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The Literature Review

Differences Among Reviews


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There are many types of literature reviews.  The purposes of a literature review will vary, and the sources used in one will depend on the discipline and the review's topic.   

Literature reviews may have differences that include:

  • Purpose:  The reason or objective of the review.  One review may be to see how much has been published on a topic (a scoping review) while another may to draw new conclusions by combining data from multiple yet similar studies (a meta-analysis).  A student may do a review for an assignment, while a researcher could include a literature review as support in their grant proposal.
  • Rigor:  Some reviews may want to achieve a higher scholarly or objective standard, so they include pre-established or inclusion criteria for what publications can be included.  
  • Discipline norms:  a literature review for one subject (e.g., history) would be different than another (e.g., medicine).
  • Organization:  a review can be organized the following ways:
    • Topical or narrative:  by subject or theme of documents included in the review.
    • Chronological:  by when the included documents were published.
    • Geographical:  by regions that study a concept.

See "Common Types of Reviews" for their definitions and characteristics.

Common Types of Reviews

The table below will provide summaries, definitions, and examples of common reviews.

Type of Review Summary Definition Example
Scoping Review How much and what information is out there?
  • Preliminary assessment of size and scope of available literature.
  • Identify the extent and nature of past and current literature.
Kulawiak, P. R. (2021). Academic benefits of wearing noise-cancelling headphones during class for typically developing students and students with special needs: A scoping review.  Cogent Education, (8)1.
State-of-the-art or science What is new or current, and to what new points can they lead?
  • Focuses on current research and knowledge.
  • May offer new perspectives or identify areas for further research.
Climent, S., Sanchez, A., Capella, J. V., Meratnia, N., & Serrano, J. J. (2014).  Underwater acoustic wireless sensor networks: Advances and future trends in physical, MAC and routing layers.  Sensors, (14)1: 795-833.
Narrative Review (also known as Literature Review) What publications are out there and what are their attributes?
  • Generic term.
  • An examination of past and/ or current publications.
  • May cover a range of subjects with varying levels of completeness and comprehensiveness.
Matriniuk, A.L.C., Manoucherhrian, M., Negrin, J.A. & Zwi, A.B. (2012).  Brain Gains: A literature review of medical missions to low and middle-income countries.  BMC Health Services Research, 12:134.
Systematic Review What can be summarized from selected multiple studies with pre-established criteria?
  • Searching and selecting literature based on pre-established criteria.
  • Some disciplines may use a standard of reporting to structure their review (e.g., PRISMA in health sciences).
  • Summarizing the evidence or what is found once all included works are combined.
Lee, N.K., & Rawson, R.A. (2009).  A systematic review of cognitive and behavioural therapies for methamphetamine dependence. Drug and Alcohol Review, 27(3): 309-317.
Meta-Analysis What are the results and conclusions when data from similar studies are analyzed together?
  • Searching for and selecting literature based on pre-established criteria.
  • Follows a standard of reporting to structure their review (e.g., PRISMA).
  • Combines the data from multiple studies to improve estimates and/ or to resolve uncertainties when the results of research or individual studies disagree.
Martinez-Gonzalez, N.A., Djalali, S., Tandjung, R., Huber-Geismann, F., Markun, S., Wensing, M., & Roseman, T. (2014).  Substitution of physicals by nurses in primary care: A systematic review and meta-analysis.  BMC Health Services Research, 14:214.