Federation University Study Skills

Literature reviews

Literature reviews are not easy to write. They are complex and there are many things to consider. But if you approach them methodically, they will become easier with practice.

A literature review is the presentation, classification and evaluation of what other researchers have written on a particular subject. It is not simply a “shopping list” of what others have said, however. It is organised according to your research objective, research question , and/or the problem/issue you wish to address . With the research objective, the literature review forms a focused and structured outline of what others have done in the area that you are concerned with investigating.

North Carolina State University Libraries. (July, 2009). Literature reviews: An overview for graduate students.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2d7y_r65HU

Why do a literature review?

Surveying and evaluating the literature that has already been written on a subject provides context for your own research. It enables you to clarify and sharpen your own research focus and methodology . Evaluating each publication by reviewing it can also clarify what has been established with a degree of certainty, and what is considered acceptable research work in a given field of study.

Literature reviews are essential in higher degree by research work (i.e., PhDs and Masters thesis writing). But occasionally you will have to ‘review the literature’ when writing an undergraduate essay. While the expectations and level of sophistication differs in these cases, the process is the same.

See more about writing a literature review here . Download more information in our helpsheet, Literature Reviews: Detailed.

What is literature?

Primary, secondary and tertiary sources.

‘ Literature’ refers to all the texts and works concerning a particular topic. If you’ve been asked to do a literature review on the history of the Aztecs, the ‘literature’ refers to any books, journals, conference papers, letters or documents or other pieces work about (or by) the Aztecs. Literature is generally divided into primary, secondary and tertiary sources.

A primary source about the Aztecs would be a first-hand report of an encounter with them, or any work by an Aztec. Primary sources are always considered the strongest means of evidence. In the university context, a primary source is also a seminal paper by an author that outlines for the first time a key concept, theory or methodology that is later used by other researchers. It’s the first time something important is published.

Secondary sources evaluate or discuss primary sources. A secondary source is based on the work of another person and is usually an analysis of the original source. It’s important to not take any single secondary source as a complete representation as they might be  unsubtle, misinformed, or wrong. Secondary sources can be valuable in terms of determining the degree of influence of primary source material, but when using secondary sources read widely and read critically.

Tertiary sources collate a broad array of information on a topic and compiles it in one location. A text book, for example, is a tertiary source, as it takes a lot of information within a field and presents it conveniently in one document. Tertiary sources can be useful in working out the ‘lay of the land’ in terms of a field of study. It’s good to start out with tertiary sources, but quickly drill down to primary and secondary sources when you are clear about the focus of your research.

How many references are needed?

There is no guide for how many sources you might need to consult when doing a literature review. It depends on your level of study and the topic itself. A “hot” topic in an area of cancer research for a PhD student might require keeping abreast of hundreds of research publications a week. A “cold” topic such as St Anselm’s third version of the ontological argument for God’s existence, might have a very limited range of research publications worldwide, and no recent publications. For a “luke-warm” topic there is likely to be dozens of useful recent research papers that you need to read.

The following is a general guide only and you should always check with your lecturer first.

  • Undergraduate review: 5-20 titles depending on level
  • Honours dissertation: 20+ titles
  • Masters thesis: 40+ titles
  • Doctoral thesis: 50+ titles

What are you aiming for?

If you are writing a thesis or dissertation, the aim of writing a literature review is to understand the context of your own research by surveying and evaluating what has already been written on the topic. Surveying the literature can enable you to clarify your own focus and methodology. Evaluating each publication can also clarify what are considered valid and important areas in your field of study.

Crucially, a literature review helps to establish the research gaps in a particular area and, in so doing, outlines areas that require further research and investigation. When reviewing literature, you refer to what others have written or done on a topic and compare and contrast the work of others. Your aim is to find a gap: i.e., what others have done and what needs to be done in your particular area of study. The literature review puts this gap into focus. Filling the gap is what you then go on and do in your research. For more on finding the Gap , see here .

Narrowing the focus of the literature review is vital. It is not easy to find a gap in a research area such as: Computer crime . The area is too vast. However, if you were reviewing literature on Embezzlement via the use of targeted malware attacks on global supply chains of conglomerates in the footwear and clothing industry, you might have more luck. This is because your narrow area will have a limited range of research papers to investigate, and there are more likely to be discernible gaps. In general, being narrowly focussed is a good thing for research projects and literature reviews.

Structuring a review

The structure of a literature review is very similar to an essay with an Introduction, Body and Conclusion. However, there is more detail in terms of one’s analysis of the literature compared to a standard essay. There is also important links between what is set up in the Introduction and what is delivered in the Body. Note that for an undergraduate literature review not everything listed here is expected.

The Introduction

There are several distinct steps here. The Introduction:

  • Outlines the general topic or issue, setting up the context for the review
  • Narrows down to the specific area that you are interested in reviewing
  • Isolates what has been published on this topic before and what needs further investigation, i.e., the ‘ gap’ in research
  • States the research question or hypothesis(es)
  • Articulates a thesis statement or argument to frame the discussion
  • Provides an outline of the parts of the review that are to follow.

Optionally the Introduction can also:

  • Present reasons for reviewing the literature on this topic, outlining what criteria will be used to analyse and compare the literature
  • Provide a justification for the research in terms of why it is needed

The Body is where the detailed reviewing of literature occurs.  There are several considerations:

  • Each article or source should be summarised briefly with details highlighted depending on what you want to emphasise. It’s important to emphasise key ideas related to your topic and not dwell on less significant or tangential discussion points.
  • Paragraphs need to be set out in a logical order and avoid repetition, and inadequate analysis (equally one cannot cover everything). There is always a danger of going “off topic” in a literature review. This also should be avoided.
  • There should be a progressive narrowing of the review sections, moving from wider, more general discussions to more specific technical details and towards subtle refinements in the argument being made. There are a number of ways this can be done.
  • One has to ensure a fair review in the case of contrary perspectives to those being advanced by the writer. Each perspective on the topic being covered needs a fair hearing, and needs to be compared and contrasted with more established perspectives.
  • Literature should be grouped in clear ways (see below, ‘Reporting on literature’). This can be done by combining qualitative or quantitative methodological approaches , clustering the findings and conclusions reached by authors,  sorting via a chronological treatment (earlier to later), or by means of grouping differences in argumentation. One way of doing this is via a writing taxonomy (see below).
  • Above all else, a clear argument needs to be made by the reviewer themselves in light of the literature being discussed. A literature review is never adequate if it is merely an overview of other perspectives.  Importantly, a literature review is not simply a “shopping list” of theories or approaches. In reviewing the literature one is looking to articulate and expose your response to the research gap . The aim of it is to find your “eye in the storm” of published information.

Download our helpsheet on the topic, Literature Review: Structure.

The Conclusion

Typically, the Conclusion of a literature review should:

  • Summarise the significance and contributions of the literature to your overall topic
  • Evaluate the general consensus, but include any limitations or flaws in any research papers
  • Articulate how your analysis of the literature exposes a research gap that is worthy of further investigation in the following pages (e.g., in a research thesis)
  • Include a general comment on your topic and the importance/relevance to your discipline area.

Writing it up

To start with, you need to do research — a lot of it. You have to cover the  topic you have chosen extensively, and be succinct and yet comprehensive (a difficult balancing act). Find any and all pertinent literature on the topic. Start with tertiary literature to find a broad topic and then drill down to secondary and primary literature.

While you need to read widely it doesn’t mean that you have to use every document ever written in your area (that is not possible anyway). But you need to make sure that you give an accurate portrayal of the literature in the field in the area you have chosen to investigate. This will take some time. The quantity you’ll be required to read, and the sophistication of the literature review expected, will depend on your year level and the degree program you are undertaking.

Organise the literature you’ve found, either chronologically or based on similar views or approaches. Create a writing taxonomy (see below). This could serve as a basic plan for the overall literature review. At the end of that, you should know what each paragraph will be about and what order they will go in.

A literature review must be written in complete sentences . Provide in-text and reference list citations for all the articles you’ve used just as you would in an essay.

Developing a writing taxonomy

Designing an outline that gives shape to your literature review can help in the process of writing one. Attempts have been made to develop writing taxonomies (Rochecouste, 2005). A good way to think of this is as a series of nested categories with ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ axes. An example of an outline on the topic of Euthanasia is provided below.

literature review is not a shopping list

The first box represents the Introduction that sets the scene. The last box sums up the debates. The Body content is in the boxes in-between. Of course, this is simple for the purposes of elucidation.

The ‘vertical’ categories (the “outer” boxes) are: a) Literature supporting euthanasia, b) Literature in opposition to euthanasia, and c) Literature supportive/against euthanasia, but with reservations. They are ‘vertical’ because they add new content ideas to advance the discussion. The ‘horizontal’ categories (the “inner” boxes) are various arguments or evidence-based considerations for each position. They are ‘horizontal’ as they essentially “fill out” examples of the positions articulated in the vertical boxes. You now have the beginnings of a literature review! It is merely a matter of filling in the details.

Of course, this kind of outline can be expanded infinitely, as needed depending on the complexity of the review.

Download our helpsheet on the topic, Literature Review: Planning .

Reporting on literature

There are a number of ways to group literature and report on it when writing a literature review. It’s essential to do this. Writing without structure just leads to a big mess of ideas.

1. Grouping literature

Group literature in different ways. (Notice the difference in tense in the examples below):

  • Difference of approach: ‘While Jones (2002) argues … Smith (1999 )… claims that …’
  • From distantly to closely related: ‘Smith (1999) and Jones (2001) both showed that … However, Hutchison (2002) demonstrated that …’.
  • Chronologically: ‘Early marketing theory owes its development to … Many studies contributed to … for example, Jones and Smith (1986). Hunt (1987) was recognised for … but later Jamison (1999) showed that..’.

2. Reporting information

Use different ways of reporting on data, so that your literature review does  not sound monotonous:

  • Information prominent: ‘Research indicates that … (Becker, 1997, p. 9) (present tense)
  • Weak author prominent: ‘Research has shown/ Some have argued that  … (Becker, 1997, p. 9). (present perfect tense)
  • Author prominent: ‘Becker (1997, p. 9) argues that … (present tense).

3. Citing information using Critical Review Language

Make use of a variety of different reporting phrases :

  • In Becker’s view … (Becker, 1997, p. 9)
  • ‘Becker’s point seems to be that … (Becker, 1997, p. 9)
  • ‘Becker rejects the idea that… (1997, p. 9)
  • ‘Becker questions the idea that… (1997, p. 9)
  • ‘Becker investigates the idea that … (1997, p. 9)
  • According to Becker … (1997, p. 9)
  • ‘ Becker undermines the position that …(1997, p. 9).

Below are some excerpts of literature reviews of varying quality, and an analysis of each.

Smith (1990) conducted an experiment on fear and self-esteem with 150 undergraduates. In the study he tested subject self-esteem and then exposed subjects one at a time to a fear-inducing situation. He found that those with lower self-esteem felt greater fear. Jones and Jones (1982) surveyed elderly residents. The respondents who had the greatest independence, self-esteem and physical health, had the lowest degree of fear of being a victim of crime…DeSallo’s study (1984) of 45 college males found that those who had the greatest self-esteem felt the least degree of fear. Yu (1988) found the same for college females… 

  • A list of experiments. It’s merely a shopping list of experiments without analytical depth. “He found … she found…”
  • No clear position of the writer (no writers’ voice ).
  • The point of the review, the gap, is not clear.
  • Lack of subtlety in expression. No use of tentative, modal expressions like ‘seem to indicate’…  There is no appreciation that there are few “hard facts” in academic scholarship.

Example 1 improved

People with greater self-esteem appear to be less fearful. Laboratory studies with college students (DeSallo, 1984; Smith, 1990; Yu, 1988) find a strong negative relationship between self-esteem and fear. The same relationship was found in a survey of elderly people (Jones & Jones, 1982). Only one study contradicted this finding (Johnson, 1985). The contradictory finding may be due to the population used…

  • Attempt made to provide analytical balance, comparing one view with others.
  • Attempt to draw a conclusion about the data: “This contradictory finding may be due to…” The writer’s voice is emerging.
  • Use of modal expressions: ‘appear to be less fearful…’.. ‘may be due to’…
  • No clear gap.

The apparent differences between agricultural marketing and business marketing theories may not present a problem because both disciplines examine issues which are likely to require different theories and techniques for analysis (Henderson, 1999). However, concern must be expressed at the failure of researchers to comprehensively examine the marketing strategies undertaken by individual farm businesses. Businesses in the agricultural sector include farmers and other often larger and more sophisticated agribusinesses, such as input suppliers and merchants (Jackson, 2000). Business literature contains published articles examining the marketing strategies of large agribusiness companies; however, l ittle research appears to reach down to the farm business level. (McLeay & Zwart, 1993)

  • Research gap is clear ( underlined text)
  • Writer’s voice emerges clearly from reviewed text
  • The writer is controlling the review for their own research purposes. They use the literature as support for their own perspective that has been drawn from gaps in the research work of others.

For more about literature reviews at postgraduate level, see Writing a Literature Review . Download our related helpsheets:

  • Literature Reviews: Basic
  • Literature Review: Planning
  • Literature Review: Structure
  • Literature Reviews: Detailed

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Grad Coach

Writing A Literature Review  

7 common (and costly) mistakes to avoid ☠️.

By: David Phair (PhD) | Reviewed By: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | June 2021

Crafting a high-quality literature review is critical to earning marks and developing a strong dissertation, thesis or research project. But, it’s no simple task. Here at Grad Coach, we’ve reviewed thousands of literature reviews and seen a recurring set of mistakes and issues that drag students down.

In this post, we’ll unpack 7 common literature review mistakes , so that you can avoid these pitfalls and submit a literature review that impresses.

Overview: 7 Literature Review Killers

  • Over-reliance on low-quality sources
  • A lack of landmark/seminal literature
  • A lack of current literature
  • Description instead of integration and synthesis
  • Irrelevant or unfocused content
  • Poor chapter structure and layout
  • Plagiarism and poor referencing

Mistake #1: Over-reliance on low-quality sources

One of the most common issues we see in literature reviews is an over-reliance on low-quality sources . This includes a broad collection of non-academic sources like blog posts, opinion pieces, publications by advocacy groups and daily news articles.

Of course, just because a piece of content takes the form of a blog post doesn’t automatically mean it is low-quality . However, it’s (generally) unlikely to be as academically sound (i.e., well-researched, objective and scientific) as a journal article, so you need to be a lot more sceptical when considering this content and make sure that it has a strong, well-reasoned foundation. As a rule of thumb, your literature review shouldn’t rely heavily on these types of content – they should be used sparingly.

Ideally, your literature review should be built on a strong base of journal articles , ideally from well-recognised, peer-reviewed journals with a high H index . You can also draw on books written by well-established subject matter experts. When considering books, try to focus on those that are published by academic publishers , for example, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Routledge. You can also draw on government websites, provided they have a strong reputation for objectivity and data quality. As with any other source, be wary of any government website that seems to be pushing an agenda.

the literature review credibility continuum

Source: UCCS

As I mentioned, this doesn’t mean that your literature review can’t include the occasional blog post or news article. These types of content have their place , especially when setting the context for your study. For example, you may want to cite a collection of newspaper articles to demonstrate the emergence of a recent trend. However, your core arguments and theoretical foundations shouldn’t rely on these. Build your foundation on credible academic literature to ensure that your study stands on the proverbial shoulders of giants.

Free Webinar: Literature Review 101

Mistake #2: A lack of landmark/seminal literature

Another issue we see in weaker literature reviews is an absence of landmark literature for the research topic . Landmark literature (sometimes also referred to as seminal or pivotal work) refers to the articles that initially presented an idea of great importance or influence within a particular discipline. In other words, the articles that put the specific area of research “on the map”, so to speak.

The reason for the absence of landmark literature in poor literature reviews is most commonly that either the student isn’t aware of the literature (because they haven’t sufficiently immersed themselves in the existing research), or that they feel that they should only present the most up to date studies. Whatever the cause, it’s a problem, as a good literature review should always acknowledge the seminal writing in the field.

But, how do you find landmark literature?

Well, you can usually spot these by searching for the topic in Google Scholar and identifying the handful of articles with high citation counts. They’ll also be the studies most commonly cited in textbooks and, of course, Wikipedia (but please don’t use Wikipedia as a source!).

Google scholar for landmark studies

So, when you’re piecing your literature review together, remember to pay homage to the classics , even if only briefly. Seminal works are the theoretical foundation of a strong literature review.

Mistake #3: A lack of current literature

As I mentioned, it’s incredibly important to acknowledge the landmark studies and research in your literature review. However, a strong literature review should also incorporate the current literature . It should, ideally, compare and contrast the “classics” with the more up to date research, and briefly comment on the evolution.

Of course, you don’t want to burn precious word count providing an in-depth history lesson regarding the evolution of the topic (unless that’s one of your research aims, of course), but you should at least acknowledge any key differences between the old and the new.

But, how do you find current literature?

To find current literature in your research area, you can once again use Google Scholar by simply selecting the “Since…” link on the left-hand side. Depending on your area of study, recent may mean the last year or two, or a fair deal longer.

You have to justify every choice in your dissertation defence

So, as you develop your catalogue of literature, remember to incorporate both the classics and the more up to date research. By doing this, you’ll achieve a comprehensive literature base that is both well-rooted in tried and tested theory and current.

Mistake #4: Description instead of integration and synthesis

This one is a big one. And, unfortunately, it’s a very common one. In fact, it’s probably the most common issue we encounter in literature reviews.

All too often, students think that a literature review is simply a summary of what each researcher has said. A lengthy, detailed “he said, she said”. This is incorrect . A good literature review needs to go beyond just describing all the relevant literature. It needs to integrate the existing research to show how it all fits together.

A good literature review should also highlight what areas don’t fit together , and which pieces are missing . In other words, what do researchers disagree on and why might that be. It’s seldom the case that everyone agrees on everything because the “truth” is typically very nuanced and intricate in reality. A strong literature review is a balanced one , with a mix of different perspectives and findings that give the reader a clear view of the current state of knowledge.

A good analogy is that of a jigsaw puzzle. The various findings and arguments from each piece of literature form the individual puzzle pieces, and you then put these together to develop a picture of the current state of knowledge . Importantly, that puzzle will in all likelihood have pieces that don’t fit well together, and pieces that are missing. It’s seldom a pretty puzzle!

By the end of this process of critical review and synthesis of the existing literature , it should be clear what’s missing – in other words, the gaps that exist in the current research . These gaps then form the foundation for your proposed study. In other words, your study will attempt to contribute a missing puzzle piece (or get two pieces to fit together).

So, when you’re crafting your literature review chapter, remember that this chapter needs to go well beyond a basic description of the existing research – it needs to synthesise it (bring it all together) and form the foundation for your study.

The literature review knowledge gap

Mistake #5: Irrelevant or unfocused content

Another common mistake we see in literature review chapters is quite simply the inclusion of irrelevant content . Some chapters can waffle on for pages and pages and leave the reader thinking, “so what?”

So, how do you decide what’s relevant?

Well, to ensure you stay on-topic and focus, you need to revisit your research aims, objectives and research questions . Remember, the purpose of the literature review is to build the theoretical foundation that will help you achieve your research aims and objectives, and answer your research questions . Therefore, relevant content is the relatively narrow body of content that relates directly to those three components .

Let’s look at an example.

If your research aims to identify factors that cultivate employee loyalty and commitment, your literature review needs to focus on existing research that identifies such factors. Simple enough, right? Well, during your review process, you will invariably come across plenty of research relating to employee loyalty and commitment, including things like:

  • The benefits of high employee commitment
  • The different types of commitment
  • The impact of commitment on corporate culture
  • The links between commitment and productivity

While all of these relate to employee commitment, they’re not focused on the research aims , objectives and questions, as they’re not identifying factors that foster employee commitment. Of course, they may still be useful in helping you justify your topic, so they’ll likely have a place somewhere in your dissertation or thesis. However, for your literature review, you need to keep things focused.

So, as you work through your literature review, always circle back to your research aims, objective and research questions and use them as a litmus test for article relevance.

Need a helping hand?

literature review is not a shopping list

Mistake #6: Poor chapter structure and layout

Even the best content can fail to earn marks when the literature review chapter is poorly structured . Unfortunately, this is a fairly common issue, resulting in disjointed, poorly-flowing arguments that are difficult for the reader (the marker…) to follow.

The most common reason that students land up with a poor structure is that they start writing their literature review chapter without a plan or structure . Of course, as we’ve discussed before, writing is a form of thinking , so you don’t need to plan out every detail before you start writing. However, you should at least have an outline structure penned down before you hit the keyboard.

So, how should you structure your literature review?

We’ve covered literature review structure in detail previously , so I won’t go into it here. However, as a quick overview, your literature review should consist of three core sections :

  • The introduction section – where you outline your topic, introduce any definitions and jargon and define the scope of your literature review.
  • The body section – where you sink your teeth into the existing research. This can be arranged in various ways (e.g. thematically, chronologically or methodologically).
  • The conclusion section – where you present the key takeaways and highlight the research gap (or gaps), which lays the foundation for your study.

Another reason that students land up with a poor structure is that they start writing their literature chapter prematurely . In other words, they start writing before they’ve finished digesting the literature. This is a costly mistake, as it always results in extensive rewriting , which takes a lot longer than just doing it one step at a time. Again, it’s completely natural to do a little extra reading as thoughts crop up during the writing process, but you should complete your core reading before you start writing.

Long story short – don’t start writing your literature review without some sort of structural plan. This structure can (and likely will) evolve as you write, but you need some sort of outline as a starting point. Pro tip – check out our free literature review template to fast-track your structural outline.

Digest the literature before trying to write your lit review

Mistake #7: Plagiarism and poor referencing

This one is by far the most unforgivable literature review mistake, as it carries one of the heaviest penalties , while it is so easily avoidable .

All too often, we encounter literature reviews that, at first glance, look pretty good. However, a quick run through a plagiarism checker and it quickly becomes apparent that the student has failed to fully digest the literature they’ve reviewed and put it into their own words.

“But, the original author said it perfectly…”

I get it – sometimes the way an author phrased something is “just perfect” and you can’t find a better way to say it. In those (pretty rare) cases, you can use direct quotes (and a citation, of course). However, for the vast majority of your literature review, you need to put things into your own words .

The good news is that if you focus on integrating and synthesising the literature (as I mentioned in point 3), you shouldn’t run into this issue too often, as you’ll naturally be writing about the relationships between studies , not just about the studies themselves. Remember, if you can’t explain something simply (in your own words), you don’t really understand it.

A related issue that we see quite often is plain old-fashioned poor referencing . This can include citation and reference formatting issues (for example, Harvard or APA style errors), or just a straight out lack of references . In academic writing, if you fail to reference a source, you are effectively claiming the work as your own, which equates to plagiarism. This might seem harmless, but plagiarism is a serious form of academic misconduct and could cost you a lot more than just a few marks.

So, when you’re writing up your literature review, remember that you need to digest the content and put everything into your own words. You also need to reference the sources of any and all ideas, theories, frameworks and models you draw on.

Recap: 7 Literature Review Mistakes

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post. Let’s quickly recap on the 7 most common literature review mistakes.

Now that you’re aware of these common mistakes, be sure to also check out our literature review walkthrough video , where to dissect an actual literature review chapter . This will give you a clear picture of what a high-quality literature review looks like and hopefully provide some inspiration for your own.

If you have any questions about these literature review mistakes, leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to answer. If you’re interested in private coaching, book an initial consultation with a friendly coach to discuss how we can move you forward.

Literature Review Course

Psst… there’s more!

This post is an extract from our bestselling short course, Literature Review Bootcamp . If you want to work smart, you don't want to miss this .

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Ama T

Dear GradCoach,

Thank you for making our uni student lives better. Could you kindly do a video on how to use your literature review excel template? I am sure a lot of students would appreciate that.

Jaouad El Mazouzi

Thank you so much for this inlightment concerning the mistakes that should be avoided while writing a literature review chapter. It is concise and precise. You have mentioned that this chapter include three main parts; introduction, body, and conclusion. Is the theoritical frameworke considered a part of the literature review chapter, or it should be written in a seperate chapter? If it is included in the literature review, should it take place at the beginning, the middle or at the end of the chapter? Thank you one again for “unpacking” things for us.

Ed Wilkinson

Hi I would enjoy the video on lit review. You mentioned cataloging references, I would like the template for excel. Would you please sent me this template.


on the plagiarism and referencing what is the correct way to cite the words said by the author . What are the different methods you can use

Godfrey Mpyangu

its clear, precise and understandable many thanks affectionately yours’ Godfrey

Wafiu Seidu

Thanks for this wonderful resource! I am final year student and will be commencing my dissertation work soon. This course has significantly improved my understanding of dissertation and has greater value in terms of its practical applicability compared to other literature works and articles out there on the internet. I will advice my colleague students more especially first time thesis writers to make good use of this course. It’s explained in simple, plain grammar and you will greatly appreciate it.


Thanks. A lot. This was excellent. I really enjoyed it. Again thank you.

Robert Le

The information in this article is very useful for students and very interesting I really like your article thanks for sharing this post!

Gift Achemi

Thank you for putting more knowledge in us. Thank you for using simple you’re bless.

Ramkumar S

This article is really useful. Thanks a lot for sharing this knowledge. Please continue the journey of sharing and facilitating the young researchers.


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Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide: Literature Reviews?

  • Literature Reviews?
  • Strategies to Finding Sources
  • Keeping up with Research!
  • Evaluating Sources & Literature Reviews
  • Organizing for Writing
  • Writing Literature Review
  • Other Academic Writings

What is a Literature Review?

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." - Quote from Taylor, D. (n.d)."The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting it".

  • Citation: "The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting it"

What kinds of literature reviews are written?

Each field has a particular way to do reviews for academic research literature. In the social sciences and humanities the most common are:

  • Narrative Reviews: The purpose of this type of review is to describe the current state of the research on a specific research topic and to offer a critical analysis of the literature reviewed. Studies are grouped by research/theoretical categories, and themes and trends, strengths and weaknesses, and gaps are identified. The review ends with a conclusion section that 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.
  • Book review essays/ Historiographical review essays : A type of literature review typical in History and related fields, e.g., Latin American studies. For example, the Latin American Research Review explains that the purpose of this type of review is to “(1) to familiarize readers with the subject, approach, arguments, and conclusions found in a group of books whose common focus is a historical period; a country or region within Latin America; or a practice, development, or issue of interest to specialists and others; (2) to locate these books within current scholarship, critical methodologies, and approaches; and (3) to probe the relation of these new books to previous work on the subject, especially canonical texts. Unlike individual book reviews, the cluster reviews found in LARR seek to address the state of the field or discipline and not solely the works at issue.” - LARR

What are the Goals of Creating a Literature Review?

  • 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.

When do you need to write a Literature Review?

  • When writing a prospectus or a thesis/dissertation
  • When writing a research paper
  • When writing a grant proposal

In all these cases you need to dedicate a chapter in these works to showcase what has been written about your research topic and to point out how your own research will shed new light into a body of scholarship.

Where I can find examples of Literature Reviews?

Note:  In the humanities, even if they don't use the term "literature review", they may have a dedicated  chapter that reviewed the "critical bibliography" or they incorporated that review in the introduction or first chapter of the dissertation, book, or article.

  • UCSB electronic theses and dissertations In partnership with the Graduate Division, the UC Santa Barbara Library is making available theses and dissertations produced by UCSB students. Currently included in ADRL are theses and dissertations that were originally filed electronically, starting in 2011. In future phases of ADRL, all theses and dissertations created by UCSB students may be digitized and made available.

Where to Find Standalone Literature Reviews

Literature reviews are also written as standalone articles as a way to survey a particular research topic in-depth. This type of literature review looks at a topic from a historical perspective to see how the understanding of the topic has changed over time. 

  • Find e-Journals for Standalone Literature Reviews The best way to get familiar with and to learn how to write literature reviews is by reading them. You can use our Journal Search option to find journals that specialize in publishing literature reviews from major disciplines like anthropology, sociology, etc. Usually these titles are called, "Annual Review of [discipline name] OR [Discipline name] Review. This option works best if you know the title of the publication you are looking for. Below are some examples of these journals! more... less... Journal Search can be found by hovering over the link for Research on the library website.

Social Sciences

  • Annual Review of Anthropology
  • Annual Review of Political Science
  • Annual Review of Sociology
  • Ethnic Studies Review

Hard science and health sciences:

  • Annual Review of Biomedical Data Science
  • Annual Review of Materials Science
  • Systematic Review From journal site: "The journal Systematic Reviews encompasses all aspects of the design, conduct, and reporting of systematic reviews" in the health sciences.
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Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review

Marco pautasso.

1 Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology (CEFE), CNRS, Montpellier, France

2 Centre for Biodiversity Synthesis and Analysis (CESAB), FRB, Aix-en-Provence, France

Literature reviews are in great demand in most scientific fields. Their need stems from the ever-increasing output of scientific publications [1] . For example, compared to 1991, in 2008 three, eight, and forty times more papers were indexed in Web of Science on malaria, obesity, and biodiversity, respectively [2] . Given such mountains of papers, scientists cannot be expected to examine in detail every single new paper relevant to their interests [3] . Thus, it is both advantageous and necessary to rely on regular summaries of the recent literature. Although recognition for scientists mainly comes from primary research, timely literature reviews can lead to new synthetic insights and are often widely read [4] . For such summaries to be useful, however, they need to be compiled in a professional way [5] .

When starting from scratch, reviewing the literature can require a titanic amount of work. That is why researchers who have spent their career working on a certain research issue are in a perfect position to review that literature. Some graduate schools are now offering courses in reviewing the literature, given that most research students start their project by producing an overview of what has already been done on their research issue [6] . However, it is likely that most scientists have not thought in detail about how to approach and carry out a literature review.

Reviewing the literature requires the ability to juggle multiple tasks, from finding and evaluating relevant material to synthesising information from various sources, from critical thinking to paraphrasing, evaluating, and citation skills [7] . In this contribution, I share ten simple rules I learned working on about 25 literature reviews as a PhD and postdoctoral student. Ideas and insights also come from discussions with coauthors and colleagues, as well as feedback from reviewers and editors.

Rule 1: Define a Topic and Audience

How to choose which topic to review? There are so many issues in contemporary science that you could spend a lifetime of attending conferences and reading the literature just pondering what to review. On the one hand, if you take several years to choose, several other people may have had the same idea in the meantime. On the other hand, only a well-considered topic is likely to lead to a brilliant literature review [8] . The topic must at least be:

  • interesting to you (ideally, you should have come across a series of recent papers related to your line of work that call for a critical summary),
  • an important aspect of the field (so that many readers will be interested in the review and there will be enough material to write it), and
  • a well-defined issue (otherwise you could potentially include thousands of publications, which would make the review unhelpful).

Ideas for potential reviews may come from papers providing lists of key research questions to be answered [9] , but also from serendipitous moments during desultory reading and discussions. In addition to choosing your topic, you should also select a target audience. In many cases, the topic (e.g., web services in computational biology) will automatically define an audience (e.g., computational biologists), but that same topic may also be of interest to neighbouring fields (e.g., computer science, biology, etc.).

Rule 2: Search and Re-search the Literature

After having chosen your topic and audience, start by checking the literature and downloading relevant papers. Five pieces of advice here:

  • keep track of the search items you use (so that your search can be replicated [10] ),
  • keep a list of papers whose pdfs you cannot access immediately (so as to retrieve them later with alternative strategies),
  • use a paper management system (e.g., Mendeley, Papers, Qiqqa, Sente),
  • define early in the process some criteria for exclusion of irrelevant papers (these criteria can then be described in the review to help define its scope), and
  • do not just look for research papers in the area you wish to review, but also seek previous reviews.

The chances are high that someone will already have published a literature review ( Figure 1 ), if not exactly on the issue you are planning to tackle, at least on a related topic. If there are already a few or several reviews of the literature on your issue, my advice is not to give up, but to carry on with your own literature review,

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The bottom-right situation (many literature reviews but few research papers) is not just a theoretical situation; it applies, for example, to the study of the impacts of climate change on plant diseases, where there appear to be more literature reviews than research studies [33] .

  • discussing in your review the approaches, limitations, and conclusions of past reviews,
  • trying to find a new angle that has not been covered adequately in the previous reviews, and
  • incorporating new material that has inevitably accumulated since their appearance.

When searching the literature for pertinent papers and reviews, the usual rules apply:

  • be thorough,
  • use different keywords and database sources (e.g., DBLP, Google Scholar, ISI Proceedings, JSTOR Search, Medline, Scopus, Web of Science), and
  • look at who has cited past relevant papers and book chapters.

Rule 3: Take Notes While Reading

If you read the papers first, and only afterwards start writing the review, you will need a very good memory to remember who wrote what, and what your impressions and associations were while reading each single paper. My advice is, while reading, to start writing down interesting pieces of information, insights about how to organize the review, and thoughts on what to write. This way, by the time you have read the literature you selected, you will already have a rough draft of the review.

Of course, this draft will still need much rewriting, restructuring, and rethinking to obtain a text with a coherent argument [11] , but you will have avoided the danger posed by staring at a blank document. Be careful when taking notes to use quotation marks if you are provisionally copying verbatim from the literature. It is advisable then to reformulate such quotes with your own words in the final draft. It is important to be careful in noting the references already at this stage, so as to avoid misattributions. Using referencing software from the very beginning of your endeavour will save you time.

Rule 4: Choose the Type of Review You Wish to Write

After having taken notes while reading the literature, you will have a rough idea of the amount of material available for the review. This is probably a good time to decide whether to go for a mini- or a full review. Some journals are now favouring the publication of rather short reviews focusing on the last few years, with a limit on the number of words and citations. A mini-review is not necessarily a minor review: it may well attract more attention from busy readers, although it will inevitably simplify some issues and leave out some relevant material due to space limitations. A full review will have the advantage of more freedom to cover in detail the complexities of a particular scientific development, but may then be left in the pile of the very important papers “to be read” by readers with little time to spare for major monographs.

There is probably a continuum between mini- and full reviews. The same point applies to the dichotomy of descriptive vs. integrative reviews. While descriptive reviews focus on the methodology, findings, and interpretation of each reviewed study, integrative reviews attempt to find common ideas and concepts from the reviewed material [12] . A similar distinction exists between narrative and systematic reviews: while narrative reviews are qualitative, systematic reviews attempt to test a hypothesis based on the published evidence, which is gathered using a predefined protocol to reduce bias [13] , [14] . When systematic reviews analyse quantitative results in a quantitative way, they become meta-analyses. The choice between different review types will have to be made on a case-by-case basis, depending not just on the nature of the material found and the preferences of the target journal(s), but also on the time available to write the review and the number of coauthors [15] .

Rule 5: Keep the Review Focused, but Make It of Broad Interest

Whether your plan is to write a mini- or a full review, it is good advice to keep it focused 16 , 17 . Including material just for the sake of it can easily lead to reviews that are trying to do too many things at once. The need to keep a review focused can be problematic for interdisciplinary reviews, where the aim is to bridge the gap between fields [18] . If you are writing a review on, for example, how epidemiological approaches are used in modelling the spread of ideas, you may be inclined to include material from both parent fields, epidemiology and the study of cultural diffusion. This may be necessary to some extent, but in this case a focused review would only deal in detail with those studies at the interface between epidemiology and the spread of ideas.

While focus is an important feature of a successful review, this requirement has to be balanced with the need to make the review relevant to a broad audience. This square may be circled by discussing the wider implications of the reviewed topic for other disciplines.

Rule 6: Be Critical and Consistent

Reviewing the literature is not stamp collecting. A good review does not just summarize the literature, but discusses it critically, identifies methodological problems, and points out research gaps [19] . After having read a review of the literature, a reader should have a rough idea of:

  • the major achievements in the reviewed field,
  • the main areas of debate, and
  • the outstanding research questions.

It is challenging to achieve a successful review on all these fronts. A solution can be to involve a set of complementary coauthors: some people are excellent at mapping what has been achieved, some others are very good at identifying dark clouds on the horizon, and some have instead a knack at predicting where solutions are going to come from. If your journal club has exactly this sort of team, then you should definitely write a review of the literature! In addition to critical thinking, a literature review needs consistency, for example in the choice of passive vs. active voice and present vs. past tense.

Rule 7: Find a Logical Structure

Like a well-baked cake, a good review has a number of telling features: it is worth the reader's time, timely, systematic, well written, focused, and critical. It also needs a good structure. With reviews, the usual subdivision of research papers into introduction, methods, results, and discussion does not work or is rarely used. However, a general introduction of the context and, toward the end, a recapitulation of the main points covered and take-home messages make sense also in the case of reviews. For systematic reviews, there is a trend towards including information about how the literature was searched (database, keywords, time limits) [20] .

How can you organize the flow of the main body of the review so that the reader will be drawn into and guided through it? It is generally helpful to draw a conceptual scheme of the review, e.g., with mind-mapping techniques. Such diagrams can help recognize a logical way to order and link the various sections of a review [21] . This is the case not just at the writing stage, but also for readers if the diagram is included in the review as a figure. A careful selection of diagrams and figures relevant to the reviewed topic can be very helpful to structure the text too [22] .

Rule 8: Make Use of Feedback

Reviews of the literature are normally peer-reviewed in the same way as research papers, and rightly so [23] . As a rule, incorporating feedback from reviewers greatly helps improve a review draft. Having read the review with a fresh mind, reviewers may spot inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and ambiguities that had not been noticed by the writers due to rereading the typescript too many times. It is however advisable to reread the draft one more time before submission, as a last-minute correction of typos, leaps, and muddled sentences may enable the reviewers to focus on providing advice on the content rather than the form.

Feedback is vital to writing a good review, and should be sought from a variety of colleagues, so as to obtain a diversity of views on the draft. This may lead in some cases to conflicting views on the merits of the paper, and on how to improve it, but such a situation is better than the absence of feedback. A diversity of feedback perspectives on a literature review can help identify where the consensus view stands in the landscape of the current scientific understanding of an issue [24] .

Rule 9: Include Your Own Relevant Research, but Be Objective

In many cases, reviewers of the literature will have published studies relevant to the review they are writing. This could create a conflict of interest: how can reviewers report objectively on their own work [25] ? Some scientists may be overly enthusiastic about what they have published, and thus risk giving too much importance to their own findings in the review. However, bias could also occur in the other direction: some scientists may be unduly dismissive of their own achievements, so that they will tend to downplay their contribution (if any) to a field when reviewing it.

In general, a review of the literature should neither be a public relations brochure nor an exercise in competitive self-denial. If a reviewer is up to the job of producing a well-organized and methodical review, which flows well and provides a service to the readership, then it should be possible to be objective in reviewing one's own relevant findings. In reviews written by multiple authors, this may be achieved by assigning the review of the results of a coauthor to different coauthors.

Rule 10: Be Up-to-Date, but Do Not Forget Older Studies

Given the progressive acceleration in the publication of scientific papers, today's reviews of the literature need awareness not just of the overall direction and achievements of a field of inquiry, but also of the latest studies, so as not to become out-of-date before they have been published. Ideally, a literature review should not identify as a major research gap an issue that has just been addressed in a series of papers in press (the same applies, of course, to older, overlooked studies (“sleeping beauties” [26] )). This implies that literature reviewers would do well to keep an eye on electronic lists of papers in press, given that it can take months before these appear in scientific databases. Some reviews declare that they have scanned the literature up to a certain point in time, but given that peer review can be a rather lengthy process, a full search for newly appeared literature at the revision stage may be worthwhile. Assessing the contribution of papers that have just appeared is particularly challenging, because there is little perspective with which to gauge their significance and impact on further research and society.

Inevitably, new papers on the reviewed topic (including independently written literature reviews) will appear from all quarters after the review has been published, so that there may soon be the need for an updated review. But this is the nature of science [27] – [32] . I wish everybody good luck with writing a review of the literature.


Many thanks to M. Barbosa, K. Dehnen-Schmutz, T. Döring, D. Fontaneto, M. Garbelotto, O. Holdenrieder, M. Jeger, D. Lonsdale, A. MacLeod, P. Mills, M. Moslonka-Lefebvre, G. Stancanelli, P. Weisberg, and X. Xu for insights and discussions, and to P. Bourne, T. Matoni, and D. Smith for helpful comments on a previous draft.

Funding Statement

This work was funded by the French Foundation for Research on Biodiversity (FRB) through its Centre for Synthesis and Analysis of Biodiversity data (CESAB), as part of the NETSEED research project. The funders had no role in the preparation of the manuscript.

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Literature Reviews: Overview

This video from NCSU Libraries gives a helpful overview of literature reviews. Even though it says it's "for graduate students," the principles are the same for undergraduate students too!

Reading a Scholarly Article

  • Reading a Scholarly Article or Literature Review Highlights sections of a scholarly article to identify structure of a literature review.
  • Anatomy of a Scholarly Article (NCSU Libraries) Interactive tutorial that describes parts of a scholarly article typical of a Sciences or Social Sciences research article.
  • Evaluating Information | Reading a Scholarly Article (Brown University Library) Provides examples and tips across disciplines for reading academic articles.
  • Reading Academic Articles for Research [LIBRE Project] Gabriel Winer & Elizabeth Wadell (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI))

Literature Review Examples

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What is a Literature Review?

The literature review is a written explanation by you, the author, of the research already done on the topic, question or issue at hand. What do we know (or not know) about this issue/topic/question?

  • A literature review provides a thorough background of the topic by giving your reader a guided overview of major findings and current gaps in what is known so far about the topic. 
  • The literature review is not a list (like an annotated bibliography) -- it is a narrative helping your reader understand the topic and where you will "stand" in the debate between scholars regarding the interpretation of meaning and understanding why things happen. Your literature review  helps your reader start to see the "camps" or "sides" within a debate, plus who studies the topic and their arguments. 
  • A good literature review should help the reader sense how you will answer your research question and should highlight the preceding arguments and evidence you think are most helpful in moving the topic forward.
  • The purpose of the literature review is to dive into the existing debates on the topic to learn about the various schools of thought and arguments, using your research question as an anchor. If you find something that doesn't help answer your question, you don't have to read (or include) it. That's the power of the question format: it helps you filter what to read and include in your literature review, and what to ignore.

How Do I Start?

Essentially you will need to:

  • Identify and evaluate relevant literature (books, journal articles, etc.) on your topic/question.
  • Figure out how to classify what you've gathered. You could do this by schools of thought, different answers to a question, the authors' disciplinary approaches, the research methods used, or many other ways.
  • Use those groupings to craft a narrative, or story, about the relevant literature on this topic. 
  • Remember to cite your sources properly! 
  • Research: Getting Started Visit this guide to learn more about finding and evaluating resources.
  • Literature Review: Synthesizing Multiple Sources (IUPUI Writing Center) An in-depth guide on organizing and synthesizing what you've read into a literature review.
  • Guide to Using a Synthesis Matrix (NCSU Writing and Speaking Tutorial Service) Overview of using a tool called a Synthesis Matrix to organize your literature review.
  • Synthesis Matrix Template (VCU Libraries) A word document from VCU Libraries that will help you create your own Synthesis Matrix.

Additional Tutorials and Resources

  • UR Writer's Web: Using Sources Guidance from the UR Writing Center on how to effectively use sources in your writing (which is what you're doing in your literature review!).
  • Write a Literature Review (VCU Libraries) "Lit Reviews 101" with links to helpful tools and resources, including powerpoint slides from a literature review workshop.
  • Literature Reviews (UNC Writing Center) Overview of the literature review process, including examples of different ways to organize a lit review.
  • “Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review.” Pautasso, Marco. “Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review.” PLOS Computational Biology, vol. 9, no. 7, July 2013, p. e1003149.
  • Writing the Literature Review Part I (University of Maryland University College) Video that explains more about what a literature review is and is not. Run time: 5:21.
  • Writing the Literature Review Part II (University of Maryland University College) Video about organizing your sources and the writing process. Run time: 7:40.
  • Writing a Literature Review (OWL @ Purdue)
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  • URL: https://libguides.richmond.edu/citingsources

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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
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  • Last Updated: Sep 21, 2022 2:16 PM
  • URL: https://guides.lib.uconn.edu/literaturereview

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literature reviews – beware The List

One of the most common problems in thesis literature reviews is The List. This is when the doctoral researcher produces a chapter which is basically just a summary of various texts.

The reader gets “ So and so said this… so and so said this.. so and so said this… “ Or “One definition of the topic is x. Another is y. A further option is z….” or “There are many approaches to topic. Here they are….a b c d…. “ There are page and pages organised under headings, but it is basically a set of summaries. Indeed, you can put a bullet point next to each new text as it’s introduced, start it on a new line, and reveal the basic list structure.

What’s wrong with The List?

Well, first of all it’s pretty tedious to read. Thinks about what gets made into lists – laundry, shopping, things to do. Hardly the most riveting reads. And, presenting a reader with something that is destined to bore them to tears is not a good idea.

But the other more important problem is that The List shows that the reader doesn’t know which of these literatures is more important than the others. Each item on the list appears to be pretty much the same. The writer hasn’t indicated which is the most relevant to the specific research they are doing, what they think about them or how they relate to each other. So the reader hasn’t got a clue where the writer actually stands in relation to any of the literatures being presented.

But, when the reader is the thesis examiner they may well conclude from a literature review as The List that: (1) it’s possible the writer hasn’t sorted out the relevant and irrelevant material they’ve read and has simply put down everything (2) it’s possible that the writer doesn’t know how to be critical because there is no evidence in the text that they have done any evaluation, they have simply summarized a lot of texts (3) it’s possible that this is a random selection of texts rather than a systematic survey of the field, and (4) it’s possible that if the writer lacks the critical capacity to sort the literatures, then they may well have the same uncritical approach to their data.

Who needs their examiner to think this?

Now the problem with The List is often not any of the above. It is actually because the writer has written their literature chapter far too soon.

Summarising and making lists IS part of literature work. It’s just not the final part. It’s a stage you have to go through in order to produce the kind of literature review that’s actually needed and expected.

A good literature review is one where the writer steps back to consider the field or fields as a whole. They are then able to discuss the development of the field, foundational and key texts and debates as well as indicate the literatures which provide the basis for their work. They are able to discuss the relative merits of this work and show where their contribution will be located.

You can only do this if you’ve done the summaries.

But that’s not all that needs doing. Stop at this point and sort the pieces into groups – and all you have is The List.

Stop at this point and present The List and chances are you may well be asked to rewrite. At the very least the examiner-reader will have made some negative judgments about what comes next.

And that’s just not good enough.

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About pat thomson

30 responses to literature reviews – beware the list.

Pingback: Literature reviews | #hullbiotips

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I am having some problem with the LR . I cannot find latest editions within my field of research. My Supervisors Committee has advised me to make use of the most latest resources/articles/books etc. available within the subject area to develop/write my thesis. But I cannot find any. I Need your advise please.

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You do need to ask your supervisors for a lead here on some of the key new texts, also ask them about they search terms. Your library rain also can help if you something more specific to tell them.

Hi, I am doing a Distance Learning PhD. so my supervisor is miles away! But yes I can subtly and very politely raise/share some of the points you mentioned with him. By the way you are my “unofficial supervisor”, because I always follow your blog to seek academic writing knowledge and guidance. The University’s virtual e- library is useless. So I cant reply on it. Well I guess my thesis will be a leap into the darkness and than I have to find my way out of the tunnel inch by inch? All done happily in pursuit of knowledge. Will keep you and other members posted as my thesis evolves. Thanks a lot again for posting your replies.

Much appreciated.

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This is really really helpful Thanks

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Pat, you have become a ‘must-read’ here! It’s a huge leap up from taught degrees to research, but neophytes might need confirmation that ‘laundry lists’ should be avoided in ALL spheres of writing. Your advice and comments are far more enlightening than the average PhD handbooks (none of them of much use.) I’d already figured out the LR should come way down the line, esp. as regards sorting wheat from chaff. Reading around the field, my evaluation of texts and sources is gradually separating itself into those which *genuinely* inform my thesis, those which are acknowledged authorities (even if they don’t directly support my theory, it’s necessary to have read them) and will make it into the LR, and those which def. won’t because they are irrelevant, or even specious.

@sahriskmanager, the advice you’ve received is vague and generic. It’s lobbed the onus of responsibility back onto you. I suspect many of us waste time floundering in the first year, trying to get a grip on an amorphous topic. However, you don’t indicate whether your field is arts or science. IMO there’s pos. more emphasis on ‘latest’ etc. in the scientific? Bibliographies of relevant publications are good sources of info., ditto keyword searches, university catalogues, JSTOR and so forth.

Yes thank you for your advise. I have noted everything down. My area of Research is “Islamic Capital Markets” with a focus on “Financial Risk Models/Methodologies”. So the problem is that not a great deal of research is available within this field in context of local financial markets. Hence the subject as the field suggest,can be classified as a brittle “Science” because it focuses on Actuarial Finance and Econometrics Techniques to explain data trends and co-movements between risk factors.. Yes I use “JSTOR” and few related websites to mark and cite previous author works in my field of research. But not much available over there. Therefore I Collected a few outdated scholarly articles written way back in time. The other problem is that I am doing a Distance Learning PhD. Hence supervisor interaction is very very limited and only form of interaction of some kind takes place via email exchanges. Also the university’s virtual library contains no articles or other e-material which can help me write my thesis. So I have to rely on extraneous resources and sources to mark and collect relevant research material for citation and development of my PhD. thesis. . Anyways I appreciate your feedback. Have a good day!

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@sahriskmanager I am sure doing a distance PhD must be frustrating at times. I do some distance PhD supervision, but I do get to meet them on and off so this is a better solution. I agree with @Jane S that it sounds like the responsibility is lobbed back onto you. Not sure if you are aware but there is a good text from 2013 (somewhat recent) that you might look at (you might of course already know about it). Islamic Capital Markets: A Comparative Approach from Wiley publishers (see more info. http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118465148.html ). Looking more at the work of the two authors might be a start. Good luck!

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Another way to look at it is that a good literature review should be at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy. It should be synthesis and evaluation. The list falls short of that.

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This is a great post.

With regard to papers and journal articles, I also observed another reason for bad literature reviews: people have great ideas, go ahead and investigate them, get interesting results, being to write it up, and THEN start looking for related work.

Then, it may often turn out that most of the things they have been done before. A list helps very well to hide this fact.

Your post helps to remember that a thorough literature review should come second, right after having the first ideas.

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A timely reminder, thanks Pat. This post makes a good companion to Explorations of Style’s Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines posting.

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great advice…. I pressed it to my blog… I hope that is OK – it is the first thing I have pressed – so I am still learning the rules for blogging….. thanks! Rhonda (near completion PhD!)

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This is a very useful post. Thank you. I was taught that the literature review remains a work in progress from beginning to end. It is similar to a process diary which tracks our growing knowledge of the field and resonates with our own ideas and data.

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Doing my PhD I kept to bibliographies – one of which was annotated. The annotated one contained a paragraph on each thing I’d read, raw thoughts (sometimes effusive, sometimes, ahem, more derogatory) on everything I’d read. Everything. When the time came for the literature review, I put what I needed to into proper academic language. As there was so much to read, I was very happy I’d kept all those annotations. Made entertaining re-reading too, seeing what I’d thought first time around and how far I’d come (i.e. how wrong I’d often been).

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Dear Pat, Many thanks as usual for your very useful suggestions. Please a quick question if you don’t mind. My doctoral research explores the relationship between organizational routines and employee creativity. The literature is divided between scholars who see routines as fixed entities and thus, argue that routines impede creativity and others who view routines as generative systems and hence are able to facilitate change including creativity. Though I largely agree with the latter group, I am not sure if it is appropriate to indicate that in my literature review(proposal stage) because my study is expected to be an exploratory one and I think that means that I am yet to find out how routines actually affect creativity. How do I prevent the literature from being a ‘list’ without stating directly what position I undertake right from the onset since this is still the proposal stage?

Thanks again.

Hi Gloria, sorry. Just found this. Probably too late now. I’d indicate the divide just as you have in the comment above. You don’t need to take a side at this stage, although you could,indicate that your work is positioned with one group and draws on those authors.

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The Literature Review: 5. Organizing the Literature Review

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Why Do a Literature Review?
  • 3. Methods for Searching the Literature
  • 4. Analysing the Literature
  • 5. Organizing the Literature Review
  • 6. Writing the Review

1. Organizing Principles

A literature review is a piece of discursive prose, not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another. It should have a single organizing principle:

  • Thematic - organize around a topic or issue
  • Chronological - sections for each vital time period
  • Methodological - focus on the methods used by the researchers/writers

4. Selected Online Resources

  • Literature Review in Education & Behavioral Sciences This is an interactive tutorial from Adelphi University Libraries on how to conduct a literature review in education and the behavioural sciences using library databases
  • Writing Literature Reviews This tutorial is from the Writing section of Monash University's Language and Learning Online site
  • The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It This guide is from the Health Services Writing Centre at the University of Toronto
  • Learn How to Write a Review of the Literature This guide is part of the Writer's Handbook provided by the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

2. Structure of the Literature Review

Although your literature review will rely heavily on the sources you read for its information, you should dictate the structure of the review. It is important that the concepts are presented in an order that makes sense of the context of your research project.

There may be clear divisions on the sets of ideas you want to discuss, in which case your structure may be fairly clear. This is an ideal situation. In most cases, there will be several different possible structures for your review.

Similarly to the structure of the research report itself, the literature review consists of:

  • Introduction

Introduction - profile of the study

  • Define or identify the general topic to provide the context for reviewing the literature
  • Outline why the topic is important
  • Identify overall trends in what has been published about the topic
  • Identify conflicts in theory, methodology, evidence, and conclusions
  • Identify gaps in research and scholarlship
  • Explain the criteria to be used in analysing and comparing the literature
  • Describe the organization of the review (the sequence)
  • If necessary, state why certain literature is or is not included (scope)

Body - summative, comparative, and evaluative discussion of literature reviewed

For a thematic review:

  • organize the review into paragraphs that present themes and identify trends relevant to your topic
  • each paragraph should deal with a different theme - you need to synthesize several of your readings into each paragraph in such a way that there is a clear connection between the sources
  • don't try to list all the materials you have identified in your literature search

From each of the section summaries:

  • summarize the main agreements and disagreements in the literature
  • summarize the general conclusions that have been drawn
  • establish where your own research fits in the context of the existing literature

5. A Final Checklist

  • Have you indicated the purpose of the review?
  • Have you emphasized recent developments?
  • Is there a logic to the way you organized the material?
  • Does the amount of detail included on an issue relate to its importance?
  • Have you been sufficiently critical of design and methodological issues?
  • Have you indicated when results were conflicting or inconclusive and discussed possible reasons?
  • Has your summary of the current literature contributed to the reader's understanding of the problems?

3. Tips on Structure

A common error in literature reviews is for writers to present material from one author, followed by information from another, then another.... The way in which you group authors and link ideas will help avoid this problem. To group authors who draw similar conclusions, you can use linking words such as:

  • additionally

When authors disagree, linking words that indicate contrast will show how you have analysed their work. Words such as:

  • on the other hand
  • nonetheless

will indicate to your reader how you have analysed the material. At other times, you may want to qualify an author's work (using such words as specifically, usually, or generally ) or use an example ( thus, namely, to illustrate ). In this way you ensure that you are synthesizing the material, not just describing the work already carried out in your field.

Another major problem is that literature reviews are often written as if they stand alone, without links to the rest of the paper. There needs to be a clear relationship between the literature review and the methodology to follow.

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Literature review

Literature review for thesis

How to write a literature review in 6 steps

How do you write a good literature review? This step-by-step guide on how to write an excellent literature review covers all aspects of planning and writing literature reviews for academic papers and theses.

Systematic literature review

How to write a systematic literature review [9 steps]

How do you write a systematic literature review? What types of systematic literature reviews exist and where do you use them? Learn everything you need to know about a systematic literature review in this guide

Literature review explained

What is a literature review? [with examples]

Not sure what a literature review is? This guide covers the definition, purpose, and format of 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


Literature Review - what is a Literature Review, why it is important and how it is done

What are literature reviews, goals of literature reviews, types of literature reviews, about this guide/licence.

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 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. " - Quote from Taylor, D. (n.d) "The literature review: A few tips on conducting it"

Source NC State University Libraries. This video is published under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY-NC-SA US license.

What are the goals of creating a Literature Review?

  • 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.

When do you need to write a Literature Review?

  • When writing a prospectus or a thesis/dissertation
  • When writing a research paper
  • When writing a grant proposal

In all these cases you need to dedicate a chapter in these works to showcase what have been written about your research topic and to point out how your own research will shed a new light into these body of scholarship.

Literature reviews are also written as standalone articles as a way to survey a particular research topic in-depth. This type of literature reviews look at a topic from a historical perspective to see how the understanding of the topic have change through time.

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.
  • Book review essays/ Historiographical review essays : This is a type of review that focus on a small set of research books on a particular topic " to locate these books within current scholarship, critical methodologies, and approaches" in the field. - LARR
  • 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 . San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing.
  • 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 . Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
  • 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.

Guide adapted from "Literature Review" , a guide developed by Marisol Ramos used under CC BY 4.0 /modified from original.

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  • Steps in Conducting a Literature Review

What is a literature review?

A literature review is an integrated analysis -- not just a summary-- of scholarly writings and other relevant evidence related directly to your research question.  That is, it represents a synthesis of the evidence that provides background information on your topic and shows a association between the evidence and your research question.

A literature review may be a stand alone work or the introduction to a larger research paper, depending on the assignment.  Rely heavily on the guidelines your instructor has given you.

Why is it important?

A literature review is important because it:

  • Explains the background of research on a topic.
  • Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
  • Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas.
  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
  • Identifies critical gaps and points of disagreement.
  • Discusses further research questions that logically come out of the previous studies.

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1. Choose a topic. Define your research question.

Your literature review should be guided by your central research question.  The literature represents background and research developments related to a specific research question, interpreted and analyzed by you in a synthesized way.

  • Make sure your research question is not too broad or too narrow.  Is it manageable?
  • Begin writing down terms that are related to your question. These will be useful for searches later.
  • If you have the opportunity, discuss your topic with your professor and your class mates.

2. Decide on the scope of your review

How many studies do you need to look at? How comprehensive should it be? How many years should it cover? 

  • This may depend on your assignment.  How many sources does the assignment require?

3. Select the databases you will use to conduct your searches.

Make a list of the databases you will search. 

Where to find databases:

  • use the tabs on this guide
  • Find other databases in the Nursing Information Resources web page
  • More on the Medical Library web page
  • ... and more on the Yale University Library web page

4. Conduct your searches to find the evidence. Keep track of your searches.

  • Use the key words in your question, as well as synonyms for those words, as terms in your search. Use the database tutorials for help.
  • Save the searches in the databases. This saves time when you want to redo, or modify, the searches. It is also helpful to use as a guide is the searches are not finding any useful results.
  • Review the abstracts of research studies carefully. This will save you time.
  • Use the bibliographies and references of research studies you find to locate others.
  • Check with your professor, or a subject expert in the field, if you are missing any key works in the field.
  • Ask your librarian for help at any time.
  • Use a citation manager, such as EndNote as the repository for your citations. See the EndNote tutorials for help.

Review the literature

Some questions to help you analyze the research:

  • What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?
  • Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?
  • What were the research methodologies? Analyze its literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions.
  • Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise?
  • If there are conflicting studies, why do you think that is?
  • How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited? If so, how has it been analyzed?


  • Review the abstracts carefully.  
  • Keep careful notes so that you may track your thought processes during the research process.
  • Create a matrix of the studies for easy analysis, and synthesis, across all of the studies.
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Chapter 2: What is a Literature Review?

Learning objectives.

At the conclusion of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Recognize how information is created and how it evolves over time.
  • Identify how the information cycle impacts the reliability of the information.
  • Select information sources appropriate to information need.

2.1 Overview of information

Because a literature review is a summary and analysis of the relevant publications on a topic, we first have to understand what is meant by ‘the literature’.  In this case, ‘the literature’ is a collection of all of the relevant written sources on a topic.  It will include both theoretical and empirical works.  Both types provide scope and depth to a literature review.

literature review is not a shopping list

2.1.1 Disciplines of knowledge

When drawing boundaries around an idea, topic, or subject area, it helps to think about how and where the information for the field is produced. For this, you need to identify the disciplines of knowledge production in a subject area.

Information does not exist in the environment like some kind of raw material. It is produced by individuals working within a particular field of knowledge who use specific methods for generating new information. Disciplines are knowledge-producing and -disseminating systems which consume, produce and disseminate knowledge. Looking through a  course catalog of a post-secondary educational institution gives clues to the structure of a discipline structure. Fields such as political science, biology, history and mathematics are unique disciplines, as are education and nursing, with their own logic for how and where new knowledge is introduced and made accessible.

You will need to become comfortable with identifying the disciplines that might contribute information to any search strategy. When you do this, you will also learn how to decode the way how people talk about a topic within a discipline. This will be useful to you when you begin a  review of the literature in your area of study.

For example, think about the disciplines that might contribute information to a the topic such as  the role of sports in society. Try to anticipate the type of perspective each discipline might have on the topic. Consider the following types of questions as you examine what different disciplines might contribute:

  • What is important about the topic to the people in that discipline?
  • What is most likely to be the focus of their study about the topic?
  • What perspective would they be likely to have on the topic?

In this example, we identify two disciplines that have something to say about the role of sports in society: allied health and education. What would each of these disciplines raise as key questions or issues related to that topic? Nursing

  • how sports affect individuals’ health and well-being
  • assessing and treating sports injuries
  • physical conditioning for athletes Education

  • how schools privilege or punish student athletes
  • how young people are socialized into the ideal of team cooperation
  • differences between boys’ and girls’ participation in organized sports

We see that a single topic can be approached from many different perspectives depending on how the disciplinary boundaries are drawn and how the topic is framed. This step of the research process requires you to make some decisions early on to focus the topic on a manageable and appropriate scope for the rest of the strategy. ( Hansen & Paul, 2015 ).

‘The literature’ consists of the published works that document a scholarly conversation in a field of study. You will find, in ‘the literature,’ documents that explain the background of your topic so the reader knows where you found loose ends in the established research of the field and what led you to your own project.  Although your own literature review will focus on primary, peer-reviewed resources, it will begin by first grounding yourself in background subject information generally found in secondary and tertiary sources such as books and encyclopedias.  Once you have that essential overview, you delve into the seminal literature of the field. As a result, while your literature review may consist of research articles tightly focused on your topic with secondary and tertiary sources used more sparingly, all three types of information (primary, secondary, tertiary) are critical to your research.

2.1.2 Definitions

  • Theoretical – discusses a theory, conceptual model or framework for understanding a problem.
  • Empirical – applies theory to a behavior or event and reports derived data to findings.
  • Seminal – “A classic work of research literature that is more than 5 years old and is marked by its uniqueness and contribution to professional knowledge.” ( Houser, 4th ed., 2018, p. 112 ).
  • Practical – “…accounts of how things are done” ( Wallace & Wray, 3rd ed., 2016, p. 20 ). Action research, in Education, refers to a wide variety of methods used to develop practical solutions. ( Great Schools Partnership, 2017 ).
  • Policy – generally produced by policy-makers, such as government agencies.
  • Primary – published results of original research studies .
  • Secondary – interpret, discuss, summarize original sources
  • Tertiary – synthesize or distill primary and secondary sources.  Examples include: encyclopedias, directories, dictionaries, handbooks, guides, classification, chronology, and other fact books.
  • Grey literature – research and information released by non-commercial publishers, such as government agencies, policy organizations, and think-tanks.

‘The literature’ is published in books, journal articles, conference proceedings, theses and dissertations.  It can also be found in newspapers, encyclopedias, textbooks, as well as websites and reports written by government agencies and professional organizations. While these formats may contain what we define as ‘the literature’, not all of it will be appropriate for inclusion in your own literature review.

These sources are found through different tools that we will discuss later in this section. Although a discovery tool, such as a database or catalog, may link you to the ‘the literature’ not every tool is appropriate to every literature review.  No single source will have all of the information resources you should consult.  A comprehensive literature review should include searches in the following:

  • Multiple subject and article databases
  • Library and other book catalogs
  • Grey literature sources

2.2 Information Cycle

To get a better idea of how the literature in a discipline develops, it’s useful to see how the information publication lifecycle works.  These distinct stages show how information is created, reviewed, and distributed over time.

Tutorial on "The Publication Cycle and Scientific Research" Click on image to follow full tutorial. Link: https://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/3/3.093/f06/tutorials/pub-cycle-with-quiz.swf

The following chart can be used to guide you in searching literature existing at various stages of the scholarly communication process (freely accessible sources are linked, subscription or subscribed sources are listed but not linked):

Figure 2.2 shows a continuous circle containing six bubbles that illustrate how an idea for a research study proceeds through evaluation for quality by peers to publication. After publication, the study is disseminated in print or electronic form and accessed through libraries, vendors, and the web. Preservation and reuse make up the remaining bubbles.

2.3 Information Types

To continue our discussion of information sources, there are two ways published information in the field can be categorized:

  • Articles by the type of periodical in which an article it is published, for example, magazine, trade, or scholarly publications .
  • Where the material is located in the information cycle, as in primary, secondary, or tertiary information sources .

2.3.1 Popular, Trade, or Scholarly publications types of periodicals.

Journals, trade publications, and magazines are all periodicals, and articles from these publications they can all look similar article by article when you are searching in the databases. It is good to review the differences and think about when to use information from each type of periodical. Magazines

A magazine is a collection of articles and images about diverse topics of popular interest and current events.

Features of magazines:

  • articles are usually written by journalists
  • articles are written for the average adult
  • articles tend to be short
  • articles rarely provides a list of reference sources at the end of the article
  • lots of color images and advertisements
  • the decision about what goes into the magazine is made by an editor or publisher
  • magazines can have broad appeal, like Time and Newsweek , or a narrow focus, like Sports Illustrated and Mother Earth News .

literature review is not a shopping list

Popular magazines like Psychology Today , Sports Illustrated , and Rolling Stone can be good sources for articles on recent events or pop-culture topics, while Harpers , Scientific American , and The New Republic will offer more in-depth articles on a wider range of subjects. These articles are geared towards readers who, although not experts, are knowledgeable about the issues presented. Trade Publications

Trade publications or trade journals are periodicals directed to members of a specific profession. They often have information about industry trends and practical information for people working in the field.

Features of trade publications:

  • Authors are specialists in their fields
  • Focused on members of a specific industry or profession
  • No peer review process
  • Include photographs, illustrations, charts, and graphs, often in color
  • Technical vocabulary

Trade publications are geared towards professionals in a discipline. They report news and trends in a field, but not original research. They may provide product or service reviews, job listings, and advertisements. Scholarly, Academic, and Scientific Publications

Scholarly, academic, and scientific publications are a collections of articles written by scholars in an academic or professional field. Most journals are peer-reviewed or refereed, which means a panel of scholars reviews articles to decide if they should be accepted into a specific publication. Journal articles are the main source of information for researchers and for literature reviews.

Features of journals:

  • written by scholars and subject experts
  • author’ credentials and institution will be identified
  • written for other scholars
  • dedicated to a specific discipline that it covers in depth
  • often report on original or innovative research
  • long articles, often 5-15 pages or more
  • articles almost always include a list of sources at the end (Works Cited, References, Sources, or Bibliography) that point back to where the information was derived
  • no or very few advertisements
  • published by organizations or associations to advance their specialized body of knowledge

Scholarly journals provider articles of interest to experts or researchers in a discipline. An editorial board of respected scholars (peers) reviews all articles submitted to a journal. They decide if the article provides a noteworthy contribution to the field and should be published. There are typically few  little or no advertisements. Articles published in scholarly journals will include a list of references. A word about open access journals

Increasingly, scholars are publishing findings and original research in open access journals .   Open access journals are scholarly and peer-reviewed and open access publishers provide unrestricted access and unrestricted use.  Open access is a means of disseminating scholarly research that breaks from the traditional subscription model of academic publishing. It is free of charge to readers and because it is online, it is available at anytime, anywhere in the world, to anyone with access to the internet.  The Directory of Open Access Journals ( DOAJ ) indexes and provides access to high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarly articles.

In summary, newspapers and other popular press publications are useful for getting general topic ideas. Trade publications are useful for practical application in a profession and may also be a good source of keywords for future searching. Scholarly journals are the conversation of the scholars who are doing research in a specific discipline and publishing their research findings. Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Primary sources of information are those types of information that come first. Some examples of primary sources are:

  • original research, like data from an experiment with plankton.
  • diaries, journals, photographs
  • data from the census bureau or a survey you have done
  • original documents, like the constitution or a birth certificate
  • newspapers are primary sources when they report current events or current opinion
  • speeches, interviews, email, letters
  • religious books
  • personal memoirs and autobiographies
  • pottery or weavings

There are different types of primary sources for different disciplines.  In the discipline of history, for example, a diary or transcript of a speech is a primary source.  In education and nursing, primary sources will generally be original research, including data sets.

Secondary sources are written about primary sources to interpret or analyze them. They are a step or more removed from the primary event or item. Some examples of secondary sources are:

  • commentaries on speeches
  • critiques of plays, journalism, or books
  • a journal article that talks about a primary source such as an interpretation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or the flower symbolism of Monet’s water garden paintings
  • textbooks (can also be considered tertiary)
  • biographies
  • encyclopedias

Tertiary sources are further removed from the original material and are a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources. Some examples are:

  • bibliography of critical works about an author
  • textbooks (also considered secondary)

A comparison of information sources across disciplines:

2.4 Information Sources

In this section, we discuss how to find not only information, but the sources of information in your discipline or topic area.  As we see in the graphic and chart above, the information you need for your literature review will be located in multiple places.  How and where research and publication occurs drives how and where the information is located, which in turn determines how you will discover and retrieve it.  When we talk about information sources for a literature review in education or nursing, we generally mean these five areas: the internet, reference material and other books, empirical or evidence-based articles in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, conference proceedings and papers, dissertations and theses, and grey literature.

The World Wide Web can be an excellent place to satisfy some initial research needs.

  • It is a good resource for background information and for finding keywords for searching in the library catalog and databases.
  • It is a good tool for locating professional organizations and searching for information and the names of experts in a given discipline.
  • Google Scholar is a useful discovery tool for citations, especially if you are trying to get the lay of the land surrounding your topic or if you are having a problem with keywords in the databases. You can find some information to refine your search terms. It is NOT acceptable to depend on Google Scholar for finding articles because of the spotty coverage and lack of adequate search features.

2.4.2 Books and Reference Sources

Reference materials and books are available in both print and electronic formats. They provide gateway knowledge to a subject area and are useful at the beginning of the research process to:

  • Get an overview of the topic, learn the scope, key definitions, significant figures who are involved, and important timelines
  • Discover the foundations of a topic
  • Learn essential definitions, vocabulary terms, and keywords you can use in your literature searching strategy

2.4.3 Scholarly Articles in Journals

Another major category of information sources is scholarly information produced by subject experts working in academic institutions, research centers and scholarly organizations. Scholars and researchers generate information that advances our knowledge and understanding of the world. The research they do creates new opportunities for inventions, practical applications, and new approaches to solving problems or understanding issues.

Academics, researchers and students at universities make their contributions to scholarly knowledge available in many forms:

  • masters’ theses
  • doctoral dissertations
  • conference papers
  • journal articles and books
  • individual scholars’ web pages
  • web pages developed by the researcher’s’ home institution (Hansen & Paul, 2015).

Scholars and researchers introduce their discoveries to the world in a formal system of information dissemination that has developed over centuries. Because scholarly research undergoes a process of “peer review” before being published (meaning that other experts review the work and pass judgment about whether it is worthy of publication), the information you find from scholarly sources meets preset standards for accuracy, credibility and validity in that field.

Likewise, scholarly journal articles are generally considered to be among the most reliable sources of information because they have gone through a peer-review process.

2.4.5 Conference Papers & Proceedings

Conferences are a major source of  emerging research where researchers present papers on their current research and obtain feedback from the audience.  The papers presented in the conference are then usually published in a volume called a conference proceeding.  Conference proceedings highlight current discussion in a discipline and can lead you to scholars who are interested in specific research areas.

A word about conference papers: several factors contribute to making these documents difficult to find.  It may be months before a paper is published as a journal article, or it may never be published.  Publishers and professional associations are inconsistent in how they publish proceedings.  For example, the papers from an annual conference may be published as individual, stand-alone titles, which may be indexed in a library catalog, or the conference proceedings may be treated more like a periodical or serial and, therefore, indexed in a journal database.

It is not unusual that papers delivered at professional conferences are not published in print or electronic form, although an abstract may be available.  In these cases, the full paper may only be available from the author or authors.

The most important thing to remember is that if you have any difficulty finding a conference proceeding or paper, ask a librarian for assistance.

2.4.6 Dissertations and Theses

Dissertations and theses can be rich sources of information and have extensive reference lists to scan for resources. They are considered gray literature, so are not “peer reviewed”. The accuracy and validity of the paper itself may depend on the school that awarded the doctoral or master’s  degree to the author.

2.5 Conclusion

In thinking about ‘the literature’ of your discipline, you are beginning the first step in writing your own literature review.  By understanding what the literature in your field is, as well as how and when it is generated, you begin to know what is available and where to look for it.

We briefly discussed seven types of (sometimes overlapping) information:

  • information found on the web
  • information found in reference books and monographs
  • information found in scholarly journals
  • information found in conference proceedings and papers
  • information found in dissertations and theses
  • information found in magazines and trade journals
  • information that is primary, secondary, or tertiary.

By conceptualizing or scoping how and where the literature of your discipline or topic area is generated, you have started on your way to writing your own literature review.

Figure 2.3 illustrates what skills are needed to find what is available on a topic. Students should be able to understand, know, and recognize different types of information, the publication process, issues of accessibility, and what services are available to help them. In this way, students are able to identify different types of information, available search tools, different information formats, and use new tools as they become available.

Finally, remember:

“All information sources are not created equal. Sources can vary greatly in terms of how carefully they are researched, written, edited, and reviewed for accuracy. Common sense will help you identify obviously questionable sources, such as tabloids that feature tales of alien abductions, or personal websites with glaring typos. Sometimes, however, a source’s reliability—or lack of it—is not so obvious…You will consider criteria such as the type of source, its intended purpose and audience, the author’s (or authors’) qualifications, the publication’s reputation, any indications of bias or hidden agendas, how current the source is, and the overall quality of the writing, thinking, and design.”  ( Writing for Success, 2015, p. 448 ).

We will cover how to evaluate sources in more detail in Chapter 5.

For each of these information needs, indicate what resources would be the best fit to answer your question. There may be more than one source so don’t feel like you have to limit yourself to only one. See Answer Key for the correct response.

  • You are to write a brief paper on a theory that you only vaguely understand. You need some basic information. Where would you look?
  • If you heard something on the radio about a recent research involving an herbal intervention for weight loss where could you find the actual study?
  • You are going to be doing an internship in a group home for young men. You have heard that one issue that comes up for them is anger. Where would you look for practical interventions to help you manage this problem if it came up?
  • You have the opportunity to work on a research project through a grant proposal. You need to justify the research question and show that there is an interest and a need for this research. What resources would you cite in your application?
  • You have been assigned a project to find primary sources about classroom discipline used in early 20th-century schools. What primary sources could you use and where would you find them?
  • You have an idea for a great thesis but you are afraid that it has been done before. Since you would like to do something original, where could you find out if someone else has done the project?
  • There was a post on Facebook that welfare recipients in Arizona were recently tested for drug use with only three in 140,000 having positive results. Where can I find out if this number is accurate?

Test Yourself

Question 1  match the type of periodical to its content.

Trade publication Scholarly journal Magazine

  • Contains articles about a variety of topics of popular interest; also contains advertising.
  • Has information about industry trends and practical information for professionals in a field.
  • Contains articles written by scholars in an academic field and reviewed by experts in that field.

Question 2: Given what you know about information types and sources, put the following information sources in order from the least accurate and reliable  to the most accurate and reliable. (1 least accurate/4 most accurate)

  • Books and encyclopedias
  • News broadcasts and social media directly following an event.
  • Analysis of an event in the news media or popular magazine weeks after an event.
  • Articles written by scholars and published in a journal.

Question 3: What is information called that is either a diary, a speech, original research, data, artwork, or a religious book.

Question 4: to find the best information in the databases you need to use keywords that are used by the scholars. where do you find out what keywords to try.

  • From websites
  • In journal articles
  • All of the above

Question 5: Which of the following is NOT true about scholarly journals?

  • They contain the conversation of the scholars on a particular subject.
  • They are of interest to the general public.
  • The articles are followed by an extensive reference list.
  • They contain reports of original research.

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Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students Copyright © by Linda Frederiksen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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What literature review is not: diversity, boundaries and recommendations

  • Published: 22 May 2014
  • Volume 23 , pages 241–255, ( 2014 )

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literature review is not a shopping list

  • Frantz Rowe 1  

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In Orlando the EJIS Board decided to implement a policy change that I had proposed in my last editorial addressing the IS community ( Rowe, 2012 ), asking authors (starting January 2013) to explicitly classify their papers as belonging to one of the following categories:

Literature review

Theory development

Research essay

Ethnography and narrative

Empirical research

Issues and opinion (and Response)

Aiming at giving continuous feedback and thoughts on the evolution of genres that we support and on related expectations for IS research, this editorial focuses on literature reviews. This choice stems from our strong belief in the need to stimulate genre diversity in order to continue to produce new knowledge, rather than to replicate or marginally extend the use of well-known empirical models. There is a healthy level of diversity in a field ( Benbasat & Weber, 1996 ), which, we think, should include at least all these genres, and is at risk with the increase in the institutional pressures to publish ( Loos et al, 2010 ). In this spirit, I offer a few words on the need for more theoretical work in IS research as well as a briefing on EJIS’s activity in relation to its editorial policy change.

The diversification of recently submitted papers, of what currently appears in Advanced Online Publishing (AOP), which represents about a year of publications, and of papers being reviewed, is encouraging (cf. Table 1 ). First EJIS has continued striving to publish among the best works on empirical research and our change of editorial policy has not provoked a dramatic change on the flow of this type of papers. The second good news is that we do get submissions in all new categories. We need, however, to ensure that they have approximately the same chance of getting published as do empirical papers. It is far too early to tell, but we hope that this editorial will help increase the quality of submissions in the interest of the authors and of the IS community.

Before our policy change, a few literature reviews, theory development papers, research essays, ethnographies, narratives and by extension the even rarer ‘alternative genres’, appeared in either the ‘Issues and Opinion’ or in the ‘Research Paper’ categories. However, these categories did not seem to have enough traction for the journal stakeholders. As an example, a quick search indicates that by the end of 2012, EJIS had only published eight literature reviews (cf. Appendix ) and even fewer theory development papers. This looks like a rather meager recognition of the value of these contributions compared to the 700 papers (exact count excluding editorials) published in EJIS from 1991 till the end of 2013!

The need to publish more literature reviews and theory development papers is crying for EJIS and beyond for the IS community. Despite its recognition by JAIS, since its inception in 2000, and by MISQ in 2001 and to some extent by other journals such as Database and JITTA, which occasionally publish literature reviews, the situation has not changed significantly on the IS community’s scene. The CAIS call for a Special Issue on literature review this year might send a strong signal and change the quality if not the frequency of the genre in IS. But ironically I cannot help paraphrasing Hambrick (2007 , p.1350) who tried to move management away from its theory polarization, ‘We are not proposing that our top journals should lower their standards, only that they should shift them’.

In fact, if we believe in the need to build a cumulative tradition ( Webster & Watson, 2002 ; Shapira, 2011 ) we should neither confine the set of journals in a community at the empirical pole nor at the theoretical pole. In IS the risk is that we become unable to produce theories with broad impact within IS and beyond. Implicitly we put ourselves in a position to depend on other disciplines to develop theories on IS-related phenomena, albeit with a limited view and understanding of the IS literature, or, more surely, to produce empirical research in unchartered territory where empirical objects self-organize themselves or contribute to non-IS theories. To evolve more rapidly towards a more comprehensive and effective research genre’s spectrum we need literature reviews that offer the most solid foundations for theory building and research landscaping. Producing such theories is all the more needed and legitimate since many of us work in Business Schools and social science institutes where theory and scholarly knowledge are greatly valued.

In my last editorial, I positioned the literature review genre as one of the necessary ingredients we should publish in top journals, but I did not have the space to insist on the diversity within the genre itself and to get to the level of precision, which should have been desirable as corresponding guidelines. I hope to clarify these points in the current editorial and to invite further comments on all genres. I believe that the message that literature reviews can be highly valuable needs to be also reinforced and developed with more examples emphasizing different types, along with some recommendations. First of all, a literature review is the genre of paper that every researcher looks for when starting a research study. In addition, all Ph.D. students do one when developing their monograph, and many of those who opt for the three essays genre, more prevailing in North America and in Scandinavia than in the rest of Europe, also perform one, albeit one, which is publishable and generally more systematic. It thus can provide tremendous value for the field. Not surprisingly for instance DeLone & Mc Lean’s (1992) and Alavi & Leidner’s (2001) reviews have had considerable impact if judged by citations.

This calls first for a definition of what is common across all these types. In order to make some recommendations, we need to define what is a literature review, delineate the genre with respect to other genres, including theory development papers, and what kind of purposes the different types of reviews may serve.

What is a literature review? Defining and delineating the genre

On the basis of a literature review in IS and in the social sciences confirmed by a survey in the IS community concerning statements regarding literature reviews and conceptual frameworks, Schwarz and colleagues (2006) classified literature review goals as follows:

to summarize prior research,

to critically examine contributions of past research,

to explain the results of prior research found within research streams,

to clarify alternative views of past research (not necessarily integrated together).

While these goals focus on the past, they are consistent with definitions given in well cited research methods textbooks: «a critical summary and assessment of the range of existing materials dealing with knowledge and understanding in a given field» ( Blaxter et al, 2006 , p. 123); «an appropriate summary of previous work. But it needs an added dimension – your interpretation» ( Blumberg et al, 2005 , p. 11). The laconism of the first part of this last definition contrasts with the imperative need to interpret the discourse. In other words, a literature review is not an unsurprising overview of the literature. It has to critically consolidate the existing literature on a given topic ( Schwarz et al., 2006 ) and be aligned with the research goals of the study.

Hence, a number of literature review’s subtitles indicate that the effort should not stop at summarizing: ‘a literature review, synthesis and research agenda’ ( Ahuja, 2002 ); ‘What we already know, what we still need to know, and how we can get there’ ( Schryen, 2013 ). Like Webster & Watson (2002) I emphasize that a good literature review also identifies critical knowledge gaps. This may be implicit in the ‘critical’ aspect of the review. But there are various ways to be critical; one of them is indicating what was not done in a rigorous or relevant way. A good literature review could, for example, identify systematic theoretical and methodological biases in a field and suggest fundamental reorientation for understanding the problem or central construct ( Alvesson & Sandberg, 2011 ). Such problematization should help identifying alternative theoretical underpinnings in the existing literature. Identifying missing or neglected themes in what has been researched, what Alvesson & Sandberg (2011) call gap-spotting, is another matter. Our first recommendation is that literature reviews strive to identify theoretical biases and thematic gaps and propose some corresponding stimulating research directions, and not just stop at the summarizing/ synthesizing stage. In other words, the identification of new research directions is not an option. The same paper does not have to explain how we can get there literally. If it does so to some extent, like in Schryen’s review (2013), this becomes an excellent value added. But this is not the essence of a literature review. Future research directions as part of a literature review should be proposed and justified but can be presented as suggestions without an accompanying detailed deployment plan.

Consistently with our comments, we propose the following definition: a literature review synthesizes past knowledge on a topic or domain of interest, identifies important biases and knowledge gaps in the literature and proposes corresponding future research directions.

An important point to retain also from Schwarz and colleagues’ explanation is that, unlike a conceptual framework, a literature review does not have to integrate all the knowledge elements provided by the literature into an overall logic. However, in reality comparing the two is difficult because often, as we will see, literature reviews incorporate one or several conceptual frameworks, whereas conceptual frameworks, like theory development papers, are always developed based on a literature review. Our guidelines will address this delineation issue.

A typology of literature reviews based on research goals

To shed some light on the diversity of literature reviews we propose a typology based on four dimensions (cf. Table 2 ). Regarding the first dimension, the goal with respect to theory, we mainly distinguish three main types: reviews for describing, for understanding and for explaining. We will use this typology for our concluding recommendations. However, in this section, we will also present an alternative way of addressing the theoretical goal of the review, which has some implications on the dimension of systematicity.

The second dimension, breadth or scope, is completely orthogonal to the first one; this allows us to present it together with the first dimension in the same section. Breadth cannot be subsumed in the contribution to theory and must always be specified to delineate the domain of the review.

The last two dimensions, systematicity and argumentative strategies, are partly related to the first dimension. Therefore positioning a literature review depends first and foremost on research goals: their expected contribution to theory and the breadth of the knowledge domain they attempt to cover.

First we can distinguish literature reviews according to their main theoretical goal or type of contribution to theory. In fact, Gregor (2006) distinguishes four main types of theoretical goals: ‘analysis and description’, ‘explanation’, ‘prediction’, ‘prescription’. The latter is a special case of prediction. Not only is it well-known that prediction is very difficult in the social world, because it is an open system, but literature reviews rarely espouse this goal. Therefore, we will retain only three types of goals with respect to theory. First, we must recognize that many literature reviews do not strive to contribute to theory; their main goals are to describe, to classify what has been produced by the literature. Strictly speaking, they just map the territory and do not theorize. Second, the review may want to explain why, how and when things happen in a phenomenon, and thus focus on causal relationships with certain outcomes. Explanation relies on deductive logic and is focused on specific outcomes. Third and more often, the review may aim at understanding the phenomenon as a whole, its overall meaning and its relationships from the parts to the whole and reciprocally, as in the hermeneutic circle. Not only are these reviews focusing more on interpretation than on deductive logic but they also adopt generally a broader perspective. This opposition between explanation and understanding parallels that of interpretation and deductive logic ( Von Wright, 1971 ; Hovorka & Lee, 2010 ). For Weber (1949) explanation (erklären) takes place within a larger understanding (verstehen), which is of overarching interest and relates fundamentally to meaning, and the two should be fundamentally distinguished, although, as pointed out by Hovorka and Lee they are often used as synonyms in IS. Habermas (1988 , p. 13) structured his book ‘on the logic of social sciences based on this Weberian distinction, while recognizing that “In this schema for the progress of social-scientific knowledge causal-analytic and interpretive methods alternate” ’.

Thus, some reviews aim at describing a phenomenon with little or no contribution to theory. Those summarize, under very general categories such as organizational, technical and environmental, the often very empirical literature that has been produced on the topic under investigation. Sometimes such reviews also detail the broader categories to emphasize more conceptual relationships (e.g. Wiener et al, 2010 ), but without discussing categorical assumptions and underlying assumptions. The descriptive review type is often used to classify what we know about a recent technology, service or practice, which becomes a trend in the industry such as IS offshoring ( Wiener et al, 2010 ), cloud computing ( Yang & Tate, 2012 ) or outsourcing ( Lacity et al, 2009 ). It may also be used to assess our own methodology practices. For instance, Polites et al (2012 ; for the coding of their complete set of examined papers (72), see http://www.palgrave-journals.com/ejis/journal/v23/n3/suppinfo/ejis20147s1.html ) performed a systematic review of research using multidimensional constructs according to the types of constructs (superordinate vs aggregate) with formative or reflective dimensions as well as using profiles and multiplicative and mixed models. In addition they offer a stimulating critique through dimension sets and precise guidelines for conceptualizing multidimensional models. In this issue, Keutel et al (2014 ; for the coding of their complete set of examined papers (327), see http://csr.uni-koeln.de ) classified research case studies according to their philosophical foundations, theorizing, study design, case selection and data sources. They moreover have identified a number of unexpected results such as very little theory testing even with a positivist epistemology.

Other literature reviews aim at understanding a new phenomenon or problem through related concept(s) that have been proposed in former research. Those generally adopt a narrative style to make sense of the content of the literature. We find here the traditional monograph done by European Ph.D. students, which always encompasses a critical review, and is still often paper-centered ( Webster & Watson, 2002 ). Such monographs analyze the results and methodologies of articles, books and other relevant sources with high level of details before drawing more synthetic conclusions. Such reviews are generally centered on the identification of research findings contributing to formulating and/or solving a specific problem . In a more elaborate form of reviews partly sharing this goal we find those that aim at conceptualizing the issue. An excellent recent example is the interdisciplinary review on privacy done by Smith et al (2011) where they show the fragmented picture of the privacy concept and point to what is not privacy. Clearly, conceptualizing the problem of the problem before even thinking of ‘solving’ it is what is expected in such type of reviews. Interestingly, this last example is also descriptive and in fact is considered as a mixed type of literature review since it builds on the double distinction between levels of analysis and whether the literature is normative, purely descriptive or empirically descriptive (i.e. based on some theory or framework). In our internet era IT causal agency on power offers another example of a typical provocative IS question that begs for a better understanding addressed by a literature review. Jasperson et al (2002) were focused on understanding; this goal was achieved by assessing the assumptions and underlying paradigms prevalent in the literature. They approach their review through a metatriangulation, a particular method that uses multiple lenses or paradigms (their review included the Markus & Robey (1988) on causal agency) and offers, in the last phase, a theoretical development. Reviews for understanding can alternatively put emphasis on the development of a conceptual framework but will combine it with a systematic literature review to the detriment of the analysis of the relationships within the framework in the collected papers and theory building. This deficiency may simply reflect the lack of such analysis in the studied literature. For instance Besson & Rowe’s (2012) conceptual framework allows highlighting particularly neglected dimensions of inertia, governing agency and risk failure for understanding information systems-enabled organizational transformation. The knowledge gaps appear then so wide and deep that recommendations can only be broad and there is still much work to be done to develop a theory.

Another literature review for understanding type tries to synthesize and make sense of a whole stream of research (see for instance Schryen (2013 ) on the business value of IT). This literature review type aims at identifying key findings, problems, and research thrusts and paths to solve them. Given the breadth of the review, the analysis moves away from paper contributions and becomes fully problem-centered , with a major role of distinguishing among the different problems with a necessary grouping of different sources addressing the same type of problem. The grouping can use well-known concepts to integrate the knowledge such as in Schryen’s example, but in such a case the value added lies in the correspondence between findings, problems or gaps, and research thrusts. In that sense the review is integrated but without providing new conceptual lenses. Another very different and original way to construct a review on a whole stream offers an epistemological framework where the conceptual aspect is multifaceted because concepts are closer to general notions but are also dependent on the adoption of a philosophical perspective. In their highly cited paper, Alavi & Leidner (2001) presented a set of six knowledge perspectives and their implications, before adopting one of these perspectives: a view of organizations as knowledge systems consisting in four mutually interdependent knowledge processes – creation, storage/retrieval, transfer and application of knowledge. They offered a research agenda through a set of questions for each of these knowledge processes. With the identification of the different perspective such frameworks show both an epistemological orientation and a systemic one in the way fundamental knowledge processes depend on each other.

An even broader literature review type synthesizes and makes sense of the literature in a discipline as a whole , albeit from a selective angle (e.g. by region or by type of publication). For instance in their review of IS research published in Management Science , Banker & Kauffman (2004) analyzed in a narrative manner the evolution of five major streams of research, including the business value of IT. Building on MISQ, ISR and JMIS publications since 1985 and using Latent Semantic Analysis, a technique very similar to factor analysis, Sidorova et al (2008) identified five cores or research areas that constitute the identity of the IS discipline: (1) information technology and organizations; (2) IS development; (3) IT and individuals; (4) IT and markets; and (5) IT and groups . Galliers & Whitley (2007) made sense of what has been presented at the European Conference of Information Systems and extended to 10 themes the Banker and Kauffman’s classification. Such contributions generally are theme-centered , which when grouped and interpreted become research domains (also called research streams) and offer a useful retrospective viewing of the literature. Some characterize the evolution of the literature through the identification of author-centered or paper-centered networks when using, respectively, citation or co-citation analysis. For instance comparing IS published in MISQ and EJIS and its evolution, Cordoba et al (2012) found a certain convergence towards an adoption of IT core, while the same team characterized IS by its fluid yet stable relationship to other disciplines ( Bernroider et al, 2013 ). While in my former editorial I had given the first as an example of a research essay, and more precisely a philology of IS, it could as well have been presented as a special case of a literature review, since it synthesizes the evolution of the IS discourse throughout these networks and related major themes. The second publication of the team is also a discourse on the interdisciplinary character of the literature. Yet, it does not identify, analyze or synthesize the content of the literature and thus cannot be considered as a literature review.

All the above types of literature reviews aim at a better understanding of a knowledge domain for which breadth can vary considerably from a specific problem to a stream of research and ultimately to what a discipline has produced. They have a strong interpretative stance as they critique papers or as they group various contents and have to make sense of what they globally mean when aggregated in a cluster.

When the review aims at explaining it is fundamentally concept-centric ( Webster & Watson, 2002 ), moving away from paper-centric or author-centric approaches, which do not allow to compare very systematically which concepts and underlying dimensions or categories are part of which paper in a given set of concepts belonging to a framework. Among variations or sub-types of the explaining purpose found in the IS literature, we find explanatory literature reviews based on (a) conceptual frameworks, (b) descriptive models, and (c) theories.

When based on a conceptual framework, this type emphasizes the development of a conceptual framework and relationships between concepts to the detriment of a systematic literature review. In this case most of the literature that is exposed is recent. Like Te’eni’s work on communication (2001), it combines a state of the art (i.e. a selection of recent research) literature review with the development of a framework. Unlike systematic literature reviews, their aim is not to be comprehensive but to put emphasis on the conceptual framework as a basis for theorizing.

When based on a descriptive model, such as in the success model ( Delone & McLean, 1992 ), where, as recognized by the authors in their example, a set of concepts is presented in a process model constructed in a temporal order, and the research moves towards modeling. However, when it lacks causal mechanisms or clearly specified assumptions between concepts, the model is merely descriptive ( Weber, 2012 ; Shapira, 2011 ). An explanatory theory moves beyond a descriptive model when it discusses such mechanisms ( Weber, 2012 ).

An explanatory literature review can also be based on these mechanisms and central theoretical concepts. This is typically the case when numerous empirical studies have analyzed a phenomenon, for instance the decision to outsource IT, with a particular theory, for instance transaction cost theory (TCT) or agency theory. In such situations, the literature review constitutes an opportunity to either assess the quality of the theory testing in the literature (e.g. Karimi-Alaghehband et al, 2011 ) or to build a theory overcoming the limitations of the base theory (e.g. Lacity et al, 2010 ).

Within these reviews for explaining an IS phenomena, I would also include another type that provides a conceptual framework, as well as theory development with a set of testable hypotheses. A good example builds on the dynamic capability theory (DCT), to develop a theory of enterprise systems-enabled organizational agility ( Trinh et al, 2012 ). Unlike the reviews on outsourcing, which build on TCT, the challenge faced by the authors was that they could only find eight papers, mostly a-theoretical that dealt with both enterprise systems (ES) and organizational agility. By using a theory like DCT they could develop a framework and precise hypotheses to deconstruct the problem while not falling into the trap of simply testing the facilitating hypothesis (is IS good or bad?). Therefore its construction was built on theoretical arguments coming either from DCT or from the authors’ own IS-based reasoning related to ES knowledge or to IT-enabled organizational agility. Thus, in contrast to a grounded theory approach, their theorizing is not based on previous empirical research of the strictly defined phenomena. Such a theory can be considered both as a theory development paper and as a literature review. In fact, despite the limited number of empirical papers at the intersection between ES literature and IT-enabled organizational agility, the authors reviewed both domains to develop their hypotheses.

Using a critical realist perspective Okoli (2012) distinguishes reviews for theory landscaping, for theory building and for theory testing. Reviews for theory landscaping are very close to those that aim at understanding. For Okoli (2012 , p. 5) literature reviews can also serve as theory building reviews when in addition to some landscaping they ‘conjecture new real phenomena to explain hitherto unexplained empirical phenomena’. Such papers propose to refine or to build a new theory, and the dividing line with a theory development paper as I had defined it in my previous editorial is extremely tenuous and difficult to argue from a theoretical viewpoint. In fact a theory building and a theory landscaping literature review both contribute to theory, but in my mind, the former integrates it in a theory or a conceptual framework, while the latter refers necessarily to multiple theories, which are rarely possible to integrate. The theory building type of review encompasses those that aim at explaining, whereas some reviews for understanding may also be theory building (e.g. Jasperson et al, 2002 ). Theory building reviews do not necessarily start with a lens like a framework, mode or theory but typically, as in the Grounded Theory Methodology (GTM), build a theory upon the knowledge of precedent research by careful interpretation and re-categorizing and coding the accumulated material. As carefully explained in IS by Wolfswinkel et al (2013) , GTM itself can be used for developing a literature review. They consider that a set of carefully selected published articles constitutes the data to explore in order to extract the relevant ‘excerpts’ for generating the theory according to the GTM process. In the very GTM spirit, the data set can be extended to practitioner’s articles and to anecdotal cases described by software developers and industry people in a greater variety of sources as demonstrated by Kumar & Stylianou (2014) in their process model for analyzing flexibility of the IS function. Conversely, when using GTM, different types of literature reviews are also needed at different phases of the theory building process ( Urquhart & Fernandez, 2013 ), and these types appear in several sections of the final paper (e.g. Hekkala & Urquhart, 2013 ).

Finally the theory testing review, more well-known as meta-analysis, is based exclusively on a quantitative approach to empirical papers, which have themselves followed a quantitative approach and reported their results in a sufficiently precise and rigorous way so that they can be taken as an input of a model that takes all this previous knowledge into account to statistically test and examine what remains robust overall ( King & He, 2005 ). This type of review makes some sense when a lot of studies have used the same base theory or model, such as the technology acceptance models (cf. King & He, 2006 ; Wu & Du, 2012 ). Another type of theory testing review can also include qualitative empirical papers in addition to the quantitative ones but it cannot be strictly considered as a meta-analysis (e.g. Lacity et al, 2010 ).

Systematizing the screening and search steps in the review process

Schwarz and colleagues (2006) argue that a review should aim at comprehensiveness, that is gathering all possible relevant and quality material for the purpose, hence the difficulty of integration in a unique framework, not to mention a theory. Whereas we agree that building an integrated framework is difficult, and that all reviews do not achieve that, we prefer to call for a good or reasonable coverage rather than a comprehensive one that would make a review process at best ephemeral if not unachievable. The current trend is to refer to systematicity, which is built into the search and into a selection process, rather than to an illusive complete picture. That said, we should also note that comprehensiveness can also mean sense-making, which is also important, especially when a review aims at understanding and viewing a landscape of the accumulated knowledge in a more cohesive way but without exploring all its details and thus does not require completeness in the paper’s collection.

In that vein, we can either embrace systematicity in the definition of the literature review as Fink does ( 2010 , p. 3): ‘A research literature review is a systematic, explicit and reproducable method for identifying, evaluating and synthesizing the existing body of completed and recorded work produced by researchers, scholars, and practitioners’; or consider that this definition qualifies for a particular literature review sub-type ‘A systematic literature review is defined as “a form of secondary study that uses a well-defined methodology to identify, analyze and interpret all available evidence related to a specific research question in a way that is unbiased and (to a degree) repeatable” ’ (Kitchenham cited in Wahyudin et al, 2011) . We opt for the latter as systematicity is not always required in the IS discipline compared to medical sciences for example where it is a paramount requirement of auditability and testability.

The quality of a literature review depends on its sytematicity, to an extent, which, as we will see, is a function of the theoretical review goal, since systematicity implies reproducability through documenting the search process and potentially indicates comprehensiveness. Coverage is obviously an issue when authors claim to review the literature. Describing the review process is necessary to envision what systematicity means.

After defining the purpose of the review, material collection begins (Mayring cited in Seuring & Müller (2008)). This involves searching, screening and selection of the relevant literature. Material collection corresponds to the first tasks identified by Fink (2010) , among seven tasks:

Selecting a research question.

Selecting bibliographic or article databases, websites and other sources.

Choosing search terms.

Applying practical screening criteria (e.g. language, funding, setting of a study).

Applying methodological screening criteria (adequacy of the study coverage and scientific quality).

Doing the review: reliable and valid reviews involve using a standardized form for abstracting data from articles, training reviewers (if more than one) to do the abstraction, monitoring the quality of the review, and pilot testing the process.

Synthesizing the results. Literature review results may be synthesized descriptively. Descriptive syntheses are interpretations of the review’s findings based on the reviewers’ experience and the quality and content of the available literature ‘ (Fink, p. 5).

The sixth task described by Fink involves the category selection (Mayring cited in Seuring & Müller (2008)), which we emphasize hereafter as the selection or design of the analytical tool for synthesizing.

Currently the trend is towards more systematic reviews, i.e. “literature surveys with defined research questions, search process, data extraction and data presentation, whether or not the researchers referred to their study as a systematic literature review”.» ( Kitchenham et al, 2009 , p. 8)

In a systematic review quality assessment may be performed using the DARE methodology based on four questions ( Kitchenham et al, 2009 ):

Are the review’s inclusion and exclusion criteria described and appropriate?

Is the literature search likely to have covered all relevant studies?

Did the reviewers assess the quality/validity of the included studies?

Were the basic data/studies adequately described?

The first question is naturally related to the way the problem and research questions are formulated. In a critical and European tradition such a formulation is very important because when delineating the search we reduce the risk of confusing findings. Inclusion/exclusion criteria are mainly related to search process automation, type of source, period and discipline:

The search process can be performed by querying electronic databases with defined keywords or by systematic personal reading without keywords entry. Keyword-based automated search has pros and cons. A systematic personal screening of all papers in a given set of sources might be in fact more effective, although much more time consuming. Search by keywords depends on the choice of keywords. In management, there is such a strong incentive to differentiate oneself by inventing our own concepts that in a given well-defined theme there might be dozens of completely different words or expressions for designating the same phenomenon, which makes the keyword approach very treacherous and necessarily iterative after one realizes one’s omissions.

The type of source depends on the number of papers available in good journals. If this number is high, selecting only ‘A-level’ journals is probably a good choice. A lot of lower rank journals do not address theory (e.g. Elgarah et al, 2005 ). However, preference for quality journals depends on the topic; for instance if the topic is rather technical, conference papers, which is the major source of publications in computer science, should be considered (e.g. Yang & Tate, 2012 ). Similarly if the phenomenon is relatively new, or conversely history-related, drawing on books and dissertations might be fruitful.

Typical reviews cover a period of 10 years. But when a phenomenon or a fashion wave started much earlier, especially when no review has been published before (e.g. Besson & Rowe, 2012 ), the review period should be inclusive of the first pieces of research and may cover 20 or 30 years. This may make a search based on keywords difficult, but good coverage has a cost.

Many phenomena we study in IS are interdisciplinary, in which case they should be studied as such when doing a review (e.g. Jasperson et al, 2002 ). For example virtual teams are being studied in management, IS, psychology, and Computer Supported and Cooperative Work (CSCW). Fortunately Shen et al (forthcoming) included the CSCW journal for their review on time. If the phenomenon is very interdisciplinary, this may imply relying on a very wide range of sources (e.g., Smith et al, 2011 ).

With the help of all sorts of IT search tools and databases, literature reviews are continuously evolving and the power these tools give to researchers has deep impact on the efficiency of the material collection. However, inclusion vs exclusion requires a balance between finding what has been researched vs the ability to review this material if the number of sources is high. Systematicity, like perfect coverage, may not always be the most important quality elements of a literature review. In fact, higher systematicity does not help much ‘abstracting data’ from papers and synthesizing it. Systematicity is more and more important for the assessment of the material in the collecting stages, and to some extent for ‘doing the review’ stage, but it is more important for explaining and testing reviews rather than for understanding and viewing the landscape. Okoli (2012) notes that, for theory-oriented literature, the need for quality assessment varies greatly from no real need for landscaping, to optional for theory building and highly recommended for theory testing.

A particular case of reviews, which has some similarity with theory testing or could even be considered a special case of it, is the policy review. For the design of a treatment or prevention policy such a review is essential. For such reviews, quality assessment of each piece of evidence becomes absolutely necessary including the screening of unpublished papers, because those might be too often rejected from publications when they confirm previous findings, and/or include elements of lower scientific quality. This type of review often requires the need to include lower quality evidence and to synthesize from fragments of such sparse evidence, which forces the author to make judgmental calls based on her or his implicit or explicit own theory to guide the integration or exclusion of such evidence ( Marjchzak & Markus, 2013 ).

Finally an extensive data description can be particularly important for descriptive reviews when, like the reviews for understanding (e.g. Jasperson et al, 2002 ), they do not focus on methodology but on the phenomenon itself and on its underlying paradigms. For explanatory reviews, as well as for descriptive reviews focusing on methodology, this is not the case. Nevertheless, availability of the coding of each paper is important for these types of reviews, as it will allow other researchers to access an important piece of synthetic knowledge, not always explicit in the papers, to reuse it but also to challenge the explanation.

What is synthesizing? When and how? Elements for argumentative strategies

According to Okoli (2012) the most important part of the review should be synthesizing, that is delivering a global representation of the literature as a whole once it has been screened, searched and after the quality of each paper has been assessed. He then discusses how to do this synthesizing of literature review depending on the type of primary sources (qualitative research, quantitative research or conceptual pieces) and the type of synthesis (quantitative, i.e, reliable detection of tendencies or qualitative, i.e, richer explanations and more comprehensive evidence, or mixed). While this allows him to identify several techniques for synthesis in systematic surveys that have not yet surfaced in IS, he does not touch the issue of what synthesizing really means.

In our view, synthesizing the literature involves summarizing numerous research findings sometimes using a novel interpretation. It can be based on analytical categories and on the use of appropriate semantic denomination of the classes/clusters allowing to map the literature. First, analytical categories can be selected to perform the analysis of the literature and synthesize the findings around these concepts. Alternatively a conceptual framework can be developed to read through the empirical literature. In that case, we suggest presenting this framework in the first part of the literature review (e. g., Besson & Rowe, 2012 ), before the selection of the literature because it will drive the analysis of the literature and thus constitute a pillar and an essential contribution of the whole paper. Second, a synthetic vision can be achieved through a developed mapping tool ( Alavi & Leidner, 2001 ) or through an existing one that is selected by the researchers ( Kappos & Rivard, 2008 ). To illustrate what we mean by synthesizing and analyzing the literature, Kappos and Rivard provide a good example of a literature review. For their mapping/landscaping of the literature they select a very broad framework (that of Ives and Piccoli) to sort and classify the literature. Then, in order to analyze the collected material they apply the three perspectives of Martin on culture along with the process of Giddens to analyze the manifestations of culture within this mapping. Synthesizing thus means abstracting in order to classify and make sense of sets of research pieces within broad categories, which deal with similar problems at a certain level. Conceptual frameworks support this task regardless of the purpose of the literature review. When the literature review aims at developing theoretical explanations, then other frameworks are needed to analyze the collected papers, to problematize the problems ( Weber, 2003 ). Thus, we can consider two types of categories related to two types of structural dimensions: those that help mapping the literature and those that help analyzing it. They are not necessarily the same.

Mayring (cited by Seuring & Müller, 2008 ) describes the typical literature review methodology as follows (cf. Table 3 ), that is after the delineation of the problem or domain to be researched and before eliciting research directions:

Material collection: The material to be collected is defined and delimitated. Furthermore, the unit of analysis (i.e., the single paper) is defined.

Descriptive analysis: Formal aspects of the material are assessed, for example, the number of publications per year, providing the background for subsequent theoretical analysis.

Category selection: Structural dimensions and related analytic categories are selected to be applied to the collected material. Structural dimensions form the major topics of analysis, which are constituted by single analytic categories.

Material evaluation: The material is analyzed according to the structural dimensions. This should allow identification of relevant issues and interpretation of results.

Iteration is built into this process, particularly for the last two steps.

The sequence and argumentative strategies ( de Vaujany et al, 2011 ) followed by the different types of reviews we encountered may considerably differ from Mayring’s model. Among numerous other possibilities and variants including those on which we have already commented we present three types of reviews for which the sequence clearly differs (cf. Table 3 ). First the descriptive review typically follows the first two stages with emphasis on the second stage. However, it stops short in terms of theorization and concludes with directions based on the description itself. The new framework based review puts emphasis on the framework. This one can be developed in the first part of the paper, as presented in Table 3 (e.g. Besson & Rowe, 2012 ) or it can be elaborated throughout the review (e.g. Te’eni, 2001 ). Third, the theory-based review puts emphasis on the material evaluation stage, which can either be developed as a discussion focusing on the main problems encountered in the empirical research with respect to the base theory ( Karimi-Alaghehband et al, 2011 ) or as a theory development, which is exogeneous to the base theory ( Lacity et al, 2011 ).

From Table 3 we see that there are clearly different argumentative strategies but they may depend only on the review goal with respect to theory, and thus be simply an attribute of this dimension. To show that the argumentative strategy is not just an attribute of the first dimension but also a dimension of its own, we take the case of reviews for understanding. Table 4 describes the various argumentative strategies used by the papers we already mentioned. It is organized by increasing breadth and publication chronology from top to bottom. The first and third examples are close to each other in terms of argumentative strategy. They mainly differ in their fifth part, which offers a focus and iteration of the same type of analysis as in its fourth part for Besson and Rowe’s paper, whereas Jasperson et al (2002) engage in theory building.

Of similar breadth, Smith et al’s (2011) review is organized very differently around three research questions including the conceptualization of the phenomenon itself.

As the breadth of the review widens, Schryen’s integrated review is built like Jasperson et al ’s on the selection of a few major papers, but also on the more intuitive findings of some gaps. Contrary to the first two reviews (top of table) these gaps are not justified by an assessment of the number of studies focusing on a given concept or dimension. The last three reviews address at various levels the research areas and their evolution in the discipline. Banker and Kauffman offer a landscaping review of IS papers in Management Science without a specific methodology. Focusing on content and problem findings, their review is simply divided across the five themes identified and expressed in their introduction. The last two bear stronger similarity to one another. To conclude on this table, and acknowledging the limitation of this very sketchy and unsystematic test, we nevertheless see strong variations in the argumentative strategy of this type of review. This seems to be related to the adopted methodology, to the number of research questions addressed by the review and by the review breadth. Despite the fact that Banker and Kauffman’s freedom may be explained by their role as Editors, a common standard argumentative strategy across diverse breadth of reviews for understanding does not seem to exist.

In conclusion: a few recommendations

We hasten to say that by no means we claim that the dimensions and guidelines we propose here should be applied in a dogmatic way by authors, nor that their papers should be reviewed as such by editorial teams, or that these dimensions reflect the only valid thinking on how to structure literature reviews. But we hope that this reflection will help in guiding Ph.D. students who often do such exercise and would like to publish in well recognized outlets if they feel that, beyond preparatory work to their other publications, their literature review can contribute to knowledge. We also hope it provides some practical guidance to other submitters, in particular if they hesitate with other submission categories.

This sketchy tour of the diversity of literature reviews shows that, beyond our definition, there is not a single type of literature review. They vary according to theoretical purpose (description, understanding, explaining), breadth, systematicity and argumentative strategy.

Whereas this unsystematic review of reviews first portrayed these dimensions as independent, we also suggest that argumentative strategies are partially related to the first dimension depending on the level of granularity we use to describe these argumentative strategies. In addition, they may vary according to the level of theorization of the theme. The more the review departs from the descriptive review type, the more it is oriented towards theory building, and the more argumentative strategies can become complex.

Comprehensiveness and systematicity is an obvious issue for a current and replicable piece of work, and is therefore particularly important for testing reviews, and to some extent for theory building reviews but this becomes less for descriptive or landscaping reviews ( Okoli, 2012 ). In fact, to understand the big picture of a knowledge domain we do not always need to identify all the pieces belonging to this domain when they present similar findings, whereas the frequency of similar findings play a very important role when one wants to explain and, even more so when testing. In fact literature reviews for theory testing is the only case where systematicity should be very high. An equal concern is the quality assessment of selected papers.

To conclude we recap our recommendations as follows:

Recommendation 1 (R1) ‘Overarching principle of respect and coherence’: Along all four investigated dimensions there is diversity and it should be respected.

However, as advocated by Sarker et al (2013) for qualitative research, this respect should not be at the expense of coherence. It is in that spirit that, based on our above comments, we wish to wrap up and formulate a few further recommendations that we encapsulate in Table 5 . This table reflects our thinking on the four dimensions. We add to it the gaps and biases identification and future research directions dimension, which is consistent with our definition and constitutes a necessary component of a review.

Recommendation 2 (R2) ‘Gaps, biases and directions’: Literature reviews should strive to identify thematic gaps and theoretical biases, propose some future research directions, including alternative theoretical underpinnings, and not just stop at the summarizing/synthesizing stage.

If the collected material presents only what we already know, it does not constitute a contribution to knowledge. Its synthetic character should entail an interpretation of this existing body of knowledge and lead to the identification of some gaps and directions.

Recommendation 3 (R3) ‘Which contribution to theory goal?’ And notably, how to choose between understanding vs explaining?: The choice of type of theoretical contribution depends on the theorization level and amount of available literature that already exist.

Distinguishing between understanding and explaining can be subtle to the point that, after evoking the close relationship between understanding and explanation (p. 617), Gregor stated that theories for explaining could well be labeled theories for understanding. However, in due epistemological order, new knowledge should first be described before theorizing, that is we should use current available knowledge to name things before advancing new knowledge ( Bachelard, 1934 ). And when theorizing one should aim at understanding before trying to explain which, as noted by Habermas (1988) , will lead to a better understanding in a virtuous circle. When the knowledge is still sparse with fundamental relevant concepts little used in empirical research it would be too demanding to try to explain. Identifying what has been neglected in terms of concepts and their dimensions is the first task when descriptions have been made. To explain we need to be able to already see the concepts at play and possibly consider alternative theories. For instance, to understand how IT-enabled organizational transformation can start and develop, we need the concept of organizational inertia, some phase changes modeled into a transformation process, and an understanding of the causal agency of the stakeholders that Besson and I (2012) call governing agency and working agency. However, to explain the radicalness of the organizational change, the role of IT in this change, the mere fact that it happens, and its outcomes, require a more comprehensive explanation that only the comparison of alternative theories like punctuated equilibrium, institutionalism or evolutionism can give.

Recommendation 4 (R4) ‘Descriptive reviews’: To be worthy of appearing in top journals there is a need to go beyond the descriptive literature type, unless it bears on methodological and epistemological issues (4a). For such outlets, descriptive reviews must be also highly systematic (4b). We should nevertheless emphasize that descriptive reviews are especially important for emerging topics and help the field as a whole to make better sense of new technologies, processes and systems faster.

Recommendation 5 (R5) ‘Integrative reviews’: A literature review does not have to be integrative like a conceptual framework or a theory ( Schwarz et al, 2006 ), but this is a nice to have feature. This is particularly relevant for reviews for understanding since reviews for theoretical explanations are generally highly integrated by nature.

Recommendation 6 (R6) ‘Conceptual framework’: A literature review that aims at understanding can benefit from using an analytical tool like a conceptual framework to identify knowledge gaps and theoretical bias, and future research directions (6a: desirable). A literature review that aims at explaining must use an analytical tool like a conceptual framework to identify knowledge gaps and future research directions (6b: required).

In particular, if the mapping was clear and well-known prior to the literature review, a review that is using an original and relevant analytical lens is very likely to lead to the identification of knowledge gaps and theoretical bias.

This recommendation does not imply that proposing a new conceptual framework ( Webster & Watson, 2002 ) or a new theory is necessary. To delineate the review genre and its border with the theory development paper ( Rowe, 2012 ), I consider that such novelty goes beyond a literature review per se .

Recommendation 7 (R7) ‘Reviews vs theory development’: If a literature review develops a conceptual framework, model or theory, and is highly systematic in reviewing the literature it should be evaluated as a literature review. If it is not highly systematic it would probably be better if submitted as a theory development paper.

Recommendation 8 (R8) ‘Systematicity’: A literature review must be highly systematic if it aims at theoretical explanations (8a). Reviews aiming at theoretical understanding do not have to be highly systematic, but a good coverage of topic or domain is nevertheless required (8b).

Recommendation 9 (R9) ‘Non-systematicity’: Papers that aim at theoretical explanations and are not systematic should be submitted as theory development papers. Those should at least enhance or develop new conceptual frameworks if not theories.

Note that R9 is not just a sub-case of R7 because R7 is concerned with the development and not just the application of a model, framework or theory. Theory development papers can be review-centric. They do not have to always present completely new theory ( Lepine & Willcox-King, 2010 ). But I leave the discussion over this matter for another editorial by more competent scholars (e.g. Weber, 2003 ; Rivard, 2014 ).

In this 3rd issue of 2014 , EJIS brings different paper genres valuable for the IS community.

The first paper, which is a literature review, resonates with my discussion topic in this editorial and falls in the describing review genre. ‘Towards mindful case study research in IS: a critical analysis of the past ten years’ is conducted by three colleagues from the University of Cologne Marcus Keutel, Bjoern Michalik and Janek Richter. It reviews 10 years of the IS discipline’s use of case study research (CSR) as published in six major IS journals. The authors observed a dualism of positivism and interpretivism in the analyzed articles, with each paradigm relating to almost half of the analyzed case studies. They also have identified a number of shortcomings in the CSR practice, and call for more mindfulness in the studies’ design. For instance they propose a few recommendations such as taking CSR for theory testing strategy more frequently into consideration in future research, presenting explicitly the case selection process in order to fully understand the researchers’ intentions and raising awareness about the limitations concerning the generalizability of the study findings. They also propose relying on real-time observations or archival data, along with quantitative data for primary data analysis instead of the more dominant interview data sources.

The second paper is an interesting research essay by Kai Riemer from The University of Sydney and Robert Johnston from The University College Dublin entitled ‘Rethinking the place of the artefact in IS using Heidegger’s analysis of equipment’. The essay portrays the story of an IT implementation project using Heidegger’s analysis of equipment and contrasting this account to the more orthodox Cartesian dualist view that differentiates between the artefact described as a bundle of features and the user for whom the artefact is designed. Relying on Heidegger’s concepts of engagement, present-at-hand and ready-at-hand and combining these with the ‘equipment’ view, the two researchers show how the Heideggerian view could be more suitable for analyzing the IT artefact. Moreover, they advance arguments for how such an analysis could resolve many of the classic Cartesian view messiness and the more general IS discipline sufferings. For example, it puts the IT artefact at the center of the IS discipline allowing for rethinking the central and peripheral phenomena of IS in a different manner and opens new opportunities for theorizing in the IS discipline. The research also discusses how research informed by a Heideggerian ontology and epistemology would probably necessitate some methodological adaptations and that IS design endeavors could become much more useful and adapted if they were to use the holistic shaping of the sociomaterial makeup of human practices.

The third article is an issues and opinion paper with the title ‘Guidelines for improving the contextual relevance of field surveys: the case of information security policy violations’ formulated by Mikko Siponen affiliated with the Universities of Jyväskylä and Oulu of Finland and Anthony Vance from Brigham Young University. The paper aims at improving practical relevance of the IS research by ensuring its contextual relevance. This goal involves whether the specific phenomenon under examination constitutes a critical problem in practice. It is the authors’ opinion that IS behavioral research’s practical relevance can be improved without loss of rigor by prudently addressing a number of contextual issues in survey design. Utilizing empirical evidence and research drawn from their extensive experience in the Information Security Policy (ISP) violations, the authors outline five guidelines to increase the contextual relevance of field survey research. They move afterwards towards the generalization of these guidelines so that they are suited as guidelines for application for IS field surveys in general. Namely, these guidelines are (1) ensuring that respondents recognize the phenomenon of interest in the instrumentation; (2) measuring the phenomenon concretely; (3) ensuring that the dependent variable focuses on important problems in practice; (4) ensuring the applicability of instrumentation to respondents’ organizational context; and (5) theorize the appropriate level of specificity and generalizability for instrumentation. While the authors acknowledge that these guidelines do not constitute an exhaustive practical relevance list of guidelines for IS field surveys and that more guidelines can be envisaged, they show that among the surveyed IS behavioral research on ISP violation, most studies meet two or fewer of their suggested guidelines.

This EJIS issue also brings forward four notable empirical research papers. Two of these address the value of IT; a long-standing critical topic in IS.

The article ‘Do you see what I see? The search for consensus among executives’ perceptions of IT business value’ presented by Paul P Tallon from Loyola University examines how executives’ perceptions about the IT are formed through the processes of sensemaking and sensegiving. These perceptions are key to defining and maintaining a strategic direction for IT inside firms. The researcher’s model is constituted of two related theories: distributed sensemaking, which is centered on sensemaking in groups or distributed settings, and sensegiving, a theory centered on communications and knowledge sharing as a means of allowing individuals or groups to engage in more directed sensemaking. Consensus and discord among executives over IT impacts are built through sensegiving. By empirically testing an 11-factor model over 133 senior business executives selected from 13 single-segment, single line Fortune 500 firms, the study reveals a clear explanation for the difference found between firms where IS-led sensegiving facilitates consensus and those where lack of sensegiving prevents consensus from taking place. Furthermore, the article makes a theoretical contribution to the literature by linking the theories of distributed sensemaking and sensegiving as a way to build consensus between executives over IT business value in the same firm.

The second research paper is a collaborative work presented by six IS scholars and also addressing the IT value: Yang Chen from Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, Yi Wang from Shantou University, Saggi Nevo from University at Albany, Jiafei Jin from Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, Luning Wang from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Wing S Chow from Hong Kong Baptist University. The research is entitled ‘IT capability and organizational performance: the roles of business process agility and environmental factors’ and looks into organizational performance through the mediating role of business process agility implying capabilities of speed, flexibility, and innovation and the moderating roles of environmental factors (namely environmental hostility, dynamism and complexity). Business process agility is seen as a form of organizational agility that is of particular relevance to IS research allowing a firm to adapt to its market environment. Developing multi-item reflective measures previously validated in other studies, and based on matched survey data obtained from 214 IT and business executives from manufacturing firms in China, the research hypotheses are tested showing support that the impact of IT capability over organizational performance is fully mediated by business process agility. Moreover, the study shows that environmental hostility (or the existence of unfavorable external forces in a firm’s business environment) weakens the effect of IT capability on business process agility, while environmental complexity (or heterogeneity and range of an industry and/or an organization’s activities) strengthens it.

Robert Wayne Gregory from University of Göttingen and Mark Keil from Georgia State University have co-written the article ‘Blending bureaucratic and collaborative management styles to achieve control ambidexterity in IS projects’. The study investigates how managers use contrasting management styles within IS project management, and looks into the tensions that ensue from combining these contrasting management styles as well as how such tensions are dealt with. Using a Structured-Pragmatic-Situational approach for case studies, the researchers used data collected from a large IS implementation project in the financial services industry. Two managers, one with a business background and one from IT, were running the project. The researchers initially began by collecting data from 25 interviews to conceptualize the ambidexterity control phenomenon and analyze the data. Then a further 14 interviews served the augmenting cycle along with secondary material. Consequently, the authors could articulate the two contrasting management styles: the bureaucratic management style that aims at ensuring that project members act in a way that is consistent with the organization’s pre-determined project goals and objectives, and the collaborative management style that aims at enabling effective collaboration among project members and stakeholders. Furthermore, the study illustrates that dissimilar management styles are needed in combination to achieve control ambidexterity. However, these styles create tensions. Such tensions are difficult to cope with by a single project manager. Therefore, the authors suggest to appoint two project managers who share responsibility for the IS project.

The empirical study ‘Why end-users move to the cloud: a migration-theoretic analysis’ by Anol Bhattacherjee from University of South Florida and Sang Cheol Park from Hyupsung University uses the migration theory as a theoretical lens to take full account of cloud migration in an integrative way. The study develops a hypothetical migration model containing pull, push and mooring factors that could most likely account for switching from a client-centric to cloud-based services. A structural equation modeling method is employed to test the cloud migration model. The authors use data drawn from a longitudinal survey of South Korean student’s adoption of Google Apps. The dataset counting 188 students validates the study’s proposed model. Among the confirmed study results we learn that some pull factors such as the relative usefulness and the expected omnipresence of cloud migration services are positively related to users’ intention to migrate to cloud computing services. In counterpart, some mooring effects are negatively associated with cloud migration such as the existence of high switching costs or security concerns. Finally, the authors also establish that dissatisfaction with client-centric IT is a push factor that positively influences the cloud migration decision. It is worth noting that the study is a pioneer in noting the differences incumbent between IT migration and IT adoption and has some obvious practical implications for cloud service providers. But despite such valuable research insights, it would be interesting to study cloud migration in organizational context.

We extend our gratitude to this issue’s associate editors recognizing their contribution to this selection of papers: Jyoti Choudrie, Robert Briggs, Merrill Warkentin, Gerald Grant, C Ranganathan, Christopher Davis and Sarah Spiekermann. In addition I would like to thank Chrisanthi Avgerou, Manju Ahuja, Tamara Dinev, Lynne Markus, Niamh O’Riordan, Suzanne Rivard, Carol Saunders, Pär Agerfalk, Walter Fernandez, Guido Schryen, Dov Te’eni and Michel Avital as well as the participants at the FNEGE Seminar in Paris for their very valuable feedback on this editorial. As usual my thanks to Myriam Raymond for compiling the summaries in this issue and for her precious comments on this editorial.

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Rowe, F. What literature review is not: diversity, boundaries and recommendations. Eur J Inf Syst 23 , 241–255 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1057/ejis.2014.7

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  • Published: 08 May 2024

A meta-analysis on global change drivers and the risk of infectious disease

  • Michael B. Mahon   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-9436-2998 1 , 2   na1 ,
  • Alexandra Sack 1 , 3   na1 ,
  • O. Alejandro Aleuy 1 ,
  • Carly Barbera 1 ,
  • Ethan Brown   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-0827-4906 1 ,
  • Heather Buelow   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-3535-4151 1 ,
  • David J. Civitello 4 ,
  • Jeremy M. Cohen   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-9611-9150 5 ,
  • Luz A. de Wit   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-3045-4017 1 ,
  • Meghan Forstchen 1 , 3 ,
  • Fletcher W. Halliday 6 ,
  • Patrick Heffernan 1 ,
  • Sarah A. Knutie 7 ,
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  • Joanna G. Larson   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-1401-7837 1 ,
  • Samantha L. Rumschlag   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-3125-8402 1 , 2 ,
  • Emily Selland   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-4527-297X 1 , 3 ,
  • Alexander Shepack 1 ,
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  • Infectious diseases

Anthropogenic change is contributing to the rise in emerging infectious diseases, which are significantly correlated with socioeconomic, environmental and ecological factors 1 . Studies have shown that infectious disease risk is modified by changes to biodiversity 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , climate change 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 , chemical pollution 12 , 13 , 14 , landscape transformations 15 , 16 , 17 , 18 , 19 , 20 and species introductions 21 . However, it remains unclear which global change drivers most increase disease and under what contexts. Here we amassed a dataset from the literature that contains 2,938 observations of infectious disease responses to global change drivers across 1,497 host–parasite combinations, including plant, animal and human hosts. We found that biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, climate change and introduced species are associated with increases in disease-related end points or harm, whereas urbanization is associated with decreases in disease end points. Natural biodiversity gradients, deforestation and forest fragmentation are comparatively unimportant or idiosyncratic as drivers of disease. Overall, these results are consistent across human and non-human diseases. Nevertheless, context-dependent effects of the global change drivers on disease were found to be common. The findings uncovered by this meta-analysis should help target disease management and surveillance efforts towards global change drivers that increase disease. Specifically, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, managing ecosystem health, and preventing biological invasions and biodiversity loss could help to reduce the burden of plant, animal and human diseases, especially when coupled with improvements to social and economic determinants of health.

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All the data for this Article have been deposited at Zenodo ( https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.8169979 ) 52 and GitHub ( https://github.com/mahonmb/GCDofDisease ) 53 .

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All the code for this Article has been deposited at Zenodo ( https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.8169979 ) 52 and GitHub ( https://github.com/mahonmb/GCDofDisease ) 53 . R markdown is provided in Supplementary Data 1 .

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We thank C. Mitchell for contributing data on enemy release; L. Albert and B. Shayhorn for assisting with data collection; J. Gurevitch, M. Lajeunesse and G. Stewart for providing comments on an earlier version of this manuscript; and C. Carlson and two anonymous reviewers for improving this paper. This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (DEB-2109293, DEB-2017785, DEB-1518681, IOS-1754868), National Institutes of Health (R01TW010286) and US Department of Agriculture (2021-38420-34065) to J.R.R.; a US Geological Survey Powell grant to J.R.R. and S.L.R.; University of Connecticut Start-up funds to S.A.K.; grants from the National Science Foundation (IOS-1755002) and National Institutes of Health (R01 AI150774) to D.J.C.; and an Ambizione grant (PZ00P3_202027) from the Swiss National Science Foundation to F.W.H. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

These authors contributed equally: Michael B. Mahon, Alexandra Sack, Jason R. Rohr

Authors and Affiliations

Department of Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, USA

Michael B. Mahon, Alexandra Sack, O. Alejandro Aleuy, Carly Barbera, Ethan Brown, Heather Buelow, Luz A. de Wit, Meghan Forstchen, Patrick Heffernan, Alexis Korotasz, Joanna G. Larson, Samantha L. Rumschlag, Emily Selland, Alexander Shepack, Nitin Vincent & Jason R. Rohr

Environmental Change Initiative, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, USA

Michael B. Mahon, Samantha L. Rumschlag & Jason R. Rohr

Eck Institute of Global Health, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, USA

Alexandra Sack, Meghan Forstchen, Emily Selland & Jason R. Rohr

Department of Biology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA

David J. Civitello

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

Jeremy M. Cohen

Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA

Fletcher W. Halliday

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Institute for Systems Genomics, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA

Sarah A. Knutie

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J.R.R. conceptualized the study. All of the authors contributed to the methodology. All of the authors contributed to investigation. Visualization was performed by M.B.M. The initial study list and related information were compiled by D.J.C., J.M.C., F.W.H., S.A.K., S.L.R. and J.R.R. Data extraction was performed by M.B.M., A.S., O.A.A., C.B., E.B., H.B., L.A.d.W., M.F., P.H., A.K., J.G.L., E.S., A.S. and N.V. Data were checked for accuracy by M.B.M. and A.S. Analyses were performed by M.B.M. and J.R.R. Funding was acquired by D.J.C., J.R.R., S.A.K. and S.L.R. Project administration was done by J.R.R. J.R.R. supervised the study. J.R.R. and M.B.M. wrote the original draft. All of the authors reviewed and edited the manuscript. J.R.R. and M.B.M. responded to reviewers.

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Correspondence to Jason R. Rohr .

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended data fig. 1 prisma flowchart..

The PRISMA flow diagram of the search and selection of studies included in this meta-analysis. Note that 77 studies came from the Halliday et al. 3 database on biodiversity change.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Summary of the number of studies (A-F) and parasite taxa (G-L) in the infectious disease database across ecological contexts.

The contexts are global change driver ( A , G ), parasite taxa ( B , H ), host taxa ( C , I ), experimental venue ( D , J ), study habitat ( E , K ), and human parasite status ( F , L ).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Summary of the number of effect sizes (A-I), studies (J-R), and parasite taxa (S-a) in the infectious disease database for various parasite and host contexts.

Shown are parasite type ( A , J , S ), host thermy ( B , K , T ), vector status ( C , L , U ), vector-borne status ( D , M , V ), parasite transmission ( E , N , W ), free living stages ( F , O , X ), host (e.g. disease, host growth, host survival) or parasite (e.g. parasite abundance, prevalence, fecundity) endpoint ( G , P , Y ), micro- vs macroparasite ( H , Q , Z ), and zoonotic status ( I , R , a ).

Extended Data Fig. 4 The effects of global change drivers and subsequent subcategories on disease responses with Log Response Ratio instead of Hedge’s g.

Here, Log Response Ratio shows similar trends to that of Hedge’s g presented in the main text. The displayed points represent the mean predicted values (with 95% confidence intervals) from a meta-analytical model with separate random intercepts for study. Points that do not share letters are significantly different from one another (p < 0.05) based on a two-sided Tukey’s posthoc multiple comparison test with adjustment for multiple comparisons. See Table S 3 for pairwise comparison results. Effects of the five common global change drivers ( A ) have the same directionality, similar magnitude, and significance as those presented in Fig. 2 . Global change driver effects are significant when confidence intervals do not overlap with zero and explicitly tested with two-tailed t-test (indicated by asterisks; t 80.62  = 2.16, p = 0.034 for CP; t 71.42  = 2.10, p = 0.039 for CC; t 131.79  = −3.52, p < 0.001 for HLC; t 61.9  = 2.10, p = 0.040 for IS). The subcategories ( B ) also show similar patterns as those presented in Fig. 3 . Subcategories are significant when confidence intervals do not overlap with zero and were explicitly tested with two-tailed one sample t-test (t 30.52  = 2.17, p = 0.038 for CO 2 ; t 40.03  = 4.64, p < 0.001 for Enemy Release; t 47.45  = 2.18, p = 0.034 for Mean Temperature; t 110.81  = −4.05, p < 0.001 for Urbanization); all other subcategories have p > 0.20. Note that effect size and study numbers are lower here than in Figs. 3 and 4 , because log response ratios cannot be calculated for studies that provide coefficients (e.g., odds ratio) rather than raw data; as such, all observations within BC did not have associated RR values. Despite strong differences in sample size, patterns are consistent across effect sizes, and therefore, we can be confident that the results presented in the main text are not biased because of effect size selection.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Average standard errors of the effect sizes (A) and sample sizes per effect size (B) for each of the five global change drivers.

The displayed points represent the mean predicted values (with 95% confidence intervals) from the generalized linear mixed effects models with separate random intercepts for study (Gaussian distribution for standard error model, A ; Poisson distribution for sample size model, B ). Points that do not share letters are significantly different from one another (p < 0.05) based on a two-sided Tukey’s posthoc multiple comparison test with adjustment for multiple comparisons. Sample sizes (number of studies, n, and effect sizes, k) for each driver are as follows: n = 77, k = 392 for BC; n = 124, k = 364 for CP; n = 202, k = 380 for CC; n = 517, k = 1449 for HLC; n = 96, k = 355 for IS.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Forest plots of effect sizes, associated variances, and relative weights (A), Funnel plots (B), and Egger’s Test plots (C) for each of the five global change drivers and leave-one-out publication bias analyses (D).

In panel A , points are the individual effect sizes (Hedge’s G), error bars are standard errors of the effect size, and size of the points is the relative weight of the observation in the model, with larger points representing observations with higher weight in the model. Sample sizes are provided for each effect size in the meta-analytic database. Effect sizes were plotted in a random order. Egger’s tests indicated significant asymmetries (p < 0.05) in Biodiversity Change (worst asymmetry – likely not bias, just real effect of positive relationship between diversity and disease), Climate Change – (weak asymmetry, again likely not bias, climate change generally increases disease), and Introduced Species (relatively weak asymmetry – unclear whether this is a bias, may be driven by some outliers). No significant asymmetries (p > 0.05) were found in Chemical Pollution and Habitat Loss/Change, suggesting negligible publication bias in reported disease responses across these global change drivers ( B , C ). Egger’s test included publication year as moderator but found no significant relationship between Hedge’s g and publication year (p > 0.05) implying no temporal bias in effect size magnitude or direction. In panel D , the horizontal red lines denote the grand mean and SE of Hedge’s g and (g = 0.1009, SE = 0.0338). Grey points and error bars indicate the Hedge’s g and SEs, respectively, using the leave-one-out method (grand mean is recalculated after a given study is removed from dataset). While the removal of certain studies resulted in values that differed from the grand mean, all estimated Hedge’s g values fell well within the standard error of the grand mean. This sensitivity analysis indicates that our results were robust to the iterative exclusion of individual studies.

Extended Data Fig. 7 The effects of habitat loss/change on disease depend on parasite taxa and land use conversion contexts.

A) Enemy type influences the magnitude of the effect of urbanization on disease: helminths, protists, and arthropods were all negatively associated with urbanization, whereas viruses were non-significantly positively associated with urbanization. B) Reference (control) land use type influences the magnitude of the effect of urbanization on disease: disease was reduced in urban settings compared to rural and peri-urban settings, whereas there were no differences in disease along urbanization gradients or between urban and natural settings. C) The effect of forest fragmentation depends on whether a large/continuous habitat patch is compared to a small patch or whether disease it is measured along an increasing fragmentation gradient (Z = −2.828, p = 0.005). Conversely, the effect of deforestation on disease does not depend on whether the habitat has been destroyed and allowed to regrow (e.g., clearcutting, second growth forests, etc.) or whether it has been replaced with agriculture (e.g., row crop, agroforestry, livestock grazing; Z = 1.809, p = 0.0705). The displayed points represent the mean predicted values (with 95% confidence intervals) from a metafor model where the response variable was a Hedge’s g (representing the effect on an infectious disease endpoint relative to control), study was treated as a random effect, and the independent variables included enemy type (A), reference land use type (B), or land use conversion type (C). Data for (A) and (B) were only those studies that were within the “urbanization” subcategory; data for (C) were only those studies that were within the “deforestation” and “forest fragmentation” subcategories. Sample sizes (number of studies, n, and effect sizes, k) in (A) for each enemy are n = 48, k = 98 for Virus; n = 193, k = 343 for Protist; n = 159, k = 490 for Helminth; n = 10, k = 24 for Fungi; n = 103, k = 223 for Bacteria; and n = 30, k = 73 for Arthropod. Sample sizes in (B) for each reference land use type are n = 391, k = 1073 for Rural; n = 29, k = 74 for Peri-urban; n = 33, k = 83 for Natural; and n = 24, k = 58 for Urban Gradient. Sample sizes in (C) for each land use conversion type are n = 7, k = 47 for Continuous Gradient; n = 16, k = 44 for High/Low Fragmentation; n = 11, k = 27 for Clearcut/Regrowth; and n = 21, k = 43 for Agriculture.

Extended Data Fig. 8 The effects of common global change drivers on mean infectious disease responses in the literature depends on whether the endpoint is the host or parasite; whether the parasite is a vector, is vector-borne, has a complex or direct life cycle, or is a macroparasite; whether the host is an ectotherm or endotherm; or the venue and habitat in which the study was conducted.

A ) Parasite endpoints. B ) Vector-borne status. C ) Parasite transmission route. D ) Parasite size. E ) Venue. F ) Habitat. G ) Host thermy. H ) Parasite type (ecto- or endoparasite). See Table S 2 for number of studies and effect sizes across ecological contexts and global change drivers. See Table S 3 for pairwise comparison results. The displayed points represent the mean predicted values (with 95% confidence intervals) from a metafor model where the response variable was a Hedge’s g (representing the effect on an infectious disease endpoint relative to control), study was treated as a random effect, and the independent variables included the main effects and an interaction between global change driver and the focal independent variable (whether the endpoint measured was a host or parasite, whether the parasite is vector-borne, has a complex or direct life cycle, is a macroparasite, whether the study was conducted in the field or lab, habitat, the host is ectothermic, or the parasite is an ectoparasite).

Extended Data Fig. 9 The effects of five common global change drivers on mean infectious disease responses in the literature only occasionally depend on location, host taxon, and parasite taxon.

A ) Continent in which the field study occurred. Lack of replication in chemical pollution precluded us from including South America, Australia, and Africa in this analysis. B ) Host taxa. C ) Enemy taxa. See Table S 2 for number of studies and effect sizes across ecological contexts and global change drivers. See Table S 3 for pairwise comparison results. The displayed points represent the mean predicted values (with 95% confidence intervals) from a metafor model where the response variable was a Hedge’s g (representing the effect on an infectious disease endpoint relative to control), study was treated as a random effect, and the independent variables included the main effects and an interaction between global change driver and continent, host taxon, and enemy taxon.

Extended Data Fig. 10 The effects of human vs. non-human endpoints for the zoonotic disease subset of database and wild vs. domesticated animal endpoints for the non-human animal subset of database are consistent across global change drivers.

(A) Zoonotic disease responses measured on human hosts responded less positively (closer to zero when positive, further from zero when negative) than those measured on non-human (animal) hosts (Z = 2.306, p = 0.021). Note, IS studies were removed because of missing cells. (B) Disease responses measured on domestic animal hosts responded less positively (closer to zero when positive, further from zero when negative) than those measured on wild animal hosts (Z = 2.636, p = 0.008). These results were consistent across global change drivers (i.e., no significant interaction between endpoint and global change driver). As many of the global change drivers increase zoonotic parasites in non-human animals and all parasites in wild animals, this may suggest that anthropogenic change might increase the occurrence of parasite spillover from animals to humans and thus also pandemic risk. The displayed points represent the mean predicted values (with 95% confidence intervals) from a metafor model where the response variable was a Hedge’s g (representing the effect on an infectious disease endpoint relative to control), study was treated as a random effect, and the independent variable of global change driver and human/non-human hosts. Data for (A) were only those diseases that are considered “zoonotic”; data for (B) were only those endpoints that were measured on non-human animals. Sample sizes in (A) for zoonotic disease measured on human endpoints across global change drivers are n = 3, k = 17 for BC; n = 2, k = 6 for CP; n = 25, k = 39 for CC; and n = 175, k = 331 for HLC. Sample sizes in (A) for zoonotic disease measured on non-human endpoints across global change drivers are n = 25, k = 52 for BC; n = 2, k = 3 for CP; n = 18, k = 29 for CC; n = 126, k = 289 for HLC. Sample sizes in (B) for wild animal endpoints across global change drivers are n = 28, k = 69 for BC; n = 21, k = 44 for CP; n = 50, k = 89 for CC; n = 121, k = 360 for HLC; and n = 29, k = 45 for IS. Sample sizes in (B) for domesticated animal endpoints across global change drivers are n = 2, k = 4 for BC; n = 4, k = 11 for CP; n = 7, k = 20 for CC; n = 78, k = 197 for HLC; and n = 1, k = 2 for IS.

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  23. What literature review is not: diversity, boundaries and

    Recommendation 5 (R5) 'Integrative reviews': A literature review does not have to be integrative like a conceptual framework or a theory (Schwarz et al, 2006), but this is a nice to have feature. This is particularly relevant for reviews for understanding since reviews for theoretical explanations are generally highly integrated by nature.

  24. A meta-analysis on global change drivers and the risk of infectious

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  25. 41 Products Reviewers Say You Should "Stop Looking" For ...

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