Methodological Approaches to Literature Review

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research techniques literature review

  • Dennis Thomas 2 ,
  • Elida Zairina 3 &
  • Johnson George 4  

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The literature review can serve various functions in the contexts of education and research. It aids in identifying knowledge gaps, informing research methodology, and developing a theoretical framework during the planning stages of a research study or project, as well as reporting of review findings in the context of the existing literature. This chapter discusses the methodological approaches to conducting a literature review and offers an overview of different types of reviews. There are various types of reviews, including narrative reviews, scoping reviews, and systematic reviews with reporting strategies such as meta-analysis and meta-synthesis. Review authors should consider the scope of the literature review when selecting a type and method. Being focused is essential for a successful review; however, this must be balanced against the relevance of the review to a broad audience.

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Systematic Reviews in Educational Research: Methodology, Perspectives and Application

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Dennis Thomas

Department of Pharmacy Practice, Faculty of Pharmacy, Universitas Airlangga, Surabaya, Indonesia

Elida Zairina

Centre for Medicine Use and Safety, Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Monash University, Parkville, VIC, Australia

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Thomas, D., Zairina, E., George, J. (2023). Methodological Approaches to Literature Review. In: Encyclopedia of Evidence in Pharmaceutical Public Health and Health Services Research in Pharmacy. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-50247-8_57-1

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Writing a Literature Review

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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.

Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?

There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.

A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.

Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.

What are the parts of a lit review?

Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.

Introduction:

  • An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
  • A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
  • Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
  • Summarize and synthesize: Give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: Don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically Evaluate: Mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: Use transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.

Conclusion:

  • Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
  • Connect it back to your primary research question

How should I organize my lit review?

Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:

  • Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
  • Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
  • Qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
  • Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.

What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?

Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .

As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.

Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:

  • It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
  • Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
  • Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
  • Read more about synthesis here.

The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.

Research Methods

  • Getting Started
  • Literature Review Research
  • Research Design
  • Research Design By Discipline
  • SAGE Research Methods
  • Teaching with SAGE Research Methods

Literature Review

  • What is a Literature Review?
  • What is NOT a Literature Review?
  • Purposes of a Literature Review
  • Types of Literature Reviews
  • Literature Reviews vs. Systematic Reviews
  • Systematic vs. Meta-Analysis

Literature Review  is a comprehensive survey of the works published in a particular field of study or line of research, usually over a specific period of time, in the form of an in-depth, critical bibliographic essay or annotated list in which attention is drawn to the most significant works.

Also, we can define a literature review as the collected body of scholarly works related to a topic:

  • Summarizes and analyzes previous research relevant to a topic
  • Includes scholarly books and articles published in academic journals
  • Can be an specific scholarly paper or a section in a research paper

The objective of a Literature Review is to find previous published scholarly works relevant to an specific topic

  • Help gather ideas or information
  • Keep up to date in current trends and findings
  • Help develop new questions

A literature review is important because it:

  • Explains the background of research on a topic.
  • Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
  • Helps focus your own research questions or problems
  • Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas.
  • Suggests unexplored ideas or populations
  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
  • Tests assumptions; may help counter preconceived ideas and remove unconscious bias.
  • Identifies critical gaps, points of disagreement, or potentially flawed methodology or theoretical approaches.
  • Indicates potential directions for future research.

All content in this section is from Literature Review Research from Old Dominion University 

Keep in mind the following, a literature review is NOT:

Not an essay 

Not an annotated bibliography  in which you summarize each article that you have reviewed.  A literature review goes beyond basic summarizing to focus on the critical analysis of the reviewed works and their relationship to your research question.

Not a research paper   where you select resources to support one side of an issue versus another.  A lit review should explain and consider all sides of an argument in order to avoid bias, and areas of agreement and disagreement should be highlighted.

A literature review serves several purposes. For example, it

  • provides thorough knowledge of previous studies; introduces seminal works.
  • helps focus one’s own research topic.
  • identifies a conceptual framework for one’s own research questions or problems; indicates potential directions for future research.
  • suggests previously unused or underused methodologies, designs, quantitative and qualitative strategies.
  • identifies gaps in previous studies; identifies flawed methodologies and/or theoretical approaches; avoids replication of mistakes.
  • helps the researcher avoid repetition of earlier research.
  • suggests unexplored populations.
  • determines whether past studies agree or disagree; identifies controversy in the literature.
  • tests assumptions; may help counter preconceived ideas and remove unconscious bias.

As Kennedy (2007) notes*, it is important to think of knowledge in a given field as consisting of three layers. First, there are the primary studies that researchers conduct and publish. Second are the reviews of those studies that summarize and offer new interpretations built from and often extending beyond the original studies. Third, there are the perceptions, conclusions, opinion, and interpretations that are shared informally that become part of the lore of field. In composing a literature review, it is important to note that it is often this third layer of knowledge that is cited as "true" even though it often has only a loose relationship to the primary studies and secondary literature reviews.

Given this, while literature reviews are designed to provide an overview and synthesis of pertinent sources you have explored, there are several approaches to how they can be done, depending upon the type of analysis underpinning your study. Listed below are definitions of types of literature reviews:

Argumentative Review      This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply imbedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature. The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint. Given the value-laden nature of some social science research [e.g., educational reform; immigration control], argumentative approaches to analyzing the literature can be a legitimate and important form of discourse. However, note that they can also introduce problems of bias when they are used to to make summary claims of the sort found in systematic reviews.

Integrative Review      Considered a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated. The body of literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses. A well-done integrative review meets the same standards as primary research in regard to clarity, rigor, and replication.

Historical Review      Few things rest in isolation from historical precedent. Historical reviews are focused on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and to identify the likely directions for future research.

Methodological Review      A review does not always focus on what someone said [content], but how they said it [method of analysis]. This approach provides a framework of understanding at different levels (i.e. those of theory, substantive fields, research approaches and data collection and analysis techniques), enables researchers to draw on a wide variety of knowledge ranging from the conceptual level to practical documents for use in fieldwork in the areas of ontological and epistemological consideration, quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection and data analysis, and helps highlight many ethical issues which we should be aware of and consider as we go through our study.

Systematic Review      This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyse data from the studies that are included in the review. Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?"

Theoretical Review      The purpose of this form is to concretely examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review help establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.

* Kennedy, Mary M. "Defining a Literature."  Educational Researcher  36 (April 2007): 139-147.

All content in this section is from The Literature Review created by Dr. Robert Larabee USC

Robinson, P. and Lowe, J. (2015),  Literature reviews vs systematic reviews.  Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 39: 103-103. doi: 10.1111/1753-6405.12393

research techniques literature review

What's in the name? The difference between a Systematic Review and a Literature Review, and why it matters . By Lynn Kysh from University of Southern California

research techniques literature review

Systematic review or meta-analysis?

A  systematic review  answers a defined research question by collecting and summarizing all empirical evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria.

A  meta-analysis  is the use of statistical methods to summarize the results of these studies.

Systematic reviews, just like other research articles, can be of varying quality. They are a significant piece of work (the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination at York estimates that a team will take 9-24 months), and to be useful to other researchers and practitioners they should have:

  • clearly stated objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies
  • explicit, reproducible methodology
  • a systematic search that attempts to identify all studies
  • assessment of the validity of the findings of the included studies (e.g. risk of bias)
  • systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies

Not all systematic reviews contain meta-analysis. 

Meta-analysis is the use of statistical methods to summarize the results of independent studies. By combining information from all relevant studies, meta-analysis can provide more precise estimates of the effects of health care than those derived from the individual studies included within a review.  More information on meta-analyses can be found in  Cochrane Handbook, Chapter 9 .

A meta-analysis goes beyond critique and integration and conducts secondary statistical analysis on the outcomes of similar studies.  It is a systematic review that uses quantitative methods to synthesize and summarize the results.

An advantage of a meta-analysis is the ability to be completely objective in evaluating research findings.  Not all topics, however, have sufficient research evidence to allow a meta-analysis to be conducted.  In that case, an integrative review is an appropriate strategy. 

Some of the content in this section is from Systematic reviews and meta-analyses: step by step guide created by Kate McAllister.

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Reviewing the research methods literature: principles and strategies illustrated by a systematic overview of sampling in qualitative research

  • Stephen J. Gentles 1 , 4 ,
  • Cathy Charles 1 ,
  • David B. Nicholas 2 ,
  • Jenny Ploeg 3 &
  • K. Ann McKibbon 1  

Systematic Reviews volume  5 , Article number:  172 ( 2016 ) Cite this article

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Overviews of methods are potentially useful means to increase clarity and enhance collective understanding of specific methods topics that may be characterized by ambiguity, inconsistency, or a lack of comprehensiveness. This type of review represents a distinct literature synthesis method, although to date, its methodology remains relatively undeveloped despite several aspects that demand unique review procedures. The purpose of this paper is to initiate discussion about what a rigorous systematic approach to reviews of methods, referred to here as systematic methods overviews , might look like by providing tentative suggestions for approaching specific challenges likely to be encountered. The guidance offered here was derived from experience conducting a systematic methods overview on the topic of sampling in qualitative research.

The guidance is organized into several principles that highlight specific objectives for this type of review given the common challenges that must be overcome to achieve them. Optional strategies for achieving each principle are also proposed, along with discussion of how they were successfully implemented in the overview on sampling. We describe seven paired principles and strategies that address the following aspects: delimiting the initial set of publications to consider, searching beyond standard bibliographic databases, searching without the availability of relevant metadata, selecting publications on purposeful conceptual grounds, defining concepts and other information to abstract iteratively, accounting for inconsistent terminology used to describe specific methods topics, and generating rigorous verifiable analytic interpretations. Since a broad aim in systematic methods overviews is to describe and interpret the relevant literature in qualitative terms, we suggest that iterative decision making at various stages of the review process, and a rigorous qualitative approach to analysis are necessary features of this review type.

Conclusions

We believe that the principles and strategies provided here will be useful to anyone choosing to undertake a systematic methods overview. This paper represents an initial effort to promote high quality critical evaluations of the literature regarding problematic methods topics, which have the potential to promote clearer, shared understandings, and accelerate advances in research methods. Further work is warranted to develop more definitive guidance.

Peer Review reports

While reviews of methods are not new, they represent a distinct review type whose methodology remains relatively under-addressed in the literature despite the clear implications for unique review procedures. One of few examples to describe it is a chapter containing reflections of two contributing authors in a book of 21 reviews on methodological topics compiled for the British National Health Service, Health Technology Assessment Program [ 1 ]. Notable is their observation of how the differences between the methods reviews and conventional quantitative systematic reviews, specifically attributable to their varying content and purpose, have implications for defining what qualifies as systematic. While the authors describe general aspects of “systematicity” (including rigorous application of a methodical search, abstraction, and analysis), they also describe a high degree of variation within the category of methods reviews itself and so offer little in the way of concrete guidance. In this paper, we present tentative concrete guidance, in the form of a preliminary set of proposed principles and optional strategies, for a rigorous systematic approach to reviewing and evaluating the literature on quantitative or qualitative methods topics. For purposes of this article, we have used the term systematic methods overview to emphasize the notion of a systematic approach to such reviews.

The conventional focus of rigorous literature reviews (i.e., review types for which systematic methods have been codified, including the various approaches to quantitative systematic reviews [ 2 – 4 ], and the numerous forms of qualitative and mixed methods literature synthesis [ 5 – 10 ]) is to synthesize empirical research findings from multiple studies. By contrast, the focus of overviews of methods, including the systematic approach we advocate, is to synthesize guidance on methods topics. The literature consulted for such reviews may include the methods literature, methods-relevant sections of empirical research reports, or both. Thus, this paper adds to previous work published in this journal—namely, recent preliminary guidance for conducting reviews of theory [ 11 ]—that has extended the application of systematic review methods to novel review types that are concerned with subject matter other than empirical research findings.

Published examples of methods overviews illustrate the varying objectives they can have. One objective is to establish methodological standards for appraisal purposes. For example, reviews of existing quality appraisal standards have been used to propose universal standards for appraising the quality of primary qualitative research [ 12 ] or evaluating qualitative research reports [ 13 ]. A second objective is to survey the methods-relevant sections of empirical research reports to establish current practices on methods use and reporting practices, which Moher and colleagues [ 14 ] recommend as a means for establishing the needs to be addressed in reporting guidelines (see, for example [ 15 , 16 ]). A third objective for a methods review is to offer clarity and enhance collective understanding regarding a specific methods topic that may be characterized by ambiguity, inconsistency, or a lack of comprehensiveness within the available methods literature. An example of this is a overview whose objective was to review the inconsistent definitions of intention-to-treat analysis (the methodologically preferred approach to analyze randomized controlled trial data) that have been offered in the methods literature and propose a solution for improving conceptual clarity [ 17 ]. Such reviews are warranted because students and researchers who must learn or apply research methods typically lack the time to systematically search, retrieve, review, and compare the available literature to develop a thorough and critical sense of the varied approaches regarding certain controversial or ambiguous methods topics.

While systematic methods overviews , as a review type, include both reviews of the methods literature and reviews of methods-relevant sections from empirical study reports, the guidance provided here is primarily applicable to reviews of the methods literature since it was derived from the experience of conducting such a review [ 18 ], described below. To our knowledge, there are no well-developed proposals on how to rigorously conduct such reviews. Such guidance would have the potential to improve the thoroughness and credibility of critical evaluations of the methods literature, which could increase their utility as a tool for generating understandings that advance research methods, both qualitative and quantitative. Our aim in this paper is thus to initiate discussion about what might constitute a rigorous approach to systematic methods overviews. While we hope to promote rigor in the conduct of systematic methods overviews wherever possible, we do not wish to suggest that all methods overviews need be conducted to the same standard. Rather, we believe that the level of rigor may need to be tailored pragmatically to the specific review objectives, which may not always justify the resource requirements of an intensive review process.

The example systematic methods overview on sampling in qualitative research

The principles and strategies we propose in this paper are derived from experience conducting a systematic methods overview on the topic of sampling in qualitative research [ 18 ]. The main objective of that methods overview was to bring clarity and deeper understanding of the prominent concepts related to sampling in qualitative research (purposeful sampling strategies, saturation, etc.). Specifically, we interpreted the available guidance, commenting on areas lacking clarity, consistency, or comprehensiveness (without proposing any recommendations on how to do sampling). This was achieved by a comparative and critical analysis of publications representing the most influential (i.e., highly cited) guidance across several methodological traditions in qualitative research.

The specific methods and procedures for the overview on sampling [ 18 ] from which our proposals are derived were developed both after soliciting initial input from local experts in qualitative research and an expert health librarian (KAM) and through ongoing careful deliberation throughout the review process. To summarize, in that review, we employed a transparent and rigorous approach to search the methods literature, selected publications for inclusion according to a purposeful and iterative process, abstracted textual data using structured abstraction forms, and analyzed (synthesized) the data using a systematic multi-step approach featuring abstraction of text, summary of information in matrices, and analytic comparisons.

For this article, we reflected on both the problems and challenges encountered at different stages of the review and our means for selecting justifiable procedures to deal with them. Several principles were then derived by considering the generic nature of these problems, while the generalizable aspects of the procedures used to address them formed the basis of optional strategies. Further details of the specific methods and procedures used in the overview on qualitative sampling are provided below to illustrate both the types of objectives and challenges that reviewers will likely need to consider and our approach to implementing each of the principles and strategies.

Organization of the guidance into principles and strategies

For the purposes of this article, principles are general statements outlining what we propose are important aims or considerations within a particular review process, given the unique objectives or challenges to be overcome with this type of review. These statements follow the general format, “considering the objective or challenge of X, we propose Y to be an important aim or consideration.” Strategies are optional and flexible approaches for implementing the previous principle outlined. Thus, generic challenges give rise to principles, which in turn give rise to strategies.

We organize the principles and strategies below into three sections corresponding to processes characteristic of most systematic literature synthesis approaches: literature identification and selection ; data abstraction from the publications selected for inclusion; and analysis , including critical appraisal and synthesis of the abstracted data. Within each section, we also describe the specific methodological decisions and procedures used in the overview on sampling in qualitative research [ 18 ] to illustrate how the principles and strategies for each review process were applied and implemented in a specific case. We expect this guidance and accompanying illustrations will be useful for anyone considering engaging in a methods overview, particularly those who may be familiar with conventional systematic review methods but may not yet appreciate some of the challenges specific to reviewing the methods literature.

Results and discussion

Literature identification and selection.

The identification and selection process includes search and retrieval of publications and the development and application of inclusion and exclusion criteria to select the publications that will be abstracted and analyzed in the final review. Literature identification and selection for overviews of the methods literature is challenging and potentially more resource-intensive than for most reviews of empirical research. This is true for several reasons that we describe below, alongside discussion of the potential solutions. Additionally, we suggest in this section how the selection procedures can be chosen to match the specific analytic approach used in methods overviews.

Delimiting a manageable set of publications

One aspect of methods overviews that can make identification and selection challenging is the fact that the universe of literature containing potentially relevant information regarding most methods-related topics is expansive and often unmanageably so. Reviewers are faced with two large categories of literature: the methods literature , where the possible publication types include journal articles, books, and book chapters; and the methods-relevant sections of empirical study reports , where the possible publication types include journal articles, monographs, books, theses, and conference proceedings. In our systematic overview of sampling in qualitative research, exhaustively searching (including retrieval and first-pass screening) all publication types across both categories of literature for information on a single methods-related topic was too burdensome to be feasible. The following proposed principle follows from the need to delimit a manageable set of literature for the review.

Principle #1:

Considering the broad universe of potentially relevant literature, we propose that an important objective early in the identification and selection stage is to delimit a manageable set of methods-relevant publications in accordance with the objectives of the methods overview.

Strategy #1:

To limit the set of methods-relevant publications that must be managed in the selection process, reviewers have the option to initially review only the methods literature, and exclude the methods-relevant sections of empirical study reports, provided this aligns with the review’s particular objectives.

We propose that reviewers are justified in choosing to select only the methods literature when the objective is to map out the range of recognized concepts relevant to a methods topic, to summarize the most authoritative or influential definitions or meanings for methods-related concepts, or to demonstrate a problematic lack of clarity regarding a widely established methods-related concept and potentially make recommendations for a preferred approach to the methods topic in question. For example, in the case of the methods overview on sampling [ 18 ], the primary aim was to define areas lacking in clarity for multiple widely established sampling-related topics. In the review on intention-to-treat in the context of missing outcome data [ 17 ], the authors identified a lack of clarity based on multiple inconsistent definitions in the literature and went on to recommend separating the issue of how to handle missing outcome data from the issue of whether an intention-to-treat analysis can be claimed.

In contrast to strategy #1, it may be appropriate to select the methods-relevant sections of empirical study reports when the objective is to illustrate how a methods concept is operationalized in research practice or reported by authors. For example, one could review all the publications in 2 years’ worth of issues of five high-impact field-related journals to answer questions about how researchers describe implementing a particular method or approach, or to quantify how consistently they define or report using it. Such reviews are often used to highlight gaps in the reporting practices regarding specific methods, which may be used to justify items to address in reporting guidelines (for example, [ 14 – 16 ]).

It is worth recognizing that other authors have advocated broader positions regarding the scope of literature to be considered in a review, expanding on our perspective. Suri [ 10 ] (who, like us, emphasizes how different sampling strategies are suitable for different literature synthesis objectives) has, for example, described a two-stage literature sampling procedure (pp. 96–97). First, reviewers use an initial approach to conduct a broad overview of the field—for reviews of methods topics, this would entail an initial review of the research methods literature. This is followed by a second more focused stage in which practical examples are purposefully selected—for methods reviews, this would involve sampling the empirical literature to illustrate key themes and variations. While this approach is seductive in its capacity to generate more in depth and interpretive analytic findings, some reviewers may consider it too resource-intensive to include the second step no matter how selective the purposeful sampling. In the overview on sampling where we stopped after the first stage [ 18 ], we discussed our selective focus on the methods literature as a limitation that left opportunities for further analysis of the literature. We explicitly recommended, for example, that theoretical sampling was a topic for which a future review of the methods sections of empirical reports was justified to answer specific questions identified in the primary review.

Ultimately, reviewers must make pragmatic decisions that balance resource considerations, combined with informed predictions about the depth and complexity of literature available on their topic, with the stated objectives of their review. The remaining principles and strategies apply primarily to overviews that include the methods literature, although some aspects may be relevant to reviews that include empirical study reports.

Searching beyond standard bibliographic databases

An important reality affecting identification and selection in overviews of the methods literature is the increased likelihood for relevant publications to be located in sources other than journal articles (which is usually not the case for overviews of empirical research, where journal articles generally represent the primary publication type). In the overview on sampling [ 18 ], out of 41 full-text publications retrieved and reviewed, only 4 were journal articles, while 37 were books or book chapters. Since many books and book chapters did not exist electronically, their full text had to be physically retrieved in hardcopy, while 11 publications were retrievable only through interlibrary loan or purchase request. The tasks associated with such retrieval are substantially more time-consuming than electronic retrieval. Since a substantial proportion of methods-related guidance may be located in publication types that are less comprehensively indexed in standard bibliographic databases, identification and retrieval thus become complicated processes.

Principle #2:

Considering that important sources of methods guidance can be located in non-journal publication types (e.g., books, book chapters) that tend to be poorly indexed in standard bibliographic databases, it is important to consider alternative search methods for identifying relevant publications to be further screened for inclusion.

Strategy #2:

To identify books, book chapters, and other non-journal publication types not thoroughly indexed in standard bibliographic databases, reviewers may choose to consult one or more of the following less standard sources: Google Scholar, publisher web sites, or expert opinion.

In the case of the overview on sampling in qualitative research [ 18 ], Google Scholar had two advantages over other standard bibliographic databases: it indexes and returns records of books and book chapters likely to contain guidance on qualitative research methods topics; and it has been validated as providing higher citation counts than ISI Web of Science (a producer of numerous bibliographic databases accessible through institutional subscription) for several non-biomedical disciplines including the social sciences where qualitative research methods are prominently used [ 19 – 21 ]. While we identified numerous useful publications by consulting experts, the author publication lists generated through Google Scholar searches were uniquely useful to identify more recent editions of methods books identified by experts.

Searching without relevant metadata

Determining what publications to select for inclusion in the overview on sampling [ 18 ] could only rarely be accomplished by reviewing the publication’s metadata. This was because for the many books and other non-journal type publications we identified as possibly relevant, the potential content of interest would be located in only a subsection of the publication. In this common scenario for reviews of the methods literature (as opposed to methods overviews that include empirical study reports), reviewers will often be unable to employ standard title, abstract, and keyword database searching or screening as a means for selecting publications.

Principle #3:

Considering that the presence of information about the topic of interest may not be indicated in the metadata for books and similar publication types, it is important to consider other means of identifying potentially useful publications for further screening.

Strategy #3:

One approach to identifying potentially useful books and similar publication types is to consider what classes of such publications (e.g., all methods manuals for a certain research approach) are likely to contain relevant content, then identify, retrieve, and review the full text of corresponding publications to determine whether they contain information on the topic of interest.

In the example of the overview on sampling in qualitative research [ 18 ], the topic of interest (sampling) was one of numerous topics covered in the general qualitative research methods manuals. Consequently, examples from this class of publications first had to be identified for retrieval according to non-keyword-dependent criteria. Thus, all methods manuals within the three research traditions reviewed (grounded theory, phenomenology, and case study) that might contain discussion of sampling were sought through Google Scholar and expert opinion, their full text obtained, and hand-searched for relevant content to determine eligibility. We used tables of contents and index sections of books to aid this hand searching.

Purposefully selecting literature on conceptual grounds

A final consideration in methods overviews relates to the type of analysis used to generate the review findings. Unlike quantitative systematic reviews where reviewers aim for accurate or unbiased quantitative estimates—something that requires identifying and selecting the literature exhaustively to obtain all relevant data available (i.e., a complete sample)—in methods overviews, reviewers must describe and interpret the relevant literature in qualitative terms to achieve review objectives. In other words, the aim in methods overviews is to seek coverage of the qualitative concepts relevant to the methods topic at hand. For example, in the overview of sampling in qualitative research [ 18 ], achieving review objectives entailed providing conceptual coverage of eight sampling-related topics that emerged as key domains. The following principle recognizes that literature sampling should therefore support generating qualitative conceptual data as the input to analysis.

Principle #4:

Since the analytic findings of a systematic methods overview are generated through qualitative description and interpretation of the literature on a specified topic, selection of the literature should be guided by a purposeful strategy designed to achieve adequate conceptual coverage (i.e., representing an appropriate degree of variation in relevant ideas) of the topic according to objectives of the review.

Strategy #4:

One strategy for choosing the purposeful approach to use in selecting the literature according to the review objectives is to consider whether those objectives imply exploring concepts either at a broad overview level, in which case combining maximum variation selection with a strategy that limits yield (e.g., critical case, politically important, or sampling for influence—described below) may be appropriate; or in depth, in which case purposeful approaches aimed at revealing innovative cases will likely be necessary.

In the methods overview on sampling, the implied scope was broad since we set out to review publications on sampling across three divergent qualitative research traditions—grounded theory, phenomenology, and case study—to facilitate making informative conceptual comparisons. Such an approach would be analogous to maximum variation sampling.

At the same time, the purpose of that review was to critically interrogate the clarity, consistency, and comprehensiveness of literature from these traditions that was “most likely to have widely influenced students’ and researchers’ ideas about sampling” (p. 1774) [ 18 ]. In other words, we explicitly set out to review and critique the most established and influential (and therefore dominant) literature, since this represents a common basis of knowledge among students and researchers seeking understanding or practical guidance on sampling in qualitative research. To achieve this objective, we purposefully sampled publications according to the criterion of influence , which we operationalized as how often an author or publication has been referenced in print or informal discourse. This second sampling approach also limited the literature we needed to consider within our broad scope review to a manageable amount.

To operationalize this strategy of sampling for influence , we sought to identify both the most influential authors within a qualitative research tradition (all of whose citations were subsequently screened) and the most influential publications on the topic of interest by non-influential authors. This involved a flexible approach that combined multiple indicators of influence to avoid the dilemma that any single indicator might provide inadequate coverage. These indicators included bibliometric data (h-index for author influence [ 22 ]; number of cites for publication influence), expert opinion, and cross-references in the literature (i.e., snowball sampling). As a final selection criterion, a publication was included only if it made an original contribution in terms of novel guidance regarding sampling or a related concept; thus, purely secondary sources were excluded. Publish or Perish software (Anne-Wil Harzing; available at http://www.harzing.com/resources/publish-or-perish ) was used to generate bibliometric data via the Google Scholar database. Figure  1 illustrates how identification and selection in the methods overview on sampling was a multi-faceted and iterative process. The authors selected as influential, and the publications selected for inclusion or exclusion are listed in Additional file 1 (Matrices 1, 2a, 2b).

Literature identification and selection process used in the methods overview on sampling [ 18 ]

In summary, the strategies of seeking maximum variation and sampling for influence were employed in the sampling overview to meet the specific review objectives described. Reviewers will need to consider the full range of purposeful literature sampling approaches at their disposal in deciding what best matches the specific aims of their own reviews. Suri [ 10 ] has recently retooled Patton’s well-known typology of purposeful sampling strategies (originally intended for primary research) for application to literature synthesis, providing a useful resource in this respect.

Data abstraction

The purpose of data abstraction in rigorous literature reviews is to locate and record all data relevant to the topic of interest from the full text of included publications, making them available for subsequent analysis. Conventionally, a data abstraction form—consisting of numerous distinct conceptually defined fields to which corresponding information from the source publication is recorded—is developed and employed. There are several challenges, however, to the processes of developing the abstraction form and abstracting the data itself when conducting methods overviews, which we address here. Some of these problems and their solutions may be familiar to those who have conducted qualitative literature syntheses, which are similarly conceptual.

Iteratively defining conceptual information to abstract

In the overview on sampling [ 18 ], while we surveyed multiple sources beforehand to develop a list of concepts relevant for abstraction (e.g., purposeful sampling strategies, saturation, sample size), there was no way for us to anticipate some concepts prior to encountering them in the review process. Indeed, in many cases, reviewers are unable to determine the complete set of methods-related concepts that will be the focus of the final review a priori without having systematically reviewed the publications to be included. Thus, defining what information to abstract beforehand may not be feasible.

Principle #5:

Considering the potential impracticality of defining a complete set of relevant methods-related concepts from a body of literature one has not yet systematically read, selecting and defining fields for data abstraction must often be undertaken iteratively. Thus, concepts to be abstracted can be expected to grow and change as data abstraction proceeds.

Strategy #5:

Reviewers can develop an initial form or set of concepts for abstraction purposes according to standard methods (e.g., incorporating expert feedback, pilot testing) and remain attentive to the need to iteratively revise it as concepts are added or modified during the review. Reviewers should document revisions and return to re-abstract data from previously abstracted publications as the new data requirements are determined.

In the sampling overview [ 18 ], we developed and maintained the abstraction form in Microsoft Word. We derived the initial set of abstraction fields from our own knowledge of relevant sampling-related concepts, consultation with local experts, and reviewing a pilot sample of publications. Since the publications in this review included a large proportion of books, the abstraction process often began by flagging the broad sections within a publication containing topic-relevant information for detailed review to identify text to abstract. When reviewing flagged text, the reviewer occasionally encountered an unanticipated concept significant enough to warrant being added as a new field to the abstraction form. For example, a field was added to capture how authors described the timing of sampling decisions, whether before (a priori) or after (ongoing) starting data collection, or whether this was unclear. In these cases, we systematically documented the modification to the form and returned to previously abstracted publications to abstract any information that might be relevant to the new field.

The logic of this strategy is analogous to the logic used in a form of research synthesis called best fit framework synthesis (BFFS) [ 23 – 25 ]. In that method, reviewers initially code evidence using an a priori framework they have selected. When evidence cannot be accommodated by the selected framework, reviewers then develop new themes or concepts from which they construct a new expanded framework. Both the strategy proposed and the BFFS approach to research synthesis are notable for their rigorous and transparent means to adapt a final set of concepts to the content under review.

Accounting for inconsistent terminology

An important complication affecting the abstraction process in methods overviews is that the language used by authors to describe methods-related concepts can easily vary across publications. For example, authors from different qualitative research traditions often use different terms for similar methods-related concepts. Furthermore, as we found in the sampling overview [ 18 ], there may be cases where no identifiable term, phrase, or label for a methods-related concept is used at all, and a description of it is given instead. This can make searching the text for relevant concepts based on keywords unreliable.

Principle #6:

Since accepted terms may not be used consistently to refer to methods concepts, it is necessary to rely on the definitions for concepts, rather than keywords, to identify relevant information in the publication to abstract.

Strategy #6:

An effective means to systematically identify relevant information is to develop and iteratively adjust written definitions for key concepts (corresponding to abstraction fields) that are consistent with and as inclusive of as much of the literature reviewed as possible. Reviewers then seek information that matches these definitions (rather than keywords) when scanning a publication for relevant data to abstract.

In the abstraction process for the sampling overview [ 18 ], we noted the several concepts of interest to the review for which abstraction by keyword was particularly problematic due to inconsistent terminology across publications: sampling , purposeful sampling , sampling strategy , and saturation (for examples, see Additional file 1 , Matrices 3a, 3b, 4). We iteratively developed definitions for these concepts by abstracting text from publications that either provided an explicit definition or from which an implicit definition could be derived, which was recorded in fields dedicated to the concept’s definition. Using a method of constant comparison, we used text from definition fields to inform and modify a centrally maintained definition of the corresponding concept to optimize its fit and inclusiveness with the literature reviewed. Table  1 shows, as an example, the final definition constructed in this way for one of the central concepts of the review, qualitative sampling .

We applied iteratively developed definitions when making decisions about what specific text to abstract for an existing field, which allowed us to abstract concept-relevant data even if no recognized keyword was used. For example, this was the case for the sampling-related concept, saturation , where the relevant text available for abstraction in one publication [ 26 ]—“to continue to collect data until nothing new was being observed or recorded, no matter how long that takes”—was not accompanied by any term or label whatsoever.

This comparative analytic strategy (and our approach to analysis more broadly as described in strategy #7, below) is analogous to the process of reciprocal translation —a technique first introduced for meta-ethnography by Noblit and Hare [ 27 ] that has since been recognized as a common element in a variety of qualitative metasynthesis approaches [ 28 ]. Reciprocal translation, taken broadly, involves making sense of a study’s findings in terms of the findings of the other studies included in the review. In practice, it has been operationalized in different ways. Melendez-Torres and colleagues developed a typology from their review of the metasynthesis literature, describing four overlapping categories of specific operations undertaken in reciprocal translation: visual representation, key paper integration, data reduction and thematic extraction, and line-by-line coding [ 28 ]. The approaches suggested in both strategies #6 and #7, with their emphasis on constant comparison, appear to fall within the line-by-line coding category.

Generating credible and verifiable analytic interpretations

The analysis in a systematic methods overview must support its more general objective, which we suggested above is often to offer clarity and enhance collective understanding regarding a chosen methods topic. In our experience, this involves describing and interpreting the relevant literature in qualitative terms. Furthermore, any interpretative analysis required may entail reaching different levels of abstraction, depending on the more specific objectives of the review. For example, in the overview on sampling [ 18 ], we aimed to produce a comparative analysis of how multiple sampling-related topics were treated differently within and among different qualitative research traditions. To promote credibility of the review, however, not only should one seek a qualitative analytic approach that facilitates reaching varying levels of abstraction but that approach must also ensure that abstract interpretations are supported and justified by the source data and not solely the product of the analyst’s speculative thinking.

Principle #7:

Considering the qualitative nature of the analysis required in systematic methods overviews, it is important to select an analytic method whose interpretations can be verified as being consistent with the literature selected, regardless of the level of abstraction reached.

Strategy #7:

We suggest employing the constant comparative method of analysis [ 29 ] because it supports developing and verifying analytic links to the source data throughout progressively interpretive or abstract levels. In applying this approach, we advise a rigorous approach, documenting how supportive quotes or references to the original texts are carried forward in the successive steps of analysis to allow for easy verification.

The analytic approach used in the methods overview on sampling [ 18 ] comprised four explicit steps, progressing in level of abstraction—data abstraction, matrices, narrative summaries, and final analytic conclusions (Fig.  2 ). While we have positioned data abstraction as the second stage of the generic review process (prior to Analysis), above, we also considered it as an initial step of analysis in the sampling overview for several reasons. First, it involved a process of constant comparisons and iterative decision-making about the fields to add or define during development and modification of the abstraction form, through which we established the range of concepts to be addressed in the review. At the same time, abstraction involved continuous analytic decisions about what textual quotes (ranging in size from short phrases to numerous paragraphs) to record in the fields thus created. This constant comparative process was analogous to open coding in which textual data from publications was compared to conceptual fields (equivalent to codes) or to other instances of data previously abstracted when constructing definitions to optimize their fit with the overall literature as described in strategy #6. Finally, in the data abstraction step, we also recorded our first interpretive thoughts in dedicated fields, providing initial material for the more abstract analytic steps.

Summary of progressive steps of analysis used in the methods overview on sampling [ 18 ]

In the second step of the analysis, we constructed topic-specific matrices , or tables, by copying relevant quotes from abstraction forms into the appropriate cells of matrices (for the complete set of analytic matrices developed in the sampling review, see Additional file 1 (matrices 3 to 10)). Each matrix ranged from one to five pages; row headings, nested three-deep, identified the methodological tradition, author, and publication, respectively; and column headings identified the concepts, which corresponded to abstraction fields. Matrices thus allowed us to make further comparisons across methodological traditions, and between authors within a tradition. In the third step of analysis, we recorded our comparative observations as narrative summaries , in which we used illustrative quotes more sparingly. In the final step, we developed analytic conclusions based on the narrative summaries about the sampling-related concepts within each methodological tradition for which clarity, consistency, or comprehensiveness of the available guidance appeared to be lacking. Higher levels of analysis thus built logically from the lower levels, enabling us to easily verify analytic conclusions by tracing the support for claims by comparing the original text of publications reviewed.

Integrative versus interpretive methods overviews

The analytic product of systematic methods overviews is comparable to qualitative evidence syntheses, since both involve describing and interpreting the relevant literature in qualitative terms. Most qualitative synthesis approaches strive to produce new conceptual understandings that vary in level of interpretation. Dixon-Woods and colleagues [ 30 ] elaborate on a useful distinction, originating from Noblit and Hare [ 27 ], between integrative and interpretive reviews. Integrative reviews focus on summarizing available primary data and involve using largely secure and well defined concepts to do so; definitions are used from an early stage to specify categories for abstraction (or coding) of data, which in turn supports their aggregation; they do not seek as their primary focus to develop or specify new concepts, although they may achieve some theoretical or interpretive functions. For interpretive reviews, meanwhile, the main focus is to develop new concepts and theories that integrate them, with the implication that the concepts developed become fully defined towards the end of the analysis. These two forms are not completely distinct, and “every integrative synthesis will include elements of interpretation, and every interpretive synthesis will include elements of aggregation of data” [ 30 ].

The example methods overview on sampling [ 18 ] could be classified as predominantly integrative because its primary goal was to aggregate influential authors’ ideas on sampling-related concepts; there were also, however, elements of interpretive synthesis since it aimed to develop new ideas about where clarity in guidance on certain sampling-related topics is lacking, and definitions for some concepts were flexible and not fixed until late in the review. We suggest that most systematic methods overviews will be classifiable as predominantly integrative (aggregative). Nevertheless, more highly interpretive methods overviews are also quite possible—for example, when the review objective is to provide a highly critical analysis for the purpose of generating new methodological guidance. In such cases, reviewers may need to sample more deeply (see strategy #4), specifically by selecting empirical research reports (i.e., to go beyond dominant or influential ideas in the methods literature) that are likely to feature innovations or instructive lessons in employing a given method.

In this paper, we have outlined tentative guidance in the form of seven principles and strategies on how to conduct systematic methods overviews, a review type in which methods-relevant literature is systematically analyzed with the aim of offering clarity and enhancing collective understanding regarding a specific methods topic. Our proposals include strategies for delimiting the set of publications to consider, searching beyond standard bibliographic databases, searching without the availability of relevant metadata, selecting publications on purposeful conceptual grounds, defining concepts and other information to abstract iteratively, accounting for inconsistent terminology, and generating credible and verifiable analytic interpretations. We hope the suggestions proposed will be useful to others undertaking reviews on methods topics in future.

As far as we are aware, this is the first published source of concrete guidance for conducting this type of review. It is important to note that our primary objective was to initiate methodological discussion by stimulating reflection on what rigorous methods for this type of review should look like, leaving the development of more complete guidance to future work. While derived from the experience of reviewing a single qualitative methods topic, we believe the principles and strategies provided are generalizable to overviews of both qualitative and quantitative methods topics alike. However, it is expected that additional challenges and insights for conducting such reviews have yet to be defined. Thus, we propose that next steps for developing more definitive guidance should involve an attempt to collect and integrate other reviewers’ perspectives and experiences in conducting systematic methods overviews on a broad range of qualitative and quantitative methods topics. Formalized guidance and standards would improve the quality of future methods overviews, something we believe has important implications for advancing qualitative and quantitative methodology. When undertaken to a high standard, rigorous critical evaluations of the available methods guidance have significant potential to make implicit controversies explicit, and improve the clarity and precision of our understandings of problematic qualitative or quantitative methods issues.

A review process central to most types of rigorous reviews of empirical studies, which we did not explicitly address in a separate review step above, is quality appraisal . The reason we have not treated this as a separate step stems from the different objectives of the primary publications included in overviews of the methods literature (i.e., providing methodological guidance) compared to the primary publications included in the other established review types (i.e., reporting findings from single empirical studies). This is not to say that appraising quality of the methods literature is not an important concern for systematic methods overviews. Rather, appraisal is much more integral to (and difficult to separate from) the analysis step, in which we advocate appraising clarity, consistency, and comprehensiveness—the quality appraisal criteria that we suggest are appropriate for the methods literature. As a second important difference regarding appraisal, we currently advocate appraising the aforementioned aspects at the level of the literature in aggregate rather than at the level of individual publications. One reason for this is that methods guidance from individual publications generally builds on previous literature, and thus we feel that ahistorical judgments about comprehensiveness of single publications lack relevance and utility. Additionally, while different methods authors may express themselves less clearly than others, their guidance can nonetheless be highly influential and useful, and should therefore not be downgraded or ignored based on considerations of clarity—which raises questions about the alternative uses that quality appraisals of individual publications might have. Finally, legitimate variability in the perspectives that methods authors wish to emphasize, and the levels of generality at which they write about methods, makes critiquing individual publications based on the criterion of clarity a complex and potentially problematic endeavor that is beyond the scope of this paper to address. By appraising the current state of the literature at a holistic level, reviewers stand to identify important gaps in understanding that represent valuable opportunities for further methodological development.

To summarize, the principles and strategies provided here may be useful to those seeking to undertake their own systematic methods overview. Additional work is needed, however, to establish guidance that is comprehensive by comparing the experiences from conducting a variety of methods overviews on a range of methods topics. Efforts that further advance standards for systematic methods overviews have the potential to promote high-quality critical evaluations that produce conceptually clear and unified understandings of problematic methods topics, thereby accelerating the advance of research methodology.

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The systematic methods overview used as a worked example in this article (Gentles SJ, Charles C, Ploeg J, McKibbon KA: Sampling in qualitative research: insights from an overview of the methods literature. The Qual Rep 2015, 20(11):1772-1789) is available from http://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol20/iss11/5 .

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SJG wrote the first draft of this article, with CC contributing to drafting. All authors contributed to revising the manuscript. All authors except CC (deceased) approved the final draft. SJG, CC, KAB, and JP were involved in developing methods for the systematic methods overview on sampling.

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Gentles, S.J., Charles, C., Nicholas, D.B. et al. Reviewing the research methods literature: principles and strategies illustrated by a systematic overview of sampling in qualitative research. Syst Rev 5 , 172 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-016-0343-0

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A literature review surveys prior research published in books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by so doing, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works in relation to the research problem being investigated. Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have used in researching a particular topic and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits within existing scholarship about the topic.

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . Fourth edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2014.

Importance of a Good Literature Review

A literature review may consist of simply a summary of key sources, but in the social sciences, a literature review usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories . A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information in a way that informs how you are planning to investigate a research problem. The analytical features of a literature review might:

  • Give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations,
  • Trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates,
  • Depending on the situation, evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant research, or
  • Usually in the conclusion of a literature review, identify where gaps exist in how a problem has been researched to date.

Given this, the purpose of a literature review is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to understanding the research problem being studied.
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration.
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research.
  • Reveal any gaps that exist in the literature.
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
  • Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research.
  • Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important].

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2011; Knopf, Jeffrey W. "Doing a Literature Review." PS: Political Science and Politics 39 (January 2006): 127-132; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012.

Types of Literature Reviews

It is important to think of knowledge in a given field as consisting of three layers. First, there are the primary studies that researchers conduct and publish. Second are the reviews of those studies that summarize and offer new interpretations built from and often extending beyond the primary studies. Third, there are the perceptions, conclusions, opinion, and interpretations that are shared informally among scholars that become part of the body of epistemological traditions within the field.

In composing a literature review, it is important to note that it is often this third layer of knowledge that is cited as "true" even though it often has only a loose relationship to the primary studies and secondary literature reviews. Given this, while literature reviews are designed to provide an overview and synthesis of pertinent sources you have explored, there are a number of approaches you could adopt depending upon the type of analysis underpinning your study.

Argumentative Review This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply embedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature. The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint. Given the value-laden nature of some social science research [e.g., educational reform; immigration control], argumentative approaches to analyzing the literature can be a legitimate and important form of discourse. However, note that they can also introduce problems of bias when they are used to make summary claims of the sort found in systematic reviews [see below].

Integrative Review Considered a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated. The body of literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses or research problems. A well-done integrative review meets the same standards as primary research in regard to clarity, rigor, and replication. This is the most common form of review in the social sciences.

Historical Review Few things rest in isolation from historical precedent. Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and to identify the likely directions for future research.

Methodological Review A review does not always focus on what someone said [findings], but how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis]. Reviewing methods of analysis provides a framework of understanding at different levels [i.e. those of theory, substantive fields, research approaches, and data collection and analysis techniques], how researchers draw upon a wide variety of knowledge ranging from the conceptual level to practical documents for use in fieldwork in the areas of ontological and epistemological consideration, quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection, and data analysis. This approach helps highlight ethical issues which you should be aware of and consider as you go through your own study.

Systematic Review This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review. The goal is to deliberately document, critically evaluate, and summarize scientifically all of the research about a clearly defined research problem . Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?" This type of literature review is primarily applied to examining prior research studies in clinical medicine and allied health fields, but it is increasingly being used in the social sciences.

Theoretical Review The purpose of this form is to examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review helps to establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.

NOTE : Most often the literature review will incorporate some combination of types. For example, a review that examines literature supporting or refuting an argument, assumption, or philosophical problem related to the research problem will also need to include writing supported by sources that establish the history of these arguments in the literature.

Baumeister, Roy F. and Mark R. Leary. "Writing Narrative Literature Reviews."  Review of General Psychology 1 (September 1997): 311-320; Mark R. Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Kennedy, Mary M. "Defining a Literature." Educational Researcher 36 (April 2007): 139-147; Petticrew, Mark and Helen Roberts. Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide . Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006; Torracro, Richard. "Writing Integrative Literature Reviews: Guidelines and Examples." Human Resource Development Review 4 (September 2005): 356-367; Rocco, Tonette S. and Maria S. Plakhotnik. "Literature Reviews, Conceptual Frameworks, and Theoretical Frameworks: Terms, Functions, and Distinctions." Human Ressource Development Review 8 (March 2008): 120-130; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

Structure and Writing Style

I.  Thinking About Your Literature Review

The structure of a literature review should include the following in support of understanding the research problem :

  • An overview of the subject, issue, or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review,
  • Division of works under review into themes or categories [e.g. works that support a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative approaches entirely],
  • An explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others,
  • Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research.

The critical evaluation of each work should consider :

  • Provenance -- what are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence [e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings]?
  • Methodology -- were the techniques used to identify, gather, and analyze the data appropriate to addressing the research problem? Was the sample size appropriate? Were the results effectively interpreted and reported?
  • Objectivity -- is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness -- which of the author's theses are most convincing or least convincing?
  • Validity -- are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?

II.  Development of the Literature Review

Four Basic Stages of Writing 1.  Problem formulation -- which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues? 2.  Literature search -- finding materials relevant to the subject being explored. 3.  Data evaluation -- determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic. 4.  Analysis and interpretation -- discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature.

Consider the following issues before writing the literature review: Clarify If your assignment is not specific about what form your literature review should take, seek clarification from your professor by asking these questions: 1.  Roughly how many sources would be appropriate to include? 2.  What types of sources should I review (books, journal articles, websites; scholarly versus popular sources)? 3.  Should I summarize, synthesize, or critique sources by discussing a common theme or issue? 4.  Should I evaluate the sources in any way beyond evaluating how they relate to understanding the research problem? 5.  Should I provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history? Find Models Use the exercise of reviewing the literature to examine how authors in your discipline or area of interest have composed their literature review sections. Read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or to identify ways to organize your final review. The bibliography or reference section of sources you've already read, such as required readings in the course syllabus, are also excellent entry points into your own research. Narrow the Topic The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to obtain a good survey of relevant resources. Your professor will probably not expect you to read everything that's available about the topic, but you'll make the act of reviewing easier if you first limit scope of the research problem. A good strategy is to begin by searching the USC Libraries Catalog for recent books about the topic and review the table of contents for chapters that focuses on specific issues. You can also review the indexes of books to find references to specific issues that can serve as the focus of your research. For example, a book surveying the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may include a chapter on the role Egypt has played in mediating the conflict, or look in the index for the pages where Egypt is mentioned in the text. Consider Whether Your Sources are Current Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. This is particularly true in disciplines in medicine and the sciences where research conducted becomes obsolete very quickly as new discoveries are made. However, when writing a review in the social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be required. In other words, a complete understanding the research problem requires you to deliberately examine how knowledge and perspectives have changed over time. Sort through other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to explore what is considered by scholars to be a "hot topic" and what is not.

III.  Ways to Organize Your Literature Review

Chronology of Events If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development. For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union. By Publication Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on environmental studies of brown fields if the progression revealed, for example, a change in the soil collection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies. Thematic [“conceptual categories”] A thematic literature review is the most common approach to summarizing prior research in the social and behavioral sciences. Thematic reviews are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time, although the progression of time may still be incorporated into a thematic review. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it would still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The difference in this example between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: themes related to the role of the Internet in presidential politics. Note that more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point being made. Methodological A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. For the Internet in American presidential politics project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of American presidents on American, British, and French websites. Or the review might focus on the fundraising impact of the Internet on a particular political party. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.

Other Sections of Your Literature Review Once you've decided on the organizational method for your literature review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out because they arise from your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period; a thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue. However, sometimes you may need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. However, only include what is necessary for the reader to locate your study within the larger scholarship about the research problem.

Here are examples of other sections, usually in the form of a single paragraph, you may need to include depending on the type of review you write:

  • Current Situation : Information necessary to understand the current topic or focus of the literature review.
  • Sources Used : Describes the methods and resources [e.g., databases] you used to identify the literature you reviewed.
  • History : The chronological progression of the field, the research literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
  • Selection Methods : Criteria you used to select (and perhaps exclude) sources in your literature review. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed [i.e., scholarly] sources.
  • Standards : Description of the way in which you present your information.
  • Questions for Further Research : What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

IV.  Writing Your Literature Review

Once you've settled on how to organize your literature review, you're ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep in mind these issues.

Use Evidence A literature review section is, in this sense, just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence [citations] that demonstrates that what you are saying is valid. Be Selective Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the research problem, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological. Related items that provide additional information, but that are not key to understanding the research problem, can be included in a list of further readings . Use Quotes Sparingly Some short quotes are appropriate if you want to emphasize a point, or if what an author stated cannot be easily paraphrased. Sometimes you may need to quote certain terminology that was coined by the author, is not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. Do not use extensive quotes as a substitute for using your own words in reviewing the literature. Summarize and Synthesize Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each thematic paragraph as well as throughout the review. Recapitulate important features of a research study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to your own work and the work of others. Keep Your Own Voice While the literature review presents others' ideas, your voice [the writer's] should remain front and center. For example, weave references to other sources into what you are writing but maintain your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas and wording. Use Caution When Paraphrasing When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author's information or opinions accurately and in your own words. Even when paraphrasing an author’s work, you still must provide a citation to that work.

V.  Common Mistakes to Avoid

These are the most common mistakes made in reviewing social science research literature.

  • Sources in your literature review do not clearly relate to the research problem;
  • You do not take sufficient time to define and identify the most relevant sources to use in the literature review related to the research problem;
  • Relies exclusively on secondary analytical sources rather than including relevant primary research studies or data;
  • Uncritically accepts another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis;
  • Does not describe the search procedures that were used in identifying the literature to review;
  • Reports isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them in chi-squared or meta-analytic methods; and,
  • Only includes research that validates assumptions and does not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations found in the literature.

Cook, Kathleen E. and Elise Murowchick. “Do Literature Review Skills Transfer from One Course to Another?” Psychology Learning and Teaching 13 (March 2014): 3-11; Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . London: SAGE, 2011; Literature Review Handout. Online Writing Center. Liberty University; Literature Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2016; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012; Randolph, Justus J. “A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review." Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation. vol. 14, June 2009; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016; Taylor, Dena. The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing a Literature Review. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra.

Writing Tip

Break Out of Your Disciplinary Box!

Thinking interdisciplinarily about a research problem can be a rewarding exercise in applying new ideas, theories, or concepts to an old problem. For example, what might cultural anthropologists say about the continuing conflict in the Middle East? In what ways might geographers view the need for better distribution of social service agencies in large cities than how social workers might study the issue? You don’t want to substitute a thorough review of core research literature in your discipline for studies conducted in other fields of study. However, particularly in the social sciences, thinking about research problems from multiple vectors is a key strategy for finding new solutions to a problem or gaining a new perspective. Consult with a librarian about identifying research databases in other disciplines; almost every field of study has at least one comprehensive database devoted to indexing its research literature.

Frodeman, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity . New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Another Writing Tip

Don't Just Review for Content!

While conducting a review of the literature, maximize the time you devote to writing this part of your paper by thinking broadly about what you should be looking for and evaluating. Review not just what scholars are saying, but how are they saying it. Some questions to ask:

  • How are they organizing their ideas?
  • What methods have they used to study the problem?
  • What theories have been used to explain, predict, or understand their research problem?
  • What sources have they cited to support their conclusions?
  • How have they used non-textual elements [e.g., charts, graphs, figures, etc.] to illustrate key points?

When you begin to write your literature review section, you'll be glad you dug deeper into how the research was designed and constructed because it establishes a means for developing more substantial analysis and interpretation of the research problem.

Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1 998.

Yet Another Writing Tip

When Do I Know I Can Stop Looking and Move On?

Here are several strategies you can utilize to assess whether you've thoroughly reviewed the literature:

  • Look for repeating patterns in the research findings . If the same thing is being said, just by different people, then this likely demonstrates that the research problem has hit a conceptual dead end. At this point consider: Does your study extend current research?  Does it forge a new path? Or, does is merely add more of the same thing being said?
  • Look at sources the authors cite to in their work . If you begin to see the same researchers cited again and again, then this is often an indication that no new ideas have been generated to address the research problem.
  • Search Google Scholar to identify who has subsequently cited leading scholars already identified in your literature review [see next sub-tab]. This is called citation tracking and there are a number of sources that can help you identify who has cited whom, particularly scholars from outside of your discipline. Here again, if the same authors are being cited again and again, this may indicate no new literature has been written on the topic.

Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2016; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

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What is a literature review?

A literature review is an integrated analysis -- not just a summary-- of scholarly writings and other relevant evidence related directly to your research question.  That is, it represents a synthesis of the evidence that provides background information on your topic and shows a association between the evidence and your research question.

A literature review may be a stand alone work or the introduction to a larger research paper, depending on the assignment.  Rely heavily on the guidelines your instructor has given you.

Why is it important?

A literature review is important because it:

  • Explains the background of research on a topic.
  • Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
  • Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas.
  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
  • Identifies critical gaps and points of disagreement.
  • Discusses further research questions that logically come out of the previous studies.

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1. Choose a topic. Define your research question.

Your literature review should be guided by your central research question.  The literature represents background and research developments related to a specific research question, interpreted and analyzed by you in a synthesized way.

  • Make sure your research question is not too broad or too narrow.  Is it manageable?
  • Begin writing down terms that are related to your question. These will be useful for searches later.
  • If you have the opportunity, discuss your topic with your professor and your class mates.

2. Decide on the scope of your review

How many studies do you need to look at? How comprehensive should it be? How many years should it cover? 

  • This may depend on your assignment.  How many sources does the assignment require?

3. Select the databases you will use to conduct your searches.

Make a list of the databases you will search. 

Where to find databases:

  • use the tabs on this guide
  • Find other databases in the Nursing Information Resources web page
  • More on the Medical Library web page
  • ... and more on the Yale University Library web page

4. Conduct your searches to find the evidence. Keep track of your searches.

  • Use the key words in your question, as well as synonyms for those words, as terms in your search. Use the database tutorials for help.
  • Save the searches in the databases. This saves time when you want to redo, or modify, the searches. It is also helpful to use as a guide is the searches are not finding any useful results.
  • Review the abstracts of research studies carefully. This will save you time.
  • Use the bibliographies and references of research studies you find to locate others.
  • Check with your professor, or a subject expert in the field, if you are missing any key works in the field.
  • Ask your librarian for help at any time.
  • Use a citation manager, such as EndNote as the repository for your citations. See the EndNote tutorials for help.

Review the literature

Some questions to help you analyze the research:

  • What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?
  • Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?
  • What were the research methodologies? Analyze its literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions.
  • Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise?
  • If there are conflicting studies, why do you think that is?
  • How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited? If so, how has it been analyzed?

Tips: 

  • Review the abstracts carefully.  
  • Keep careful notes so that you may track your thought processes during the research process.
  • Create a matrix of the studies for easy analysis, and synthesis, across all of the studies.
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A literature review is a discussion of the literature (aka. the "research" or "scholarship") surrounding a certain topic. A good literature review doesn't simply summarize the existing material, but provides thoughtful synthesis and analysis. The purpose of a literature review is to orient your own work within an existing body of knowledge. A literature review may be written as a standalone piece or be included in a larger body of work.

You can read more about literature reviews, what they entail, and how to write one, using the resources below. 

Am I the only one struggling to write a literature review?

Dr. Zina O'Leary explains the misconceptions and struggles students often have with writing a literature review. She also provides step-by-step guidance on writing a persuasive literature review.

An Introduction to Literature Reviews

Dr. Eric Jensen, Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, and Dr. Charles Laurie, Director of Research at Verisk Maplecroft, explain how to write a literature review, and why researchers need to do so. Literature reviews can be stand-alone research or part of a larger project. They communicate the state of academic knowledge on a given topic, specifically detailing what is still unknown.

This is the first video in a whole series about literature reviews. You can find the rest of the series in our SAGE database, Research Methods:

Videos

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Identify Themes and Gaps in Literature (with real examples) | Scribbr

Finding connections between sources is key to organizing the arguments and structure of a good literature review. In this video, you'll learn how to identify themes, debates, and gaps between sources, using examples from real papers.

4 Tips for Writing a Literature Review's Intro, Body, and Conclusion | Scribbr

While each review will be unique in its structure--based on both the existing body of both literature and the overall goals of your own paper, dissertation, or research--this video from Scribbr does a good job simplifying the goals of writing a literature review for those who are new to the process. In this video, you’ll learn what to include in each section, as well as 4 tips for the main body illustrated with an example.

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  • Literature Review This chapter in SAGE's Encyclopedia of Research Design describes the types of literature reviews and scientific standards for conducting literature reviews.
  • UNC Writing Center: Literature Reviews This handout from the Writing Center at UNC will explain what literature reviews are and offer insights into the form and construction of literature reviews in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.
  • Purdue OWL: Writing a Literature Review The overview of literature reviews comes from Purdue's Online Writing Lab. It explains the basic why, what, and how of writing a literature review.

Organizational Tools for Literature Reviews

One of the most daunting aspects of writing a literature review is organizing your research. There are a variety of strategies that you can use to help you in this task. We've highlighted just a few ways writers keep track of all that information! You can use a combination of these tools or come up with your own organizational process. The key is choosing something that works with your own learning style.

Citation Managers

Citation managers are great tools, in general, for organizing research, but can be especially helpful when writing a literature review. You can keep all of your research in one place, take notes, and organize your materials into different folders or categories. Read more about citations managers here:

  • Manage Citations & Sources

Concept Mapping

Some writers use concept mapping (sometimes called flow or bubble charts or "mind maps") to help them visualize the ways in which the research they found connects.

research techniques literature review

There is no right or wrong way to make a concept map. There are a variety of online tools that can help you create a concept map or you can simply put pen to paper. To read more about concept mapping, take a look at the following help guides:

  • Using Concept Maps From Williams College's guide, Literature Review: A Self-guided Tutorial

Synthesis Matrix

A synthesis matrix is is a chart you can use to help you organize your research into thematic categories. By organizing your research into a matrix, like the examples below, can help you visualize the ways in which your sources connect. 

  • Walden University Writing Center: Literature Review Matrix Find a variety of literature review matrix examples and templates from Walden University.
  • Writing A Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix An example synthesis matrix created by NC State University Writing and Speaking Tutorial Service Tutors. If you would like a copy of this synthesis matrix in a different format, like a Word document, please ask a librarian. CC-BY-SA 3.0
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What is a Literature Review?

A literature or narrative review is a comprehensive review and analysis of the published literature on a specific topic or research question. The literature that is reviewed contains: books, articles, academic articles, conference proceedings, association papers, and dissertations. It contains the most pertinent studies and points to important past and current research and practices. It provides background and context, and shows how your research will contribute to the field. 

A literature review should: 

  • Provide a comprehensive and updated review of the literature;
  • Explain why this review has taken place;
  • Articulate a position or hypothesis;
  • Acknowledge and account for conflicting and corroborating points of view

From  S age Research Methods

Purpose of a Literature Review

A literature review can be written as an introduction to a study to:

  • Demonstrate how a study fills a gap in research
  • Compare a study with other research that's been done

Or it can be a separate work (a research article on its own) which:

  • Organizes or describes a topic
  • Describes variables within a particular issue/problem

Limitations of a Literature Review

Some of the limitations of a literature review are:

  • It's a snapshot in time. Unlike other reviews, this one has beginning, a middle and an end. There may be future developments that could make your work less relevant.
  • It may be too focused. Some niche studies may miss the bigger picture.
  • It can be difficult to be comprehensive. There is no way to make sure all the literature on a topic was considered.
  • It is easy to be biased if you stick to top tier journals. There may be other places where people are publishing exemplary research. Look to open access publications and conferences to reflect a more inclusive collection. Also, make sure to include opposing views (and not just supporting evidence).

Source: Grant, Maria J., and Andrew Booth. “A Typology of Reviews: An Analysis of 14 Review Types and Associated Methodologies.” Health Information & Libraries Journal, vol. 26, no. 2, June 2009, pp. 91–108. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x.

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Periodically, UT Libraries runs a workshop covering the basics and library support for literature reviews. While we try to offer these once per academic year, we find providing the recording to be helpful to community members who have missed the session. Following is the most recent recording of the workshop, Conducting a Literature Review. To view the recording, a UT login is required.

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Definition: A literature review is a systematic examination and synthesis of existing scholarly research on a specific topic or subject.

Purpose: It serves to provide a comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge within a particular field.

Analysis: Involves critically evaluating and summarizing key findings, methodologies, and debates found in academic literature.

Identifying Gaps: Aims to pinpoint areas where there is a lack of research or unresolved questions, highlighting opportunities for further investigation.

Contextualization: Enables researchers to understand how their work fits into the broader academic conversation and contributes to the existing body of knowledge.

research techniques literature review

tl;dr  A literature review critically examines and synthesizes existing scholarly research and publications on a specific topic to provide a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge in the field.

What is a literature review NOT?

❌ An annotated bibliography

❌ Original research

❌ A summary

❌ Something to be conducted at the end of your research

❌ An opinion piece

❌ A chronological compilation of studies

The reason for conducting a literature review is to:

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Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students

While this 9-minute video from NCSU is geared toward graduate students, it is useful for anyone conducting a literature review.

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Writing the literature review: A practical guide

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Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences

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So, you have to write a literature review: A guided workbook for engineers

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Reviewing literature for research: Doing it the right way

Shital amin poojary.

Department of Dermatology, K J Somaiya Medical College, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Jimish Deepak Bagadia

In an era of information overload, it is important to know how to obtain the required information and also to ensure that it is reliable information. Hence, it is essential to understand how to perform a systematic literature search. This article focuses on reliable literature sources and how to make optimum use of these in dermatology and venereology.

INTRODUCTION

A thorough review of literature is not only essential for selecting research topics, but also enables the right applicability of a research project. Most importantly, a good literature search is the cornerstone of practice of evidence based medicine. Today, everything is available at the click of a mouse or at the tip of the fingertips (or the stylus). Google is often the Go-To search website, the supposed answer to all questions in the universe. However, the deluge of information available comes with its own set of problems; how much of it is actually reliable information? How much are the search results that the search string threw up actually relevant? Did we actually find what we were looking for? Lack of a systematic approach can lead to a literature review ending up as a time-consuming and at times frustrating process. Hence, whether it is for research projects, theses/dissertations, case studies/reports or mere wish to obtain information; knowing where to look, and more importantly, how to look, is of prime importance today.

Literature search

Fink has defined research literature review as a “systematic, explicit and reproducible method for identifying, evaluating, and synthesizing the existing body of completed and recorded work produced by researchers, scholars and practitioners.”[ 1 ]

Review of research literature can be summarized into a seven step process: (i) Selecting research questions/purpose of the literature review (ii) Selecting your sources (iii) Choosing search terms (iv) Running your search (v) Applying practical screening criteria (vi) Applying methodological screening criteria/quality appraisal (vii) Synthesizing the results.[ 1 ]

This article will primarily concentrate on refining techniques of literature search.

Sources for literature search are enumerated in Table 1 .

Sources for literature search

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PubMed is currently the most widely used among these as it contains over 23 million citations for biomedical literature and has been made available free by National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), U.S. National Library of Medicine. However, the availability of free full text articles depends on the sources. Use of options such as advanced search, medical subject headings (MeSH) terms, free full text, PubMed tutorials, and single citation matcher makes the database extremely user-friendly [ Figure 1 ]. It can also be accessed on the go through mobiles using “PubMed Mobile.” One can also create own account in NCBI to save searches and to use certain PubMed tools.

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PubMed home page showing location of different tools which can be used for an efficient literature search

Tips for efficient use of PubMed search:[ 2 , 3 , 4 ]

Use of field and Boolean operators

When one searches using key words, all articles containing the words show up, many of which may not be related to the topic. Hence, the use of operators while searching makes the search more specific and less cumbersome. Operators are of two types: Field operators and Boolean operators, the latter enabling us to combine more than one concept, thereby making the search highly accurate. A few key operators that can be used in PubMed are shown in Tables ​ Tables2 2 and ​ and3 3 and illustrated in Figures ​ Figures2 2 and ​ and3 3 .

Field operators used in PubMed search

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Boolean operators used in PubMed search

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PubMed search results page showing articles on donovanosis using the field operator [TIAB]; it shows all articles which have the keyword “donovanosis” in either title or abstract of the article

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PubMed search using Boolean operators ‘AND’, ‘NOT’; To search for articles on treatment of lepra reaction other than steroids, after clicking the option ‘Advanced search’ on the home page, one can build the search using ‘AND’ option for treatment and ‘NOT’ option for steroids to omit articles on steroid treatment in lepra reaction

Use of medical subject headings terms

These are very specific and standardized terms used by indexers to describe every article in PubMed and are added to the record of every article. A search using MeSH will show all articles about the topic (or keywords), but will not show articles only containing these keywords (these articles may be about an entirely different topic, but still may contain your keywords in another context in any part of the article). This will make your search more specific. Within the topic, specific subheadings can be added to the search builder to refine your search [ Figure 4 ]. For example, MeSH terms for treatment are therapy and therapeutics.

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PubMed search using medical subject headings (MeSH) terms for management of gonorrhea. Click on MeSH database ( Figure 1 ) →In the MeSH search box type gonorrhea and click search. Under the MeSH term gonorrhea, there will be a list of subheadings; therapy, prevention and control, click the relevant check boxes and add to search builder →Click on search →All articles on therapy, prevention and control of gonorrhea will be displayed. Below the subheadings, there are two options: (1) Restrict to medical subject headings (MeSH) major topic and (2) do not include MeSH terms found below this term in the MeSH hierarchy. These can be used to further refine the search results so that only articles which are majorly about treatment of gonorrhea will be displayed

Two additional options can be used to further refine MeSH searches. These are located below the subheadings for a MeSH term: (1) Restrict to MeSH major topic; checking this box will retrieve articles which are majorly about the search term and are therefore, more focused and (2) Do not include MeSH terms found below this term in the MeSH hierarchy. This option will again give you more focused articles as it excludes the lower specific terms [ Figure 4 ].

Similar feature is available with Cochrane library (also called MeSH), EMBASE (known as EMTREE) and PsycINFO (Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms).

Saving your searches

Any search that one has performed can be saved by using the ‘Send to’ option and can be saved as a simple word file [ Figure 5 ]. Alternatively, the ‘Save Search’ button (just below the search box) can be used. However, it is essential to set up an NCBI account and log in to NCBI for this. One can even choose to have E-mail updates of new articles in the topic of interest.

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Saving PubMed searches. A simple option is to click on the dropdown box next to ‘Send to’ option and then choose among the options. It can be saved as a text or word file by choosing ‘File’ option. Another option is the “Save search” option below the search box but this will require logging into your National Center for Biotechnology Information account. This however allows you to set up alerts for E-mail updates for new articles

Single citation matcher

This is another important tool that helps to find the genuine original source of a particular research work (when few details are known about the title/author/publication date/place/journal) and cite the reference in the most correct manner [ Figure 6 ].

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Single citation matcher: Click on “Single citation matcher” on PubMed Home page. Type available details of the required reference in the boxes to get the required citation

Full text articles

In any search clicking on the link “free full text” (if present) gives you free access to the article. In some instances, though the published article may not be available free, the author manuscript may be available free of charge. Furthermore, PubMed Central articles are available free of charge.

Managing filters

Filters can be used to refine a search according to type of article required or subjects of research. One can specify the type of article required such as clinical trial, reviews, free full text; these options are available on a typical search results page. Further specialized filters are available under “manage filters:” e.g., articles confined to certain age groups (properties option), “Links” to other databases, article specific to particular journals, etc. However, one needs to have an NCBI account and log in to access this option [ Figure 7 ].

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Managing filters. Simple filters are available on the ‘search results’ page. One can choose type of article, e.g., clinical trial, reviews etc. Further options are available in the “Manage filters” option, but this requires logging into National Center for Biotechnology Information account

The Cochrane library

Although reviews are available in PubMed, for systematic reviews and meta-analysis, Cochrane library is a much better resource. The Cochrane library is a collection of full length systematic reviews, which can be accessed for free in India, thanks to Indian Council of Medical Research renewing the license up to 2016, benefitting users all over India. It is immensely helpful in finding detailed high quality research work done in a particular field/topic [ Figure 8 ].

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Cochrane library is a useful resource for reliable, systematic reviews. One can choose the type of reviews required, including trials

An important tool that must be used while searching for research work is screening. Screening helps to improve the accuracy of search results. It is of two types: (1) Practical: To identify a broad range of potentially useful studies. Examples: Date of publication (last 5 years only; gives you most recent updates), participants or subjects (humans above 18 years), publication language (English only) (2) methodological: To identify best available studies (for example, excluding studies not involving control group or studies with only randomized control trials).

Selecting the right quality of literature is the key to successful research literature review. The quality can be estimated by what is known as “The Evidence Pyramid.” The level of evidence of references obtained from the aforementioned search tools are depicted in Figure 9 . Systematic reviews obtained from Cochrane library constitute level 1 evidence.

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Evidence pyramid: Depicting the level of evidence of references obtained from the aforementioned search tools

Thus, a systematic literature review can help not only in setting up the basis of a good research with optimal use of available information, but also in practice of evidence-based medicine.

Source of Support: Nil.

Conflict of Interest: None declared.

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Literature Review – Types Writing Guide and Examples

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Literature Review

Literature Review

Definition:

A literature review is a comprehensive and critical analysis of the existing literature on a particular topic or research question. It involves identifying, evaluating, and synthesizing relevant literature, including scholarly articles, books, and other sources, to provide a summary and critical assessment of what is known about the topic.

Types of Literature Review

Types of Literature Review are as follows:

  • Narrative literature review : This type of review involves a comprehensive summary and critical analysis of the available literature on a particular topic or research question. It is often used as an introductory section of a research paper.
  • Systematic literature review: This is a rigorous and structured review that follows a pre-defined protocol to identify, evaluate, and synthesize all relevant studies on a specific research question. It is often used in evidence-based practice and systematic reviews.
  • Meta-analysis: This is a quantitative review that uses statistical methods to combine data from multiple studies to derive a summary effect size. It provides a more precise estimate of the overall effect than any individual study.
  • Scoping review: This is a preliminary review that aims to map the existing literature on a broad topic area to identify research gaps and areas for further investigation.
  • Critical literature review : This type of review evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the existing literature on a particular topic or research question. It aims to provide a critical analysis of the literature and identify areas where further research is needed.
  • Conceptual literature review: This review synthesizes and integrates theories and concepts from multiple sources to provide a new perspective on a particular topic. It aims to provide a theoretical framework for understanding a particular research question.
  • Rapid literature review: This is a quick review that provides a snapshot of the current state of knowledge on a specific research question or topic. It is often used when time and resources are limited.
  • Thematic literature review : This review identifies and analyzes common themes and patterns across a body of literature on a particular topic. It aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the literature and identify key themes and concepts.
  • Realist literature review: This review is often used in social science research and aims to identify how and why certain interventions work in certain contexts. It takes into account the context and complexities of real-world situations.
  • State-of-the-art literature review : This type of review provides an overview of the current state of knowledge in a particular field, highlighting the most recent and relevant research. It is often used in fields where knowledge is rapidly evolving, such as technology or medicine.
  • Integrative literature review: This type of review synthesizes and integrates findings from multiple studies on a particular topic to identify patterns, themes, and gaps in the literature. It aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge on a particular topic.
  • Umbrella literature review : This review is used to provide a broad overview of a large and diverse body of literature on a particular topic. It aims to identify common themes and patterns across different areas of research.
  • Historical literature review: This type of review examines the historical development of research on a particular topic or research question. It aims to provide a historical context for understanding the current state of knowledge on a particular topic.
  • Problem-oriented literature review : This review focuses on a specific problem or issue and examines the literature to identify potential solutions or interventions. It aims to provide practical recommendations for addressing a particular problem or issue.
  • Mixed-methods literature review : This type of review combines quantitative and qualitative methods to synthesize and analyze the available literature on a particular topic. It aims to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the research question by combining different types of evidence.

Parts of Literature Review

Parts of a literature review are as follows:

Introduction

The introduction of a literature review typically provides background information on the research topic and why it is important. It outlines the objectives of the review, the research question or hypothesis, and the scope of the review.

Literature Search

This section outlines the search strategy and databases used to identify relevant literature. The search terms used, inclusion and exclusion criteria, and any limitations of the search are described.

Literature Analysis

The literature analysis is the main body of the literature review. This section summarizes and synthesizes the literature that is relevant to the research question or hypothesis. The review should be organized thematically, chronologically, or by methodology, depending on the research objectives.

Critical Evaluation

Critical evaluation involves assessing the quality and validity of the literature. This includes evaluating the reliability and validity of the studies reviewed, the methodology used, and the strength of the evidence.

The conclusion of the literature review should summarize the main findings, identify any gaps in the literature, and suggest areas for future research. It should also reiterate the importance of the research question or hypothesis and the contribution of the literature review to the overall research project.

The references list includes all the sources cited in the literature review, and follows a specific referencing style (e.g., APA, MLA, Harvard).

How to write Literature Review

Here are some steps to follow when writing a literature review:

  • Define your research question or topic : Before starting your literature review, it is essential to define your research question or topic. This will help you identify relevant literature and determine the scope of your review.
  • Conduct a comprehensive search: Use databases and search engines to find relevant literature. Look for peer-reviewed articles, books, and other academic sources that are relevant to your research question or topic.
  • Evaluate the sources: Once you have found potential sources, evaluate them critically to determine their relevance, credibility, and quality. Look for recent publications, reputable authors, and reliable sources of data and evidence.
  • Organize your sources: Group the sources by theme, method, or research question. This will help you identify similarities and differences among the literature, and provide a structure for your literature review.
  • Analyze and synthesize the literature : Analyze each source in depth, identifying the key findings, methodologies, and conclusions. Then, synthesize the information from the sources, identifying patterns and themes in the literature.
  • Write the literature review : Start with an introduction that provides an overview of the topic and the purpose of the literature review. Then, organize the literature according to your chosen structure, and analyze and synthesize the sources. Finally, provide a conclusion that summarizes the key findings of the literature review, identifies gaps in knowledge, and suggests areas for future research.
  • Edit and proofread: Once you have written your literature review, edit and proofread it carefully to ensure that it is well-organized, clear, and concise.

Examples of Literature Review

Here’s an example of how a literature review can be conducted for a thesis on the topic of “ The Impact of Social Media on Teenagers’ Mental Health”:

  • Start by identifying the key terms related to your research topic. In this case, the key terms are “social media,” “teenagers,” and “mental health.”
  • Use academic databases like Google Scholar, JSTOR, or PubMed to search for relevant articles, books, and other publications. Use these keywords in your search to narrow down your results.
  • Evaluate the sources you find to determine if they are relevant to your research question. You may want to consider the publication date, author’s credentials, and the journal or book publisher.
  • Begin reading and taking notes on each source, paying attention to key findings, methodologies used, and any gaps in the research.
  • Organize your findings into themes or categories. For example, you might categorize your sources into those that examine the impact of social media on self-esteem, those that explore the effects of cyberbullying, and those that investigate the relationship between social media use and depression.
  • Synthesize your findings by summarizing the key themes and highlighting any gaps or inconsistencies in the research. Identify areas where further research is needed.
  • Use your literature review to inform your research questions and hypotheses for your thesis.

For example, after conducting a literature review on the impact of social media on teenagers’ mental health, a thesis might look like this:

“Using a mixed-methods approach, this study aims to investigate the relationship between social media use and mental health outcomes in teenagers. Specifically, the study will examine the effects of cyberbullying, social comparison, and excessive social media use on self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Through an analysis of survey data and qualitative interviews with teenagers, the study will provide insight into the complex relationship between social media use and mental health outcomes, and identify strategies for promoting positive mental health outcomes in young people.”

Reference: Smith, J., Jones, M., & Lee, S. (2019). The effects of social media use on adolescent mental health: A systematic review. Journal of Adolescent Health, 65(2), 154-165. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2019.03.024

Reference Example: Author, A. A., Author, B. B., & Author, C. C. (Year). Title of article. Title of Journal, volume number(issue number), page range. doi:0000000/000000000000 or URL

Applications of Literature Review

some applications of literature review in different fields:

  • Social Sciences: In social sciences, literature reviews are used to identify gaps in existing research, to develop research questions, and to provide a theoretical framework for research. Literature reviews are commonly used in fields such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, and political science.
  • Natural Sciences: In natural sciences, literature reviews are used to summarize and evaluate the current state of knowledge in a particular field or subfield. Literature reviews can help researchers identify areas where more research is needed and provide insights into the latest developments in a particular field. Fields such as biology, chemistry, and physics commonly use literature reviews.
  • Health Sciences: In health sciences, literature reviews are used to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments, identify best practices, and determine areas where more research is needed. Literature reviews are commonly used in fields such as medicine, nursing, and public health.
  • Humanities: In humanities, literature reviews are used to identify gaps in existing knowledge, develop new interpretations of texts or cultural artifacts, and provide a theoretical framework for research. Literature reviews are commonly used in fields such as history, literary studies, and philosophy.

Role of Literature Review in Research

Here are some applications of literature review in research:

  • Identifying Research Gaps : Literature review helps researchers identify gaps in existing research and literature related to their research question. This allows them to develop new research questions and hypotheses to fill those gaps.
  • Developing Theoretical Framework: Literature review helps researchers develop a theoretical framework for their research. By analyzing and synthesizing existing literature, researchers can identify the key concepts, theories, and models that are relevant to their research.
  • Selecting Research Methods : Literature review helps researchers select appropriate research methods and techniques based on previous research. It also helps researchers to identify potential biases or limitations of certain methods and techniques.
  • Data Collection and Analysis: Literature review helps researchers in data collection and analysis by providing a foundation for the development of data collection instruments and methods. It also helps researchers to identify relevant data sources and identify potential data analysis techniques.
  • Communicating Results: Literature review helps researchers to communicate their results effectively by providing a context for their research. It also helps to justify the significance of their findings in relation to existing research and literature.

Purpose of Literature Review

Some of the specific purposes of a literature review are as follows:

  • To provide context: A literature review helps to provide context for your research by situating it within the broader body of literature on the topic.
  • To identify gaps and inconsistencies: A literature review helps to identify areas where further research is needed or where there are inconsistencies in the existing literature.
  • To synthesize information: A literature review helps to synthesize the information from multiple sources and present a coherent and comprehensive picture of the current state of knowledge on the topic.
  • To identify key concepts and theories : A literature review helps to identify key concepts and theories that are relevant to your research question and provide a theoretical framework for your study.
  • To inform research design: A literature review can inform the design of your research study by identifying appropriate research methods, data sources, and research questions.

Characteristics of Literature Review

Some Characteristics of Literature Review are as follows:

  • Identifying gaps in knowledge: A literature review helps to identify gaps in the existing knowledge and research on a specific topic or research question. By analyzing and synthesizing the literature, you can identify areas where further research is needed and where new insights can be gained.
  • Establishing the significance of your research: A literature review helps to establish the significance of your own research by placing it in the context of existing research. By demonstrating the relevance of your research to the existing literature, you can establish its importance and value.
  • Informing research design and methodology : A literature review helps to inform research design and methodology by identifying the most appropriate research methods, techniques, and instruments. By reviewing the literature, you can identify the strengths and limitations of different research methods and techniques, and select the most appropriate ones for your own research.
  • Supporting arguments and claims: A literature review provides evidence to support arguments and claims made in academic writing. By citing and analyzing the literature, you can provide a solid foundation for your own arguments and claims.
  • I dentifying potential collaborators and mentors: A literature review can help identify potential collaborators and mentors by identifying researchers and practitioners who are working on related topics or using similar methods. By building relationships with these individuals, you can gain valuable insights and support for your own research and practice.
  • Keeping up-to-date with the latest research : A literature review helps to keep you up-to-date with the latest research on a specific topic or research question. By regularly reviewing the literature, you can stay informed about the latest findings and developments in your field.

Advantages of Literature Review

There are several advantages to conducting a literature review as part of a research project, including:

  • Establishing the significance of the research : A literature review helps to establish the significance of the research by demonstrating the gap or problem in the existing literature that the study aims to address.
  • Identifying key concepts and theories: A literature review can help to identify key concepts and theories that are relevant to the research question, and provide a theoretical framework for the study.
  • Supporting the research methodology : A literature review can inform the research methodology by identifying appropriate research methods, data sources, and research questions.
  • Providing a comprehensive overview of the literature : A literature review provides a comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge on a topic, allowing the researcher to identify key themes, debates, and areas of agreement or disagreement.
  • Identifying potential research questions: A literature review can help to identify potential research questions and areas for further investigation.
  • Avoiding duplication of research: A literature review can help to avoid duplication of research by identifying what has already been done on a topic, and what remains to be done.
  • Enhancing the credibility of the research : A literature review helps to enhance the credibility of the research by demonstrating the researcher’s knowledge of the existing literature and their ability to situate their research within a broader context.

Limitations of Literature Review

Limitations of Literature Review are as follows:

  • Limited scope : Literature reviews can only cover the existing literature on a particular topic, which may be limited in scope or depth.
  • Publication bias : Literature reviews may be influenced by publication bias, which occurs when researchers are more likely to publish positive results than negative ones. This can lead to an incomplete or biased picture of the literature.
  • Quality of sources : The quality of the literature reviewed can vary widely, and not all sources may be reliable or valid.
  • Time-limited: Literature reviews can become quickly outdated as new research is published, making it difficult to keep up with the latest developments in a field.
  • Subjective interpretation : Literature reviews can be subjective, and the interpretation of the findings can vary depending on the researcher’s perspective or bias.
  • Lack of original data : Literature reviews do not generate new data, but rather rely on the analysis of existing studies.
  • Risk of plagiarism: It is important to ensure that literature reviews do not inadvertently contain plagiarism, which can occur when researchers use the work of others without proper attribution.

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Research Methods: Literature Reviews

  • Annotated Bibliographies
  • Literature Reviews
  • Scoping Reviews
  • Systematic Reviews
  • Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
  • Persuasive Arguments
  • Subject Specific Methodology

A literature review involves researching, reading, analyzing, evaluating, and summarizing scholarly literature (typically journals and articles) about a specific topic. The results of a literature review may be an entire report or article OR may be part of a article, thesis, dissertation, or grant proposal. A literature review helps the author learn about the history and nature of their topic, and identify research gaps and problems.

Steps & Elements

Problem formulation

  • Determine your topic and its components by asking a question
  • Research: locate literature related to your topic to identify the gap(s) that can be addressed
  • Read: read the articles or other sources of information
  • Analyze: assess the findings for relevancy
  • Evaluating: determine how the article are relevant to your research and what are the key findings
  • Synthesis: write about the key findings and how it is relevant to your research

Elements of a Literature Review

  • Summarize subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with objectives of the review
  • Divide works under review into categories (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, those offering alternative theories entirely)
  • Explain how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others
  • Conclude which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of an area of research

Writing a Literature Review Resources

  • How to Write a Literature Review From the Wesleyan University Library
  • Write a Literature Review From the University of California Santa Cruz Library. A Brief overview of a literature review, includes a list of stages for writing a lit review.
  • Literature Reviews From the University of North Carolina Writing Center. Detailed information about writing a literature review.
  • Undertaking a literature review: a step-by-step approach Cronin, P., Ryan, F., & Coughan, M. (2008). Undertaking a literature review: A step-by-step approach. British Journal of Nursing, 17(1), p.38-43

research techniques literature review

Literature Review Tutorial

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RMIT University

Teaching and Research guides

Literature reviews.

  • Introduction
  • Plan your search
  • Where to search
  • Refine and update your search
  • Finding grey literature
  • Writing the review
  • Referencing

Research methods overview

Finding literature on research methodologies, sage research methods online.

  • Get material not at RMIT
  • Further help

What are research methods?

Research methodology is the specific strategies, processes, or techniques utilised in the collection of information that is created and analysed.

The methodology section of a research paper, or thesis, enables the reader to critically evaluate the study’s validity and reliability by addressing how the data was collected or generated, and how it was analysed.

Types of research methods

There are three main types of research methods which use different designs for data collection.  

(1) Qualitative research

Qualitative research gathers data about lived experiences, emotions or behaviours, and the meanings individuals attach to them. It assists in enabling researchers to gain a better understanding of complex concepts, social interactions or cultural phenomena. This type of research is useful in the exploration of how or why things have occurred, interpreting events and describing actions.

Examples of qualitative research designs include:

  • focus groups
  • observations
  • document analysis
  • oral history or life stories  

(2) Quantitative research

Quantitative research gathers numerical data which can be ranked, measured or categorised through statistical analysis. It assists with uncovering patterns or relationships, and for making generalisations. This type of research is useful for finding out how many, how much, how often, or to what extent.

Examples of quantitative research designs include:

  • surveys or questionnaires
  • observation
  • document screening
  • experiments  

(3) Mixed method research

Mixed Methods research integrates both Qualitative research and Quantitative research. It provides a holistic approach combining and analysing the statistical data with deeper contextualised insights. Using Mixed Methods also enables triangulation, or verification, of the data from two or more sources.

Sometimes in your literature review, you might need to discuss and evaluate relevant research methodologies in order to justify your own choice of research methodology.

When searching for literature on research methodologies it is important to search across a range of sources. No single information source will supply all that you need. Selecting appropriate sources will depend upon your research topic.

Developing a robust search strategy will help reduce irrelevant results. It is good practice to plan a strategy before you start to search.

Search tips

(1) free text keywords.

Free text searching is the use of natural language words to conduct your search. Use selective free text keywords such as: phenomenological, "lived experience", "grounded theory", "life experiences", "focus groups", interview, quantitative, survey, validity, variance, correlation and statistical.

To locate books on your desired methodology, try LibrarySearch . Remember to use  refine  options such as books, ebooks, subject, and publication date.  

(2) Subject headings in Databases

Databases categorise their records using subject terms, or a controlled vocabulary (thesaurus). These subject headings may be useful to use, in addition to utilising free text keywords in a database search.

Subject headings will differ across databases, for example, the PubMed database uses 'Qualitative Research' whilst the CINHAL database uses 'Qualitative Studies.'  

(3) Limiting search results

Databases enable sets of results to be limited or filtered by specific fields, look for options such as Publication Type, Article Type, etc. and apply them to your search.  

(4) Browse the Library shelves

To find books on  research methods  browse the Library shelves at call number  001.42

  • SAGE Research Methods Online SAGE Research Methods Online (SRMO) is a research tool supported by a newly devised taxonomy that links content and methods terms. It provides the most comprehensive picture available today of research methods (quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods) across the social and behavioural sciences.

SAGE Research Methods Overview  (2:07 min) by SAGE Publishing  ( YouTube ) 

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  • Last Updated: May 13, 2024 7:34 AM
  • URL: https://rmit.libguides.com/literature-review
  • Open access
  • Published: 17 May 2024

Towards inclusive learning environments in post-graduate medical education: stakeholder-driven strategies in Dutch GP-specialty training

  • N.M. van Moppes   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-3457-7724 1 ,
  • M. Nasori   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-8559-1791 1 ,
  • J. Bont   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-5358-0235 1 ,
  • J.M. van Es 1 ,
  • M.R.M. Visser 1 &
  • M.E.T.C. van den Muijsenbergh   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-4994-4008 2 , 3  

BMC Medical Education volume  24 , Article number:  550 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

111 Accesses

Metrics details

A recent study found that ethnic minority General Practice (GP)-trainees receive more negative assessments than their majority peers. Previous qualitative research suggested that learning climate-related factors play a pivotal role in unequal opportunities for trainees in post-graduate medical settings, indicating that insufficient inclusivity had put minority students at risk of failure and dropout.

Study objectives

We aimed to develop broadly supported strategies for an inclusive learning climate in Dutch GP-specialty training.

We employed Participatory Action Research (PAR)-methods, incorporating Participatory Learning and Action (PLA)-techniques to ensure equal voices for all stakeholders in shaping Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)-strategies for GP-specialty training. Our approach engaged stakeholders within two pilot GP-specialty training institutes across diverse roles, including management, support staff, in-faculty teachers, in-clinic supervisors, and trainees, representing ethnic minorities and the majority population. Purposeful convenience sampling formed stakeholder- and co-reader groups in two Dutch GP-specialty training institutes. Stakeholder discussion sessions were based on experiences and literature, including two relevant frameworks, and explored perspectives on the dynamics of potential ethnic minority trainees’ disadvantages and opportunities for inclusive strategies. A co-reader group commented on discussion outcomes. Consequently, a management group prioritized suggested strategies based on expected feasibility and compatibility.

Input from twelve stakeholder group sessions and thirteen co-readers led to implementation guidance for seven inclusive learning environment strategies, of which the management group prioritized three:

• Provide DEI-relevant training programs to all GP-specialty training stakeholders;

• Appoint DEI ambassadors in all layers of GP-specialty training;

• Give a significant voice to minority GP-trainees in their education.

The study’s participatory approach engaged representatives of all GP-specialty training stakeholders and identified seven inclusive learning climate strategies, of which three were prioritized for implementation in two training institutions.

Peer Review reports

Introduction

Following international migration trends [ 1 , 2 ], diversity among students and trainees is growing [ 3 , 4 ], with each of them bringing their specific cultural values, family- and migration histories [ 5 ]. However, postgraduate medical ethnic minority GP-trainees still face underrepresentation [ 3 , 4 ] and may encounter unequal opportunities for success compared to their majority peers [ 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 ]. Learning climate-related factors, notably those related to lacking inclusiveness, likely play a pivotal role in this discrepancy [ 10 , 11 , 12 ].

Educational opportunities in GP-specialty training primarily rely on in-clinic learning, encompassing formal and informal contexts. Formal learning, characterized by structured, planned, and accredited activities within educational institutions, coexists with less structured informal learning, which is self-directed and arises from in-clinic everyday experiences and interactions, often susceptible to unspoken norms. While both approaches complement each other in providing a well-rounded education, the informal context might inadvertently reflect dominant cultural values and attitudes, potentially affecting in-classroom learning [ 13 , 14 , 15 ]. Particularly for ethnic minority GP-trainees, this lacking transparency may contribute to an increased risk of facing underperformance assessments, as these unspoken norms and values may not be self-evidently familiar to them [ 10 , 11 , 12 ].

Learning environments are subject to complex dynamics. Understanding the interconnected constructs of these dynamics is crucial for implementing transformative changes [ 16 ]. Accordingly, changes for inclusive learning opportunities require input from all organizational layers [ 17 ].

With this study, we aimed to develop broadly supported recommendations for an inclusive learning climate in Dutch GP-specialty training.

We used a qualitative Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach [ 18 , 19 ], applying Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) techniques in stakeholder groups combined with insights from literature (Appendix) along with GP-trainees’ experiences related to inclusive education, to actively engage stakeholders in an inclusive dialogue [ 20 , 21 , 22 ]. This approach supported co-ownership, promoted compatibility with the organization’s actual needs, and facilitated successful implementation [ 23 ].

We employed two conceptual frameworks to shape the topic lists for stakeholder groups and guide result analysis.

The Building Equity Taxonomy (BET) framework for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), addressing students’ needs for equal educational opportunities, and covering the areas of physical integration, social-emotional engagement, equal learning opportunities, instructional excellence, and fostering inspired learners [ 24 , 25 ] (Fig.  1 ). This framework is relevant to various educational settings, including GP-specialty training [ 12 , 26 , 27 , 28 , 29 ].

figure 1

Building Equity Taxonomy [ 24 ] compared to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs [ 25 ]

The Wensing & Grol framework implementation guidance, equivalent to the internationally recognized Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (CFIR) [ 30 ]. It provides implementation guidance for complex organizations, including clinical healthcare and educational settings [ 30 , 31 ] (Fig.  2 ). This framework underpinned our implementation guidance, which the management team used for prioritization.

figure 2

The Wensing & Groll model for implementation guidance [ 30 ]

This study took place at Amsterdam UMC’s two GP-specialty training institutes (AMC and VUmc). These institutes have demonstrated commitment to inclusiveness in their 2020–2022 annual reports, and they collaborate with the six other Dutch GP-specialty training institutes under GP-specialty Training Netherlands (HN).

One in three medical graduates in the Netherlands aims to enter GP-specialty training. In response to national medical demands, HN annually expands its acceptance of new trainees, projecting 921 in 2023 and an anticipated 1,190 in 2024, distributed across eight training institutes. About 17% of these trainees belong to ethnic minority groups, with most having completed pre-training at Dutch Medical Schools and a smaller group having graduated abroad [ 7 ]. Due to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) restrictions, the precise distribution of minority trainees across the eight national institutes remains undisclosed. However, a prior quantitative study indicated that by 2023, our pilot institutes showed a relatively proportional representation of Dutch GP-specialty training [ 7 ]. However, it is essential to note that qualitative research emphasizes a thorough description of the setting to enrich readers’ contextual understanding rather than strict representativeness.

The Dutch GP-specialty training program is a three-year dual-track program, supporting professional growth by combining in-clinic experience learning with one-day-a-week in-faculty education. Entry assessments aspire to guarantee the applicants’ knowledge, motivation, and Dutch proficiency. The program includes protocolled assessments, such as practical observations, systematic testing, and reviews of learning objectives.

Study population

Acknowledging the essential need of broad support for inclusive organizational changes, we engaged participants from all backgrounds represented within the organization. Our study population encompassed the ethnic majority background as well as diverse ethnic backgrounds across all organizational layers (ranging from support personnel, management, educational staff (comprising both faculty and clinical educators), and trainees themselves), divided into two stakeholder groups, one co-reader group, and a management team group (Fig.  3 ).

figure 3

Participant groups

Aiming to prevent eligible participants from experiencing researchers’ pressure, researchers sent information letters to team leaders, requesting them to forward in-faculty teachers, in-clinic supervisors, supporting bureau and management personnel, and trainees. From those interested, we purposefully selected twelve participants (six in each stakeholder group), striving for diversity regarding the position in the institute, age, gender, and ethnicity [ 32 ]. Stakeholders ranged from supporting bureau and management personnel (further in this text referred to as ‘staff’) to trainees, in-faculty teachers, and in-clinic supervisors representing diverse minority backgrounds as well as the majority background.

Stakeholder groups, each representing one GP-specialty training institute, provided input for inclusive strategies. Additionally, a co-reader group comprising interested individuals not in the stakeholder groups provided further insights through written comments. These groups represented diverse organizational layers, cultural backgrounds, ages, and gender. Representatives from management teams then evaluated and prioritized the suggested strategies.

Data collection

Data collection and analysis took place from January 2021 to December 2022. Two researchers (MN, NvM) familiar with PLA-techniques facilitated six 90-minute PLA-based sessions for each stakeholder group. The sessions focused on inclusive learning environments and GP-specialty training’s inclusivity. In a cyclical process [ 33 ](Fig.  4 ), participants engaged in PLA techniques such as ice-breaking, flexible brainstorming, free-associating, direct ranking, mind-mapping, and visual evaluation. These methods facilitated sharing experiences and opinions and aligning these with relevant literature (Appendix, Table  1 ) to identify suitable inclusive strategies. After each stakeholder group session, the facilitator-researchers held debriefing sessions to reflect on their roles and identify areas for improvement. Independently, they summarized the key findings from each session and reached consensus through discussions. They presented these summaries in subsequent sessions for a member check and made adjustments based on participants’ feedback. To ensure a broader perspective, the co-reader group commented anonymously on these approved summaries, allowing them to contribute their personal perspectives, opinions, and experiences freely. Stakeholder groups then discussed and implemented these comments in their final session (Fig.  3 ).

figure 4

Cyclic phases until consensus of stakeholder groups’ processes [ 33 ]

The stakeholder group topic list focused on:

Exploring :

The initial educational context;

Potential learning climate-related disparities;

Out-of-the-box wishes and key elements for an inclusive learning climate;

Strategy developing and preparing for implementation:

Recommendations for inclusive GP-specialty training;

Mapping onto the BET framework’s hierarchical levels of DEI [ 24 ](Fig.  1 );

Translating recommendations into actionable strategies.

Identifying Wensing & Grol conditions and requirements for implementation [ 30 ](Fig.  2 ).

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we adapted the study’s in-person design to online methods for creative brainstorming. In these virtual sessions, physical distance and potential distractions of personal environments challenged trust and commitment, especially for GP-trainees who felt vulnerable sharing ideas with in-faculty teachers, in-clinic supervisors, and staff, who might also be their assessors in daily educational contexts [ 34 ]. To address this risk, we dedicated extra time, and utilized online tools: Zoom 5.13.11 for breakout rooms, Padlet 200.0.0 for visualizing PLA techniques, and concise PowerPoint presentations for member check summaries and goal-setting [ 35 ].

The facilitator-researchers (NvM, MN) collected audio recordings and written co-reader comments. An external bureau transcribed audio-recordings verbatim.

One researcher (NvM) regularly presented our findings during periodic staff meetings. These presentations not only aimed to keep the entire team informed but also played a crucial role in garnering broader support and incorporating diverse opinions for our project.

Data analysis

Within three days after each session, we (NvM, MN, and MV) analyzed the transcribed audio recordings and written co-readers’ comments, and discussed our analyses until consensus.

To provide actionable qualitative insights while responding to ongoing participant feedback, we adopted an inductive rapid qualitative data analysis approach inspired by Hamilton’s model [ 36 , 37 , 38 , 39 ]. This method prioritizes identifying key elements and mechanisms over extensive theoretical insights. Through structured data collection using topic lists and Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) techniques, along with expedited transcription, we efficiently analyzed ideas and condensed findings into concise formats like post-interview notes and matrix summaries. Although not a traditional thematic or framework analysis, we employed theme-informed and framework-informed codes to organize data, considering context and group dynamics, which allowed us to explore interactional group dynamics and communication styles in the participants’ discourse and its points of consensus or contention within specific statements [ 40 ]. We anticipated this method, aligned with the literature, to yield qualitative outcomes as consistent and rich as traditional in-depth transcription coding while facilitating the analysis of interconnected sessions [ 36 , 41 , 42 ].

We analyzed the stakeholders’ ideas, recommendations, and their identifyed Wensing & Grol conditions and requirements for implementation to create implementation guidance [ 30 ]. This guidance encompassed analyzing organizational structure, identifying change potential and barriers, defining the target population, describing tailored DEI-strategies, estimating timelines for internalization processes and implementation, and designing evaluation methods (Fig.  2 ). Subsequently, we invited management group participants for hybrid (online and in-person) meetings, where they engaged in substantive discussions to evaluate this guidance and prioritize recommended strategies, based on the expected feasibility and compatibility with their setting.

Reflexivity and ethics

Two authors, NM and MN, identify as minority females. While their unique backgrounds enhance sensitivity towards minority peers’ experiences, a potential challenge arises where these experiences resonating with them might be more salient. To mitigate this, we organized reflective debriefing sessions addressing diverse viewpoints and emphasizing the researchers’ roles as instruments in data collection and analysis. During these sessions, we engaged in candid discussions probing our experiences, expectations, preoccupations, and opinions that could have influenced our approach to data collection and analysis.

Also, the roles of participating stakeholders may have influenced views they shared in this research process. They spanned all organizational positions, ranging from department heads to trainees, in-faculty teachers, and in-clinic supervisors, representing both, majority and minority backgrounds. While deliberately seeking these varied insights, we remained mindful of potential power dynamics influenced by different positions or ethnic backgrounds. To foster a safe space and address these dynamics, facilitators employed PLA-techniques, such as ice-breakers. Also, they established clear agreements with all stakeholder group members regarding privacy, openness to differing views, and ensuring safety. Should any commitments be breached, facilitators were trained to address them promptly. In fact, stakeholders demonstrated remarkable respect and curiosity towards understanding each other’s perspectives throughout the process.

Participant characteristics

Table  1 presents participant characteristics for the stakeholder, co-reader, and management groups. In total, 31 stakeholders participated, aged 24 to 60, including eight males, 24 staff members from diverse organizational positions, seven trainees, and 12 ethnic minority participants.

The stakeholder group sessions had an attendance rate of 97%. All co-readers responded to the request for comments. During the hybrid management group session, 40% of participants attended in-person, while 60% joined online.

Stakeholder group sessions

In line with the topic list, we organized the results into two sections: [ 1 ]Exploring and [ 2 ] Strategy developing and preparing for implementation. In Sect. 2, the stakeholders aligned their results with the BET framework and structured them according to the Wensing & Grol framework.

The initial educational context

Stakeholders defined inclusiveness in the GP-specialty training as collective curiosity and support for trainees’ unique professional identities, regardless of their characteristics or backgrounds. As preconditions for in-faculty teachers, in-clinic supervisors, and staff, participants mentioned [ 1 ] willingness to encounter emotional discomfort [ 2 ], embracing failures in order to learn, and [ 3 ] acknowledgement of unconscious bias.

‘… we will not always succeed to be without prejudice, that is allowed as long as we will put the effort in gaining awareness’ (participant 2, group 1).

Participants emphasized creating a safe learning environment where all voices, including minority voices, can be heard. They suggested reflective questions starting with:

‘ Could you imagine that…’.

Participants highlighted parallel processes whereby educators foster trainees’ personal and professional development, and GPs support patients’ individual coping styles. Such an inclusive and safe learning environment would act as a flywheel, enhancing the institute’s inclusive image and attracting prospective minority trainees, teachers, and in-clinic supervisors.

Co-readers confirmed these view points and they added their concerns regarding prioritization by some staff members:

‘I have nothing to add. I think it is essential that diversity is given a priority, that we as staff all agree that this is important. The pitfall is that some of them might not see the importance’. (co-reader 2)

Potential learning climate-related disparities

Stakeholders from ethnic minority groups expressed distress experiences in a dominant white world:

‘The GP-specialty training population is predominantly white and female; trainees, in-faculty teachers, and in-clinic supervisors even seem to resemble one another. Without them saying or acting, I continuously feel the stress of having to adapt to them, which I will never be able to’ (participant 2, group 1).

Stakeholders discussed the majority’s naivety in understanding the experience of belonging to a minority and expressed concerns about some DEI programs potentially leading to paradoxical stigmatization. They noted instances where in-faculty teachers appointed minority trainees as representatives for their cultural groups, ignoring the vast diversity within these groups. Also, participants reported stereotyping case reports:

‘They always use the example of the non-Dutch speaking overweight Moroccan mother of seven children, not engaged in any sports, who favors sweet and fatty food, and suffers from diabetes’ (participant 3, group 2).

Co-readers added that this one-sided picture made minority trainees uneasy, feeling discussed rather than equal partners in GP-training. Additionally, they emphasized that presenting DEI programs as non-mandatory, implied that diversity and inclusiveness were not necessarily integral to GP-skills requirements.

‘Mandatory inclusive training for mentors, staff, and teachers holds significant importance, signifying our commitment. Participation in these courses should be integrated into evaluations and annual interviews’. (co-reader 4)

Out-of-the-box wishes and key elements for an inclusive learning climate

Upon the invitation to make a wish:

‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if….‘ ,

stakeholders wished for diverse staff as role models, willing to learn from each other, normalizing various meaningful insights, and embracing diverse worldviews:

‘By using these differences, we keep each other awake and open-minded in exploring possibilities; thus, we allow ourselves to grow without assuming that our paved path is always the best way at the time’ (participant 3, group 1).

Stakeholders indicated the institute’s responsibility to educate GP-trainees for a diverse patient population as an essential component of an inclusive learning environment. Key elements related to such inclusiveness were:

The GP-specialty training should represent society in all its diversity:

‘It’s been a few years since I started GP-specialty training, of course, but… I’m just digging whether I had a feeling of: “I fit in there” or: “I recognize my roots there”. These are important feelings to me to feel safe at my work- and study place’ (participant 7, group 1);

A diverse GP workforce meets patients’ appreciation for GPs they can identify with:

‘Regarding this cultural background or ethnicity, I have the impression that patients from ethnic minorities often liked that I obviously am not Dutch, they said, “oh, you are not Dutch, are you?“, it led to recognition, a little laugh, and connected us. Having a doctor just like them helped my patients to share their concerns.’ (participant 2, group 2);

GP-trainees need identifiable and diverse educational role models:

‘The moment you sit down together and see that diversity, …brings different working styles, learning styles, or communication styles… that you realize we have to do it together, the greater the diversity, the more we learn from one another, the higher we rise, the more fun and creative ideas…’ (participant 4, group 2);

Diverse GP-trainee cohorts improve mutual learning processes:

‘To me, utilizing diversity means that there’s always someone in the classroom who says, “Okay, so what if we look at it from that perspective or through those glasses?’ (participant 1, group 1).

Co-readers agreed and added that GP-specialty training already utilized diversity among in-faculty teachers to some extent:

‘Great idea! Diversity among teachers is already being leveraged to some extent. Trainees can synthesize a blend of styles and insights from different teachers and mentors. Expanding on this concept could help cultivate a more inclusive learning environment’ . (co-reader 1)

Strategy developing and preparing for implementation

Recommendations for an inclusive gp-specialty training.

Participants (stakeholders in collaboration with co-readers) made six fundamental recommendations and mapped these onto the BET framework levels to ensure all aspects of inclusive education would be covered [ 24 ] (Table  2 ).

Actionable strategies

From these recommendations, participants derived seven actionable strategies for promoting inclusive GP-specialty training (Table  3 ).

Provide a clear message of inclusiveness in all internal and external communications .

Participants explored various means and media platforms for promoting the GP-specialty training’s DEI core values (websites, ads, social media, podcasts), focusing on design, content, and appeal to the target group. They recommended involving trainees with media experience rather than exclusively hiring specialized communication consultants.

Appoint DEI ambassadors in all layers of the organization .

Participants suggested involving employees as DEI ambassadors to effectively spread DEI core values in the organization. Ambassadors would undergo comprehensive training in DEI, reflective skills, leadership, and change management. They would also attend conferences, masterclasses, join knowledge networks, and contribute to think tank initiatives as part of their preparation.

Facilitate procedures for secure incident reporting .

Participants highlighting the significant impact of unintentional discriminatory behavior, often resulting in experiencing barriers to reporting such incidents. They proposed implementing low-threshold and secure reporting procedures with targeted questions on DEI and (micro)aggression. Regular team sessions would enable open discussions based on anonymous reports, fostering inclusive education, uncovering organizational trends, and providing support for trainees who faced discrimination, microaggression, or exclusion. Confidential advisors would receive training in DEI, reflective skills, and relevant legislation.

Give a significant voice to minority trainees in ongoing program development .

Participants advised inviting minority trainees to round table discussions, fostering insider perspective exchange with mutual respect, critical reflection, and empathy. Including these diverse voices would promote resilience and professional growth and attract eligible trainees and staff from diverse backgrounds.

Assign more than one in-faculty teacher per group / in-clinic training .

GP-trainees - like all individuals - naturally mirror the behavior of significant others, such as teachers, in-clinic supervisors, or peers. Participants believed that trainees with multiple role models would outperform those with single role models. They suggested introducing dual in-faculty teachers and dual in-clinic supervisors as additional role models and an extra pair of eyes during education. To ensure success, participants recommended training programs for optimum role model utilization.

Offer ‘just-in-time’ learning .

Participants agreed that effective learning is closely related to immediate learning needs. For GP-trainees, such learning needs often arise from societal encounters in the consultation room, e.g., guiding Muslims during Ramadan while simultaneously managing diabetes or comprehending increasing PTSD symptoms around Keti Koti (Afro-Surinamese Emancipation Day). Timely incorporating these contextual factors into training programs could provide directly applicable knowledge.

Provide mandatory DEI relevant training programs for professional development .

Participants emphasized the necessity of new knowledge, skills, and attitudes. They considered within-group differences valuable learning tools for diverse personal and professional development paths. Well-trained staff and trainees could drive inclusive knowledge networks, empower the organization, and positively influence external perceptions. Thus, they recommended mandatory and tailored training programs aligned with the anticipated learning needs from the suggested strategies. Where applicable, they advised considering outsourcing.

Conditions and requirements for implementation

Participants indicated the importance of in-faculty teachers, in-clinic supervisors, and staff having the courage to be vulnerable. They emphasized the essence of transparent norms and values and a welcoming learning environment, and they highlighted an attitude of:

‘… genuinely enjoying to support a diverse population in their growth towards their professional identities’ (participant 6, group 2).

‘Implementing these ideas demands courage and vulnerability, particularly as their execution could inadvertently carry stigmatizing effects’. (co-reader 6)

In this context, they mentioned the risk of unconscious bias, which could require external expert trainers at certain stages:

‘Well, you know, I had a trainee of Moroccan descent, and it shocked me that, while I always thought to be very open, diversity-minded, and curious for everything and everyone, I found it way more difficult to connect than I’d admit. I wonder what would have helped me unveil this blind spot in an earlier stage…’ (participant 5, group 1).

‘… allow and embrace the differences, see them as opportunities that actually add learning qualities, and not take them away? So, professionalism will become more colorful, and it can be viewed from different points of view, not just the traditional, established perspectives and routes’ (participant 1, group 1).

Ultimately, we provided the management group with implementation guidance for these seven strategies, along with an analysis of the target group and context, and summaries of relevant literature on DEI best practices in educational settings (Appendix). The management team agreed that enhancing DEI should have priority in Dutch GP-specialty training:

‘We should acknowledge that we are trailing behind societal advancements in diversity. Therefore, maintaining a strong focus on this topic must stay a priority’ (participant 5, management group).

Based on these comprehensive data, the management group prioritized strategies that covered the overarching recommendations and BET-levels (detailed in Table  3 ; Fig.  1 ), which aided in selecting strategies with anticipated effectiveness. To enhance alignment with the organizational requirements and feasibility, they considered implementation requirements, staff feedback from our presentations during periodic meetings, and opportunities for synergy with existing projects in other Amsterdam UMC departments.

‘We can see that literature describes these strategies as effective and we assume that stakeholders meticulously aligned them with the institute’s needs. Let us not repeat that process but rather look into strategies that can be implemented effectively in our setting’ (participant 1, management group).

‘For each suggested strategy, this guidance envisions its coverage and practical implications. Now, it is up to us to consider how far we are willing to commit. This process prompts pertinent questions on specific effective actions’ (participant 2, management group).

The management group prioritized three strategies:

Appoint DEI ambassadors in all organizational levels,

Give a significant voice to minority trainees in ongoing program development,

Provide mandatory DEI-relevant training programs for professional development to all involved in GP-specialty training.

Summary of findings

In twelve PLA-based stakeholder sessions, participants explored perspectives on potential disparities, underlying causes, and aspirations for an inclusive learning climate in the Dutch GP-specialty training. They suggested seven strategies based on six overarching recommendations, which they presented embedded in an implementation guidance to the management group:

Provide a clear message of inclusiveness in all internal and external communications.

Appoint DEI ambassadors Footnote 1 in all layers of the organization

Facilitate procedures for secure incident reporting.

Give a significant voice to minority trainees in ongoing program development.

Assign more than one in-faculty teacher per group / in-clinic supervisor per trainee.

Offer ‘just-in-time’ learning.

Provide mandatory DEI relevant training programs for professional development.

The management team selected strategies 2, 4, and 7, deeming them most effective, feasible, and aligned with the organization’s requirements.

Comparison to existing literature

Worldwide attention to inclusive learning climates in postgraduate medical education revealed the complexity and multidimensionality of educational constructs and institutes [ 29 , 43 ]. Interpretations of formal and informal learning contexts within these environments depend on the perspectives of various stakeholders [ 15 ]. Consequently, unconsciously normalized rules and codes across all layers may implicitly exclude ethnic minority professionals and -trainees in many ways throughout their careers [ 44 ].

This paper extends the literature on inclusive GP-specialty training [ 15 , 43 , 44 ], detailing the efforts to design- and create broad support for inclusive training strategies. Like most organizational changes, implementing inclusive strategies in GP-specialty training posed challenges and demanded a focus on building confidence and trust in novel approaches [ 45 ]. Hence, understanding the values and expectations of target groups and tailoring strategies to meet their needs and aspirations was crucial. Our study involved representatives from all key stakeholders, including ethnic minority trainees, aiming to address critical research gaps and enhance knowledge quality, relevance, and impact [ 46 ]. Collaborative decisions, rooted in an equal and reciprocal partnership, empowered stakeholders, raised management team awareness and inspired the research team [ 47 ]. These effects mirror findings in previous PAR studies on inclusive primary healthcare [ 48 ] and highlight PAR’s role as a catalyst for transformative change in GP-specialty training [ 33 ].

Stakeholder insights, combined with DEI-strategy literature, underscored the need for a gradual, committed cultural shift towards inclusivity in the learning environment. Based on these insights, the management group recognized that this transformation would necessitate a set of strategies addressing inclusiveness at various levels rather than relying on one single intervention [ 26 , 28 , 49 , 50 ]. They employed our Wensing and Grol-based implementation guidance to select the following feasible strategies aligned with the GP-specialty training context as a first step in an ongoing process:

Providing mandatory DEI-relevant training programs to all stakeholders supports cultural responsiveness within all strategies to be implemented. It facilitates understanding how cultural backgrounds and experiences influence teaching and learning [ 49 ]. Ultimately, it fosters engagement and motivation to create collaborative learning environments and accommodate learners’ needs based on their diverse backgrounds [ 26 ].

Appointing DEI ambassadors in all layers of the organization has in other contexts proven to enhance the effectiveness of DEI-related strategic initiatives [ 51 ]. DEI ambassadors engage change agents within their teams, foster collaboration and effective communication, facilitate diversity goals, and involve key stakeholders in sustainable, inclusive changes [ 50 ].

Giving a significant voice to minority trainees empowers and amplifies their agency. Including their experiences and perspectives in staff meetings and brainstorming sessions is a crucial first step toward an open and innovative culture. Prior research indicated that promoting minority trainees’ participation requires supportive supervision, encouraging them to share transformative ideas [ 28 ].

Strengths and limitations

Our participatory approach fostered broad support across all organizational levels. PLA-based stakeholder discussions facilitated open dialogue, refined ideas, and sparked valuable insights. Co-reader feedback prompted stakeholder group participants to reevaluate their interpretation of specific experiences. This approach allowed diverse perspectives and theoretical idea saturation, aiding participants in identifying seven actionable strategies with high potential for effective implementation. In turn, these results allowed the management group to leverage their organizational expertise and prioritize three strategies they considered feasible and compatible with the organization’s requirements.

While most post-graduate medical education settings share similarities, contextual variations, such as educational emphasis and cultural factors, may exist, leading to potential limitations in the transferability of our findings. Nonetheless, the dynamics between informal and formal in-classroom learning remain pertinent across various postgraduate medical contexts, where in-clinic learning, shaped by day-to-day experiences and supervisor-trainee dynamics, inevitably influences formal learning objectives and settings. Also, our study’s confinement to two Dutch GP-specialty training institutes and its relatively modest participant count may require caution in the transferability of our findings to other similar settings. In light of this, it is noteworthy that statistics from a previous quantitative study suggest that by 2023, our pilot institutes closely mirrored Dutch GP-specialty training in terms of minority trainee [ 7 ]. Moreover, we provided meticulous descriptions of our setting to enhance contextual understanding, aiding in assessing transferability to similar settings. Additionally, the explicit commitment to inclusiveness by the participating GP-specialty training institutions, which could be instrumental in promoting successful implementation, could pose challenges when transferring the results to less DEI-focused settings.

Still, employing multiple sources by connecting stakeholder perspectives to relevant literature and two frameworks enabled participants to structure their thoughts and opinions on the organization’s DEI strengths and limitations, along with the opportunities and challenges for implementation. For future researchers, this approach may prove valuable in identifying overarching concepts and theories that transcend specific individuals or contexts and facilitate the assessment of the transferability of our findings to similar educational settings [ 52 , 53 , 54 , 55 ].

Implications for further research and practice

Fostering a DEI-minded culture in post-graduate medical training calls for a multifaceted strategy. As training institutes diversify and curricula address nuanced topics, skills for adeptly navigating complex conversations become increasingly critical for educational staff. The ongoing process of promoting inclusive teaching, assessment, and curriculum design abilities will necessitate the inclusion of a wide range of perspectives. Consequently, we recommend involving stakeholders from the most diverse backgrounds possible. Also, the explicit commitment to inclusiveness by the participating GP-specialty training institutions may pose challenges when transferring the results to less DEI-focused settings. Therefore, we suggest further investigation in such contexts to better understand the transferability of our results.

Ensuring high-quality, inclusive learning environments in postgraduate medical education is crucial for educational opportunities and the overall quality of healthcare [ 56 ]. However, this inclusiveness is not solely shaped by the beliefs and values of teachers; it is also intricately influenced by the complex social and cultural dynamics within educational institutions [ 29 ]. Inclusiveness strategies are catalysts for enduring cultural transformation, demanding the consistent integration of multiple strategies through incremental steps over an extended period [ 43 ]. The three strategies identified in our study, which were prioritized for implementation, represent initial strides toward instigating this cultural transformation. Subsequent phases involving evaluation, adaptation, and implementation of additional strategies are imperative for sustaining engagement in a culture of inclusive postgraduate medical education. All Dutch GP-specialty training institutes closely monitor our findings and have committed to implementing mandatory DEI-relevant training programs for their staff and trainees.

Additional research on the impact of the implemented strategies and the level of stakeholder engagement throughout the implementation phase is needed. This follow-up research should encompass inclusive teaching methods, assessment strategies, curriculum design, attitudes, and the ethnic minority trainees’ experienced inclusion aligned with the BET framework.

Engaging stakeholders in PLA-based sessions at two Dutch GP-specialty training institutes proved instrumental in identifying recommendations for an inclusive learning climate. Stakeholders identified seven tangible DEI-strategies, addressing all five BET aspects:

Provide a clear message of inclusiveness in all internal and external communications: enhances inclusive accessibility and a diverse learning community;

Appoint DEI ambassadors in all layers of the organization: promotes knowledge exchange, reflection on potential biases, and active engagement in DEI networks;

Facilitate secure DEI-incident reporting procedures;

Give a significant voice to minority trainees in ongoing program development: empowers them and creates reciprocal learning;

Assign more than one teacher per group / in-clinic training: creates multiple role models and perspectives;

Offer ‘just-in-time’ learning: fosters social and educational engagement;

Provide mandatory DEI-relevant training programs for professional development: promotes DEI-expertise and awareness among all involved.

Based on anticipated feasibility and effectiveness, the management group prioritized strategy numbers 2, 4, and 7 for implementation.

Our integrative approach supported collaborative, context-specific strategy development and prioritization, effectively balancing anticipated effectiveness and compatibility. As such, this approach will prove valuable in identifying widely supported DEI strategies within varying and complex post-graduate medical educational contexts.

Data availability

The datasets used and/or analysed during the current study available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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We affirm that no individuals other than the listed authors provided professional writing or analysis services. Still, we thank all anonymous participants whose contributions enriched this study.

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All authors have made substantial contributions to the conception OR design of the work; OR the acquisition, analysis, OR interpretation of data; OR have drafted the work or substantively revised it. All authors have approved the submitted version (and any substantially modified version that involves the author’s contribution to the study); and have agreed both to be personally accountable for the author’s own contributions and to ensure that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work, even ones in which the author was not personally involved, are appropriately investigated, resolved, and the resolution documented in the literature. Contributions per author: N.M. van Moppes: Conception, Design of the work, Acquisition, Analysis and interpretation of data, Drafted the work and integrated all revisions; M. Nasori: Conception, Design of the work, Acquisition, Analysis and interpretation of data, Substantively revised the work; J. Bont: Substantively revised the work; J.M. van Es: Substantively revised the work; M.R.M. Visser: Conception, Design of the work, Substantively revised the work; M.E.T.C. van den Muijsenbergh: Conception, Design of the work, Substantively revised the work.

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van Moppes, N., Nasori, M., Bont, J. et al. Towards inclusive learning environments in post-graduate medical education: stakeholder-driven strategies in Dutch GP-specialty training. BMC Med Educ 24 , 550 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-024-05521-z

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  1. Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines

    As mentioned previously, there are a number of existing guidelines for literature reviews. Depending on the methodology needed to achieve the purpose of the review, all types can be helpful and appropriate to reach a specific goal (for examples, please see Table 1).These approaches can be qualitative, quantitative, or have a mixed design depending on the phase of the review.

  2. How to Write a Literature Review

    When you write a thesis, dissertation, or research paper, you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to: ... If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods, you might want to compare the ...

  3. Methodological Approaches to Literature Review

    A literature review is defined as "a critical analysis of a segment of a published body of knowledge through summary, classification, and comparison of prior research studies, reviews of literature, and theoretical articles." (The Writing Center University of Winconsin-Madison 2022) A literature review is an integrated analysis, not just a summary of scholarly work on a specific topic.

  4. Guidance on Conducting a Systematic Literature Review

    Researchers need to pilot the review and decide what is manageable. Sometimes, the research question needs to be narrowed down. Deeper understanding can be gained during the review process, requiring a change in keywords and/or analytical methods. In a sense, the literature review protocol is a living document.

  5. Chapter 9 Methods for Literature Reviews

    9.3. Types of Review Articles and Brief Illustrations. EHealth researchers have at their disposal a number of approaches and methods for making sense out of existing literature, all with the purpose of casting current research findings into historical contexts or explaining contradictions that might exist among a set of primary research studies conducted on a particular topic.

  6. Writing a Literature Review

    A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research ...

  7. Literature Review Research

    Literature Review is a comprehensive survey of the works published in a particular field of study or line of research, usually over a specific period of time, in the form of an in-depth, critical bibliographic essay or annotated list in which attention is drawn to the most significant works.. Also, we can define a literature review as the collected body of scholarly works related to a topic:

  8. Reviewing the research methods literature: principles and strategies

    Overviews of methods are potentially useful means to increase clarity and enhance collective understanding of specific methods topics that may be characterized by ambiguity, inconsistency, or a lack of comprehensiveness. This type of review represents a distinct literature synthesis method, although to date, its methodology remains relatively undeveloped despite several aspects that demand ...

  9. Research Guides: Literature Reviews: What is a Literature Review?

    A literature review is a review and synthesis of existing research on a topic or research question. A literature review is meant to analyze the scholarly literature, make connections across writings and identify strengths, weaknesses, trends, and missing conversations. ... SAGE Research Methods supports research at all levels by providing ...

  10. Literature Review (Chapter 4)

    A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources that establishes familiarity with and an understanding of current research in a particular field. It includes a critical analysis of the relationship among different works, seeking a synthesis and an explanation of gaps, while relating findings to the project at hand.

  11. Writing a literature review

    Writing a literature review requires a range of skills to gather, sort, evaluate and summarise peer-reviewed published data into a relevant and informative unbiased narrative. ... Sage Research Methods Supercharging research opens in new tab; Sage Video Streaming knowledge opens in new tab; Technology from Sage Library digital services opens in ...

  12. (PDF) Literature Review as a Research Methodology: An overview and

    This paper draws input from a study that employed a systematic literature review as its main source of data. A systematic review can be explained as a research method and process for identifying ...

  13. 5. The Literature Review

    A literature review may consist of simply a summary of key sources, but in the social sciences, a literature review usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories.A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information in a way that ...

  14. Steps in Conducting a Literature Review

    A literature review is important because it: Explains the background of research on a topic. Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area. Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas. Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic. Identifies critical gaps and points of disagreement.

  15. Literature Review

    Literature Review. A literature review is a discussion of the literature (aka. the "research" or "scholarship") surrounding a certain topic. A good literature review doesn't simply summarize the existing material, but provides thoughtful synthesis and analysis. The purpose of a literature review is to orient your own work within an existing ...

  16. What is a literature review?

    A literature or narrative review is a comprehensive review and analysis of the published literature on a specific topic or research question. The literature that is reviewed contains: books, articles, academic articles, conference proceedings, association papers, and dissertations. It contains the most pertinent studies and points to important ...

  17. Getting started

    What is a literature review? Definition: A literature review is a systematic examination and synthesis of existing scholarly research on a specific topic or subject. Purpose: It serves to provide a comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge within a particular field. Analysis: Involves critically evaluating and summarizing key findings, methodologies, and debates found in ...

  18. (PDF) Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and

    This paper discusses literature review as a methodology for conducting research and offers an overview of different types of reviews, as well as some guidelines to how to both conduct and evaluate ...

  19. Reviewing literature for research: Doing it the right way

    Literature search. Fink has defined research literature review as a "systematic, explicit and reproducible method for identifying, evaluating, and synthesizing the existing body of completed and recorded work produced by researchers, scholars and practitioners."[]Review of research literature can be summarized into a seven step process: (i) Selecting research questions/purpose of the ...

  20. Literature Review

    Mixed-methods literature review: This type of review combines quantitative and qualitative methods to synthesize and analyze the available literature on a particular topic. It aims to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the research question by combining different types of evidence. ... Selecting Research Methods: Literature review ...

  21. Research Methods: Literature Reviews

    A literature review involves researching, reading, analyzing, evaluating, and summarizing scholarly literature (typically journals and articles) about a specific topic. The results of a literature review may be an entire report or article OR may be part of a article, thesis, dissertation, or grant proposal.

  22. PDF METHODOLOGY OF THE LITERATURE REVIEW

    renders the literature review process as a mixed research study (Onwuegbuzie, Collins, et al., 2010). Using Multiple Sections of a Report ... research techniques, for instance, a literature reviewer might utilize correlational research techniques to examine, across studies, the relationship between the ...

  23. A practical guide to data analysis in general literature reviews

    This article is a practical guide to conducting data analysis in general literature reviews. The general literature review is a synthesis and analysis of published research on a relevant clinical issue, and is a common format for academic theses at the bachelor's and master's levels in nursing, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, public health and other related fields.

  24. Reviewing research methodologies

    Information providing guidance on starting a literature review, including resources, techniques and approaches to searching the literature and writing the review. Skip to Main Content. Teaching and Research guides. ... To find books on research methods browse the Library shelves at call number 001.42.

  25. A critical review of the key aspects of sharing economy: A systematic

    This study aims to explore key aspects contributing to the successful applications of the SE concept across diverse industries by conducting a systematic literature review (SLR). Out of 4848 articles, 57 peer-reviewed articles in two databases published between 2013 and 2022 were subjected to descriptive and content analysis.

  26. Towards inclusive learning environments in post-graduate medical

    Design. We used a qualitative Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach [18, 19], applying Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) techniques in stakeholder groups combined with insights from literature (Appendix) along with GP-trainees' experiences related to inclusive education, to actively engage stakeholders in an inclusive dialogue [20,21,22].

  27. Administrative Sciences

    The search for competitiveness has led organizations to recognize the importance of implementing collaborative methods. In this context, Collaborative Planning, Forecasting, and Replenishment (CPFR) seek to relate customer demands to replenishment needs throughout the supply chain. The literature points to implementation difficulties, such as trust between partners and commitment, and to ...