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Nursing: Scholarly Inquiry: Literature Reviews

What's On This Page

The resources in this section offer information about the definition, scope, and structure of different types of literature reviews.

What is a Literature Review?

Comparing Different Types of Reviews

Integrative Literature Reviews

Systematic Literature Reviews

What is a Literature Review?

"A review of the literature consists of reading, analyzing, and writing a synthesis of scholarly materials about a specific topic...A review of the scientific literature is fundamental to understanding the accumulated knowledge about the topic being reviewed." 

Source: Health Sciences Literature Review Made Easy (Garrard 2011).

More Information

This handout from The Writing Center at UNC Chapel Hill, walks through the literature review process; from understanding what a lit review is, to constructing a thesis statement, to thinking about how to organize your review.

This brief, easy-to-read article describes different types of literature reviews.

Conner, B. T. (2014). Demystifying literature reviews. American Nurse Today, 9(1), 13-14 2p.

A literature review is a very practical part of the research process.  It's how you build on other research in the field - identify best practices and tools and learn what doesn't work.  The resources on the page are here to help you structure you literature review so it's as useful as possible.  

Also take a look at any literature reviews you find as you search for articles - in addition to content and further references they'll also provide helpful structural hints. 

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Comparing Different Types of Reviews

Lit Review for a Research Project (Narrative Reviews)

"Literature reviews in the introduction to a report provide readers with an overview of existing evidence, and contribute to the argument for the new study.  These reviews are usually only 2 to 4 double spaced pages, and so, only key studies can be cited.  The emphasis is on summarizing and evaluating an overall body of evidence." 

Source: Polit, D. F., & Beck, C. T. (2012). Nursing research: Generating and assessing evidence for nursing practice. New York: Wolters Kluwer Health | Lippincott Williams & Williams.

For a narrative review as part of a research report, you want to conduct a comprehensive search to identify as many sources as possible on your topic.  You'll then choose the key studies to include in your report.

Database Searching

Search health sciences databases (i.e. Cinahl, Medline) for keywords related to your topic.  (See the Articles on Your Topic page of this guide for tips and resources).

Having trouble?  Make an appointment with a librarian to discuss databases, keywords, and search strategies

Citation Searching

When you find a relevant article, use it to identify other potentially relevant articles:

Look at its references to identify other relevant articles that you haven't found.

Use Google Scholar, Scopus, or Web of Science to identify more recent articles that have cited that one.

Reviews that are part of a research report don't usually share their search strategy, but it's still a good idea to take notes to make the process as organized and efficient as possible.

A synthesis matrix helps you compare research articles side-by-side so you can identify common themes and visualize the bigger picture.

This very brief article explains what a synthesis matrix is and how to use one for your literature review:

Clark, K. R., & Buckley, M. B. (2017). Using a synthesis matrix to plan a literature review. Radiologic Technology, 88(3), 354-357.

This book goes into detail about the matrix method, which is a system of organizing the literature review process.  Chapters 5 and 6 explain how to set up a synthesis matrix, with an example on pages 157-158.

Garrard, J. (2017). Health sciences literature review made easy. Burlington, Massachusetts: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

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Integrative Reviews

"An integrative review is a specific review method that summarizes past empirical or theoretical literature to provide a more comprehensive understanding of a particular phenomenon or healthcare problem...Well-done integrative reviews present the state of the science, contribute to theory development, and have direct applicability to practice and policy."

Source: Whittemore, R., & Knafl, K. (2005). The integrative review: updated methodology. Journal Of Advanced Nursing, 52(5), 546-553 8p. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.2005.03621.x

If you're conducing an integrative review, definitely read this Whittemore and Knafl article.  It clearly explains what an integrative review is and how to design and implement one.

For an integrative review, you want to conduct a comprehensive search to identify as many sources as possible on your topic.  

Database Searching

Search health sciences databases (i.e. Cinahl, Medline) for keywords related to your topic.  (See the Articles on Your Topic page of this guide for tips and resources).

Having trouble?  Make an appointment with a librarian to discuss databases, keywords, and search strategies

Citation Searching

When you find a relevant article, use it to identify other potentially relevant articles:

Look at its references to identify other relevant articles that you haven't found.

Use Google Scholar, Scopus, or Web of Science to identify more recent articles that have cited that one.

You'll have to describe your search strategy in the methods section of your write-up, so take good notes as you search!

Not every article that comes up in your search will be appropriate for your review.  As you examine your search results, come up with specific criteria that makes an article not suitable to be included.  Some examples include:

Relevance to your topic (i.e. different meaning of a term, different aspect of your topic, etc.)

Publication type (journals, grey literature, etc.)

Language of publication

Time period

Geographic considerations

The goal is to be as strategic and transparent as possible about your exclusion criteria.  Excluding studies from a review increases the risk of bias, so you'll want to choose your criteria carefully and make it explicit in your write-up.

It is important to clearly document search strategies in the methods sections.  This lets your readers know exactly how you identified the studies in your review and makes your search replicable.  For example:

List the databases you search and the keywords you used

Explain how you used citation searching to identify additional articles

Discuss the exclusion criteria you used

A synthesis matrix helps you compare research articles side-by-side so you can identify common themes and visualize the bigger picture.

This very brief article explains what a synthesis matrix is and how to use one for your literature review:

Clark, K. R., & Buckley, M. B. (2017). Using a synthesis matrix to plan a literature review. Radiologic Technology, 88(3), 354-357.

This book goes into detail about the matrix method, which is a system of organizing the literature review process.  Chapters 5 and 6 explain how to set up a synthesis matrix, with an example on pages 157-158.

Garrard, J. (2017). Health sciences literature review made easy. Burlington, Massachusetts: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

 

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Systematic Reviews

"A systematic review involves the identification, selection, appraisal, and synthesis of the best available evidence for clinical decision making. A properly conducted systematic review uses reproducible, preplanned strategies to reduce bias and instill rigor and pools information from both published and unpublished sources... 

Systematic reviews are conducted to answer specific, often narrow, clinical questions. These questions are formulated according to the mnemonic PICO addressing: a specific population (P) (such as people traveling long distance), the intervention of interest (I) (e.g., preventive measures for deep vein thrombosis), an optional comparison (C) (such as the standard of care, which may be no intervention), and one or more specific outcomes (such as prevention of deep vein thrombosis)."

Source: Kazer, M. W., & Fitzpatrick, J. J. (2012). Encyclopedia of Nursing Research, Third Edition. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

The search strategy for a Systematic Review (SR) is a somewhat different process than searching for a research study, but there are structured checklists, flow charts, and other tools to help you work through the process. There are many other aspects of a SR, but this guide is just focused on searching and finding literature. 

Guidelines

Cochrane Introduction to Systematic Reviews 

Online tutorial introduction to SRs

PRISMA Checklist 

Breaks down the pieces of a SR

IOM Standards for Systematic Reviews 

Standards for finding & assessing individual studies

Tools

Synthesis Matrix

Compares research articles side-by-side to help you identify common themes and visualize the bigger picture

This very brief article explains what a synthesis matrix is and how to use one for your literature review:

Clark, K. R., & Buckley, M. B. (2017). Using a synthesis matrix to plan a literature review. Radiologic Technology, 88(3), 354-357.

This book goes into detail about the matrix method, which is a system of organizing the literature review process.  Chapters 5 and 6 explain how to set up a synthesis matrix, with an example on pages 157-158.

Garrard, J. (2017). Health sciences literature review made easy. Burlington, Massachusetts: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

PRISMA Flow Diagram 

Flow diagram template you can use in your report

Systematic Review Data Repository

The Systematic Review Data Repository (SRDR) is an easy-to-use Web-based tool for conducting systematic reviews. It serves as: 

A tool for extracting and storing information from studies.
An open and searchable archive of key questions addressed in systematic reviews.
A public repository of study data.

For a systematic review, you want to conduct a comprehensive search to identify as many sources as possible on your topic.  

Initial search

Identify potential databases and search terms (See the Articles on Your Topic page of this guide for tips and resources)

Search one database at a time

Tip: If you've found too few results, try another database, a citation search or look at the methods section of a related SR.

Tip: If you've found too many results, add further limits (population, intervention, etc.)

Apply exclusion criteria (some will use database filters, and others you'll apply manually)

Decide on the final search terms and databases you'll use for your SR

Having trouble?  Make an appointment with a librarian to discuss databases, keywords, and search strategies

Final Search

Once you've determined your databases, search terms, and exclusion criteria, search the databases one at a time

Use folders or a citation management tool to keep track of your search results

Keep track of the number of results you get and the number you exclude

Citation Searching

Use the most relevant articles to identify other potentially relevant articles:

Look at its references to identify other relevant articles that you haven't found.

Use Google Scholar, Scopus, or Web of Science to identify more recent articles that have cited that one.

You'll have to describe your search strategy in the methods section of your write-up, so take good notes as you search!

 

Not every article that comes up in your search will be appropriate for your review.  As you examine your search results, come up with specific criteria that makes an article not suitable to be included.  Some examples include:

Relevance to your topic (i.e. different meaning of a term, different aspect of your topic, etc.)

Publication type (journals, grey literature, etc.)

Language of publication

Time period

Geographic considerations

Duplicate search results (sometimes you'll find the same article in more than one database)

Systematic reviews require you to limit the risk of bias as much as possible and to be extremely transparent about your exclusion criteria.  Excluding studies from a review increases the risk of bias, so you'll want to choose your criteria carefully and make it explicit in your write-up.

It is important to clearly document search strategies in the methods sections.  This lets your readers know exactly how you identified the studies in your review and makes your search replicable.  For example:

List the databases you searched and the keywords you used

Explain how you used citation searching to identify additional articles

List the total number of results your search produced and the number you excluded

Discuss the exclusion criteria you used

Tip: use a flow diagram to summarize your process

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