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The Literature Review

Breaking down the elements of various types of literature reviews, including narrative, systematic, and scoping.

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a method to collect and present published literature on a specific topic or research question.  That is, it represents the literature that provides background information on your topic and shows a correspondence between those writings and your research question.  This guide is designed to be a general resource for those completing a literature review in their field. 


Why would I do a literature review?

  1.  literature reviews can be assigned as a main or final project in a course. Often this will be an opportunity for the student to demonstrate subject specific knowledge on a research question pertaining to the class focus.
  2. Literature reviews are also often an important first stage in writing a thesis, dissertation or other major project, to provide context for the main research question.
  3. Additionally, literature reviews can be created as an article in a journal or scholarly publication. The literature reviews in this format are typically more rigorous then the ones above.

Whatever reason you are approaching a review, you will want to make sure you are familiar with how they are approached in your field. Check the "Reading Published Reviews" section of this page to find reviews related to your topic.

Image: Gottesman Libraries archive: Student Using Argus Reading Machine. View 2. Teachers College. (May 1940).

Content for this guide modified from the University of Pittsburgh Literature Review Guide and the Central Queensland University Literature Review Guide.

Different Types of Literature Reviews

Listed below are some common review types. Not sure which one works for you? Try Right Review, a website that gives you suggestions of review types based on your answers to questions about your study.

Narrative or traditional literature review

  • is an overview of the significant literature on a topic
  • typically includes a critical analysis and synthesis of the works included
  • demonstrates the reviewers knowledge of the topic

Systematic Review

  • a critical assessment of all research studies on a particular research question
  • has specific criteria for systematically collecting and evaluating the literature
  • includes a synthesis of the findings of the included studies

Scoping Review or Systematic Map

  • a critical assessment of all possible sources (including possibly grey literature and non-scholarly texts) on a research topic
  • most similar in style to Systematic Reviews, but more broad
  • uses protocols similar to systematic reviews

Systematic Review with Meta Analysis

  • A Systematic review that integrates additional analysis by using the data from articles reviewed to examine the collective data.
  • Usually more intensive for the reviewer, as statistical analysis is needed to analyze the data.
  • Rapid Review

A note on Annotated Bibliographies

  • An annotated Bibliography is not a literature review, as it does not involve synthesis or critical evaluation
  • it is a list of citations of research sources (books, journal articles, websites etc) on a topic with a brief summary and evaluation of each citation that serves as the annotation

Besides the common ones listed above, here are some of the many possible types of reviews available.

A graphic of squares filled with 25 different types of reviews

Confidence of Result from Review

Reviews exist on a spectrum depending on how rigorous their needs are. Narrative literature reviews have the broadest questions, typically do not define their methods, and are more subjective based on an author's perspective. Systematic Reviews with Meta-Analysis are most objective, have clearly defined methods, and typically have a very narrow research question. Standard systematic reviews and scoping reviews fall in between. 

Finding Reviews

A good place to start in your review process is by seeing how reviews are written in your field. Use the search engines below to find reviews in different disciplines or search within Educat+, CLIO, or Google Scholar with the key words for your topic and the type of reviews you are looking for.