A literature review involves gathering existing research on a particular topic. It typically provides the background on what is known so far on the issue you have chosen, and suggests areas for future research to fill in gaps.
A literature review may be a stage in a larger research project, or a research project in and of itself.
A literature review is:
A literature review is not:
What is the purpose of a literature review?
Note: The first four steps are the best points at which to contact a librarian. Your librarian can help you determine the best databases to use for your topic, assess scope, and formulate a search strategy.
It is important to find a way to organize your ideas as you are reading articles. Some people find it helpful to create a synthesis matrix or concept map while they are reading to help them identify major themes and how different authors contribute to the theme.
The matrix method is one way of working on your literature review. to do their literature review more efficiently.
Use a table in Word with a row for each of your sources. Develop columns based on key themes in your paper with room for more columns that emerge from your readings. When a source relates to one of the columns, note the key point in the box, and add a page number so you can find the point again quickly.
Topic: Pet ownership during COVID-19 and impact on owners and pets
|Jezierski et al., 2021a||Jezierski et al., 2021b||Philapou et al., 2021||Ikeuchi et al., 2021|
|Impact of pet on owners||Cats reduce “psychological tensions” p. 8||Dogs positive impact on owner mental state p.5||Dogs and cats led to poorer quality of life, no impact stress/loneliness (p. 425)||Pets reduced neg impact social isolation older adults (p. 7)|
|Impact on the pet||Cat behaviour unchanged or positively impacted p.8||Dog behaviour unchanged or positive but more problems if in lockdown or no back yard p. 6|
|Impact of type of pet||Dog ownership more impact on loneliness than cat ownership (p. 6)|
Concept mapping is another way to visualize connections between sources during your literature review.
This excellent handout walks you through the process of writing your first literature review.
The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It (University of Toronto)
There are many different types of reviews that appear in the scholarly literature. Sutton et al. (2019) identified 48 different review types, each having their own expectations for searching, methods for analyzing the data, and reporting.
Before beginning a review, researchers must consider which type is the best fit with their research question, time, and workload. Some review types like systematic reviews take 12-18 months and a team of 2 or more researchers to complete. Others, like narrative/traditional literature reviews, take a less systematic approach to searching and can be completed more quickly.
As a student, you may be asked to assist with a systematic, scoping, or integrative review as a research assistant. The resources in subsequent sections will provide helpful background and support for this work.
If you are interested in turning a literature review you completed as part of a course project into an article for a journal, the resources on narrative or traditional literature reviews may be useful. Here is an example of a literature review published in the Canadian Journal of Undergraduate Research. For more tips on publishing your work, check out our publishing guide.
What review is right for you?
Right Review is a tool to help guide your choice of a knowledge synthesis method.
Additional Resources on Review Types
Narrative or traditional literature reviews provide a general overview of the previous research done on a topic, and can take many shapes and forms. They do not need to follow any specific guideline or standard, so they can be completed more quickly and by a solo researcher.
A narrative literature review should have...
A common structure for narrative literature reviews is IMRaD, or:
While the structure above may be sufficient for your topic, you may also consider using the similar but more robust structure IAMRDC, or:
Peters et al. (2015) provided the following description of a scoping study and its aims:
[T]he aim of the scoping reviews is a way of mapping the key concepts that underpin a research area. Scoping reviews can be particularly useful for bringing together literature in disciplines with emerging evidence, as they are suited to addressing questions beyond those related to the effectiveness or experience of an intervention. Scoping reviews can be conducted to map a body of literature with relevance to time, location (e.g. country or context), source (e.g. peer-reviewed or grey literature), and origin (e.g. healthcare discipline or academic field).The value of scoping reviews to evidence-based practice is the examination of a broader area to identify gaps in the research knowledge base, clarify key concepts, and report on the types of evidence that address and inform practice in the field. Scoping reviews also may be carried out to determine not only the extent of the research available regarding a topic but also the way the research has been conducted. (p. 142)
Scoping review are time intensive (12+ months to complete) and require a multi-person team. Although they are most common in the health sciences, scoping reviews can also be found in other discplines.
Overview of Scoping Review Process
Reporting Guidelines and Methodological Resources
An integrative review is a "critical analysis of empirical, methodological, or theoretical literature, which draws attention to future research needs" (Toronto & Remington, 2020, p. 3). It may include quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods literature, and requires a systematic search and appraisal of selected studies. An integrative review is estimated to take 6-12 months to complete and requires two or more researchers.
According to the Cochrane Collaboration (2019), "A systematic review attempts to collate all the empirical evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria in order to answer a specific research question. It uses explicit, systematic methods that are selected with a view to minimizing bias, thus providing more reliable findings from which conclusions can be drawn and decisions made" (Chapter 1). Meta-analyses, often combined with a systematic review, pool the results from existing studies for further quantitative analysis.
Systematic reviews, with or without an associated meta-analysis, are very time intensive (12+ months) and require two or more researchers (typically more) to complete. While originally associated with the health sciences, systematic reviews are now published in a variety of disciplines including the social sciences and environmental sciences.
Overview of Systematic Review Process
Reporting Guidelines and Methodological Resources
How Can Your Librarian Help with Comprehensive Reviews?
Your librarian would be happy to provide the following support to you or your faculty supervisor when completing a comprehensive literature review:
Advice on which databases to search
Assistance with identifying key search terms
Training in the use of citation management tools like Mendeley or Zotero
Advice on how to save or document your search strategies
Assistance in locating additional resources on review methods or reporting guidelines
Booking a Consultation with Your Librarian
You can book an appointment with your librarian through their online appointment scheduler. If the appointment slots are 30 minutes in length, you may want to book two back to back times, or contact your librarian directly by email to arrange for a longer time slot. We typically need an hour for any consultations around comprehensive reviews.
Preparing for Your Consultation
Before your appointment with your librarian, clarify the following information with your supervisor to ensure we can provide you with the best advice:
What type of review are you assisting with? Have they identified a particular methodological framework they will be following?
What is the exact research question that you will be investigating?
What types of studies will your review include or exclude? (e.g. study type, etc).
Did your supervisor provide you with any examples of studies that you hope your review will find? This can be helpful in generating search terms.
What level of detail about how your searches were conducted will you need to report? For example, you may need to save the exact search strategy and the number of results found for each database you search for inclusion in the final article.
What citation management tool would your supervisor like you to use? Zotero, Mendeley, and the web version of Endnote are all free, and have particular strengths and weaknesses for use with certain review types.