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Clinical and Research Support

What is a literature review?

It is a critical overview of what has been written on a topic.

  • condenses the dispersed and lengthy primary literature into a cohesive and understandable summary
  • both summarises and critiques primary sources.
  • identifies the current literature, major themes and developments in the topic.


Why do a literature review?

  1. Preparation for research
    • has your question been done before?
    • is there a research gap? Are you doing replication?
    • have the evidence and understanding at hand for your ethics and funding applications.
    • learn from prior research to make your research stronger.
      • preempt potential problems
      • identify useful methodologies
        • eg standardise outcome measures to allow comparison
  2.  To enhance understanding
    • summarise evidence for evidence based practice
    • to prepare or update clinical practice guidelines
  3. As a standalone document
    • for publication or as part of study requirements.


What is involved?

The level of rigour and thoroughness involved will depend on the type of review (see Types of review).

  1. Searching
    • databases such as Medline or PubMed (no need to search both - they are essentially the same content) and Embase should always be searched.
      • ensures you are searching peer reviewed material
      • maximises your opportunity to discover relevant research.
    • grey literature - reports by professional bodies and other organisations may be included.
      • may still constitute credible literature despite not being in peer reviewed journals.
      • apply critical thinking on inclusion.
    • for assistance with searching use our online guide or contact the library to arrange a personal tutorial.
  2. Assessment
    • analyse each article you review.
    • more rigorous reviews (eg systematic reviews) require more rigorous appraisal.
    • use critical appraisal tools if required.
  3. Organisation
    • keep track of your literature and workflow
    • utilise database functionality
      • export directly to reference management programs
      • export to a spreadsheet to screen results and keep notes organised,
      • save your search so can easily add to it or re-run it.
    • use reference managers (Endnote, Zotero,etc) to organise articles and assist write-up.
  4. Write
    • Introduction.
      • provides context for what follows
      • demonstrates relevance and need for the review
      • delineates scope - what your review will focus on, and what it will leave out
    • Methods
      • your sources - which databases,other sources
      • how you searched - keywords, etc.
        • may be described briefly in text, with full strategy in an appendix or supplementary materials section.
      • inclusion and exclusion criteria
      • which appraisal tools you used (if any)
    • Results and Discussion
      • what you found and your analysis
      • structure will depend on how you choose to organise the results. Two common structures are:
        • chronological - development of the topic over time   OR
        • thematic - organised by approaches within the overall topic
    • Conclusion
      • recap and 'take home' information
      • the research gap
        • why your research should be done
        • future research suggestions
    • Bibliography
      • the publications you cited or reviewed.