Literature Reviews

literature review is a "comprehensive study and interpretation of literature that addresses a specific topic" (Aveyard, 2010). 

Literature reviews are generally conducted in one of two ways:

1)  As a preliminary review before a larger study in order to critically evaluate the current literature and justify why further study and research is required.

  • In this case, the researcher must "systematically search, critique and combine the literature to demonstrate a gap in the existing research base" while demonstrating "their understanding of both the research and the methods previously used to investigate the area" (Aveyard, 2010).

2) As a project in itself that provides a comprehensive survey of the works published in a particular discipline or area of research over a specified period of time.

  • Sometimes referred to as a systematic literature review or meta-analysis, this type is a critical survey that attempts to "evaluate and interpret all available research evidence relevant to a particular question" (Glasziou, 2001).

The current status of the knowledge or research about a topic, question or experienceA literature review is an opportunity to tell your story by carving a space for your topic and research question in relation to previous studies. In reporting your critical perspective on the relevant literature and identifying a gap that your research will attempt to address, it situates and establishes the importance of your topic or question within the broader academic community in your discipline or field of study:

  • The theoretical approach(es) used in studying this particular topic or question
  • The data collection tools and procedures used and their implications on the body of knowledge
  • The future direction(s) on a topic in terms of theory, methodology, questions for further study, and so on*

Types of Literature Reviews

According to Walsh and Downe (2005), the systematic review "is a robust way of comparing quantitative research and proceeds according to well-determined steps, which include statistical analysis of the pooled results of studies. This statistical analysis is more accurately called meta-analysis, although this phrase has become interchangeable with systematic review" (pp. 204-205):

A systematic review:

  • Identifies, appraises and synthesizes evidence in order to answer a specified research question
  • Applies a rigorous approach that details time frame of selected literature and method of critique and analysis, with explicit and well-defined methods to minimize bias and increase reliability
  • Includes as comprehensive an amount of studies as possible from both published and unpublished findings, such as "grey literature"

A meta-analysis:

  • Systematically locates, appraises and synthesizes data from a large body of findings using statistical analysis and techniques
  • Attempts to correct flaws of traditional or narrative reviews by synthesizing a greater amount of studies
  • Integrates and draws conclusions on research findings and seeks to detect broad patterns and relationships between studies

A traditional or narrative review summarizes different primary studies from which conclusions may be drawn into a holistic interpretation supplemented by the author's own experience, theories, and/or models:

  • Provides background for understanding current knowledge
  • Critiques, summarizes and draws conclusions from a body of knowledge
  • Identifies gaps or inconsistencies to be filled or corrected through further research and study
  • Helps to refine the topic and research question
  • Carries the flaw of becoming less useful as more information becomes available

Whereas a meta-analysis is a way of testing a hypothesis, a meta-synthesis attempts to integrate results from a number of different but inter-related qualitative studies. This technique interprets rather than aggregates, in contrast to meta-analysis of quantitative studies:

  • Attempts to bring together, juxtapose, re-analyze and combine findings from multiple qualitiative studies using non-statistical techniques
  • Seeks to discover or provide new interpretations, conceptions or theoretical developments
  • Combines multiple studies to identify common key themes and elements
  • Uses findings from phenomenological, grounded theory and/or ethnographic studies


*Adapted from "Writing a Literature Review," a presentation by Aggie Legaspi and Scott Henwood of Applied Research & Evaluation at Bow Valley College.

Aveyard, H. (2010). Doing a literature review in health and social care: A practical guide (2nd ed.). Berkshire, Great Britain: Open University Press.

Glasziou, P. (2001). Systematic reviews in health care: A practical guide. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 

Walsh, D., & Downe, S. (2005). Meta-synthesis method for qualitative research: A literature review. Journal Of Advanced Nursing, 50(2), 204-211. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.2005.03380.x