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Conducting a Literature Review: Getting Started

Getting Started

While this serves a general guide to conducting literature reviews, please follow the specific instructions provided by professors, publishers or other agencies whom you may be submitting to. Get help from your liaison if you have any questions.

Literature, or Narrative Reviews

Any review other than a Systematic Review or Meta-Analysis is a type of Narrative Review, often called Literature review. They are qualitative in nature, providing a comprehensive, objective overview of the current knowledge on a topic. The current knowledge is interpreted and analyzed in a synthesized way. It can be short and quick or elaborate.

  • Can identify gaps in research
  • Compare and contrast studies 
  • Get an idea of the conversation in the literature; i.e. consensus or dissent
  • Can examine strengths and weaknesses in methodologies or theories
  • Prone to bias since formal quality assessment is not required
  • Methods and criteria are not necessarily transparent
  • Searches may not be reproducible
  • Authors often cite sources supporting their own argument
  • Can be difficult to scope

The Research Topic or Question

Formulate a research question or topic to identify key words to search. This will result in a more focused search. Consider these formats:


P Population/problem age, gender, ethnicity, health status
I Intervention/indicator  treatment, cause, exposure, prognostic factor, etc.


Comparison/control another treatment or standard of care (if any)
O Outcome improvement, adverse effects, accuracy of a diagnosis
T Time length of time to observe an outcome (optional)

Example: What types of home programs (intervention) have been used to improve the sitting postural control (outcome) of infants with cerebral palsy (population)?

Download the PICO worksheet below. 

SPIDER (adapted from PICO for qualitative and mixed-methods research)

S Sample population, specific to health status, age, gender, ethnicity
Pi Phenomenon of interest cause of experiences, behavior or decisions; intervention
D Design study design, i.e. survey, interview, observational study
E Evaluation may be subjective outcomes such as views or attitudes
R Research type  qualitative, quantitative, mixed methods

Example: What are the expectations and experiences (evaluation) of patients with osteoarthritis (sample) undergoing total joint arthroplasty (phenomenon of interest)?

Other Review Types

Type Description Search Appraisal Synthesis Useful For...
Integrative Present the state of the science, contribute to theory development, and have direct applicability to practice and policy (Whittemore & Knafl, 2005). As comprehensive as possible Some quality assessment, but it may not be possible to assess quality on all types of included evidence Tables, diagrams, and narrative Covering diverse methodologies (theoretical, empirical, experimental, non-experimental).
Mapping Maps and categorizes existing literature in order to identify gaps for primary research. Tends to be comprehensive. May be limited by time and scope constraints. Does not include formal quality assessment. Graphs and/or tables Defining the literature in a topic area.
Scoping Sometimes thought of as the pre-work for a systematic review. Aims to identify nature and extent of research evidence (usually includes ongoing research). As comprehensive as possible. Determined by time and scope. Does not include formal quality assessment. Primarily tables, some narrative. Exploring the literature, rather than answering a specific question.
Rapid Assesses what is already known about a policy or practice issue. Uses many of the systematic review methods, but often abridge due to time constraints. As comprehensive as possible within the given time. Includes formal assessment as possible within time constraints. Narrative, tables Making healthcare decisions, using evidence synthesis, when there is a time crunch


(Pawson & Tilley, 2004)

Seeks to answer "what works for whom in what circumstances, in what respects and how?" Complex interventions are not separated from delivery contexts. After identifying and defining program theories, qualitative and quantitative data is gathered from a variety of sources. Quality is assessed to determine suitability Typically narrative, can be graphical and tabular Policy and public service
Umbrella A review of reviews. Compiles evidence from multiple reviews into one. Identifies relevant reviews. Does not search for primary studies. Assesses included studies for quality. Includes quality assessment of included reviews. Graphs, tables, and narrative Umbrella reviews provide a ready means for decision makers in healthcare to gain a clear understanding of a broad topic area. (Aromataris, et al., 2015)

Adapted from Grant, M. J. & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews. Health Information and Libraries Journal. 29, 91-108.