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How to find information for science or health based literature reviews

1 - What is a literature review?

Before we begin, let's define terms and outline what this guide is about!

Literature reviews take on many forms at university:

  • You could be asked to write a literature review as a stand-alone document or as part of a dissertation or thesis.
  • You may also be asked to write an annotated bibliography or a critical review.

 Rest assured, this guide will take you through the key steps in researching a successful literature review!


Back to terms...what is a literature review?

The Skills team based in the Library define a literature review as:

"an extended piece of writing that should collate, link and evaluate key sources related to a chosen topic or research question. Rather than simply summarising the existing research on your chosen topic, you should aim to show:

  • Which papers can be clustered around a similar theme or topic - they may have a shared methodology, or have been carried out in the same context.
  • You will be looking for strengths and weaknesses in the research.
  • Questioning the relevance and significance of the results in relation to your topic.
  • Looking for any gaps or under researched areas.

Your writing should make these thoughts and evaluations clear to the reader, so that they have a good understanding and overview of the body of research you have chosen to investigate."

We now know what a literature review is and have defined the terms! Lets get on with the process!

2 - The confusion between a literature review and a systematic review

Do not confuse a systematic review with a literature review!

A systematic review and a literature review are two different things! There is a real difference between the two and you should always check with the person that set the assignment if you have any questions about how whether you are writing a literature review or a systematic review. It is unlikley that students will be working on a systematic review but very likey that you are being asked to use a systematic approach to your literature review. Are you really being asked to conduct a systematic review, or are you doing an extended literature review with a systematic and comprehensive search strategy? 


What is a systematic review?

A systematic review aims to answer a very specific research question, with strict parameters. It is normally done in a group of people with formalised roles and specified research parameters, often outlined in a protocol.


What is a systematic approach to literature reviews?

A systematic literature search is a review of the literature where you search subject specifc databases in order to collect as much of the evidence available within those resources. You may or may not be expected to demonstrate your search strategy in some way as this depends on the requirements of your literature review brief. You will be expected to highlight the key papers, theories and research and relate them to your research question. You will be looking for gaps in research and demonstrating how exisiting knowledge can be developed.


Can I use some of the advice about how to approach systematic reviews to help guide by literature review?

You may decide to use some of the search techniques you see listed in literature review books and within this guide that also relates to systematic reviews.This guide is comprehensive, detailed and written to support literature reviews in a range of departments with the College of Health, Wellbeing and Life Sciences.   

Each department is likley to write the literature review assingment tailored to the needs of the study within the department. Not all the approaches covered in this guide will be applicable to you and you may not need to go into as much depth as some of the steps suggest. You must make your own judgement.

If you are unsure what you should be doing for your literature review and you have any doubts about:

  • whether you are doing a literature review or a systematic review
  • how comprehensive the literature review needs to be

Check with the person that set your literature review! 

It is admirable to want to do the best literature review you can but stay within your literature review brief. You can find out more about the different types of review and what is involved for each one within the article linked below:

3 - Why have I been asked to do a literature review?

Literature reviews are a popular choice for assignments!

You will be getting practical experience of how it may feel to write for publication as many journal articles have a literature review element. You will be learning how to select the most relevant literature and analyse content and then develop your own content and understanding based on your reading.

But what are you trying to achieve with your literature review?

  • You are practially demonstrating your search skills, how you evaluate literature and write a clear academic argument which persuades the reader why your research is needed.

  • You are providing a balanced and unbiased considertation of the state of knowledge within this area by considering work from a varied range of perspectives and outcomes.

  • The literature review should answer the question you have posed and persuade the reader with evidence that the answer you have arrived at is correct and logically convincing.

  • The review will help the reader develop their overview of current knowledge and understanding around the subject.

  • Understanding what research has already been done on the subject alerts you and the reader to any difficulties that might be encountered when researching in this area.

  • Your literature review will alert the reader to work that has already been undertaken which means other researchers are less likely to spend time answering questions that have already been answered. However sometimes, replication studies will be undertaken which means an idea or study will be replicated to test the original idea.

Are there different types of literature reviews?

That's a really good question! There are other types of literature reviews like critiques and annotated bibliographies.

This is a picture of a light bulb.                Activity 1: Read the journal article below or look at the Hallam Skills guide to literature reviews.

Hopefully, now you understand how the term literature review can be applied in different assignments and contexts.  

Being aware of the range of literature reviews may help you understand why literature review articles you read in a range of journals can appear slightly different. These articles will also be factoring in the requirements of the journal as journals require writers to follow the guidance they provide regarding article types when submitting an article for publication.

4 - Define your literature review

For the purpose of this guide, our literature review topic will be whether honey or silver is more effective for treating wounds.

Our literature review will need to find information about honey, silver and the treatment of wounds.  There are still quite a few questions and variables we need to consider! 

Currently, we do not know:

  • How much literature exists in this area
  • What is the state of current knowledge in this area
  • Whether there is a consensus of thought
  • Whether there are gaps in research
  • What the key papers are
  • Who the key authors are
  • Which research organisations are active in this area

It is likely that we will need to focus or reframe our question in response to the information our initial scoping searches find.

Within the literature review process, we will be constantly reflecting back and considering what does the evidence in this area recommend, suggest, support or reject and how this impacts on our literature review.


This is a picture of a light bulb.                Activity 2: Read this article

This is a picture of a light bulb.                Activity 3: Decide wisely on topic

The best piece of advice when selecting a literature review topic is choose a topic that interests you! It is also useful to consider the following questions:

  • Does your topic selection match your assignment brief?
  • Is there enough literature to review?
  • Are there are differing viewpoints?

But you do not have to take a librarians view on this... take a look at the Defining your topics section on the Sage Research Planner.

Tell me more about Sage Research Methods!

Sage Research Planner is a resource within SAGE Research Methods Books and Reference. It covers books, reference works, statistical analysis, videos and case studies. You can find out definitions about specifc reseach terms and it can help guide you with method choice and has research tools like the planner.

The resource covers a range of disciplines and is very strong on social sciences content.

5 - Let's find out how you are feeling about your literature review!

How confident do you feel in tackling a literature review?
I'm really looking forward to this!: 3 votes (37.5%)
OK: 0 votes (0%)
Not very: 3 votes (37.5%)
I wish I didn't have to do this!: 2 votes (25%)
Total Votes: 8

6 - I would like to know more...

Take a break.

Congratulations you have completed the first step.

Time to take a break - maybe time for a refreshing drink of water! Take a look at the article from the NHS Eat Well website below to find out more!