a theory or evaluate an existing theory
  • To summarize the historical or existing state of a research topic
  • Identify a problem in a field of research 

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1997). Writing narrative literature reviews .  Review of General Psychology , 1 (3), 311-320.

What kinds of sources require a Literature Review?

  • A research paper assigned in a course
  • A thesis or dissertation
  • A grant proposal
  • An article intended for publication in a journal

All these instances require you to collect what has been written about your research topic so that you can demonstrate how your own research sheds new light on the topic.

Types of Literature Reviews

What kinds of literature reviews are written?

Narrative review: The purpose of this type of review is to describe the current state of the research on a specific topic/research and to offer a critical analysis of the literature reviewed. Studies are grouped by research/theoretical categories, and themes and trends, strengths and weakness, and gaps are identified. The review ends with a conclusion section which summarizes the findings regarding the state of the research of the specific study, the gaps identify and if applicable, explains how the author's research will address gaps identify in the review and expand the knowledge on the topic reviewed.

  • Example : Predictors and Outcomes of U.S. Quality Maternity Leave: A Review and Conceptual Framework:  10.1177/08948453211037398  

Systematic review : "The authors of a systematic review use a specific procedure to search the research literature, select the studies to include in their review, and critically evaluate the studies they find." (p. 139). Nelson, L. K. (2013). Research in Communication Sciences and Disorders . Plural Publishing.

  • Example : The effect of leave policies on increasing fertility: a systematic review:  10.1057/s41599-022-01270-w

Meta-analysis : "Meta-analysis is a method of reviewing research findings in a quantitative fashion by transforming the data from individual studies into what is called an effect size and then pooling and analyzing this information. The basic goal in meta-analysis is to explain why different outcomes have occurred in different studies." (p. 197). Roberts, M. C., & Ilardi, S. S. (2003). Handbook of Research Methods in Clinical Psychology . Blackwell Publishing.

  • Example : Employment Instability and Fertility in Europe: A Meta-Analysis:  10.1215/00703370-9164737

Meta-synthesis : "Qualitative meta-synthesis is a type of qualitative study that uses as data the findings from other qualitative studies linked by the same or related topic." (p.312). Zimmer, L. (2006). Qualitative meta-synthesis: A question of dialoguing with texts .  Journal of Advanced Nursing , 53 (3), 311-318.

  • Example : Women’s perspectives on career successes and barriers: A qualitative meta-synthesis:  10.1177/05390184221113735

Literature Reviews in the Health Sciences

  • UConn Health subject guide on systematic reviews Explanation of the different review types used in health sciences literature as well as tools to help you find the right review type
  • << Previous: Getting Started
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  • Last Updated: Sep 21, 2022 2:16 PM
  • URL: https://guides.lib.uconn.edu/literaturereview

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A literature review surveys prior research published in books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by so doing, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works in relation to the research problem being investigated. Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have used in researching a particular topic and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits within existing scholarship about the topic.

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . Fourth edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2014.

Importance of a Good Literature Review

A literature review may consist of simply a summary of key sources, but in the social sciences, a literature review usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories . A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information in a way that informs how you are planning to investigate a research problem. The analytical features of a literature review might:

  • Give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations,
  • Trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates,
  • Depending on the situation, evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant research, or
  • Usually in the conclusion of a literature review, identify where gaps exist in how a problem has been researched to date.

Given this, the purpose of a literature review is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to understanding the research problem being studied.
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration.
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research.
  • Reveal any gaps that exist in the literature.
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
  • Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research.
  • Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important].

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2011; Knopf, Jeffrey W. "Doing a Literature Review." PS: Political Science and Politics 39 (January 2006): 127-132; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012.

Types of Literature Reviews

It is important to think of knowledge in a given field as consisting of three layers. First, there are the primary studies that researchers conduct and publish. Second are the reviews of those studies that summarize and offer new interpretations built from and often extending beyond the primary studies. Third, there are the perceptions, conclusions, opinion, and interpretations that are shared informally among scholars that become part of the body of epistemological traditions within the field.

In composing a literature review, it is important to note that it is often this third layer of knowledge that is cited as "true" even though it often has only a loose relationship to the primary studies and secondary literature reviews. Given this, while literature reviews are designed to provide an overview and synthesis of pertinent sources you have explored, there are a number of approaches you could adopt depending upon the type of analysis underpinning your study.

Argumentative Review This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply embedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature. The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint. Given the value-laden nature of some social science research [e.g., educational reform; immigration control], argumentative approaches to analyzing the literature can be a legitimate and important form of discourse. However, note that they can also introduce problems of bias when they are used to make summary claims of the sort found in systematic reviews [see below].

Integrative Review Considered a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated. The body of literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses or research problems. A well-done integrative review meets the same standards as primary research in regard to clarity, rigor, and replication. This is the most common form of review in the social sciences.

Historical Review Few things rest in isolation from historical precedent. Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and to identify the likely directions for future research.

Methodological Review A review does not always focus on what someone said [findings], but how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis]. Reviewing methods of analysis provides a framework of understanding at different levels [i.e. those of theory, substantive fields, research approaches, and data collection and analysis techniques], how researchers draw upon a wide variety of knowledge ranging from the conceptual level to practical documents for use in fieldwork in the areas of ontological and epistemological consideration, quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection, and data analysis. This approach helps highlight ethical issues which you should be aware of and consider as you go through your own study.

Systematic Review This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review. The goal is to deliberately document, critically evaluate, and summarize scientifically all of the research about a clearly defined research problem . Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?" This type of literature review is primarily applied to examining prior research studies in clinical medicine and allied health fields, but it is increasingly being used in the social sciences.

Theoretical Review The purpose of this form is to examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review helps to establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.

NOTE: Most often the literature review will incorporate some combination of types. For example, a review that examines literature supporting or refuting an argument, assumption, or philosophical problem related to the research problem will also need to include writing supported by sources that establish the history of these arguments in the literature.

Baumeister, Roy F. and Mark R. Leary. "Writing Narrative Literature Reviews."  Review of General Psychology 1 (September 1997): 311-320; Mark R. Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Kennedy, Mary M. "Defining a Literature." Educational Researcher 36 (April 2007): 139-147; Petticrew, Mark and Helen Roberts. Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide . Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006; Torracro, Richard. "Writing Integrative Literature Reviews: Guidelines and Examples." Human Resource Development Review 4 (September 2005): 356-367; Rocco, Tonette S. and Maria S. Plakhotnik. "Literature Reviews, Conceptual Frameworks, and Theoretical Frameworks: Terms, Functions, and Distinctions." Human Ressource Development Review 8 (March 2008): 120-130; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

Structure and Writing Style

I.  Thinking About Your Literature Review

The structure of a literature review should include the following in support of understanding the research problem :

  • An overview of the subject, issue, or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review,
  • Division of works under review into themes or categories [e.g. works that support a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative approaches entirely],
  • An explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others,
  • Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research.

The critical evaluation of each work should consider :

  • Provenance -- what are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence [e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings]?
  • Methodology -- were the techniques used to identify, gather, and analyze the data appropriate to addressing the research problem? Was the sample size appropriate? Were the results effectively interpreted and reported?
  • Objectivity -- is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness -- which of the author's theses are most convincing or least convincing?
  • Validity -- are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?

II.  Development of the Literature Review

Four Basic Stages of Writing 1.  Problem formulation -- which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues? 2.  Literature search -- finding materials relevant to the subject being explored. 3.  Data evaluation -- determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic. 4.  Analysis and interpretation -- discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature.

Consider the following issues before writing the literature review: Clarify If your assignment is not specific about what form your literature review should take, seek clarification from your professor by asking these questions: 1.  Roughly how many sources would be appropriate to include? 2.  What types of sources should I review (books, journal articles, websites; scholarly versus popular sources)? 3.  Should I summarize, synthesize, or critique sources by discussing a common theme or issue? 4.  Should I evaluate the sources in any way beyond evaluating how they relate to understanding the research problem? 5.  Should I provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history? Find Models Use the exercise of reviewing the literature to examine how authors in your discipline or area of interest have composed their literature review sections. Read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or to identify ways to organize your final review. The bibliography or reference section of sources you've already read, such as required readings in the course syllabus, are also excellent entry points into your own research. Narrow the Topic The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to obtain a good survey of relevant resources. Your professor will probably not expect you to read everything that's available about the topic, but you'll make the act of reviewing easier if you first limit scope of the research problem. A good strategy is to begin by searching the USC Libraries Catalog for recent books about the topic and review the table of contents for chapters that focuses on specific issues. You can also review the indexes of books to find references to specific issues that can serve as the focus of your research. For example, a book surveying the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may include a chapter on the role Egypt has played in mediating the conflict, or look in the index for the pages where Egypt is mentioned in the text. Consider Whether Your Sources are Current Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. This is particularly true in disciplines in medicine and the sciences where research conducted becomes obsolete very quickly as new discoveries are made. However, when writing a review in the social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be required. In other words, a complete understanding the research problem requires you to deliberately examine how knowledge and perspectives have changed over time. Sort through other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to explore what is considered by scholars to be a "hot topic" and what is not.

III.  Ways to Organize Your Literature Review

Chronology of Events If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development. For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union. By Publication Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on environmental studies of brown fields if the progression revealed, for example, a change in the soil collection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies. Thematic [“conceptual categories”] A thematic literature review is the most common approach to summarizing prior research in the social and behavioral sciences. Thematic reviews are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time, although the progression of time may still be incorporated into a thematic review. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it would still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The difference in this example between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: themes related to the role of the Internet in presidential politics. Note that more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point being made. Methodological A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. For the Internet in American presidential politics project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of American presidents on American, British, and French websites. Or the review might focus on the fundraising impact of the Internet on a particular political party. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.

Other Sections of Your Literature Review Once you've decided on the organizational method for your literature review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out because they arise from your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period; a thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue. However, sometimes you may need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. However, only include what is necessary for the reader to locate your study within the larger scholarship about the research problem.

Here are examples of other sections, usually in the form of a single paragraph, you may need to include depending on the type of review you write:

  • Current Situation : Information necessary to understand the current topic or focus of the literature review.
  • Sources Used : Describes the methods and resources [e.g., databases] you used to identify the literature you reviewed.
  • History : The chronological progression of the field, the research literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
  • Selection Methods : Criteria you used to select (and perhaps exclude) sources in your literature review. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed [i.e., scholarly] sources.
  • Standards : Description of the way in which you present your information.
  • Questions for Further Research : What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

IV.  Writing Your Literature Review

Once you've settled on how to organize your literature review, you're ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep in mind these issues.

Use Evidence A literature review section is, in this sense, just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence [citations] that demonstrates that what you are saying is valid. Be Selective Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the research problem, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological. Related items that provide additional information, but that are not key to understanding the research problem, can be included in a list of further readings . Use Quotes Sparingly Some short quotes are appropriate if you want to emphasize a point, or if what an author stated cannot be easily paraphrased. Sometimes you may need to quote certain terminology that was coined by the author, is not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. Do not use extensive quotes as a substitute for using your own words in reviewing the literature. Summarize and Synthesize Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each thematic paragraph as well as throughout the review. Recapitulate important features of a research study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to your own work and the work of others. Keep Your Own Voice While the literature review presents others' ideas, your voice [the writer's] should remain front and center. For example, weave references to other sources into what you are writing but maintain your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas and wording. Use Caution When Paraphrasing When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author's information or opinions accurately and in your own words. Even when paraphrasing an author’s work, you still must provide a citation to that work.

V.  Common Mistakes to Avoid

These are the most common mistakes made in reviewing social science research literature.

  • Sources in your literature review do not clearly relate to the research problem;
  • You do not take sufficient time to define and identify the most relevant sources to use in the literature review related to the research problem;
  • Relies exclusively on secondary analytical sources rather than including relevant primary research studies or data;
  • Uncritically accepts another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis;
  • Does not describe the search procedures that were used in identifying the literature to review;
  • Reports isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them in chi-squared or meta-analytic methods; and,
  • Only includes research that validates assumptions and does not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations found in the literature.

Cook, Kathleen E. and Elise Murowchick. “Do Literature Review Skills Transfer from One Course to Another?” Psychology Learning and Teaching 13 (March 2014): 3-11; Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . London: SAGE, 2011; Literature Review Handout. Online Writing Center. Liberty University; Literature Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2016; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012; Randolph, Justus J. “A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review." Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation. vol. 14, June 2009; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016; Taylor, Dena. The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing a Literature Review. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra.

Writing Tip

Break Out of Your Disciplinary Box!

Thinking interdisciplinarily about a research problem can be a rewarding exercise in applying new ideas, theories, or concepts to an old problem. For example, what might cultural anthropologists say about the continuing conflict in the Middle East? In what ways might geographers view the need for better distribution of social service agencies in large cities than how social workers might study the issue? You don’t want to substitute a thorough review of core research literature in your discipline for studies conducted in other fields of study. However, particularly in the social sciences, thinking about research problems from multiple vectors is a key strategy for finding new solutions to a problem or gaining a new perspective. Consult with a librarian about identifying research databases in other disciplines; almost every field of study has at least one comprehensive database devoted to indexing its research literature.

Frodeman, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity . New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Another Writing Tip

Don't Just Review for Content!

While conducting a review of the literature, maximize the time you devote to writing this part of your paper by thinking broadly about what you should be looking for and evaluating. Review not just what scholars are saying, but how are they saying it. Some questions to ask:

  • How are they organizing their ideas?
  • What methods have they used to study the problem?
  • What theories have been used to explain, predict, or understand their research problem?
  • What sources have they cited to support their conclusions?
  • How have they used non-textual elements [e.g., charts, graphs, figures, etc.] to illustrate key points?

When you begin to write your literature review section, you'll be glad you dug deeper into how the research was designed and constructed because it establishes a means for developing more substantial analysis and interpretation of the research problem.

Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1 998.

Yet Another Writing Tip

When Do I Know I Can Stop Looking and Move On?

Here are several strategies you can utilize to assess whether you've thoroughly reviewed the literature:

  • Look for repeating patterns in the research findings . If the same thing is being said, just by different people, then this likely demonstrates that the research problem has hit a conceptual dead end. At this point consider: Does your study extend current research?  Does it forge a new path? Or, does is merely add more of the same thing being said?
  • Look at sources the authors cite to in their work . If you begin to see the same researchers cited again and again, then this is often an indication that no new ideas have been generated to address the research problem.
  • Search Google Scholar to identify who has subsequently cited leading scholars already identified in your literature review [see next sub-tab]. This is called citation tracking and there are a number of sources that can help you identify who has cited whom, particularly scholars from outside of your discipline. Here again, if the same authors are being cited again and again, this may indicate no new literature has been written on the topic.

Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2016; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

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Literature reviews, what is a literature review, learning more about how to do a literature review.

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A literature review is a review and synthesis of existing research on a topic or research question. A literature review is meant to analyze the scholarly literature, make connections across writings and identify strengths, weaknesses, trends, and missing conversations. A literature review should address different aspects of a topic as it relates to your research question. A literature review goes beyond a description or summary of the literature you have read. 

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Literature Reviews

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Why conduct a literature review, stages of a literature review, lit reviews: an overview (video), check out these books.

  • Types of reviews
  • 1. Define your research question
  • 2. Plan your search
  • 3. Search the literature
  • 4. Organize your results
  • 5. Synthesize your findings
  • 6. Write the review
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summary of literature review meaning

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Definition: A literature review is a systematic examination and synthesis of existing scholarly research on a specific topic or subject.

Purpose: It serves to provide a comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge within a particular field.

Analysis: Involves critically evaluating and summarizing key findings, methodologies, and debates found in academic literature.

Identifying Gaps: Aims to pinpoint areas where there is a lack of research or unresolved questions, highlighting opportunities for further investigation.

Contextualization: Enables researchers to understand how their work fits into the broader academic conversation and contributes to the existing body of knowledge.

summary of literature review meaning

tl;dr  A literature review critically examines and synthesizes existing scholarly research and publications on a specific topic to provide a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge in the field.

What is a literature review NOT?

❌ An annotated bibliography

❌ Original research

❌ A summary

❌ Something to be conducted at the end of your research

❌ An opinion piece

❌ A chronological compilation of studies

The reason for conducting a literature review is to:

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Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students

While this 9-minute video from NCSU is geared toward graduate students, it is useful for anyone conducting a literature review.

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How to Write a Literature Review

What is a literature review.

  • What Is the Literature
  • Writing the Review

A literature review is much more than an annotated bibliography or a list of separate reviews of articles and books. It is a critical, analytical summary and synthesis of the current knowledge of a topic. Thus it should compare and relate different theories, findings, etc, rather than just summarize them individually. In addition, it should have a particular focus or theme to organize the review. It does not have to be an exhaustive account of everything published on the topic, but it should discuss all the significant academic literature and other relevant sources important for that focus.

This is meant to be a general guide to writing a literature review: ways to structure one, what to include, how it supplements other research. For more specific help on writing a review, and especially for help on finding the literature to review, sign up for a Personal Research Session .

The specific organization of a literature review depends on the type and purpose of the review, as well as on the specific field or topic being reviewed. But in general, it is a relatively brief but thorough exploration of past and current work on a topic. Rather than a chronological listing of previous work, though, literature reviews are usually organized thematically, such as different theoretical approaches, methodologies, or specific issues or concepts involved in the topic. A thematic organization makes it much easier to examine contrasting perspectives, theoretical approaches, methodologies, findings, etc, and to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of, and point out any gaps in, previous research. And this is the heart of what a literature review is about. A literature review may offer new interpretations, theoretical approaches, or other ideas; if it is part of a research proposal or report it should demonstrate the relationship of the proposed or reported research to others' work; but whatever else it does, it must provide a critical overview of the current state of research efforts. 

Literature reviews are common and very important in the sciences and social sciences. They are less common and have a less important role in the humanities, but they do have a place, especially stand-alone reviews.

Types of Literature Reviews

There are different types of literature reviews, and different purposes for writing a review, but the most common are:

  • Stand-alone literature review articles . These provide an overview and analysis of the current state of research on a topic or question. The goal is to evaluate and compare previous research on a topic to provide an analysis of what is currently known, and also to reveal controversies, weaknesses, and gaps in current work, thus pointing to directions for future research. You can find examples published in any number of academic journals, but there is a series of Annual Reviews of *Subject* which are specifically devoted to literature review articles. Writing a stand-alone review is often an effective way to get a good handle on a topic and to develop ideas for your own research program. For example, contrasting theoretical approaches or conflicting interpretations of findings can be the basis of your research project: can you find evidence supporting one interpretation against another, or can you propose an alternative interpretation that overcomes their limitations?
  • Part of a research proposal . This could be a proposal for a PhD dissertation, a senior thesis, or a class project. It could also be a submission for a grant. The literature review, by pointing out the current issues and questions concerning a topic, is a crucial part of demonstrating how your proposed research will contribute to the field, and thus of convincing your thesis committee to allow you to pursue the topic of your interest or a funding agency to pay for your research efforts.
  • Part of a research report . When you finish your research and write your thesis or paper to present your findings, it should include a literature review to provide the context to which your work is a contribution. Your report, in addition to detailing the methods, results, etc. of your research, should show how your work relates to others' work.

A literature review for a research report is often a revision of the review for a research proposal, which can be a revision of a stand-alone review. Each revision should be a fairly extensive revision. With the increased knowledge of and experience in the topic as you proceed, your understanding of the topic will increase. Thus, you will be in a better position to analyze and critique the literature. In addition, your focus will change as you proceed in your research. Some areas of the literature you initially reviewed will be marginal or irrelevant for your eventual research, and you will need to explore other areas more thoroughly. 

Examples of Literature Reviews

See the series of Annual Reviews of *Subject* which are specifically devoted to literature review articles to find many examples of stand-alone literature reviews in the biomedical, physical, and social sciences. 

Research report articles vary in how they are organized, but a common general structure is to have sections such as:

  • Abstract - Brief summary of the contents of the article
  • Introduction - A explanation of the purpose of the study, a statement of the research question(s) the study intends to address
  • Literature review - A critical assessment of the work done so far on this topic, to show how the current study relates to what has already been done
  • Methods - How the study was carried out (e.g. instruments or equipment, procedures, methods to gather and analyze data)
  • Results - What was found in the course of the study
  • Discussion - What do the results mean
  • Conclusion - State the conclusions and implications of the results, and discuss how it relates to the work reviewed in the literature review; also, point to directions for further work in the area

Here are some articles that illustrate variations on this theme. There is no need to read the entire articles (unless the contents interest you); just quickly browse through to see the sections, and see how each section is introduced and what is contained in them.

The Determinants of Undergraduate Grade Point Average: The Relative Importance of Family Background, High School Resources, and Peer Group Effects , in The Journal of Human Resources , v. 34 no. 2 (Spring 1999), p. 268-293.

This article has a standard breakdown of sections:

  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Some discussion sections

First Encounters of the Bureaucratic Kind: Early Freshman Experiences with a Campus Bureaucracy , in The Journal of Higher Education , v. 67 no. 6 (Nov-Dec 1996), p. 660-691.

This one does not have a section specifically labeled as a "literature review" or "review of the literature," but the first few sections cite a long list of other sources discussing previous research in the area before the authors present their own study they are reporting.

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Reference management. Clean and simple.

What is a literature review? [with examples]

Literature review explained

What is a literature review?

The purpose of a literature review, how to write a literature review, the format of a literature review, general formatting rules, the length of a literature review, literature review examples, frequently asked questions about literature reviews, related articles.

A literature review is an assessment of the sources in a chosen topic of research.

In a literature review, you’re expected to report on the existing scholarly conversation, without adding new contributions.

If you are currently writing one, you've come to the right place. In the following paragraphs, we will explain:

  • the objective of a literature review
  • how to write a literature review
  • the basic format of a literature review

Tip: It’s not always mandatory to add a literature review in a paper. Theses and dissertations often include them, whereas research papers may not. Make sure to consult with your instructor for exact requirements.

The four main objectives of a literature review are:

  • Studying the references of your research area
  • Summarizing the main arguments
  • Identifying current gaps, stances, and issues
  • Presenting all of the above in a text

Ultimately, the main goal of a literature review is to provide the researcher with sufficient knowledge about the topic in question so that they can eventually make an intervention.

The format of a literature review is fairly standard. It includes an:

  • introduction that briefly introduces the main topic
  • body that includes the main discussion of the key arguments
  • conclusion that highlights the gaps and issues of the literature

➡️ Take a look at our guide on how to write a literature review to learn more about how to structure a literature review.

First of all, a literature review should have its own labeled section. You should indicate clearly in the table of contents where the literature can be found, and you should label this section as “Literature Review.”

➡️ For more information on writing a thesis, visit our guide on how to structure a thesis .

There is no set amount of words for a literature review, so the length depends on the research. If you are working with a large amount of sources, it will be long. If your paper does not depend entirely on references, it will be short.

Take a look at these three theses featuring great literature reviews:

  • School-Based Speech-Language Pathologist's Perceptions of Sensory Food Aversions in Children [ PDF , see page 20]
  • Who's Writing What We Read: Authorship in Criminological Research [ PDF , see page 4]
  • A Phenomenological Study of the Lived Experience of Online Instructors of Theological Reflection at Christian Institutions Accredited by the Association of Theological Schools [ PDF , see page 56]

Literature reviews are most commonly found in theses and dissertations. However, you find them in research papers as well.

There is no set amount of words for a literature review, so the length depends on the research. If you are working with a large amount of sources, then it will be long. If your paper does not depend entirely on references, then it will be short.

No. A literature review should have its own independent section. You should indicate clearly in the table of contents where the literature review can be found, and label this section as “Literature Review.”

The main goal of a literature review is to provide the researcher with sufficient knowledge about the topic in question so that they can eventually make an intervention.

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summary of literature review meaning

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What is a Literature Review? How to Write It (with Examples)

literature review

A literature review is a critical analysis and synthesis of existing research on a particular topic. It provides an overview of the current state of knowledge, identifies gaps, and highlights key findings in the literature. 1 The purpose of a literature review is to situate your own research within the context of existing scholarship, demonstrating your understanding of the topic and showing how your work contributes to the ongoing conversation in the field. Learning how to write a literature review is a critical tool for successful research. Your ability to summarize and synthesize prior research pertaining to a certain topic demonstrates your grasp on the topic of study, and assists in the learning process. 

Table of Contents

  • What is the purpose of literature review? 
  • a. Habitat Loss and Species Extinction: 
  • b. Range Shifts and Phenological Changes: 
  • c. Ocean Acidification and Coral Reefs: 
  • d. Adaptive Strategies and Conservation Efforts: 

How to write a good literature review 

  • Choose a Topic and Define the Research Question: 
  • Decide on the Scope of Your Review: 
  • Select Databases for Searches: 
  • Conduct Searches and Keep Track: 
  • Review the Literature: 
  • Organize and Write Your Literature Review: 
  • How to write a literature review faster with Paperpal? 
  • Frequently asked questions 

What is a literature review?

A well-conducted literature review demonstrates the researcher’s familiarity with the existing literature, establishes the context for their own research, and contributes to scholarly conversations on the topic. One of the purposes of a literature review is also to help researchers avoid duplicating previous work and ensure that their research is informed by and builds upon the existing body of knowledge.

summary of literature review meaning

What is the purpose of literature review?

A literature review serves several important purposes within academic and research contexts. Here are some key objectives and functions of a literature review: 2  

1. Contextualizing the Research Problem: The literature review provides a background and context for the research problem under investigation. It helps to situate the study within the existing body of knowledge. 

2. Identifying Gaps in Knowledge: By identifying gaps, contradictions, or areas requiring further research, the researcher can shape the research question and justify the significance of the study. This is crucial for ensuring that the new research contributes something novel to the field. 

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3. Understanding Theoretical and Conceptual Frameworks: Literature reviews help researchers gain an understanding of the theoretical and conceptual frameworks used in previous studies. This aids in the development of a theoretical framework for the current research. 

4. Providing Methodological Insights: Another purpose of literature reviews is that it allows researchers to learn about the methodologies employed in previous studies. This can help in choosing appropriate research methods for the current study and avoiding pitfalls that others may have encountered. 

5. Establishing Credibility: A well-conducted literature review demonstrates the researcher’s familiarity with existing scholarship, establishing their credibility and expertise in the field. It also helps in building a solid foundation for the new research. 

6. Informing Hypotheses or Research Questions: The literature review guides the formulation of hypotheses or research questions by highlighting relevant findings and areas of uncertainty in existing literature. 

Literature review example

Let’s delve deeper with a literature review example: Let’s say your literature review is about the impact of climate change on biodiversity. You might format your literature review into sections such as the effects of climate change on habitat loss and species extinction, phenological changes, and marine biodiversity. Each section would then summarize and analyze relevant studies in those areas, highlighting key findings and identifying gaps in the research. The review would conclude by emphasizing the need for further research on specific aspects of the relationship between climate change and biodiversity. The following literature review template provides a glimpse into the recommended literature review structure and content, demonstrating how research findings are organized around specific themes within a broader topic. 

Literature Review on Climate Change Impacts on Biodiversity:

Climate change is a global phenomenon with far-reaching consequences, including significant impacts on biodiversity. This literature review synthesizes key findings from various studies: 

a. Habitat Loss and Species Extinction:

Climate change-induced alterations in temperature and precipitation patterns contribute to habitat loss, affecting numerous species (Thomas et al., 2004). The review discusses how these changes increase the risk of extinction, particularly for species with specific habitat requirements. 

b. Range Shifts and Phenological Changes:

Observations of range shifts and changes in the timing of biological events (phenology) are documented in response to changing climatic conditions (Parmesan & Yohe, 2003). These shifts affect ecosystems and may lead to mismatches between species and their resources. 

c. Ocean Acidification and Coral Reefs:

The review explores the impact of climate change on marine biodiversity, emphasizing ocean acidification’s threat to coral reefs (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007). Changes in pH levels negatively affect coral calcification, disrupting the delicate balance of marine ecosystems. 

d. Adaptive Strategies and Conservation Efforts:

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the literature review discusses various adaptive strategies adopted by species and conservation efforts aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change on biodiversity (Hannah et al., 2007). It emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary approaches for effective conservation planning. 

summary of literature review meaning

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Writing a literature review involves summarizing and synthesizing existing research on a particular topic. A good literature review format should include the following elements. 

Introduction: The introduction sets the stage for your literature review, providing context and introducing the main focus of your review. 

  • Opening Statement: Begin with a general statement about the broader topic and its significance in the field. 
  • Scope and Purpose: Clearly define the scope of your literature review. Explain the specific research question or objective you aim to address. 
  • Organizational Framework: Briefly outline the structure of your literature review, indicating how you will categorize and discuss the existing research. 
  • Significance of the Study: Highlight why your literature review is important and how it contributes to the understanding of the chosen topic. 
  • Thesis Statement: Conclude the introduction with a concise thesis statement that outlines the main argument or perspective you will develop in the body of the literature review. 

Body: The body of the literature review is where you provide a comprehensive analysis of existing literature, grouping studies based on themes, methodologies, or other relevant criteria. 

  • Organize by Theme or Concept: Group studies that share common themes, concepts, or methodologies. Discuss each theme or concept in detail, summarizing key findings and identifying gaps or areas of disagreement. 
  • Critical Analysis: Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each study. Discuss the methodologies used, the quality of evidence, and the overall contribution of each work to the understanding of the topic. 
  • Synthesis of Findings: Synthesize the information from different studies to highlight trends, patterns, or areas of consensus in the literature. 
  • Identification of Gaps: Discuss any gaps or limitations in the existing research and explain how your review contributes to filling these gaps. 
  • Transition between Sections: Provide smooth transitions between different themes or concepts to maintain the flow of your literature review. 

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Conclusion: The conclusion of your literature review should summarize the main findings, highlight the contributions of the review, and suggest avenues for future research. 

  • Summary of Key Findings: Recap the main findings from the literature and restate how they contribute to your research question or objective. 
  • Contributions to the Field: Discuss the overall contribution of your literature review to the existing knowledge in the field. 
  • Implications and Applications: Explore the practical implications of the findings and suggest how they might impact future research or practice. 
  • Recommendations for Future Research: Identify areas that require further investigation and propose potential directions for future research in the field. 
  • Final Thoughts: Conclude with a final reflection on the importance of your literature review and its relevance to the broader academic community. 

what is a literature review

Conducting a literature review

Conducting a literature review is an essential step in research that involves reviewing and analyzing existing literature on a specific topic. It’s important to know how to do a literature review effectively, so here are the steps to follow: 1  

Choose a Topic and Define the Research Question:

  • Select a topic that is relevant to your field of study. 
  • Clearly define your research question or objective. Determine what specific aspect of the topic do you want to explore? 

Decide on the Scope of Your Review:

  • Determine the timeframe for your literature review. Are you focusing on recent developments, or do you want a historical overview? 
  • Consider the geographical scope. Is your review global, or are you focusing on a specific region? 
  • Define the inclusion and exclusion criteria. What types of sources will you include? Are there specific types of studies or publications you will exclude? 

Select Databases for Searches:

  • Identify relevant databases for your field. Examples include PubMed, IEEE Xplore, Scopus, Web of Science, and Google Scholar. 
  • Consider searching in library catalogs, institutional repositories, and specialized databases related to your topic. 

Conduct Searches and Keep Track:

  • Develop a systematic search strategy using keywords, Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT), and other search techniques. 
  • Record and document your search strategy for transparency and replicability. 
  • Keep track of the articles, including publication details, abstracts, and links. Use citation management tools like EndNote, Zotero, or Mendeley to organize your references. 

Review the Literature:

  • Evaluate the relevance and quality of each source. Consider the methodology, sample size, and results of studies. 
  • Organize the literature by themes or key concepts. Identify patterns, trends, and gaps in the existing research. 
  • Summarize key findings and arguments from each source. Compare and contrast different perspectives. 
  • Identify areas where there is a consensus in the literature and where there are conflicting opinions. 
  • Provide critical analysis and synthesis of the literature. What are the strengths and weaknesses of existing research? 

Organize and Write Your Literature Review:

  • Literature review outline should be based on themes, chronological order, or methodological approaches. 
  • Write a clear and coherent narrative that synthesizes the information gathered. 
  • Use proper citations for each source and ensure consistency in your citation style (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.). 
  • Conclude your literature review by summarizing key findings, identifying gaps, and suggesting areas for future research. 

Whether you’re exploring a new research field or finding new angles to develop an existing topic, sifting through hundreds of papers can take more time than you have to spare. But what if you could find science-backed insights with verified citations in seconds? That’s the power of Paperpal’s new Research feature!  

How to write a literature review faster with Paperpal?

Paperpal, an AI writing assistant, integrates powerful academic search capabilities within its writing platform. With the Research feature, you get 100% factual insights, with citations backed by 250M+ verified research articles, directly within your writing interface with the option to save relevant references in your Citation Library. By eliminating the need to switch tabs to find answers to all your research questions, Paperpal saves time and helps you stay focused on your writing.   

Here’s how to use the Research feature:  

  • Ask a question: Get started with a new document on paperpal.com. Click on the “Research” feature and type your question in plain English. Paperpal will scour over 250 million research articles, including conference papers and preprints, to provide you with accurate insights and citations. 
  • Review and Save: Paperpal summarizes the information, while citing sources and listing relevant reads. You can quickly scan the results to identify relevant references and save these directly to your built-in citations library for later access. 
  • Cite with Confidence: Paperpal makes it easy to incorporate relevant citations and references into your writing, ensuring your arguments are well-supported by credible sources. This translates to a polished, well-researched literature review. 

The literature review sample and detailed advice on writing and conducting a review will help you produce a well-structured report. But remember that a good literature review is an ongoing process, and it may be necessary to revisit and update it as your research progresses. By combining effortless research with an easy citation process, Paperpal Research streamlines the literature review process and empowers you to write faster and with more confidence. Try Paperpal Research now and see for yourself.  

Frequently asked questions

A literature review is a critical and comprehensive analysis of existing literature (published and unpublished works) on a specific topic or research question and provides a synthesis of the current state of knowledge in a particular field. A well-conducted literature review is crucial for researchers to build upon existing knowledge, avoid duplication of efforts, and contribute to the advancement of their field. It also helps researchers situate their work within a broader context and facilitates the development of a sound theoretical and conceptual framework for their studies.

Literature review is a crucial component of research writing, providing a solid background for a research paper’s investigation. The aim is to keep professionals up to date by providing an understanding of ongoing developments within a specific field, including research methods, and experimental techniques used in that field, and present that knowledge in the form of a written report. Also, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the scholar in his or her field.  

Before writing a literature review, it’s essential to undertake several preparatory steps to ensure that your review is well-researched, organized, and focused. This includes choosing a topic of general interest to you and doing exploratory research on that topic, writing an annotated bibliography, and noting major points, especially those that relate to the position you have taken on the topic. 

Literature reviews and academic research papers are essential components of scholarly work but serve different purposes within the academic realm. 3 A literature review aims to provide a foundation for understanding the current state of research on a particular topic, identify gaps or controversies, and lay the groundwork for future research. Therefore, it draws heavily from existing academic sources, including books, journal articles, and other scholarly publications. In contrast, an academic research paper aims to present new knowledge, contribute to the academic discourse, and advance the understanding of a specific research question. Therefore, it involves a mix of existing literature (in the introduction and literature review sections) and original data or findings obtained through research methods. 

Literature reviews are essential components of academic and research papers, and various strategies can be employed to conduct them effectively. If you want to know how to write a literature review for a research paper, here are four common approaches that are often used by researchers.  Chronological Review: This strategy involves organizing the literature based on the chronological order of publication. It helps to trace the development of a topic over time, showing how ideas, theories, and research have evolved.  Thematic Review: Thematic reviews focus on identifying and analyzing themes or topics that cut across different studies. Instead of organizing the literature chronologically, it is grouped by key themes or concepts, allowing for a comprehensive exploration of various aspects of the topic.  Methodological Review: This strategy involves organizing the literature based on the research methods employed in different studies. It helps to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of various methodologies and allows the reader to evaluate the reliability and validity of the research findings.  Theoretical Review: A theoretical review examines the literature based on the theoretical frameworks used in different studies. This approach helps to identify the key theories that have been applied to the topic and assess their contributions to the understanding of the subject.  It’s important to note that these strategies are not mutually exclusive, and a literature review may combine elements of more than one approach. The choice of strategy depends on the research question, the nature of the literature available, and the goals of the review. Additionally, other strategies, such as integrative reviews or systematic reviews, may be employed depending on the specific requirements of the research.

The literature review format can vary depending on the specific publication guidelines. However, there are some common elements and structures that are often followed. Here is a general guideline for the format of a literature review:  Introduction:   Provide an overview of the topic.  Define the scope and purpose of the literature review.  State the research question or objective.  Body:   Organize the literature by themes, concepts, or chronology.  Critically analyze and evaluate each source.  Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the studies.  Highlight any methodological limitations or biases.  Identify patterns, connections, or contradictions in the existing research.  Conclusion:   Summarize the key points discussed in the literature review.  Highlight the research gap.  Address the research question or objective stated in the introduction.  Highlight the contributions of the review and suggest directions for future research.

Both annotated bibliographies and literature reviews involve the examination of scholarly sources. While annotated bibliographies focus on individual sources with brief annotations, literature reviews provide a more in-depth, integrated, and comprehensive analysis of existing literature on a specific topic. The key differences are as follows: 

References 

  • Denney, A. S., & Tewksbury, R. (2013). How to write a literature review.  Journal of criminal justice education ,  24 (2), 218-234. 
  • Pan, M. L. (2016).  Preparing literature reviews: Qualitative and quantitative approaches . Taylor & Francis. 
  • Cantero, C. (2019). How to write a literature review.  San José State University Writing Center . 

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Literature review.

  • What is a Literature Review?
  • What is Its Purpose?
  • 1. Select a Topic
  • 2. Set the Topic in Context
  • 3. Types of Information Sources
  • 4. Use Information Sources
  • 5. Get the Information
  • 6. Organize / Manage the Information
  • 7. Position the Literature Review
  • 8. Write the Literature Review

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A literature review is a comprehensive summary of previous research on a topic. The literature review surveys scholarly articles, books, and other sources relevant to a particular area of research.  The review should enumerate, describe, summarize, objectively evaluate and clarify this previous research.  It should give a theoretical base for the research and help you (the author) determine the nature of your research.  The literature review acknowledges the work of previous researchers, and in so doing, assures the reader that your work has been well conceived.  It is assumed that by mentioning a previous work in the field of study, that the author has read, evaluated, and assimiliated that work into the work at hand.

A literature review creates a "landscape" for the reader, giving her or him a full understanding of the developments in the field.  This landscape informs the reader that the author has indeed assimilated all (or the vast majority of) previous, significant works in the field into her or his research. 

 "In writing the literature review, the purpose is to convey to the reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. The literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (eg. your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries.( http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review )

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What is a literature review?

A literature review discusses published information in a particular subject area. Often part of the introduction to an essay, research report or thesis, the literature review is literally a "re" view or "look again" at what has already been written about the topic, wherein the author analyzes a segment of a published body of knowledge through summary, classification, and comparison of prior research studies, reviews of literature, and theoretical articles. Literature reviews provide the reader with a bibliographic history of the scholarly research in any given field of study. As such,  as new information becomes available, literature reviews grow in length or become focused on one specific aspect of the topic.

A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but usually contains an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, whereas a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. The literature review might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. Depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

A literature review is NOT:

  • An annotated bibliography – a list of citations to books, articles and documents that includes a brief description and evaluation for each citation. The annotations inform the reader of the relevance, accuracy and quality of the sources cited.
  • A literary review – a critical discussion of the merits and weaknesses of a literary work.
  • A book review – a critical discussion of the merits and weaknesses of a particular book.
  • Teaching Information Literacy Reframed: 50+ Framework-Based Exercises for Creating Information-Literate Learners
  • The UNC Writing Center – Literature Reviews
  • The UW-Madison Writing Center: The Writer’s Handbook – Academic and Professional Writing – Learn How to Write a Literature Review

What is the difference between a literature review and a research paper?

The focus of a literature review is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions, whereas academic research papers present and develop new arguments that build upon the previously available body of literature.

How do I write a literature review?

There are many resources that offer step-by-step guidance for writing a literature review, and you can find some of them under Other Resources in the menu to the left. Writing the Literature Review: A Practical Guide suggests these steps:

  • Chose a review topic and develop a research question
  • Locate and organize research sources
  • Select, analyze and annotate sources
  • Evaluate research articles and other documents
  • Structure and organize the literature review
  • Develop arguments and supporting claims
  • Synthesize and interpret the literature
  • Put it all together

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What is the purpose of writing a literature review?

Literature reviews serve as a guide to a particular topic: professionals can use literature reviews to keep current on their field; scholars can determine credibility of the writer in his or her field by analyzing the literature review.

As a writer, you will use the literature review to:

  • See what has, and what has not, been investigated about your topic
  • Identify data sources that other researches have used
  • Learn how others in the field have defined and measured key concepts
  • Establish context, or background, for the argument explored in the rest of a paper
  • Explain what the strengths and weaknesses of that knowledge and ideas might be
  • Contribute to the field by moving research forward
  • To keep the writer/reader up to date with current developments in a particular field of study
  • Develop alternative research projects
  • Put your work in perspective
  • Demonstrate your understanding and your ability to critically evaluate research in the field
  • Provide evidence that may support your own findings
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What's a literature review.

  • Literature Reviews: A Recap
  • Reading Journal Articles
  • Does it Describe a Literature Review?
  • 1. Identify the Question
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  • Finding Full-Text of an Article
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  • 4. Manage Your References
  • 5. Critically Analyze and Evaluate
  • 6. Synthesize
  • 7. Write a Literature Review

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What's a Literature Review? 

A literature review (or "lit review," for short) is an in-depth critical analysis of published scholarly research related to a specific topic. Published scholarly research (aka, "the literature") may include journal articles, books, book chapters, dissertations and thesis, or conference proceedings. 

A solid lit review must:

  • be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question you're developing
  • synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known
  • identify areas of controversy in the literature
  • formulate questions that need further research

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What is a literature review?

summary of literature review meaning

A literature review is a critical analysis of the literature related to your research topic. It evaluates and critiques the literature to establish a theoretical framework for your research topic and/or identify a gap in the existing research that your research will address.

A literature review is not a summary of the literature. You need to engage deeply and critically with the literature. Your literature review should show your understanding of the literature related to your research topic and lead to presenting a rationale for your research.

A literature review focuses on:

  • the context of the topic
  • key concepts, ideas, theories and methodologies
  • key researchers, texts and seminal works
  • major issues and debates
  • identifying conflicting evidence
  • the main questions that have been asked around the topic
  • the organisation of knowledge on the topic
  • definitions, particularly those that are contested
  • showing how your research will advance scholarly knowledge (generally referred to as identifying the ‘gap’).

This module will guide you through the functions of a literature review; the typical process of conducting a literature review (including searching for literature and taking notes); structuring your literature review within your thesis and organising its internal ideas; and styling the language of your literature review.

The purposes of a literature review

A literature review serves two main purposes:

1) To show awareness of the present state of knowledge in a particular field, including:

  • seminal authors
  • the main empirical research
  • theoretical positions
  • controversies
  • breakthroughs as well as links to other related areas of knowledge.

2) To provide a foundation for the author’s research. To do that, the literature review needs to:

  • help the researcher define a hypothesis or a research question, and how answering the question will contribute to the body of knowledge;
  • provide a rationale for investigating the problem and the selected methodology;
  • provide a particular theoretical lens, support the argument, or identify gaps.

Before you engage further with this module, try the quiz below to see how much you already know about literature reviews.

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What is the Purpose of a Literature Review?

What is the Purpose of a Literature Review?

4-minute read

  • 23rd October 2023

If you’re writing a research paper or dissertation , then you’ll most likely need to include a comprehensive literature review . In this post, we’ll review the purpose of literature reviews, why they are so significant, and the specific elements to include in one. Literature reviews can:

1. Provide a foundation for current research.

2. Define key concepts and theories.

3. Demonstrate critical evaluation.

4. Show how research and methodologies have evolved.

5. Identify gaps in existing research.

6. Support your argument.

Keep reading to enter the exciting world of literature reviews!

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a critical summary and evaluation of the existing research (e.g., academic journal articles and books) on a specific topic. It is typically included as a separate section or chapter of a research paper or dissertation, serving as a contextual framework for a study. Literature reviews can vary in length depending on the subject and nature of the study, with most being about equal length to other sections or chapters included in the paper. Essentially, the literature review highlights previous studies in the context of your research and summarizes your insights in a structured, organized format. Next, let’s look at the overall purpose of a literature review.

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Literature reviews are considered an integral part of research across most academic subjects and fields. The primary purpose of a literature review in your study is to:

Provide a Foundation for Current Research

Since the literature review provides a comprehensive evaluation of the existing research, it serves as a solid foundation for your current study. It’s a way to contextualize your work and show how your research fits into the broader landscape of your specific area of study.  

Define Key Concepts and Theories

The literature review highlights the central theories and concepts that have arisen from previous research on your chosen topic. It gives your readers a more thorough understanding of the background of your study and why your research is particularly significant .

Demonstrate Critical Evaluation 

A comprehensive literature review shows your ability to critically analyze and evaluate a broad range of source material. And since you’re considering and acknowledging the contribution of key scholars alongside your own, it establishes your own credibility and knowledge.

Show How Research and Methodologies Have Evolved

Another purpose of literature reviews is to provide a historical perspective and demonstrate how research and methodologies have changed over time, especially as data collection methods and technology have advanced. And studying past methodologies allows you, as the researcher, to understand what did and did not work and apply that knowledge to your own research.  

Identify Gaps in Existing Research

Besides discussing current research and methodologies, the literature review should also address areas that are lacking in the existing literature. This helps further demonstrate the relevance of your own research by explaining why your study is necessary to fill the gaps.

Support Your Argument

A good literature review should provide evidence that supports your research questions and hypothesis. For example, your study may show that your research supports existing theories or builds on them in some way. Referencing previous related studies shows your work is grounded in established research and will ultimately be a contribution to the field.  

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Ensure your literature review is polished and ready for submission by having it professionally proofread and edited by our expert team. Our literature review editing services will help your research stand out and make an impact. Not convinced yet? Send in your free sample today and see for yourself! 

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Literature Review: A Definition

What is a literature review, then.

A literature review discusses and analyses published information in a particular subject area.   Sometimes the information covers a certain time period.

A literature review is more than a summary of the sources, it has an organizational pattern that combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

But how is a literature review different from an academic research paper?

While the main focus of an academic research paper is to support your own argument, the focus of a literature review is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others. The academic research paper also covers a range of sources, but it is usually a select number of sources, because the emphasis is on the argument. Likewise, a literature review can also have an "argument," but it is not as important as covering a number of sources. In short, an academic research paper and a literature review contain some of the same elements. In fact, many academic research papers will contain a literature review section. What aspect of the study (either the argument or the sources) that is emphasized determines what type of document it is.

( "Literature Reviews" from The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill )

Why do we write literature reviews?

Literature reviews provide you with a handy guide to a particular topic. If you have limited time to conduct research, literature reviews can give you an overview or act as a stepping stone.

For professionals, they are useful reports that keep them up to date with what is current in the field.

For scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper's investigation.

Comprehensive knowledge of the literature of the field is essential to most research papers.

Journal Articles on Writing Literature Reviews

  • Research Methods for Comprehensive Science Literature Reviews Author: Brown,Barry N. Journal: Issues in Science & Technology Librarianship Date: Spring2009 Issue: 57 Page: 1 more... less... Finding some information on most topics is easy. There are abundant sources of information readily available. However, completing a comprehensive literature review on a particular topic is often difficult, laborious, and time intensive; the project requires organization, persistence, and an understanding of the scholarly communication and publishing process. This paper briefly outlines methods of conducting a comprehensive literature review for science topics. [ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR];
  • Research: Considerations in Writing a Literature Review Authors: Black,K. Journal: The New Social Worker Date: 01/01; 2007 Volume: 14 Issue: 2 Page: 12 more... less... Literature reviews are ubiquitous in academic journals, scholarly reports, and social work education. Conducting and writing a good literature review is both personally and professionally satisfying. (Journal abstract).
  • How to do (or not to do) A Critical Literature Review Authors: Jesson,Jill; Lacey,Fiona Journal: Pharmacy Education Pub Date: 2006 Volume: 6 Issue: 2 Pages:139 - 148 more... less... More and more students are required to perform a critical literature review as part of their undergraduate or postgraduate studies. Whilst most of the latest research methods textbooks advise how to do a literature search, very few cover the literature review. This paper covers two types of review: a critical literature review and a systematic review. [ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR]
  • Conducting a Literature Review Authors: Rowley,Jennifer; Slack,Frances Journal: Management Research News Pub Date: 2004 Volume: 27 Issue: 6 Pages:31-39 more... less... Abstract: This article offers support and guidance for students undertaking a literature review as part of their dissertation during an undergraduate or Masters course. A literature review is a summary of a subject field that supports the identification of specific research questions. A literature review needs to draw on and evaluate a range of different types of sources including academic and professional journal articles, books, and web-based resources. The literature search helps in the identification and location of relevant documents and other sources. Search engines can be used to search web resources and bibliographic databases. Conceptual frameworks can be a useful tool in developing an understanding of a subject area. Creating the literature review involves the stages of: scanning, making notes, structuring the literature review, writing the literature review, and building a bibliography.

Some Books from the WU Catalog

summary of literature review meaning

  • The SAGE handbook of visual research methods [electronic resource] by Edited by Luc Pauwels and Dawn Mannay. ISBN: 9781526417015 Publication Date: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2020.

Helpful Websites

  • "How to do a Literature Review" from Ferdinand D. Bluford Library
  • "The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It." from the University of Toronto
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  • Last Updated: Apr 30, 2024 3:17 PM
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  • Literature Review Guide
  • Back to Research Help

The Literature Review

  • What is a Literature Review?
  • Plan Your Literature Review
  • Identify a Research Gap
  • Define Your Research Question
  • Search the Literature
  • Analyze Your Research Results
  • Manage Research Results
  • Write the Literature Review

summary of literature review meaning

What is a Literature Review?  What is its purpose?

The purpose of a literature review is to offer a  comprehensive review of scholarly literature on a specific topic along with an  evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of authors' arguments . In other words, you are summarizing research available on a certain topic and then drawing conclusions about researchers' findings. To make gathering research easier, be sure to start with a narrow/specific topic and then widen your topic if necessary.

A thorough literature review provides an accurate description of current knowledge on a topic and identifies areas for future research.  Are there gaps or areas that require further study and exploration? What opportunities are there for further research? What is missing from my collection of resources? Are more resources needed?

It is important to note that conclusions described in the literature you gather may contradict each other completely or in part.  Recognize that knowledge creation is collective and cumulative.  Current research is built upon past research findings and discoveries.  Research may bring previously accepted conclusions into question.  A literature review presents current knowledge on a topic and may point out various academic arguments within the discipline.

What a Literature Review is not

  • A literature review is not an annotated bibliography .  An annotated bibliography provides a brief summary, analysis, and reflection of resources included in the bibliography.  Often it is not a systematic review of existing research on a specific subject.  That said, creating an annotated bibliography throughout your research process may be helpful in managing the resources discovered through your research.
  • A literature review is not a research paper .  A research paper explores a topic and uses resources discovered through the research process to support a position on the topic.  In other words, research papers present one side of an issue.  A literature review explores all sides of the research topic and evaluates all positions and conclusions achieved through the scientific research process even though some conclusions may conflict partially or completely.

From the Online Library

Cover Art

SAGE Research Methods is a web-based research methods tool that covers quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods. Researchers can explore methods and concepts to help design research projects, understand a particular method or identify a new method, and write up research. Sage Research Methods focuses on methodology rather than disciplines, and is of potential use to researchers from the social sciences, health sciences and other research areas.

  • Sage Research Methods Project Planner - Reviewing the Literature View the resources and videos for a step-by-step guide to performing a literature review.

The Literature Review: Step by Step

Follow this step-by-step process by using the related tabs in this Guide.

  • Define your Research question
  • Analyze the material you’ve found
  • Manage the results of your research
  • Write your Review

Getting Started

Consider the following questions as you develop your research topic, conduct your research, and begin evaluating the resources discovered in the research process:

  • What is known about the subject?
  • Are there any gaps in the knowledge of the subject?
  • Have areas of further study been identified by other researchers that you may want to consider?
  • Who are the significant research personalities in this area?
  • Is there consensus about the topic?
  • What aspects have generated significant debate on the topic?
  • What methods or problems were identified by others studying in the field and how might they impact your research?
  • What is the most productive methodology for your research based on the literature you have reviewed?
  • What is the current status of research in this area?
  • What sources of information or data were identified that might be useful to you?
  • How detailed? Will it be a review of ALL relevant material or will the scope be limited to more recent material, e.g., the last five years.
  • Are you focusing on methodological approaches; on theoretical issues; on qualitative or quantitative research?

What is Academic Literature?

What is the difference between popular and scholarly literature?

To better understand the differences between popular and scholarly articles, comparing characteristics and purpose of the publications where these articles appear is helpful.

Popular Article (Magazine)

  • Articles are shorter and are written for the general public
  • General interest topics or current events are covered
  • Language is simple and easy to understand
  • Source material is not cited
  • Articles often include glossy photographs, graphics, or visuals
  • Articles are written by the publication's staff of journalists
  • Articles are edited and information is fact checked

Examples of magazines that contain popular articles:

summary of literature review meaning

Scholarly Article (Academic Journal)

  • Articles are written by scholars and researchers for academics, professionals, and experts in the field
  • Articles are longer and report original research findings
  • Topics are narrower in focus and provide in-depth analysis
  • Technical or scholarly language is used
  • Source material is cited
  • Charts and graphs illustrating research findings are included
  • Many are  "peer reviewed"  meaning that panels of experts review articles submitted for publication to ensure that proper research methods were used and research findings are contributing something new to the field before selecting for publication.

Examples of academic journals that contain scholarly articles:

summary of literature review meaning

Define your research question

Selecting a research topic can be overwhelming.  Consider following these steps:

1.  Brainstorm  research topic ideas

      - Free write: Set a timer for five minutes and write down as many ideas as you can in the allotted time

      -  Mind-Map  to explore how ideas are related

2.  Prioritize  topics based on personal interest and curiosity

3.  Pre-research

      - Explore encyclopedias and reference books for background information on the topic

      - Perform a quick database or Google search on the topic to explore current issues. 

4.  Focus the topic  by evaluating how much information is available on the topic

         - Too much information?  Consider narrowing the topic by focusing on a specific issue 

         - Too little information?  Consider broadening the topic 

5.  Determine your purpose  by considering whether your research is attempting to:

         - further the research on this topic

         - fill a gap in the research

         - support existing knowledge with new evidence

         - take a new approach or direction

         - question or challenge existing knowledge

6.  Finalize your research question

NOTE:  Be aware that your initial research question may change as you conduct research on your topic.

Searching the Literature

Research on your topic should be conducted in the academic literature.  The  Rasmussen University Online Library contains subject-focused databases that contain the leading academic journals in your programmatic area.

Consult the  Using the Online Library video tutorials  for information about how to effectively search library databases.

Watch the video below for tips on how to create a search statement that will provide relevant results

Need help starting your research?  Make a  research appointment with a Rasmussen Librarian .

summary of literature review meaning

TIP:  Document as you research.  Begin building your references list using the citation managers in one of these resources:

  • APA Academic Writer

Recommended programmatic databases include:

Data Science

Coverage includes computer engineering, computer theory & systems, research and development, and the social and professional implications of new technologies. Articles come from more than 1,900 academic journals, trade magazines, and professional publications.

Provides access to full-text peer-reviewed journals, transactions, magazines, conference proceedings, and published standards in the areas of electrical engineering, computer science, and electronics. It also provides access to the IEEE Standards Dictionary Online. Full-text available.

Computing, telecommunications, art, science and design databases from ProQuest.

Healthcare Management

Articles from scholarly business journals back as far as 1886 with content from all disciplines of business, including marketing, management, accounting, management information systems, production and operations management, finance, and economics. Contains 55 videos from the Harvard Faculty Seminar Series, on topics such as leadership, sustaining competitive advantage, and globalization. To access the videos, click "More" in the blue bar at the top. Select "Images/ Business Videos." Uncheck "Image Quick View Collection" to indicate you only wish to search for videos. Enter search terms.

Provides a truly comprehensive business research collection. The collection consists of the following databases and more: ABI/INFORM Complete, ProQuest Entrepreneurship, ProQuest Accounting & Tax, International Bibliography of Social Sciences (IBSS), ProQuest Asian Business and Reference, and Banking Information Source.

The definitive research tool for all areas of nursing and allied health literature. Geared towards the needs of nurses and medical professionals. Covers more than 750 journals from 1937 to present.

HPRC provides information on the creation, implementation and study of health care policy and the health care system. Topics covered include health care administration, economics, planning, law, quality control, ethics, and more.

PolicyMap is an online mapping site that provides data on demographics, real estate, health, jobs, and other areas across the U.S. Access and visualize data from Census and third-party records.

Human Resources

Articles from all subject areas gathered from more than 11,000 magazines, journals, books and reports. Subjects include astronomy, multicultural studies, humanities, geography, history, law, pharmaceutical sciences, women's studies, and more. Coverage from 1887 to present. Start your research here.

Cochrane gathers and summarizes the best evidence from research to help you make informed choices about treatments. Whether a doctor or nurse, patient, researcher or student, Cochrane evidence provides a tool to enhance your healthcare knowledge and decision making on topics ranging from allergies, blood disorders, and cancer, to mental health, pregnancy, urology, and wounds.

Health sciences, biology, science, and pharmaceutical information from ProQuest. Includes articles from scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, practical and professional development content from professional journals, and general interest articles from magazines and newspapers.

Joanna Briggs Institute Academic Collection contains evidence-based information from across the globe, including evidence summaries, systematic reviews, best practice guidelines, and more. Subjects include medical, nursing, and healthcare specialties.

Comprehensive source of full-text articles from more than 1,450 scholarly medical journals.

Articles from more than 35 nursing journals in full text, searchable as far back as 1995.

Analyzing Your Research Results

You have completed your research and discovered many, many academic articles on your topic.  The next step involves evaluating and organizing the literature found in the research process.

As you review, keep in mind that there are three types of research studies:

  • Quantitative
  • Qualitative 
  • Mixed Methods

Consider these questions as you review the articles you have gathered through the research process:

1. Does the study relate to your topic?

2. Were sound research methods used in conducting the study?

3. Does the research design fit the research question? What variables were chosen? Was the sample size adequate?

4. What conclusions were drawn?  Do the authors point out areas for further research?

Reading Academic Literature

Academic journals publish the results of research studies performed by experts in an academic discipline.  Articles selected for publication go through a rigorous peer-review process.  This process includes a thorough evaluation of the research submitted for publication by journal editors and other experts or peers in the field.  Editors select articles based on specific criteria including the research methods used, whether the research contributes new findings to the field of study, and how the research fits within the scope of the academic journal.  Articles selected often go through a revision process prior to publication.

Most academic journal articles include the following sections:

  • Abstract    (An executive summary of the study)
  • Introduction  (Definition of the research question to be studied)
  • Literature Review  (A summary of past research noting where gaps exist)
  • Methods  (The research design including variables, sample size, measurements)
  • Data   (Information gathered through the study often displayed in tables and charts)
  • Results   (Conclusions reached at the end of the study)
  • Conclusion   (Discussion of whether the study proved the thesis; may suggest opportunities for further research)
  • Bibliography  (A list of works cited in the journal article)

TIP:  To begin selecting articles for your research, read the   highlighted sections   to determine whether the academic journal article includes information relevant to your research topic.

Step 1: Skim the article

When sorting through multiple articles discovered in the research process, skimming through these sections of the article will help you determine whether the article will be useful in your research.

1.  Article title   and subject headings assigned to the article

2.   Abstract

3.   Introduction

4.  Conclusion

If the article fits your information need, go back and  read the article thoroughly.

TIP:  Create a folder on your computer to save copies of articles you plan to use in your thesis or research project.  Use  NoodleTools  or  APA Academic Writer  to save APA references.

Step 2: Determine Your Purpose

Think about how you will evaluate the academic articles you find and how you will determine whether to include them in your research project.  Ask yourself the following questions to focus your search in the academic literature:

  • ​Are you looking for an overview of a topic? an explanation of a specific concept, idea, or position?
  • Are you exploring gaps in the research to identify a new area for academic study?
  • Are you looking for research that supports or disagrees with your thesis or research question?
  • Are you looking for examples of a research design and/or research methods you are considering for your own research project?

Step 3: Read Critically

Before reading the article, ask yourself the following:

  • What is my research question?  What position am I trying to support?
  • What do I already know about this topic?  What do I need to learn?
  • How will I evaluate the article?  Author's reputation? Research design? Treatment of topic? 
  • What are my biases about the topic?

As you read the article make note of the following:

  • Who is the intended audience for this article?
  • What is the author's purpose in writing this article?
  • What is the main point?
  • How was the main point proven or supported?  
  • Were scientific methods used in conducting the research?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the author? Why?
  • How does this article compare or connect with other articles on the topic?
  • Does the author recommend areas for further study?
  • How does this article help to answer your research question?

Managing your Research

Tip:  Create APA references for resources as you discover them in the research process

Use APA Academic Writer or NoodleTools to generate citations and manage your resources.  Find information on how to use these resources in the Citation Tools Guide .

summary of literature review meaning

Writing the Literature Review

Once research has been completed, it is time to structure the literature review and begin summarizing and synthesizing information.  The following steps may help with this process:

  • Chronological
  • By research method used
  • Explore contradictory or conflicting conclusions
  • Read each study critically
  • Critique methodology, processes, and conclusions
  • Consider how the study relates to your topic

Writing Lab

  • Description of public health nursing nutrition assessment and interventions for home‐visited women. This article provides a nice review of the literature in the article introduction. You can see how the authors have used the existing literature to make a case for their research questions. more... less... Horning, M. L., Olsen, J. M., Lell, S., Thorson, D. R., & Monsen, K. A. (2018). Description of public health nursing nutrition assessment and interventions for home‐visited women. Public Health Nursing, 35(4), 317–326. https://doi.org/10.1111/phn.12410
  • Improving Diabetes Self-Efficacy in the Hispanic Population Through Self-Management Education Doctoral papers are a good place to see how literature reviews can be done. You can learn where they searched, what search terms they used, and how they decided which articles were included. Notice how the literature review is organized around the three main themes that came out of the literature search. more... less... Robles, A. N. (2023). Improving diabetes self-efficacy in the hispanic population through self-management education (Order No. 30635901). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global: The Sciences and Engineering Collection. https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/improving-diabetes-self-efficacy-hispanic/docview/2853708553/se-2
  • Exploring mediating effects between nursing leadership and patient safety from a person-centred perspective: A literature review Reading articles that publish the results of a systematic literature review is a great way to see in detail how a literature review is conducted. These articles provide an article matrix, which provides you an example of how you can document information about the articles you find in your own search. To see more examples, include "literature review" or "systematic review" as a search term. more... less... Wang, M., & Dewing, J. (2021). Exploring mediating effects between nursing leadership and patient safety from a person‐centred perspective: A literature review. Journal of Nursing Management, 29(5), 878–889. https://doi.org/10.1111/jonm.13226

Database Search Tips

  • Boolean Operators
  • Keywords vs. Subjects
  • Creating a Search String
  • Library databases are collections of resources that are searchable, including full-text articles, books, and encyclopedias.
  • Searching library databases is different than searching Google. Best results are achieved when using Keywords linked with Boolean Operators . 
  • Applying Limiters such as full-text, publication date, resource type, language, geographic location, and subject help to refine search results.
  • Utilizing Phrases or Fields , in addition to an awareness of Stop Words , can focus your search and retrieve more useful results.
  • Have questions? Ask a Librarian

Boolean Operators connect keywords or concepts logically to retrieve relevant articles, books, and other resources.  There are three Boolean Operators:

Using AND 

  • Narrows search results
  • Connects two or more keywords/concepts
  • All keywords/concepts connected with "and" must be in an article or resource to appear in the search results list

summary of literature review meaning

Venn diagram of the AND connector

Example: The result list will include resources that include both keywords -- "distracted driving" and "texting" -- in the same article or resource, represented in the shaded area where the circles intersect (area shaded in purple).

  • Broadens search results ("OR means more!")
  • Connects two or more synonyms or related keywords/concepts
  • Resources appearing in the results list will include any of the terms connected with the OR connector

summary of literature review meaning

Venn diagram of the OR connector

Example:  The result list will include resources that include the keyword "texting" OR the keyword "cell phone" (entire area shaded in blue); either is acceptable.

  • Excludes keywords or concepts from the search
  • Narrows results by removing resources that contain the keyword or term connected with the NOT connector
  • Use sparingly

summary of literature review meaning

Venn diagram of the NOT connector

Example: The result list will include all resources that include the term "car" (green area) but will exclude any resource that includes the term "motorcycle" (purple area) even though the term car may be present in the resource.

A library database searches for keywords throughout the entire resource record including the full-text of the resource, subject headings, tags, bibliographic information, etc.

  • Natural language words or short phrases that describe a concept or idea
  • Can retrieve too few or irrelevant results due to full-text searching (What words would an author use to write about this topic?)
  • Provide flexibility in a search
  • Must consider synonyms or related terms to improve search results
  • TIP: Build a Keyword List

summary of literature review meaning

Example:  The keyword list above was developed to find resources that discuss how texting while driving results in accidents.  Notice that there are synonyms (texting and "text messaging"), related terms ("cell phones" and texting), and spelling variations ("cell phone" and cellphone).  Using keywords when searching full text requires consideration of various words that express an idea or concept.

  • Subject Headings
  • Predetermined "controlled vocabulary" database editors apply to resources to describe topical coverage of content
  • Can retrieve more precise search results because every article assigned that subject heading will be retrieved.
  • Provide less flexibility in a search
  • Can be combined with a keyword search to focus search results.
  • TIP: Consult database subject heading list or subject headings assigned to relevant resources

summary of literature review meaning

Example 1: In EBSCO's Academic Search Complete, clicking on the "Subject Terms" tab provides access to the entire subject heading list used in the database.  It also allows a search for specific subject terms.

summary of literature review meaning

Example 2:  A subject term can be incorporated into a keyword search by clicking on the down arrow next to "Select a Field" and selecting "Subject Terms" from the dropdown list.  Also, notice how subject headings are listed below the resource title, providing another strategy for discovering subject headings used in the database.

When a search term is more than one word, enclose the phrase in quotation marks to retrieve more precise and accurate results.  Using quotation marks around a term will search it as a "chunk," searching for those particular words together in that order within the text of a resource. 

"cell phone"

"distracted driving"

"car accident"

TIP: In some databases, neglecting to enclose phrases in quotation marks will insert the AND Boolean connector between each word resulting in unintended search results.

Truncation provides an option to search for a root of a keyword in order to retrieve resources that include variations of that word.  This feature can be used to broaden search results, although some results may not be relevant.  To truncate a keyword, type an asterisk (*) following the root of the word.

For example:

summary of literature review meaning

Library databases provide a variety of tools to limit and refine search results.  Limiters provide the ability to limit search results to resources having specified characteristics including:

  • Resource type
  • Publication date
  • Geographic location

In both the EBSCO and ProQuest databases, the limiting tools are located in the left panel of the results page.

                                                 EBSCO                                                     ProQuest

summary of literature review meaning

The short video below provides a demonstration of how to use limiters to refine a list of search results.

Each resource in a library database is stored in a record.  In addition to the full-text of the resources, searchable Fields are attached that typically include:

  • Journal title
  • Date of Publication

Incorporating Fields into your search can assist in focusing and refining search results by limiting the results to those resources that include specific information in a particular field.

In both EBSCO and ProQuest databases, selecting the Advanced Search option will allow Fields to be included in a search.

For example, in the Advanced Search option in EBSCO's Academic Search Complete database, clicking on the down arrow next to "Select a Field" provides a list of fields that can be searched within that database.  Select the field and enter the information in the text box to the left to use this feature.

summary of literature review meaning

Stop words are short, commonly used words--articles, prepositions, and pronouns-- that are automatically dropped from a search.  Typical stop words include:

In library databases, a stop word will not be searched even if it is included in a phrase enclosed in quotation marks.  In some instances, a word will be substituted for the stop word to allow for the other words in the phrase to be searched in proximity to one another within the text of the resource.

For example, if you searched company of America, your result list will include these variatons:

  • company in America
  • company of America
  • company for America

Creating an Search String

This short video demonstrates how to create a search string -- keywords connected with Boolean operators -- to use in a library database search to retrieve relevant resources for any research assignment.

  • Database Search Menu Template Use this search menu template to plan a database search.
  • Next: Back to Research Help >>
  • Last Updated: May 7, 2024 2:33 PM
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Rapid literature review: definition and methodology

Beata smela.

a Assignity, Cracow, Poland

Mondher Toumi

b Public Health Department, Aix-Marseille University, Marseille, France

Karolina Świerk

Clement francois, małgorzata biernikiewicz.

c Studio Slowa, Wroclaw, Poland

Emilie Clay

d Clever-Access, Paris, France

Laurent Boyer

Introduction: A rapid literature review (RLR) is an alternative to systematic literature review (SLR) that can speed up the analysis of newly published data. The objective was to identify and summarize available information regarding different approaches to defining RLR and the methodology applied to the conduct of such reviews.

Methods: The Medline and EMBASE databases, as well as the grey literature, were searched using the set of keywords and their combination related to the targeted and rapid review, as well as design, approach, and methodology. Of the 3,898 records retrieved, 12 articles were included.

Results: Specific definition of RLRs has only been developed in 2021. In terms of methodology, the RLR should be completed within shorter timeframes using simplified procedures in comparison to SLRs, while maintaining a similar level of transparency and minimizing bias. Inherent components of the RLR process should be a clear research question, search protocol, simplified process of study selection, data extraction, and quality assurance.

Conclusions: There is a lack of consensus on the formal definition of the RLR and the best approaches to perform it. The evidence-based supporting methods are evolving, and more work is needed to define the most robust approaches.

Introduction

A systematic literature review (SLR) summarizes the results of all available studies on a specific topic and provides a high level of evidence. Authors of the SLR have to follow an advanced plan that covers defining a priori information regarding the research question, sources they are going to search, inclusion criteria applied to choose studies answering the research question, and information regarding how they are going to summarize findings [ 1 ].

The rigor and transparency of SLRs make them the most reliable form of literature review [ 2 ], providing a comprehensive, objective summary of the evidence for a given topic [ 3 , 4 ]. On the other hand, the SLR process is usually very time-consuming and requires a lot of human resources. Taking into account a high increase of newly published data and a growing need to analyze information in the fastest possible way, rapid literature reviews (RLRs) often replace standard SLRs.

There are several guidelines on the methodology of RLRs [ 5–11 ]; however, only recently, one publication from 2021 attempted to construct a unified definition [ 11 ]. Generally, by RLRs, researchers understand evidence synthesis during which some of the components of the systematic approach are being used to facilitate answering a focused research question; however, scope restrictions and a narrower search strategy help to make the project manageable in a shorter time and to get the key conclusions faster [ 4 ].

The objective of this research was to collect and summarize available information on different approaches to the definition and methodology of RLRs. An RLR has been run to capture publications providing data that fit the project objective.

To find publications reporting information on the methodology of RLRs, searches were run in the Medline and EMBASE databases in November 2022. The following keywords were searched for in titles and abstracts: ‘targeted adj2 review’ OR ‘focused adj2 review’ OR ‘rapid adj2 review’, and ‘methodology’ OR ‘design’ OR ‘scheme’ OR ‘approach’. The grey literature was identified using Google Scholar with keywords including ‘targeted review methodology’ OR ‘focused review methodology’ OR ‘rapid review methodology’. Only publications in English were included, and the date of publication was restricted to year 2016 onward in order to identify the most up-to-date literature. The reference lists of each included article were searched manually to obtain the potentially eligible articles. Titles and abstracts of the retrieved records were first screened to exclude articles that were evidently irrelevant. The full texts of potentially relevant papers were further reviewed to examine their eligibility.

A pre-defined Excel grid was developed to extract the following information related to the methodology of RLR from guidelines:

  • Definition,
  • Research question and searches,
  • Studies selection,
  • Data extraction and quality assessment,
  • Additional information.

There was no restriction on the study types to be analyzed; any study reporting on the methodology of RLRs could be included: reviews, practice guidelines, commentaries, and expert opinions on RLR relevant to healthcare policymakers or practitioners. The data extraction and evidence summary were conducted by one analyst and further examined by a senior analyst to ensure that relevant information was not omitted. Disagreements were resolved by discussion and consensus.

Studies selection

A total of 3,898 records (3,864 articles from a database search and 34 grey literature from Google Scholar) were retrieved. After removing duplicates, titles and abstracts of 3,813 articles were uploaded and screened. The full texts of 43 articles were analyzed resulting in 12 articles selected for this review, including 7 guidelines [ 5–11 ] on the methodology of RLRs, together with 2 papers summarizing the results of the Delphi consensus on the topic [ 12 , 13 ], and 3 publications analyzing and assessing different approaches to RLRs [ 4 , 14 , 15 ].

Overall, seven guidelines were identified: from the World Health Organization (WHO) [ 5 ], National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools (NCCMT) [ 7 ], the UK government [ 8 ], the Oxford Centre for Evidence Based Medicine [ 9 ], the Cochrane group [ 6 , 11 ], and one multi-national review [ 10 ]. Among the papers that did not describe the guidelines, Gordon et al. [ 4 ] proposed 12 tips for conducting a rapid review in the right settings and discussed why these reviews may be more beneficial in some circumstances. The objective of work conducted by Tricco et al. [ 13 ] and Pandor et al. [ 12 ] was to collect and compare perceptions of rapid reviews from stakeholders, including researchers, policymakers, industry, journal editors, and healthcare providers, and to reach a consensus outlining the domains to consider when deciding on approaches for RLRs. Haby et al. [ 14 ] run a rapid review of systematic reviews and primary studies to find out the best way to conduct an RLR in health policy and practice. In Tricco et al. (2022) [ 15 ], JBI position statement for RLRs is presented.

From all the seven identified guidelines information regarding definitions the authors used for RLRs, approach to the PICOS criteria and search strategy development, studies selection, data extractions, quality assessment, and reporting were extracted.

Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group developed methods guidance based on scoping review of the underlying evidence, primary methods studies conducted, as well as surveys sent to Cochrane representative and discussion among those with expertise [ 11 ]. They analyzed over 300 RLRs or RLR method papers and based on the methodology of those studies, constructed a broad definition RLR, one that meets a minimum set of requirements identified in the thematic analysis: ‘ A rapid review is a form of knowledge synthesis that accelerates the process of conducting a traditional systematic review through streamlining or omitting a variety of methods to produce evidence in a resource-efficient manner .’ This interpretation aligns with more than 50% of RLRs identified in this study. The authors additionally provided several other definitions, depending on specific situations or requirements (e.g., when RLR is produced on stakeholder’s request). It was additionally underlined that RLRs should be driven by the need of timely evidence for decision-making purposes [ 11 ].

Rapid reviews vary in their objective, format, and methods used for evidence synthesis. This is a quite new area, and still no agreement on optimal methods can be found [ 5 ]. All of the definitions are highlighting that RLRs are completed within shorter timeframes than SLRs, and also lack of time is one of the main reasons they are conducted. It has been suggested that most rapid reviews are conducted within 12 weeks; however, some of the resources suggest time between a few weeks to no more than 6 months [ 5 , 6 ]. Some of the definitions are highlighting that RLRs follow the SLR process, but certain phases of the process are simplified or omitted to retrieve information in a time-saving way [ 6 , 7 ]. Different mechanisms are used to enhance the timeliness of reviews. They can be used independently or concurrently: increasing the intensity of work by intensifying the efforts of multiple analysts by parallelization of tasks, using review shortcuts whereby one or more systematic review steps may be reduced, automatizing review steps by using new technologies [ 5 ]. The UK government report [ 8 ] referred to two different RLRs: in the form of quick scoping reviews (QSR) or rapid evidence assessments (REA). While being less resource and time-consuming compared to standard SLRs, QSRs and REAs are designed to be similarly transparent and to minimize bias. QSRs can be applied to rather open-ended questions, e.g., ‘what do we know about something’ but both, QSRs and REAs, provide an understanding of the volume and characteristics of evidence on a specific topic, allowing answering questions by maximizing the use of existing data, and providing a clear picture of the adequacy of existing evidence [ 8 ].

Research questions and searches

The guidelines suggest creating a clear research question and search protocol at the beginning of the project. Additionally, to not duplicate RLRs, the Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group encourages all people working on RLRs to consider registering their search protocol with PROSPERO, the international prospective register of reviews; however, so far they are not formally registered in most cases [ 5 , 6 ]. They also recommend involving key stakeholders (review users) to set and refine the review question, criteria, and outcomes, as well as consulting them through the entire process [ 11 ].

Regarding research questions, it is better to structure them in a neutral way rather than focus on a specific direction for the outcome. By doing so, the researcher is in a better position to identify all the relevant evidence [ 7 ]. Authors can add a second, supportive research question when needed [ 8 ]. It is encouraged to limit the number of interventions, comparators and outcomes, to focus on the ones that are most important for decision-making [ 11 ]. Useful could be also reviewing additional materials, e.g., SLRs on the topic, as well as conducting a quick literature search to better understand the topic before starting with RLRs [ 7 ]. In SLRs researchers usually do not need to care a lot about time spent on creating PICOS, they need to make sure that the scope is broad enough, and they cannot use many restrictions. When working on RLRs, a reviewer may spend more or less time defining each of the components of the study question, and the main step is making sure that PICOS addresses the needs of those who requested the rapid review, and at the same time, it is feasible within the required time frame [ 7 ]. Search protocol should contain an outline of how the following review steps are to be carried out, including selected search keywords and a full strategy, a list of data sources, precise inclusion and exclusion criteria, a strategy for data extraction and critical appraisal, and a plan of how the information will be synthesized [ 8 ].

In terms of searches running, in most cases, an exhaustive process will not be feasible. Researchers should make sure that the search is effective and efficient to produce results in a timely manner. Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group recommends involving an information specialist and conducting peer review of at least one search strategy [ 11 ]. According to the rapid review guidebook by McMaster University [ 7 ], it is important that RLRs, especially those that support policy and program decisions, are being fed by the results of a body of literature, rather than single studies, when possible. It would result in more generalizable findings applied at the level of a population and serve more realistic findings for program decisions [ 7 ]. It is important to document the search strategy, together with a record of the date and any date limits of the search, so that it can easily be run again, modified, or updated. Furthermore, the information on the individual databases included in platform services should always be reported, as this depends on organizations’ subscriptions and must be included for transparency and repeatability [ 7 , 8 ]. Good solution for RLRs is narrowing the scope or searching a limited number of databases and other sources [ 7 ]. Often, the authors use the PubMed/MEDLINE, Cochrane Library, and Embase databases. In most reviews, two or more databases are searched, and common limits are language (usually restricted to English), date, study design, and geographical area. Some RLRs include searching of grey literature; however, contact with authors is rather uncommon [ 5 , 8 ]. According to the flexible framework for restricted systematic review published by the University of Oxford, the search should be run in at least one major scientific database such as PubMed, and one other source, e.g., Google Scholar [ 9 ]. Grey literature and unpublished evidence may be particularly needed and important for intervention questions. It is related to the fact that studies that do not report the effects of interventions are less likely to be published [ 8 ]. If there is any type of evidence that will not be considered by the RLRs, e.g., reviews or theoretical and conceptual studies, it should also be stated in the protocol together with justification [ 8 ]. Additionally, authors of a practical guide published by WHO suggest using a staged search to identify existing SLRs at the beginning, and then focusing on studies with other designs [ 5 ]. If a low number of citations have been retrieved, it is acceptable to expand searches, remove some of the limits, and add additional databases and sources [ 7 ].

Searching for RLRs is an iterative process, and revising the approach is usually needed [ 7 ]. Changes should be confirmed with stakeholders and should be tracked and reflected in the final report [ 5 ].

The next step in the rapid review is the selection of studies consisting of two phases: screening of titles and abstracts, and analysis of full texts. Prior to screening initiation, it is recommended to conduct a pilot exercise using the same 30–50 abstracts and 5–10 full-texts for the entire screening team in order to calibrate and test the review form [ 11 ]. In contrast to SLRs, it can be done by one reviewer with or without verification by a second one. If verification is performed, usually the second reviewer checks only a subset of records and compares them. Cochrane Group, in contrast, recommends a stricter approach: at least 20% of references should be double-screened at titles and abstracts stage, and while the rest of the references may be screened by one reviewer, the excluded items need to be re-examined by second reviewer; similar approach is used in full-text screening [ 11 ]. This helps to ensure that bias was reduced and that the PICOS criteria are applied in a relevant way [ 5 , 8 , 9 , 11 ]. During the analysis of titles and abstracts, there is no need to report reasons for exclusion; however, they should be tracked for all excluded full texts [ 7 ].

Data extraction and quality assessment

According to the WHO guide, the most common method for data extraction in RLRs is extraction done by a single reviewer with or without partial verification. The authors point out that a reasonable approach is to use a second reviewer to check a random sample of at least 10% of the extractions for accuracy. Dual performance is more necessary for the extraction of quantitative results than for descriptive study information. In contrast, Cochrane group recommends that second reviewer should check the correctness and completeness of all data [ 11 ]. When possible, extractions should be limited to key characteristics and outcomes of the study. The same approach to data extraction is also suggested for a quality assessment process within rapid reviews [ 5 , 9 , 11 ]. Authors of the guidebook from McMaster University highlight that data extraction should be done ideally by two reviewers independently and consensus on the discrepancies should always be reached [ 7 ]. The final decision on the approach to this important step of review should depend on the available time and should also reflect the complexity of the research question [ 9 ].

For screening, analysis of full texts, extractions, and quality assessments, researchers can use information technologies to support them by making these review steps more efficient [ 5 ].

Before data reporting, a reviewer should prepare a document with key message headings, executive summary, background related to the topic and status of the current knowledge, project question, synthesis of findings, conclusions, and recommendations. According to the McMaster University guidebook, a report should be structured in a 1:2:20 format, that is, one page for key messages, two pages for an executive summary, and a full report of up to 20 pages [ 7 ]. All the limitations of the RLRs should be analyzed, and conclusions should be drawn with caution [ 5 ]. The quality of the accumulated evidence and the strength of recommendations can be assessed using, e.g., the GRADE system [ 5 ]. When working on references quoting, researchers should remember to use a primary source, not secondary references [ 7 ]. It would be worth considering the support of some software tools to automate reporting steps. Additionally, any standardization of the process and the usage of templates can support report development and enhance the transparency of the review [ 5 ].

Ideally, all the review steps should be completed during RLRs; however, often some steps may need skipping or will not be completed as thoroughly as should because of time constraints. It is always crucial to decide which steps may be skipped, and which are the key ones, depending on the project [ 7 ]. Guidelines suggest that it may be helpful to invite researchers with experience in the operations of SLRs to participate in the rapid review development [ 5 , 9 ]. As some of the steps will be completed by one reviewer only, it is important to provide them with relevant training at the beginning of the process, as well as during the review, to minimize the risk of mistakes [ 5 ].

Additional information

Depending on the policy goal and available resources and deadlines, methodology of the RLRs may be modified. Wilson et al. [ 10 ] provided extensive guidelines for performing RLR within days (e.g., to inform urgent internal policy discussions and/or management decisions), weeks (e.g., to inform public debates), or months (e.g., to inform policy development cycles that have a longer timeline, but that cannot wait for a traditional full systematic review). These approaches vary in terms of data synthesis, types of considered evidence and project management considerations.

In shortest timeframes, focused questions and subquestions should be formulated, typically to conduct a policy analysis; the report should consist of tables along with a brief narrative summary. Evidence from SLRs is often considered, as well as key informant interviews may be conducted to identify additional literature and insights about the topic, while primary studies and other types of evidence are not typically feasible due to time restrictions. The review would be best conducted with 1–2 reviewers sharing the work, enabling rapid iterations of the review. As for RLRs with longer timeline (weeks), these may use a mix of policy, systems and political analysis. Structure of the review would be similar to shorter RLRs – tabular with short narrative summary, as the timeline does not allow for comprehensive synthesis of data. Besides SLRs, primary studies and other evidence may be feasible in this timeframe, if obtained using the targeted searches in the most relevant databases. The review team should be larger, and standardized procedures for reviewing of the results and data extraction should be applied. In contrast to previous timeframe, merit review process may be feasible. For both timeframes, brief consultations with small transdisciplinary team should be conducted at the beginning and in the final stage of the review to discuss important matters.

For RLRs spanning several months, more comprehensive methodology may be adapted in terms of data synthesis and types of evidence. However, authors advise that review may be best conducted with a small review team in order to allow for more in-depth interpretation and iteration.

Studies analyzing methodology

There have been two interesting publications summarizing the results of Delphi consensus on the RLR methodology identified and included in this review [ 12 , 13 ].

Tricco et al. [ 13 ] first conducted an international survey and scoping review to collect information on the possible approaches to the running of rapid reviews, based on which, they employed a modified Delphi method that included inputs from 113 stakeholders to explore the most optimized approach. Among the six most frequent rapid review approaches (not all detailed here) being evaluated, the approach that combines inclusion of published literature only, a search of more than one database and limitations by date and language, study selection by one analyst, data extraction, and quality assessment by one analyst and one verifier, was perceived as the most feasible approach (72%, 81/113 responses) with the potentially lowest risk of bias (12%, 12/103). The approach ranked as the first one when considering timelines assumes updating of the search from a previously published review, no additional limits on search, studies selection and data extraction done by one reviewer, and no quality assessment. Finally, based on the publication, the most comprehensive RLRs can be made by moving on with the following rules: searching more than one database and grey literature and using date restriction, and assigning one reviewer working on screening, data extraction, and risk of bias assessment ( Table 1 ). Pandor et al. [ 12 ] introduced a decision tool for SelecTing Approaches for Rapid Reviews (STARR) that were produced through the Delphi consensus of international experts through an iterative and rigorous process. Participants were asked to assess the importance of predefined items in four domains related to the rapid review process: interaction with commissioners, understanding the evidence base, data extraction and synthesis methods, and reporting of rapid review methods. All items assigned to four domains achieved > 70% of consensus, and in that way, the first consensus-driven tool has been created that supports authors of RLRs in planning and deciding on approaches.

Six most frequent approaches to RLRs (adapted from Tricco et al. [ 13 ]).

Haby et al. [ 14 ] run searches of 11 databases and two websites and developed a comprehensive overview of the methodology of RLRs. With five SLRs and one RCT being finally included, they identified the following approaches used in RLRs to make them faster than full SLRs: limiting the number and scope of questions, searching fewer databases, limited searching of grey literature, restrictions on language and date (e.g., English only, most recent publications), updating the existing SLRs, eliminating or limiting hand searches of reference lists, noniterative search strategies, eliminating consultation with experts, limiting dual study selection, data extraction and quality assessment, minimal data synthesis with short concise conclusions or recommendations. All the SLRs included in this review were consistent in stating that no agreed definition of rapid reviews is available, and there is still no final agreement on the best methodological rules to be followed.

Gordon et al. [ 4 ] explained the advantages of performing a focused review and provided 12 tips for its conduction. They define focused reviews as ‘a form of knowledge synthesis in which the components of the systematic process are applied to facilitate the analysis of a focused research question’. The first tip presented by the authors is related to deciding if a focused review is a right solution for the considered project. RLRs will suit emerging topics, approaches, or assessments where early synthesis can support doctors, policymakers, etc., but also can direct future research. The second, third, and fourth tips highlight the importance of running preliminary searches and considering narrowing the results by using reasonable constraints taking into account the local context, problems, efficiency perspectives, and available time. Further tips include creating a team of experienced reviewers working on the RLRs, thinking about the target journal from the beginning of work on the rapid review, registering the search protocol on the PROSPERO registry, and the need for contacting authors of papers when data available in publications are missing or incongruent. The last three tips are related to the choice of evidence synthesis method, using the visual presentation of data, and considering and describing all the limitations of the focused review.

Finally, a new publication by Tricco et al. from 2022, describing JBI position statement [ 15 ] underlined that for the time being, there is no specific tool for critical appraisal of the RLR’s methodological quality. Instead, reviewers may use available tools to assess the risk of bias or quality of SLRs, like ROBIS, the JBI critical appraisal tools, or the assessment of multiple systematic reviews (AMSTAR).

Inconsistency in the definitions and methodologies of RLR

Although RLR was broadly perceived as an approach to quicken the conduct of conventional SLR, there is a lack of consensus on the formal definition of the RLR, so as to the best approaches to perform it. Only in 2021, a study proposing unified definition was published; however, it is important to note that the most accurate definition was only matching slightly over 50% of papers analysed by the authors, which underlines the lack of homogeneity in the field [ 11 ]. The evidence-based supporting methods are evolving, and more evidence is needed to define the most robust approaches [ 5 ].

Diverse terms are used to describe the RLR, including ‘rapid review’, focused systematic review’, ‘quick scoping reviews’, and ‘rapid evidence assessments’. Although the general principles of conducting RLR are to accelerate the whole process, complexity was seen in the methodologies used for RLRs, as reflected in this study. Also, inconsistencies related to the scope of the questions, search strategies, inclusion criteria, study screening, full-text review, quality assessment, and evidence presentation were implied. All these factors may hamper decision-making about optimal methodologies for conducting rapid reviews, and as a result, the efficiency of RLR might be decreased. Additionally, researchers may tend to report the methodology of their reviews without a sufficient level of detail, making it difficult to appraise the quality and robustness of their work.

Advantages and weaknesses of RLR

Although RLR used simplified approaches for evidence synthesis compared with SLR, the methodologies for RLR should be replicable, rigorous, and transparent to the greatest extent [ 16 ]. When time and resources are limited, RLR could be a practical and efficient tool to provide the summary of evidence that is critical for making rapid clinical or policy-related decisions [ 5 ]. Focusing on specific questions that are of controversy or special interest could be powerful in reaffirming whether the existing recommendation statements are still appropriate [ 17 ].

The weakness of RLR should also be borne in mind, and the trade-off of using RLR should be carefully considered regarding the thoroughness of the search, breadth of a research question, and depth of analysis [ 18 ]. If allowed, SLR is preferred over RLR considering that some relevant studies might be omitted with narrowed search strategies and simplified screening process [ 14 ]. Additionally, omitting the quality assessment of included studies could result in an increased risk of bias, making the comprehensiveness of RLR compromised [ 13 ]. Furthermore, in situations that require high accuracy, for example, where a small relative difference in an intervention has great impacts, for the purpose of drafting clinical guidelines, or making licensing decisions, a comprehensive SLR may remain the priority [ 19 ]. Therefore, clear communications with policymakers are recommended to reach an agreement on whether an RLR is justified and whether the methodologies of RLR are acceptable to address the unanswered questions [ 18 ].

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

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