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Writing in the Health and Social Sciences: What are Literature Reviews?

Guide to writing, citing, and publishing resources for the health and social sciences.

Types of Literature Reviews

Literature reviews are are comprehensive summaries and syntheses of the previous research on a given topic.  While narrative reviews are common across all academic disciplines, reviews that focus on appraising and synthesizing research evidence are increasingly important in the health and social sciences.  

Systematic Reviews & Meta-Analyses

"A systematic review is a literature review focused on a research question that tries to identify, appraise, select, and synthesize all high-quality research evidence relevant to that question.

An understanding of systematic reviews and how to implement them in practice is becoming mandatory for all professionals involved in the delivery of health care. However, systematic reviews are not limited to medicine and health fields and are quite common in other sciences where data are collected, published in the literature, and an assessment of methodological quality for a precisely defined subject would be helpful. Other fields where systematic reviews are used include psychology, nursing, public health, occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, educational research, sociology, and business and management.

In a literature review, we assess the relevance of the published research to the research question. A systematic review takes that a stage further. It employs defined criteria to assess the actual quality of the research itself. The review then goes on to synthesize the findings of the research in order to generate an account of the present state of knowledge about the question. That account is based on the knowledge gained from the research which is considered to be of adequate quality. A systematic review aims to provide an exhaustive summary of current literature relevant to a research question....

Systematic reviews often, but not always, use statistical techniques called meta-analysis to combine results of the eligible studies, or at least use scoring of the levels of evidence depending on the methodology used. A systematic review uses an objective and transparent approach for research synthesis, with the aim of minimizing bias. While many systematic reviews are based on an explicit quantitative meta-analysis of available data, there are also qualitative reviews which adhere to the standards for gathering, analyzing and reporting evidence." 

Byrne, D. (2016). What is a systematic review? Project Planner. 10.4135/9781526408563. Retrieved from Sage Research Methods Online.

Exploring Other Review Types

Articles Describing Different Types of Reviews

Integrative Reviews

"The integrative review method is an approach that allows for the inclusion of diverse methodologies (i.e. experimental and non-experimental research)." (Whittemore & Knafl, 2005, p. 547).

Scoping Reviews

Scoping reviews are evidence syntheses that are conducted systematically, but begin with a broader scope of question than traditional systematic reviews, allowing the research to 'map' the relevant literature on a given topic.

Rapid Reviews

Rapid reviews are systematic reviews that are undertaken under a tighter timeframe than traditional systematic reviews.