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How to find information for science or health based literature reviews

1 - How do I work with the journal literature?

You will be reading a lot of literature.

You may be tempted to skim some of the literature but we strongly recommend engaging and read fully all the relevant literature and being active when reading to evaluate the content.

You can refer back to Step 2: Box 3 and Box 4 in the guide as we cover reading and how to read specialist sources in those sections. You can find links back to those boxes in the links section below.

This is a picture of a light bulb.                Activity 1: Watch this video to remind yourself why critical reading is important. 

2 - How detailed does my literature review need to be?

Check your assignment brief, assessment grid or marking scheme to make sure you understand how in depth your literature review needs to be!

Thoughts to consider!

  • If your assignment is purely just a literature review then all your words will be allocated to reviewing literature.

  • If your literature review is only one part of your assignment, the amount of words you allocate to the review will need to be appropriate to make sure you can cover all the other aspects of your assignment.

  • The word count set for the assignment will impact on how detailed your review can be. For example, a literature review with a 3000 word count will not be able to go into as much depth as a literature review that has a word count of 10,000 words! 

  • Your literature review is bound by your word count! Be mindful and select the most robust and approriate evidence.

Here are three examples of journal articles related to honey and wound healing.

We have chosen a range of different articles and styles to show how primary and secondary sources may present a literature review.


Lets talk terms!

What is a primary article?

A primary article is an article which is testing an idea, doing an original piece of research and using literature to support the article ideas. 

  • A primary article is when the authors have done the work they are writing about.


What is a secondary article?

A secondary article is an article which poses a question. The answer to the question is found by searching the literature and using existing research and evidence to arrive at an answer to the question based on the balance of evidence found from researching. 

  • A secondary article is when the authors are basing their discussions on  on other peoples work


By looking at all three articles, you should be able to spot which is the primary article and which is the secondary article.

We have chosen one two secondary articles to show you how detailed a literature review in secondary sources can be and how it can be reported or discussed,

  • One article is an original research article also know as a primary source.

  • One article is a review article also know as a secondary source.

  • One article is a systematic review also know as a secondary source.

Which is the primary article?
Honey and Wound Healing: An Update: 0 votes (0%)
Honey dilution impact on in vitro wound healing: Normoxic and hypoxic condition: Honey dilution in hypoxic wound healing: 2 votes (66.67%)
Honey as a topical treatment for wounds: 1 votes (33.33%)
Total Votes: 3

You can find the answer in the Answer box at the end of the page.

3 - Why do we look for research gaps when researching for literature reviews?

Research gaps are areas of uncertainty, where knowledge is not fixed... a space where there are research questions still to be posed and areas investigated!

Research gaps can cause challenges as there may not be enough literature to review for you to be able to pose the research question that currently appeals to you. You are likely to find if there is enough literature for you to review when you have completed running your scoping searches. 


Scoping searches using PubMed and the Cochrane Library found the following articles related to the use of honey or silver related to topical wounds.

Here are a range of articles with a range of findings and perspectives:


  • Jull, A., Cullum, N., Dumville, J., Westby, M., Deshpande, S., & Walker, N. (2015). Honey as a topical treatment for wounds. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews2015(3), CD005083.


  • Benjamin A. Minden-Birkenmaier, & Gary L. Bowlin. (2018). Honey-Based Templates in Wound Healing and Tissue Engineering. Bioengineering5(2).


  • Rodriguez-Arguello, J., Lienhard, K., Patel, P., Geransar, R., Somayaji, R., Parsons, L., … Ho, C. (2018). A Scoping Review of the Use of Silver-impregnated Dressings for the Treatment of Chronic Wounds. Ostomy/wound Management64(3), 14–31.


  • Naik, K., & Kowshik, M. (2017). The silver lining: towards the responsible and limited usage of silverJournal of Applied Microbiology123(5), 1068–1087.


  • Stormversloot, M., Vos, C., Ubbink, D., & Vermeulen, H. (2010). Topical silver for preventing wound infection. Cochrane Wounds Group, (3), CD006478.


  • Saikaly, S., & Khachemoune, A. (2017). Honey and Wound Healing: An Update. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology18(2), 237–251.


  • Punjataewakupt, A., Napavichayanun, S., & Aramwit, P. (2019). The downside of antimicrobial agents for wound healing. European Journal of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases38(1), 39–54.

There are differing conclusions within these articles and there is a research gap that we can work with and base our literature review within!

Here are links to the databases we used:

4 - How do I evaluate the information I find?

It's not enough to find information!

You need to make sure you find the most appropriate, relevant and reliable information to fulfil your literature review assignment.  You need to evaluate the information and sources you use and make sure out of the millions pieces of information you could have used... you used the best possible pieces!

Here is a list of commonly used criteria for evaluating information: 

The authority and credibility of the source.

  • What does the author know about the subject?
  • What is their background? 
  • What else have they written?


  • Could the source or author have any bias (conditional or unconditional)?
  • Is the source trying to sell you something, or push a certain political or ideological stance?
  • Is it misrepresenting the evidence, or omitting evidence which you know exists elsewhere, or even not presenting any evidence at all for its claims?
  • Have you considered the international perspective?
  • Are there any geographical bias in searches or source selection?
  • Ideally, you want balanced, neutral sources which considered all the available evidence. 

The relevance of the source material.

  • Even if the source turned up in your search results, is it actually about what you want to know?
  • Is it only tangentially connected to your topic, or on another subject all together?

The age of the source.

  • How much has changed since the source was published?
  • Have any later developments contradicted or overturned what the source argues?​
  • Be mindful of using date to exclude a journal paper. Some papers are classic papers e.g. when a specific method was first published and a literature review may be incomplete if that specific paper was not included in a review.

5 - Specialist evaluation criteria and search descriptions

This section comes with a large warning before you consider applying these ideas to your literature review!

  • If you are a student in the Department of Bioscience and Chemistry, it is unlikely that this information applies to your literature reviews.
  • If you are a student in the Department of Allied Health Professions and Nursing, this information may be of use for your literature review.

Some literature reviews, particularly within - but not exclusive to - Health-related subjects, use specialist evaluation criteria which then leads into search write-ups. You may also be encouraged to set exclusion and inclusion criteria, or describe your search strategy. However, the use of specialist criteria depends on your subject area, and the exact requirements of your assignment.

This is a picture of a light bulb.                Activity 2: If you are unsure what you need to do and how complex your literature review should be and whether you need to use specialist screening or evaluation tools... check with the with the person that set your literature review that they are actually required BEFORE you start using them and doing the required work for your literature review!

It is admirable to want to do the best literature review you can, but stay within your literature review brief!


This is a picture of a light bulb.                Activity 2: Answer!

If you don't need to do any of the steps mentioned above, you can skip to your break now. If you have been asked to do any of the steps mentioned above for your literature review, read on!

What to do if If you have been asked to use PICO to describe your search strategy

The PICO technique is commonly used for finding quantitative research articles. These resources show you how to use it to describe your search strategy:

However, if you find your topic requires you to find qualitative or mixed-methods research (for instance, you do not have an intervention), you may want to use the SPIDER technique:

What to do if you have been asked to use a PRISMA Flow Diagram

Or you may be asked to create a PRISMA flow diagram to show where you have found your evidence. A PRISMA flow diagram details your search strategy and inclusion and exclusion criteria. This is a very detailed piece of work, so check that you need to do this before you start! 

These links guide you through creating your PRISMA Flow Diagram:

It's also a really, really good idea to keep a record of how you have found your evidence and literature! You can do this in a simple table, noting where you have searched, your terms, inclusion/exclusion criteria, filters and number of results.


What to do if you have been recommended to use specialist evaluation criteria.

You may be asked to use specific evaluation tools, too. Always check with your module documents or tutor if you are unsure!

Here are examples of the most commonly used specialist evaluation tools:

You may also be given guidance by your tutors on which method to use. Check your module documents or ask your tutor!


If you have been asked to use inclusion/exclusion criteria

Some literature reviews use simple exclusion criteria to screen out information. For example:

  • may use a date limit due to volume of material or the literature review may be time bound.

Some literature reviews use simple inclusion criteria to ensure the specific type of information is found by the search strategy and kept within the search scope. For example:

  • may focus on a specific population type, interventions, outcomes and data.



Some of the literature review books may refer to systematic reviews, very detailed search strategies and screening tools.

Do not confuse a systematic review with a literature review! Both are very different things! You can systematically review literature and you may decide to use some of the search techniques you see listed in literature review books that cover systematic reviews. If you are doing a literature review it is unlikely that you are doing a systematic review.

A systematic review is a specific piece of research that does not commonly feature as a student assignment.

6 - Poll answers

Honey and Wound Healing: An update... is a review article and a secondary source.

Honey dilution impact on in vitro wound healing: Normoxic and hypoxic condition: Honey dilution in hypoxic wound healing is an original research article and a primary source.

Honey as a topical treatment for wounds is a systematic review and a secondary source.

Take a break.

Congratulations you have completed the sixth step.

Time to take a break - maybe practice some mindfulness.