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Overview of Literature Reviews

'Literature review' is a generic term that is often used to describe various types of reviews. However, each type of review has a distinct purpose.  Two broad categories of reviews (traditional and systematic) are briefly discussed below.


Traditional Literature Reviews 

For a course assignment, you may be asked to locate academic sources for a topic and then write (synthesize/paraphrase/cite) a paper that incorporates sources (literature) you selected. Or, if you are working on a research project for a thesis or dissertation, you most often will need to conduct a more thorough or comprehensive search of the literature to write (synthesize/paraphrase/cite) a literature review chapter that discusses sources related to your research questions. Traditional (narrative) reviews are most often used in these examples.

  • Grant & Booth (2009) describe 14 review types and note that [traditional or narrative] literature reviews can include a wide range of topics, use less comprehensive search procedures, and are most often used by students. You may also hear the terms systematized review use in relation to traditional reviews (not to be confused with systematic review). This refers to incorporating some systematic procedures when conducting searches and/or reporting or writing up findings.

Grant, M. J., & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 26(2), 91–108.


Systematic Literature Reviews 

Systematic reviews may use quantitative, qualitative, or mixed research methods and aim to be comprehensive in gathering sources. They follow specific protocols and adhere to transparent and reproducible procedures to conduct searches and report evidence that may be used for health or policy related decisions.

  • Cochrane Handbook states that systematic reviews should be conducted by a team of researchers and "were developed out of a need to ensure that decisions affecting people’s lives can be informed by an up‐to‐date and complete understanding of the relevant research evidence" (Lasserson, Thomas, & Higgins, 2019, 1.1 Why do a systematic review? section).  Systematic reviews often include a meta-analysis that utilizes statistical methods to analyze and evaluate two or more research studies.

Higgins, J. P. T., Thomas, J., Chandler, J., Cumpston, M., Li, T., Page, M. J., & Welch, V. A. (Eds.). (2019). Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions (2nd ed.). The Cochrane Collaboration. 

  • Scoping reviews explore research questions to map key concepts, evidence, and gaps in the literature.
  • Umbrella reviews compile evidence from multiple reviews based on a broad problem for which there are competing interventions.
  • Rapid reviews apply systematic review methods for locating and appraising sources but set a shortened timeframe.

For more information about systematic review methods, please see our guide Systematic Reviews for Social Sciences & Education

Literature Review Resources