ebb and flow

Top tips for literature reviews

This time I will dive into the world of literature reviews. The first time I wrote about this was published as my first blog in June 2020.

As an editor, I see a lot of literature reviews. Normally research candidates regard lit reviews as a means to identify the present state of research into their area of focus, and a way to identify any gaps in current knowledge they may wish to investigate. But this is only one type, commonly called the integrative literature review. Once I started to look into it, I was amazed to find so many other different kinds.

One of the issues I see in many lit reviews is that either those writing the literature do not explain their data collection and analysis methods clearly enough (including sampling), or definitions are not commonly agreed across researchers, or the reviewer has not taken the trouble to extract them from the literature, thus making comparison pretty messy. How you set about reviewing the field of studies in your area of interest depends on your underlying purpose.

Purposes of literature reviews

Self-study

This is done to develop some background understanding and confidence in writing about a subject of interest. This is usually used by undergraduate students who want to move beyond the set readings in a course or who wish to dive into a topic that attracts their attention.

Context

This provides researchers with a way to place their own studies in the larger context of related research. In this way, they can clarify what is novel and original about their own research efforts and directions.

Historical, theoretical, and methodological

These focuses are used to identify and track trends in the development of ideas over time, to find major paradigm shifts, and to investigate methods used to study phenomena. Generally, research candidates will include some discussion of theoretical and methodological studies when they pave the way for justifying their own research approach and setting out the design of their study.

Integrative

This, as the name implies, is a combination of purposes: to identify the current state of knowledge on a given topic, the methodological approaches which have been adopted so far and basically what different experts have stated about it. Patti Lather (p. 3) described this as an “unpacking of a problem that situates the work historically and methodologically.” In some research disciplines, a multidisciplinary focus can broaden the perspective on a topic of interest.

Within these broad categories, there are different ways to include and exclude studies. These methods clearly reflect the purpose of the review. What is really important is to be clear about why you include or exclude what you do, even if some aspects of this are based only on convenience (e.g., the databases available to you).

General approaches for conducting literature reviews

The most expansive method is the one for the integrative review, the aim of which is to

synthesize and critique professional knowledge from a varied range of relevant fields.

In contrast, a systematic review is designed to narrow the scope of a literature review. This is done with the intention of producing conclusions based on clear cut and trackable evidence.  Here, as I mentioned earlier, there may often be confounders due to different methodological approaches used in various studies. In a systematic review, the researcher answers a defined research question by gathering and summarizing empirically based evidence meeting pre-specified eligibility criteria.

Similarly, but at a different scale, a meta-analytic review involves sets criteria for inclusion and exclusion to arrive at a statistical analysis of data from previously published research. Depending on the research discipline, this too can often be irritatingly imprecise because of the different methods researchers have used to produce their quantitative results. A meta-analysis involves statistical methods for summarizing these studies’ results.

One review type which avoids the pitfalls resulting from comparing quantitative studies with diverse methodologies, is the qualitative review. Here the very purpose of the review is to trace how researchers have investigated the phenomenon and what they have found. This is sometimes referred to as a narrative review, because it is one person’s narrative interpretation of the different literature, with the aim of encouraging further reflection and acceptance of the various perspectives offered. This is not a positivist search for the best answer, or the best practice.

A further type of literature review is a review of reviews, which can suffer even more from a lack of consensus about procedures, sampling and so forth. But you can get lucky sometimes.

Jalongo and Saracho (2016) offer some helpful tips in writing your literature review, see Chapter 5. Here are some ideas:

Avoid this

Don’t forget the sampling and method when comparing reviews. It is pointless to write something like this: In Mozambique, X found Y, whereas in a similar study in Brazil, A found B.

Don’t give a list of research and findings sentence by sentence.

Practise this

Try to sort the information into cohesive groups. Compare and contrast similar studies together.

Comment about the research instead of simply reporting it.

Take a look at the language used in published literature reviews.

One real timesaver to include with your paragraphs in the review is tables about the most salient research. These summarise what you have written and are gold!

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