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Literature Reviews

Literature Reviews and Systematic Reviews

A literature review summarizes and analyzes the relevant publications on a topic. It demonstrates to your readers that you are knowledgeable of the ongoing scholarly conversation and how your research fits within the broader field of study. An effective literature review will lay the foundation for the importance of your stated problem and research question.

Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students from NC State University Libraries on Vimeo.

A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all available relevant evidence to answer a specific, focused research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use standardized, systematic methods and pre-selected eligibility criteria to reduce the risk of bias in identifying, selecting, and analyzing relevant studies.

Prepared by the Cochrane Consumers and Communication Group, La Trobe University and generously support by Cochrane Australia. Written by Jack Nunn and Sophie Hill.

Literature Review Methodological Stage Systematic Review
Introduces context and current thinking, often without a specific question, is general and covers several aspects of a topic. Focus of review Uses a precise question to produce evidence to underpin a piece of research. A stand-alone piece of research, it should be conducted prior to undertaking further research, particularly in higher degree theses.
Finds papers through a fairly random process, usually searching only a few databases. Use of grey literature common, but not usually systematic. Methods for data collection Searches of several specified databases using precise search terms; a similar systematic search of grey literature sometimes included, depending on the question.
Papers are read, ‘take home’ messages used in the review. Methods for data extraction Data extraction tool used to identify precise pieces of information; two or more researchers undertake data extraction.
Anything up to 150 papers or more. Number of papers included in review Usually less than 50 papers; often fewer than 10.
Writer interprets the meaning of the results. Methods for data analysis Recognised, referenced, methods for data analysis; includes analysis of methods, rigour of conduct of research, strength of evidence, and so on.
Prose paper, occasionally supported with diagrams. Methods for data presentation PRISMA/CONSORT or similar chart/table of included papers.
Not suitable for Journal publication. Publication Might be suitable for Journal publication.
Actions/directions informed by evidence of various kinds drawn from included papers. Outcome Actions/directions are based on evidence from reviewed papers.

Robinson, P. and Lowe, J. (2015), Literature reviews vs systematic reviews. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 39: 103-103.

Why Do a Literature Review

Why do a literature review?

  • To increase your knowledge of this topic
  • To identify other researchers and seminal works in this field of study
  • To provide context for your work
  • To locate gaps in the literature
  • To demonstrate the credibility of your research

What is 'The Literature'

What is 'the literature' that is reviewed in a literature review? 

‘The literature’ consists of the published works that document a scholarly conversation in a field of study, including:

  • scholarly articles
  • books
  • conference proceedings
  • dissertations

The literature can also include newspapers, encyclopedias, textbooks, as well as websites and reports written by government agencies and professional organizations ("grey literature").


The content of this page was developed from Chapter 1, "Introduction", and Chapter 2, "What is a Literature Review?", in:

Frederiksen, L., & Phelps, S. F. (2017). Literature reviews for education and nursing graduate students. Rebus Community.