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Conducting a Literature Review

Getting Started

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


A research question should be: Characteristics of a good research question:
  • clear
  • focused
  • well-formulated
  • answerable
  • defined at the beginning of your review.


A well-formulated question is one of the keys to a successful review and will assist with:

  • determining inclusion and exclusion criteria &
  • creating a search strategy.

Hulley, S. B., Cummings, S. R., & Browner, W. S. (2013). Designing clinical research.

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.