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Exploring the literature review 

Literature review model: 6 steps.

literature review process

Adapted from The Literature Review , Machi & McEvoy (2009, p. 13).

Your Literature Review

Step 2: search, boolean search strategies, search limiters, ★ ebsco & google drive.

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1. Select a Topic

"All research begins with curiosity" (Machi & McEvoy, 2009, p. 14)

Selection of a topic, and fully defined research interest and question, is supervised (and approved) by your professor. Tips for crafting your topic include:

  • Be specific. Take time to define your interest.
  • Topic Focus. Fully describe and sufficiently narrow the focus for research.
  • Academic Discipline. Learn more about your area of research & refine the scope.
  • Avoid Bias. Be aware of bias that you (as a researcher) may have.
  • Document your research. Use Google Docs to track your research process.
  • Research apps. Consider using Evernote or Zotero to track your research.

Consider Purpose

What will your topic and research address?

In The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students , Ridley presents that literature reviews serve several purposes (2008, p. 16-17).  Included are the following points:

  • Historical background for the research;
  • Overview of current field provided by "contemporary debates, issues, and questions;"
  • Theories and concepts related to your research;
  • Introduce "relevant terminology" - or academic language - being used it the field;
  • Connect to existing research - does your work "extend or challenge [this] or address a gap;" 
  • Provide "supporting evidence for a practical problem or issue" that your research addresses.

★ Schedule a research appointment

At this point in your literature review, take time to meet with a librarian. Why? Understanding the subject terminology used in databases can be challenging. Archer Librarians can help you structure a search, preparing you for step two. How? Contact a librarian directly or use the online form to schedule an appointment. Details are provided in the adjacent Schedule an Appointment box.

2. Search the Literature

Collect & Select Data: Preview, select, and organize

AU Library is your go-to resource for this step in your literature review process. The literature search will include books and ebooks, scholarly and practitioner journals, theses and dissertations, and indexes. You may also choose to include web sites, blogs, open access resources, and newspapers. This library guide provides access to resources needed to complete a literature review.

Books & eBooks: Archer Library & OhioLINK

Databases: scholarly & practitioner journals.

Review the Library Databases tab on this library guide, it provides links to recommended databases for Education & Psychology, Business, and General & Social Sciences.

Expand your journal search; a complete listing of available AU Library and OhioLINK databases is available on the Databases  A to Z list . Search the database by subject, type, name, or do use the search box for a general title search. The A to Z list also includes open access resources and select internet sites.

Databases: Theses & Dissertations

Review the Library Databases tab on this guide, it includes Theses & Dissertation resources. AU library also has AU student authored theses and dissertations available in print, search the library catalog for these titles.

Did you know? If you are looking for particular chapters within a dissertation that is not fully available online, it is possible to submit an ILL article request . Do this instead of requesting the entire dissertation.

Newspapers:  Databases & Internet

Consider current literature in your academic field. AU Library's database collection includes The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Wall Street Journal .  The Internet Resources tab in this guide provides links to newspapers and online journals such as Inside Higher Ed , COABE Journal , and Education Week .

Database

Search Strategies & Boolean Operators

There are three basic boolean operators:  AND, OR, and NOT.

Used with your search terms, boolean operators will either expand or limit results. What purpose do they serve? They help to define the relationship between your search terms. For example, using the operator AND will combine the terms expanding the search. When searching some databases, and Google, the operator AND may be implied.

Overview of boolean terms

About the example: Boolean searches were conducted on November 4, 2019; result numbers may vary at a later date. No additional database limiters were set to further narrow search returns.

Database Search Limiters

Database strategies for targeted search results.

Most databases include limiters, or additional parameters, you may use to strategically focus search results.  EBSCO databases, such as Education Research Complete & Academic Search Complete provide options to:

  • Limit results to full text;
  • Limit results to scholarly journals, and reference available;
  • Select results source type to journals, magazines, conference papers, reviews, and newspapers
  • Publication date

Keep in mind that these tools are defined as limiters for a reason; adding them to a search will limit the number of results returned.  This can be a double-edged sword.  How? 

  • If limiting results to full-text only, you may miss an important piece of research that could change the direction of your research. Interlibrary loan is available to students, free of charge. Request articles that are not available in full-text; they will be sent to you via email.
  • If narrowing publication date, you may eliminate significant historical - or recent - research conducted on your topic.
  • Limiting resource type to a specific type of material may cause bias in the research results.

Use limiters with care. When starting a search, consider opting out of limiters until the initial literature screening is complete. The second or third time through your research may be the ideal time to focus on specific time periods or material (scholarly vs newspaper).

★ Truncating Search Terms

Expanding your search term at the root.

Truncating is often referred to as 'wildcard' searching. Databases may have their own specific wildcard elements however, the most commonly used are the asterisk (*) or question mark (?).  When used within your search. they will expand returned results.

Asterisk (*) Wildcard

Using the asterisk wildcard will return varied spellings of the truncated word. In the following example, the search term education was truncated after the letter "t."

Explore these database help pages for additional information on crafting search terms.

  • EBSCO Connect: Searching with Wildcards and Truncation Symbols
  • EBSCO Connect: Searching with Boolean Operators
  • EBSCO Connect: EBSCOhost Search Tips
  • EBSCO Connect: Basic Searching with EBSCO
  • ProQuest Help: Search Tips
  • ERIC: How does ERIC search work?

★ EBSCO Databases & Google Drive

Tips for saving research directly to Google drive.

Researching in an EBSCO database?

It is possible to save articles (PDF and HTML) and abstracts in EBSCOhost databases directly to Google drive. Select the Google Drive icon, authenticate using a Google account, and an EBSCO folder will be created in your account. This is a great option for managing your research. If documenting your research in a Google Doc, consider linking the information to actual articles saved in drive.

EBSCO Databases & Google Drive

EBSCOHost Databases & Google Drive: Managing your Research

This video features an overview of how to use Google Drive with EBSCO databases to help manage your research. It presents information for connecting an active Google account to EBSCO and steps needed to provide permission for EBSCO to manage a folder in Drive.

About the Video:  Closed captioning is available, select CC from the video menu.  If you need to review a specific area on the video, view on YouTube and expand the video description for access to topic time stamps.  A video transcript is provided below.

  • EBSCOhost Databases & Google Scholar

Defining Literature Review

What is a literature review.

A definition from the Online Dictionary for Library and Information Sciences .

A 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" (Reitz, 2014). 

A systemic review is "a literature review focused on a specific research question, which uses explicit methods to minimize bias in the identification, appraisal, selection, and synthesis of all the high-quality evidence pertinent to the question" (Reitz, 2014).

Recommended Reading

Cover Art

About this page

EBSCO Connect [Discovery and Search]. (2022). Searching with boolean operators. Retrieved May, 3, 2022 from https://connect.ebsco.com/s/?language=en_US

EBSCO Connect [Discover and Search]. (2022). Searching with wildcards and truncation symbols. Retrieved May 3, 2022; https://connect.ebsco.com/s/?language=en_US

Machi, L.A. & McEvoy, B.T. (2009). The literature review . Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press: 

Reitz, J.M. (2014). Online dictionary for library and information science. ABC-CLIO, Libraries Unlimited . Retrieved from https://www.abc-clio.com/ODLIS/odlis_A.aspx

Ridley, D. (2008). The literature review: A step-by-step guide for students . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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  • How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

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:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
  • Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods?
  • Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological

The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological

If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources

Theoretical

A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • 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 sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.

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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility

 Statistics

  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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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.

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What is a theoretical framework?

Developing a theoretical framework for your dissertation is one of the key elements of a qualitative research project. Through writing your literature review, you are likely to have identified either a problem that need ‘fixing’ or a gap that your research may begin to fill.

The theoretical framework is your toolbox . In the toolbox are your handy tools: a set of theories, concepts, ideas and hypotheses that you will use to build a solution to the research problem or gap you have identified.

The methodology is the instruction manual: the procedure and steps you have taken, using your chosen tools, to tackle the research problem.

Why do I need a theoretical framework?

Developing a theoretical framework shows that you have thought critically about the different ways to approach your topic, and that you have made a well-reasoned and evidenced decision about which approach will work best. theoretical frameworks are also necessary for solving complex problems or issues from the literature, showing that you have the skills to think creatively and improvise to answer your research questions. they also allow researchers to establish new theories and approaches, that future research may go on to develop., how do i create a theoretical framework for my dissertation.

First, select your tools. You are likely to need a variety of tools in qualitative research – different theories, models or concepts – to help you tackle different parts of your research question.  

An overview of what to include in a theoretical framework: theories, models, ideologies, concepts, assumptions and perspectives.

When deciding what tools would be best for the job of answering your research questions or problem, explore what existing research in your area has used. You may find that there is a ‘standard toolbox’ for qualitative research in your field that you can borrow from or apply to your own research.

You will need to justify why your chosen tools are best for the job of answering your research questions, at what stage they are most relevant, and how they relate to each other. Some theories or models will neatly fit together and appear in the toolboxes of other researchers. However, you may wish to incorporate a model or idea that is not typical for your research area – the ‘odd one out’ in your toolbox. If this is the case, make sure you justify and account for why it is useful to you, and look for ways that it can be used in partnership with the other tools you are using.

You should also be honest about limitations, or where you need to improvise (for example, if the ‘right’ tool or approach doesn’t exist in your area).

This video from the Skills Centre includes an overview and example of how you might create a theoretical framework for your dissertation:

How do I choose the 'right' approach?

When designing your framework and choosing what to include, it can often be difficult to know if you’ve chosen the ‘right’ approach for your research questions. One way to check this is to look for consistency between your objectives, the literature in your framework, and your overall ethos for the research. This means ensuring that the literature you have used not only contributes to answering your research objectives, but that you also use theories and models that are true to your beliefs as a researcher.

Reflecting on your values and your overall ambition for the project can be a helpful step in making these decisions, as it can help you to fully connect your methodology and methods to your research aims.

Should I reflect on my position as a researcher?

If you feel your position as a researcher has influenced your choice of methods or procedure in any way, the methodology is a good place to reflect on this.  Positionality  acknowledges that no researcher is entirely objective: we are all, to some extent, influenced by prior learning, experiences, knowledge, and personal biases. This is particularly true in qualitative research or practice-based research, where the student is acting as a researcher in their own workplace, where they are otherwise considered a practitioner/professional. It's also important to reflect on your positionality if you belong to the same community as your participants where this is the grounds for their involvement in the research (ie. you are a mature student interviewing other mature learners about their experences in higher education). 

The following questions can help you to reflect on your positionality and gauge whether this is an important section to include in your dissertation (for some people, this section isn’t necessary or relevant):

  • How might my personal history influence how I approach the topic?
  • How am I positioned in relation to this knowledge? Am I being influenced by prior learning or knowledge from outside of this course?
  • How does my gender/social class/ ethnicity/ culture influence my positioning in relation to this topic?
  • Do I share any attributes with my participants? Are we part of a s hared community? How might this have influenced our relationship and my role in interviews/observations?
  • Am I invested in the outcomes on a personal level? Who is this research for and who will feel the benefits?
One option for qualitative projects is to write an extended literature review. This type of project does not require you to collect any new data. Instead, you should focus on synthesising a broad range of literature to offer a new perspective on a research problem or question.  

The main difference between an extended literature review and a dissertation where primary data is collected, is in the presentation of the methodology, results and discussion sections. This is because extended literature reviews do not actively involve participants or primary data collection, so there is no need to outline a procedure for data collection (the methodology) or to present and interpret ‘data’ (in the form of interview transcripts, numerical data, observations etc.) You will have much more freedom to decide which sections of the dissertation should be combined, and whether new chapters or sections should be added.

Here is an overview of a common structure for an extended literature review:

A structure for the extended literature review, showing the results divided into multiple themed chapters.

Introduction

  • Provide background information and context to set the ‘backdrop’ for your project.
  • Explain the value and relevance of your research in this context. Outline what do you hope to contribute with your dissertation.
  • Clarify a specific area of focus.
  • Introduce your research aims (or problem) and objectives.

Literature review

You will need to write a short, overview literature review to introduce the main theories, concepts and key research areas that you will explore in your dissertation. This set of texts – which may be theoretical, research-based, practice-based or policies – form your theoretical framework. In other words, by bringing these texts together in the literature review, you are creating a lens that you can then apply to more focused examples or scenarios in your discussion chapters.

Methodology

As you will not be collecting primary data, your methodology will be quite different from a typical dissertation. You will need to set out the process and procedure you used to find and narrow down your literature. This is also known as a search strategy.

Including your search strategy

A search strategy explains how you have narrowed down your literature to identify key studies and areas of focus. This often takes the form of a search strategy table, included as an appendix at the end of the dissertation. If included, this section takes the place of the traditional 'methodology' section.

If you choose to include a search strategy table, you should also give an overview of your reading process in the main body of the dissertation.  Think of this as a chronology of the practical steps you took and your justification for doing so at each stage, such as:

  • Your key terms, alternatives and synonyms, and any terms that you chose to exclude.
  • Your choice and combination of databases;
  • Your inclusion/exclusion criteria, when they were applied and why. This includes filters such as language of publication, date, and country of origin;
  • You should also explain which terms you combined to form search phrases and your use of Boolean searching (AND, OR, NOT);
  • Your use of citation searching (selecting articles from the bibliography of a chosen journal article to further your search).
  • Your use of any search models, such as PICO and SPIDER to help shape your approach.
  • Search strategy template A simple template for recording your literature searching. This can be included as an appendix to show your search strategy.

The discussion section of an extended literature review is the most flexible in terms of structure. Think of this section as a series of short case studies or ‘windows’ on your research. In this section you will apply the theoretical framework you formed in the literature review – a combination of theories, models and ideas that explain your approach to the topic – to a series of different examples and scenarios. These are usually presented as separate discussion ‘chapters’ in the dissertation, in an order that you feel best fits your argument.

Think about an order for these discussion sections or chapters that helps to tell the story of your research. One common approach is to structure these sections by common themes or concepts that help to draw your sources together. You might also opt for a chronological structure if your dissertation aims to show change or development over time. Another option is to deliberately show where there is a lack of chronology or narrative across your case studies, by ordering them in a fragmentary order! You will be able to reflect upon the structure of these chapters elsewhere in the dissertation, explaining and defending your decision in the methodology and conclusion.

A summary of your key findings – what you have concluded from your research, and how far you have been able to successfully answer your research questions.

  • Recommendations – for improvements to your own study, for future research in the area, and for your field more widely.
  • Emphasise your contributions to knowledge and what you have achieved.

Alternative structure

Depending on your research aims, and whether you are working with a case-study type approach (where each section of the dissertation considers a different example or concept through the lens established in your literature review), you might opt for one of the following structures:

Splitting the literature review across different chapters:

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This structure allows you to pull apart the traditional literature review, introducing it little by little with each of your themed chapters. This approach works well for dissertations that attempt to show change or difference over time, as the relevant literature for that section or period can be introduced gradually to the reader.

Whichever structure you opt for, remember to explain and justify your approach. A marker will be interested in why you decided on your chosen structure, what it allows you to achieve/brings to the project and what alternatives you considered and rejected in the planning process. Here are some example sentence starters:

In qualitative studies, your results are often presented alongside the discussion, as it is difficult to include this data in a meaningful way without explanation and interpretation. In the dsicussion section, aim to structure your work thematically, moving through the key concepts or ideas that have emerged from your qualitative data. Use extracts from your data collection - interviews, focus groups, observations - to illustrate where these themes are most prominent, and refer back to the sources from your literature review to help draw conclusions. 

Here's an example of how your data could be presented in paragraph format in this section:

Example from  'Reporting and discussing your findings ', Monash University .

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What is a Literature Review? | Guide, Template, & Examples

Published on 22 February 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on 7 June 2022.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research.

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarise sources – it analyses, synthesises, and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

Why write a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1: search for relevant literature, step 2: evaluate and select sources, step 3: identify themes, debates and gaps, step 4: outline your literature review’s structure, step 5: write your literature review, frequently asked questions about literature reviews, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a dissertation or thesis, you will have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position yourself in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your dissertation addresses a gap or contributes to a debate

You might also have to write a literature review as a stand-alone assignment. In this case, the purpose is to evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of scholarly debates around a topic.

The content will look slightly different in each case, but the process of conducting a literature review follows the same steps. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research objectives and questions .

If you are writing a literature review as a stand-alone assignment, you will have to choose a focus and develop a central question to direct your search. Unlike a dissertation research question, this question has to be answerable without collecting original data. You should be able to answer it based only on a review of existing publications.

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research topic. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list if you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can use boolean operators to help narrow down your search:

Read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

To identify the most important publications on your topic, take note of recurring citations. If the same authors, books or articles keep appearing in your reading, make sure to seek them out.

You probably won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on the topic – you’ll have to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your questions.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models and methods? Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • How does the publication contribute to your understanding of the topic? What are its key insights and arguments?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible, and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can find out how many times an article has been cited on Google Scholar – a high citation count means the article has been influential in the field, and should certainly be included in your literature review.

The scope of your review will depend on your topic and discipline: in the sciences you usually only review recent literature, but in the humanities you might take a long historical perspective (for example, to trace how a concept has changed in meaning over time).

Remember that you can use our template to summarise and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using!

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It’s important to keep track of your sources with references to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography, where you compile full reference information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

You can use our free APA Reference Generator for quick, correct, consistent citations.

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To begin organising your literature review’s argument and structure, you need to understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly-visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat – this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organising the body of a literature review. You should have a rough idea of your strategy before you start writing.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological

The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarising sources in order.

Try to analyse patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organise your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological

If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources

Theoretical

A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text, your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

If you are writing the literature review as part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate your central problem or research question and give a brief summary of the scholarly context. You can emphasise the timeliness of the topic (“many recent studies have focused on the problem of x”) or highlight a gap in the literature (“while there has been much research on x, few researchers have taken y into consideration”).

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, make sure to follow these tips:

  • Summarise and synthesise: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole.
  • Analyse and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations, 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 transitions and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts.

In the conclusion, you should summarise the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasise their significance.

If the literature review is part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate how your research addresses gaps and contributes new knowledge, or discuss how you have drawn on existing theories and methods to build a framework for your research. This can lead directly into your methodology section.

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a dissertation , thesis, research paper , or proposal .

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarise yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your  dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

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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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A Guide to Writing a Qualitative Systematic Review Protocol to Enhance Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing and Health Care

Affiliations.

  • 1 PhD candidate, School of Nursing and Midwifey, Monash University, and Clinical Nurse Specialist, Adult and Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Monash Health, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
  • 2 Lecturer, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
  • 3 Senior Lecturer, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
  • PMID: 26790142
  • DOI: 10.1111/wvn.12134

Background: The qualitative systematic review is a rapidly developing area of nursing research. In order to present trustworthy, high-quality recommendations, such reviews should be based on a review protocol to minimize bias and enhance transparency and reproducibility. Although there are a number of resources available to guide researchers in developing a quantitative review protocol, very few resources exist for qualitative reviews.

Aims: To guide researchers through the process of developing a qualitative systematic review protocol, using an example review question.

Methodology: The key elements required in a systematic review protocol are discussed, with a focus on application to qualitative reviews: Development of a research question; formulation of key search terms and strategies; designing a multistage review process; critical appraisal of qualitative literature; development of data extraction techniques; and data synthesis. The paper highlights important considerations during the protocol development process, and uses a previously developed review question as a working example.

Implications for research: This paper will assist novice researchers in developing a qualitative systematic review protocol. By providing a worked example of a protocol, the paper encourages the development of review protocols, enhancing the trustworthiness and value of the completed qualitative systematic review findings.

Linking evidence to action: Qualitative systematic reviews should be based on well planned, peer reviewed protocols to enhance the trustworthiness of results and thus their usefulness in clinical practice. Protocols should outline, in detail, the processes which will be used to undertake the review, including key search terms, inclusion and exclusion criteria, and the methods used for critical appraisal, data extraction and data analysis to facilitate transparency of the review process. Additionally, journals should encourage and support the publication of review protocols, and should require reference to a protocol prior to publication of the review results.

Keywords: guidelines; meta synthesis; qualitative; systematic review protocol.

© 2016 Sigma Theta Tau International.

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Literature Reviews

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  • 1. Define your research question
  • 2. Plan your search
  • 3. Search the literature
  • 4. Organize your results
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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.

literature review qualitative

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

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What is Qualitative in Qualitative Research

Patrik aspers.

1 Department of Sociology, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden

2 Seminar for Sociology, Universität St. Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland

3 Department of Media and Social Sciences, University of Stavanger, Stavanger, Norway

What is qualitative research? If we look for a precise definition of qualitative research, and specifically for one that addresses its distinctive feature of being “qualitative,” the literature is meager. In this article we systematically search, identify and analyze a sample of 89 sources using or attempting to define the term “qualitative.” Then, drawing on ideas we find scattered across existing work, and based on Becker’s classic study of marijuana consumption, we formulate and illustrate a definition that tries to capture its core elements. We define qualitative research as an iterative process in which improved understanding to the scientific community is achieved by making new significant distinctions resulting from getting closer to the phenomenon studied. This formulation is developed as a tool to help improve research designs while stressing that a qualitative dimension is present in quantitative work as well. Additionally, it can facilitate teaching, communication between researchers, diminish the gap between qualitative and quantitative researchers, help to address critiques of qualitative methods, and be used as a standard of evaluation of qualitative research.

If we assume that there is something called qualitative research, what exactly is this qualitative feature? And how could we evaluate qualitative research as good or not? Is it fundamentally different from quantitative research? In practice, most active qualitative researchers working with empirical material intuitively know what is involved in doing qualitative research, yet perhaps surprisingly, a clear definition addressing its key feature is still missing.

To address the question of what is qualitative we turn to the accounts of “qualitative research” in textbooks and also in empirical work. In his classic, explorative, interview study of deviance Howard Becker ( 1963 ) asks ‘How does one become a marijuana user?’ In contrast to pre-dispositional and psychological-individualistic theories of deviant behavior, Becker’s inherently social explanation contends that becoming a user of this substance is the result of a three-phase sequential learning process. First, potential users need to learn how to smoke it properly to produce the “correct” effects. If not, they are likely to stop experimenting with it. Second, they need to discover the effects associated with it; in other words, to get “high,” individuals not only have to experience what the drug does, but also to become aware that those sensations are related to using it. Third, they require learning to savor the feelings related to its consumption – to develop an acquired taste. Becker, who played music himself, gets close to the phenomenon by observing, taking part, and by talking to people consuming the drug: “half of the fifty interviews were conducted with musicians, the other half covered a wide range of people, including laborers, machinists, and people in the professions” (Becker 1963 :56).

Another central aspect derived through the common-to-all-research interplay between induction and deduction (Becker 2017 ), is that during the course of his research Becker adds scientifically meaningful new distinctions in the form of three phases—distinctions, or findings if you will, that strongly affect the course of his research: its focus, the material that he collects, and which eventually impact his findings. Each phase typically unfolds through social interaction, and often with input from experienced users in “a sequence of social experiences during which the person acquires a conception of the meaning of the behavior, and perceptions and judgments of objects and situations, all of which make the activity possible and desirable” (Becker 1963 :235). In this study the increased understanding of smoking dope is a result of a combination of the meaning of the actors, and the conceptual distinctions that Becker introduces based on the views expressed by his respondents. Understanding is the result of research and is due to an iterative process in which data, concepts and evidence are connected with one another (Becker 2017 ).

Indeed, there are many definitions of qualitative research, but if we look for a definition that addresses its distinctive feature of being “qualitative,” the literature across the broad field of social science is meager. The main reason behind this article lies in the paradox, which, to put it bluntly, is that researchers act as if they know what it is, but they cannot formulate a coherent definition. Sociologists and others will of course continue to conduct good studies that show the relevance and value of qualitative research addressing scientific and practical problems in society. However, our paper is grounded in the idea that providing a clear definition will help us improve the work that we do. Among researchers who practice qualitative research there is clearly much knowledge. We suggest that a definition makes this knowledge more explicit. If the first rationale for writing this paper refers to the “internal” aim of improving qualitative research, the second refers to the increased “external” pressure that especially many qualitative researchers feel; pressure that comes both from society as well as from other scientific approaches. There is a strong core in qualitative research, and leading researchers tend to agree on what it is and how it is done. Our critique is not directed at the practice of qualitative research, but we do claim that the type of systematic work we do has not yet been done, and that it is useful to improve the field and its status in relation to quantitative research.

The literature on the “internal” aim of improving, or at least clarifying qualitative research is large, and we do not claim to be the first to notice the vagueness of the term “qualitative” (Strauss and Corbin 1998 ). Also, others have noted that there is no single definition of it (Long and Godfrey 2004 :182), that there are many different views on qualitative research (Denzin and Lincoln 2003 :11; Jovanović 2011 :3), and that more generally, we need to define its meaning (Best 2004 :54). Strauss and Corbin ( 1998 ), for example, as well as Nelson et al. (1992:2 cited in Denzin and Lincoln 2003 :11), and Flick ( 2007 :ix–x), have recognized that the term is problematic: “Actually, the term ‘qualitative research’ is confusing because it can mean different things to different people” (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :10–11). Hammersley has discussed the possibility of addressing the problem, but states that “the task of providing an account of the distinctive features of qualitative research is far from straightforward” ( 2013 :2). This confusion, as he has recently further argued (Hammersley 2018 ), is also salient in relation to ethnography where different philosophical and methodological approaches lead to a lack of agreement about what it means.

Others (e.g. Hammersley 2018 ; Fine and Hancock 2017 ) have also identified the treat to qualitative research that comes from external forces, seen from the point of view of “qualitative research.” This threat can be further divided into that which comes from inside academia, such as the critique voiced by “quantitative research” and outside of academia, including, for example, New Public Management. Hammersley ( 2018 ), zooming in on one type of qualitative research, ethnography, has argued that it is under treat. Similarly to Fine ( 2003 ), and before him Gans ( 1999 ), he writes that ethnography’ has acquired a range of meanings, and comes in many different versions, these often reflecting sharply divergent epistemological orientations. And already more than twenty years ago while reviewing Denzin and Lincoln’ s Handbook of Qualitative Methods Fine argued:

While this increasing centrality [of qualitative research] might lead one to believe that consensual standards have developed, this belief would be misleading. As the methodology becomes more widely accepted, querulous challengers have raised fundamental questions that collectively have undercut the traditional models of how qualitative research is to be fashioned and presented (1995:417).

According to Hammersley, there are today “serious treats to the practice of ethnographic work, on almost any definition” ( 2018 :1). He lists five external treats: (1) that social research must be accountable and able to show its impact on society; (2) the current emphasis on “big data” and the emphasis on quantitative data and evidence; (3) the labor market pressure in academia that leaves less time for fieldwork (see also Fine and Hancock 2017 ); (4) problems of access to fields; and (5) the increased ethical scrutiny of projects, to which ethnography is particularly exposed. Hammersley discusses some more or less insufficient existing definitions of ethnography.

The current situation, as Hammersley and others note—and in relation not only to ethnography but also qualitative research in general, and as our empirical study shows—is not just unsatisfactory, it may even be harmful for the entire field of qualitative research, and does not help social science at large. We suggest that the lack of clarity of qualitative research is a real problem that must be addressed.

Towards a Definition of Qualitative Research

Seen in an historical light, what is today called qualitative, or sometimes ethnographic, interpretative research – or a number of other terms – has more or less always existed. At the time the founders of sociology – Simmel, Weber, Durkheim and, before them, Marx – were writing, and during the era of the Methodenstreit (“dispute about methods”) in which the German historical school emphasized scientific methods (cf. Swedberg 1990 ), we can at least speak of qualitative forerunners.

Perhaps the most extended discussion of what later became known as qualitative methods in a classic work is Bronisław Malinowski’s ( 1922 ) Argonauts in the Western Pacific , although even this study does not explicitly address the meaning of “qualitative.” In Weber’s ([1921–-22] 1978) work we find a tension between scientific explanations that are based on observation and quantification and interpretative research (see also Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 ).

If we look through major sociology journals like the American Sociological Review , American Journal of Sociology , or Social Forces we will not find the term qualitative sociology before the 1970s. And certainly before then much of what we consider qualitative classics in sociology, like Becker’ study ( 1963 ), had already been produced. Indeed, the Chicago School often combined qualitative and quantitative data within the same study (Fine 1995 ). Our point being that before a disciplinary self-awareness the term quantitative preceded qualitative, and the articulation of the former was a political move to claim scientific status (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 ). In the US the World War II seem to have sparked a critique of sociological work, including “qualitative work,” that did not follow the scientific canon (Rawls 2018 ), which was underpinned by a scientifically oriented and value free philosophy of science. As a result the attempts and practice of integrating qualitative and quantitative sociology at Chicago lost ground to sociology that was more oriented to surveys and quantitative work at Columbia under Merton-Lazarsfeld. The quantitative tradition was also able to present textbooks (Lundberg 1951 ) that facilitated the use this approach and its “methods.” The practices of the qualitative tradition, by and large, remained tacit or was part of the mentoring transferred from the renowned masters to their students.

This glimpse into history leads us back to the lack of a coherent account condensed in a definition of qualitative research. Many of the attempts to define the term do not meet the requirements of a proper definition: A definition should be clear, avoid tautology, demarcate its domain in relation to the environment, and ideally only use words in its definiens that themselves are not in need of definition (Hempel 1966 ). A definition can enhance precision and thus clarity by identifying the core of the phenomenon. Preferably, a definition should be short. The typical definition we have found, however, is an ostensive definition, which indicates what qualitative research is about without informing us about what it actually is :

Qualitative research is multimethod in focus, involving an interpretative, naturalistic approach to its subject matter. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them. Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials – case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional, and visual texts – that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals’ lives. (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 :2)

Flick claims that the label “qualitative research” is indeed used as an umbrella for a number of approaches ( 2007 :2–4; 2002 :6), and it is not difficult to identify research fitting this designation. Moreover, whatever it is, it has grown dramatically over the past five decades. In addition, courses have been developed, methods have flourished, arguments about its future have been advanced (for example, Denzin and Lincoln 1994) and criticized (for example, Snow and Morrill 1995 ), and dedicated journals and books have mushroomed. Most social scientists have a clear idea of research and how it differs from journalism, politics and other activities. But the question of what is qualitative in qualitative research is either eluded or eschewed.

We maintain that this lacuna hinders systematic knowledge production based on qualitative research. Paul Lazarsfeld noted the lack of “codification” as early as 1955 when he reviewed 100 qualitative studies in order to offer a codification of the practices (Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 :239). Since then many texts on “qualitative research” and its methods have been published, including recent attempts (Goertz and Mahoney 2012 ) similar to Lazarsfeld’s. These studies have tried to extract what is qualitative by looking at the large number of empirical “qualitative” studies. Our novel strategy complements these endeavors by taking another approach and looking at the attempts to codify these practices in the form of a definition, as well as to a minor extent take Becker’s study as an exemplar of what qualitative researchers actually do, and what the characteristic of being ‘qualitative’ denotes and implies. We claim that qualitative researchers, if there is such a thing as “qualitative research,” should be able to codify their practices in a condensed, yet general way expressed in language.

Lingering problems of “generalizability” and “how many cases do I need” (Small 2009 ) are blocking advancement – in this line of work qualitative approaches are said to differ considerably from quantitative ones, while some of the former unsuccessfully mimic principles related to the latter (Small 2009 ). Additionally, quantitative researchers sometimes unfairly criticize the first based on their own quality criteria. Scholars like Goertz and Mahoney ( 2012 ) have successfully focused on the different norms and practices beyond what they argue are essentially two different cultures: those working with either qualitative or quantitative methods. Instead, similarly to Becker ( 2017 ) who has recently questioned the usefulness of the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research, we focus on similarities.

The current situation also impedes both students and researchers in focusing their studies and understanding each other’s work (Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 :239). A third consequence is providing an opening for critiques by scholars operating within different traditions (Valsiner 2000 :101). A fourth issue is that the “implicit use of methods in qualitative research makes the field far less standardized than the quantitative paradigm” (Goertz and Mahoney 2012 :9). Relatedly, the National Science Foundation in the US organized two workshops in 2004 and 2005 to address the scientific foundations of qualitative research involving strategies to improve it and to develop standards of evaluation in qualitative research. However, a specific focus on its distinguishing feature of being “qualitative” while being implicitly acknowledged, was discussed only briefly (for example, Best 2004 ).

In 2014 a theme issue was published in this journal on “Methods, Materials, and Meanings: Designing Cultural Analysis,” discussing central issues in (cultural) qualitative research (Berezin 2014 ; Biernacki 2014 ; Glaeser 2014 ; Lamont and Swidler 2014 ; Spillman 2014). We agree with many of the arguments put forward, such as the risk of methodological tribalism, and that we should not waste energy on debating methods separated from research questions. Nonetheless, a clarification of the relation to what is called “quantitative research” is of outmost importance to avoid misunderstandings and misguided debates between “qualitative” and “quantitative” researchers. Our strategy means that researchers, “qualitative” or “quantitative” they may be, in their actual practice may combine qualitative work and quantitative work.

In this article we accomplish three tasks. First, we systematically survey the literature for meanings of qualitative research by looking at how researchers have defined it. Drawing upon existing knowledge we find that the different meanings and ideas of qualitative research are not yet coherently integrated into one satisfactory definition. Next, we advance our contribution by offering a definition of qualitative research and illustrate its meaning and use partially by expanding on the brief example introduced earlier related to Becker’s work ( 1963 ). We offer a systematic analysis of central themes of what researchers consider to be the core of “qualitative,” regardless of style of work. These themes – which we summarize in terms of four keywords: distinction, process, closeness, improved understanding – constitute part of our literature review, in which each one appears, sometimes with others, but never all in the same definition. They serve as the foundation of our contribution. Our categories are overlapping. Their use is primarily to organize the large amount of definitions we have identified and analyzed, and not necessarily to draw a clear distinction between them. Finally, we continue the elaboration discussed above on the advantages of a clear definition of qualitative research.

In a hermeneutic fashion we propose that there is something meaningful that deserves to be labelled “qualitative research” (Gadamer 1990 ). To approach the question “What is qualitative in qualitative research?” we have surveyed the literature. In conducting our survey we first traced the word’s etymology in dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks of the social sciences and of methods and textbooks, mainly in English, which is common to methodology courses. It should be noted that we have zoomed in on sociology and its literature. This discipline has been the site of the largest debate and development of methods that can be called “qualitative,” which suggests that this field should be examined in great detail.

In an ideal situation we should expect that one good definition, or at least some common ideas, would have emerged over the years. This common core of qualitative research should be so accepted that it would appear in at least some textbooks. Since this is not what we found, we decided to pursue an inductive approach to capture maximal variation in the field of qualitative research; we searched in a selection of handbooks, textbooks, book chapters, and books, to which we added the analysis of journal articles. Our sample comprises a total of 89 references.

In practice we focused on the discipline that has had a clear discussion of methods, namely sociology. We also conducted a broad search in the JSTOR database to identify scholarly sociology articles published between 1998 and 2017 in English with a focus on defining or explaining qualitative research. We specifically zoom in on this time frame because we would have expect that this more mature period would have produced clear discussions on the meaning of qualitative research. To find these articles we combined a number of keywords to search the content and/or the title: qualitative (which was always included), definition, empirical, research, methodology, studies, fieldwork, interview and observation .

As a second phase of our research we searched within nine major sociological journals ( American Journal of Sociology , Sociological Theory , American Sociological Review , Contemporary Sociology , Sociological Forum , Sociological Theory , Qualitative Research , Qualitative Sociology and Qualitative Sociology Review ) for articles also published during the past 19 years (1998–2017) that had the term “qualitative” in the title and attempted to define qualitative research.

Lastly we picked two additional journals, Qualitative Research and Qualitative Sociology , in which we could expect to find texts addressing the notion of “qualitative.” From Qualitative Research we chose Volume 14, Issue 6, December 2014, and from Qualitative Sociology we chose Volume 36, Issue 2, June 2017. Within each of these we selected the first article; then we picked the second article of three prior issues. Again we went back another three issues and investigated article number three. Finally we went back another three issues and perused article number four. This selection criteria was used to get a manageable sample for the analysis.

The coding process of the 89 references we gathered in our selected review began soon after the first round of material was gathered, and we reduced the complexity created by our maximum variation sampling (Snow and Anderson 1993 :22) to four different categories within which questions on the nature and properties of qualitative research were discussed. We call them: Qualitative and Quantitative Research, Qualitative Research, Fieldwork, and Grounded Theory. This – which may appear as an illogical grouping – merely reflects the “context” in which the matter of “qualitative” is discussed. If the selection process of the material – books and articles – was informed by pre-knowledge, we used an inductive strategy to code the material. When studying our material, we identified four central notions related to “qualitative” that appear in various combinations in the literature which indicate what is the core of qualitative research. We have labeled them: “distinctions”, “process,” “closeness,” and “improved understanding.” During the research process the categories and notions were improved, refined, changed, and reordered. The coding ended when a sense of saturation in the material arose. In the presentation below all quotations and references come from our empirical material of texts on qualitative research.

Analysis – What is Qualitative Research?

In this section we describe the four categories we identified in the coding, how they differently discuss qualitative research, as well as their overall content. Some salient quotations are selected to represent the type of text sorted under each of the four categories. What we present are examples from the literature.

Qualitative and Quantitative

This analytic category comprises quotations comparing qualitative and quantitative research, a distinction that is frequently used (Brown 2010 :231); in effect this is a conceptual pair that structures the discussion and that may be associated with opposing interests. While the general goal of quantitative and qualitative research is the same – to understand the world better – their methodologies and focus in certain respects differ substantially (Becker 1966 :55). Quantity refers to that property of something that can be determined by measurement. In a dictionary of Statistics and Methodology we find that “(a) When referring to *variables, ‘qualitative’ is another term for *categorical or *nominal. (b) When speaking of kinds of research, ‘qualitative’ refers to studies of subjects that are hard to quantify, such as art history. Qualitative research tends to be a residual category for almost any kind of non-quantitative research” (Stiles 1998:183). But it should be obvious that one could employ a quantitative approach when studying, for example, art history.

The same dictionary states that quantitative is “said of variables or research that can be handled numerically, usually (too sharply) contrasted with *qualitative variables and research” (Stiles 1998:184). From a qualitative perspective “quantitative research” is about numbers and counting, and from a quantitative perspective qualitative research is everything that is not about numbers. But this does not say much about what is “qualitative.” If we turn to encyclopedias we find that in the 1932 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences there is no mention of “qualitative.” In the Encyclopedia from 1968 we can read:

Qualitative Analysis. For methods of obtaining, analyzing, and describing data, see [the various entries:] CONTENT ANALYSIS; COUNTED DATA; EVALUATION RESEARCH, FIELD WORK; GRAPHIC PRESENTATION; HISTORIOGRAPHY, especially the article on THE RHETORIC OF HISTORY; INTERVIEWING; OBSERVATION; PERSONALITY MEASUREMENT; PROJECTIVE METHODS; PSYCHOANALYSIS, article on EXPERIMENTAL METHODS; SURVEY ANALYSIS, TABULAR PRESENTATION; TYPOLOGIES. (Vol. 13:225)

Some, like Alford, divide researchers into methodologists or, in his words, “quantitative and qualitative specialists” (Alford 1998 :12). Qualitative research uses a variety of methods, such as intensive interviews or in-depth analysis of historical materials, and it is concerned with a comprehensive account of some event or unit (King et al. 1994 :4). Like quantitative research it can be utilized to study a variety of issues, but it tends to focus on meanings and motivations that underlie cultural symbols, personal experiences, phenomena and detailed understanding of processes in the social world. In short, qualitative research centers on understanding processes, experiences, and the meanings people assign to things (Kalof et al. 2008 :79).

Others simply say that qualitative methods are inherently unscientific (Jovanović 2011 :19). Hood, for instance, argues that words are intrinsically less precise than numbers, and that they are therefore more prone to subjective analysis, leading to biased results (Hood 2006 :219). Qualitative methodologies have raised concerns over the limitations of quantitative templates (Brady et al. 2004 :4). Scholars such as King et al. ( 1994 ), for instance, argue that non-statistical research can produce more reliable results if researchers pay attention to the rules of scientific inference commonly stated in quantitative research. Also, researchers such as Becker ( 1966 :59; 1970 :42–43) have asserted that, if conducted properly, qualitative research and in particular ethnographic field methods, can lead to more accurate results than quantitative studies, in particular, survey research and laboratory experiments.

Some researchers, such as Kalof, Dan, and Dietz ( 2008 :79) claim that the boundaries between the two approaches are becoming blurred, and Small ( 2009 ) argues that currently much qualitative research (especially in North America) tries unsuccessfully and unnecessarily to emulate quantitative standards. For others, qualitative research tends to be more humanistic and discursive (King et al. 1994 :4). Ragin ( 1994 ), and similarly also Becker, ( 1996 :53), Marchel and Owens ( 2007 :303) think that the main distinction between the two styles is overstated and does not rest on the simple dichotomy of “numbers versus words” (Ragin 1994 :xii). Some claim that quantitative data can be utilized to discover associations, but in order to unveil cause and effect a complex research design involving the use of qualitative approaches needs to be devised (Gilbert 2009 :35). Consequently, qualitative data are useful for understanding the nuances lying beyond those processes as they unfold (Gilbert 2009 :35). Others contend that qualitative research is particularly well suited both to identify causality and to uncover fine descriptive distinctions (Fine and Hallett 2014 ; Lichterman and Isaac Reed 2014 ; Katz 2015 ).

There are other ways to separate these two traditions, including normative statements about what qualitative research should be (that is, better or worse than quantitative approaches, concerned with scientific approaches to societal change or vice versa; Snow and Morrill 1995 ; Denzin and Lincoln 2005 ), or whether it should develop falsifiable statements; Best 2004 ).

We propose that quantitative research is largely concerned with pre-determined variables (Small 2008 ); the analysis concerns the relations between variables. These categories are primarily not questioned in the study, only their frequency or degree, or the correlations between them (cf. Franzosi 2016 ). If a researcher studies wage differences between women and men, he or she works with given categories: x number of men are compared with y number of women, with a certain wage attributed to each person. The idea is not to move beyond the given categories of wage, men and women; they are the starting point as well as the end point, and undergo no “qualitative change.” Qualitative research, in contrast, investigates relations between categories that are themselves subject to change in the research process. Returning to Becker’s study ( 1963 ), we see that he questioned pre-dispositional theories of deviant behavior working with pre-determined variables such as an individual’s combination of personal qualities or emotional problems. His take, in contrast, was to understand marijuana consumption by developing “variables” as part of the investigation. Thereby he presented new variables, or as we would say today, theoretical concepts, but which are grounded in the empirical material.

Qualitative Research

This category contains quotations that refer to descriptions of qualitative research without making comparisons with quantitative research. Researchers such as Denzin and Lincoln, who have written a series of influential handbooks on qualitative methods (1994; Denzin and Lincoln 2003 ; 2005 ), citing Nelson et al. (1992:4), argue that because qualitative research is “interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and sometimes counterdisciplinary” it is difficult to derive one single definition of it (Jovanović 2011 :3). According to them, in fact, “the field” is “many things at the same time,” involving contradictions, tensions over its focus, methods, and how to derive interpretations and findings ( 2003 : 11). Similarly, others, such as Flick ( 2007 :ix–x) contend that agreeing on an accepted definition has increasingly become problematic, and that qualitative research has possibly matured different identities. However, Best holds that “the proliferation of many sorts of activities under the label of qualitative sociology threatens to confuse our discussions” ( 2004 :54). Atkinson’s position is more definite: “the current state of qualitative research and research methods is confused” ( 2005 :3–4).

Qualitative research is about interpretation (Blumer 1969 ; Strauss and Corbin 1998 ; Denzin and Lincoln 2003 ), or Verstehen [understanding] (Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 ). It is “multi-method,” involving the collection and use of a variety of empirical materials (Denzin and Lincoln 1998; Silverman 2013 ) and approaches (Silverman 2005 ; Flick 2007 ). It focuses not only on the objective nature of behavior but also on its subjective meanings: individuals’ own accounts of their attitudes, motivations, behavior (McIntyre 2005 :127; Creswell 2009 ), events and situations (Bryman 1989) – what people say and do in specific places and institutions (Goodwin and Horowitz 2002 :35–36) in social and temporal contexts (Morrill and Fine 1997). For this reason, following Weber ([1921-22] 1978), it can be described as an interpretative science (McIntyre 2005 :127). But could quantitative research also be concerned with these questions? Also, as pointed out below, does all qualitative research focus on subjective meaning, as some scholars suggest?

Others also distinguish qualitative research by claiming that it collects data using a naturalistic approach (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 :2; Creswell 2009 ), focusing on the meaning actors ascribe to their actions. But again, does all qualitative research need to be collected in situ? And does qualitative research have to be inherently concerned with meaning? Flick ( 2007 ), referring to Denzin and Lincoln ( 2005 ), mentions conversation analysis as an example of qualitative research that is not concerned with the meanings people bring to a situation, but rather with the formal organization of talk. Still others, such as Ragin ( 1994 :85), note that qualitative research is often (especially early on in the project, we would add) less structured than other kinds of social research – a characteristic connected to its flexibility and that can lead both to potentially better, but also worse results. But is this not a feature of this type of research, rather than a defining description of its essence? Wouldn’t this comment also apply, albeit to varying degrees, to quantitative research?

In addition, Strauss ( 2003 ), along with others, such as Alvesson and Kärreman ( 2011 :10–76), argue that qualitative researchers struggle to capture and represent complex phenomena partially because they tend to collect a large amount of data. While his analysis is correct at some points – “It is necessary to do detailed, intensive, microscopic examination of the data in order to bring out the amazing complexity of what lies in, behind, and beyond those data” (Strauss 2003 :10) – much of his analysis concerns the supposed focus of qualitative research and its challenges, rather than exactly what it is about. But even in this instance we would make a weak case arguing that these are strictly the defining features of qualitative research. Some researchers seem to focus on the approach or the methods used, or even on the way material is analyzed. Several researchers stress the naturalistic assumption of investigating the world, suggesting that meaning and interpretation appear to be a core matter of qualitative research.

We can also see that in this category there is no consensus about specific qualitative methods nor about qualitative data. Many emphasize interpretation, but quantitative research, too, involves interpretation; the results of a regression analysis, for example, certainly have to be interpreted, and the form of meta-analysis that factor analysis provides indeed requires interpretation However, there is no interpretation of quantitative raw data, i.e., numbers in tables. One common thread is that qualitative researchers have to get to grips with their data in order to understand what is being studied in great detail, irrespective of the type of empirical material that is being analyzed. This observation is connected to the fact that qualitative researchers routinely make several adjustments of focus and research design as their studies progress, in many cases until the very end of the project (Kalof et al. 2008 ). If you, like Becker, do not start out with a detailed theory, adjustments such as the emergence and refinement of research questions will occur during the research process. We have thus found a number of useful reflections about qualitative research scattered across different sources, but none of them effectively describe the defining characteristics of this approach.

Although qualitative research does not appear to be defined in terms of a specific method, it is certainly common that fieldwork, i.e., research that entails that the researcher spends considerable time in the field that is studied and use the knowledge gained as data, is seen as emblematic of or even identical to qualitative research. But because we understand that fieldwork tends to focus primarily on the collection and analysis of qualitative data, we expected to find within it discussions on the meaning of “qualitative.” But, again, this was not the case.

Instead, we found material on the history of this approach (for example, Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 ; Atkinson et al. 2001), including how it has changed; for example, by adopting a more self-reflexive practice (Heyl 2001), as well as the different nomenclature that has been adopted, such as fieldwork, ethnography, qualitative research, naturalistic research, participant observation and so on (for example, Lofland et al. 2006 ; Gans 1999 ).

We retrieved definitions of ethnography, such as “the study of people acting in the natural courses of their daily lives,” involving a “resocialization of the researcher” (Emerson 1988 :1) through intense immersion in others’ social worlds (see also examples in Hammersley 2018 ). This may be accomplished by direct observation and also participation (Neuman 2007 :276), although others, such as Denzin ( 1970 :185), have long recognized other types of observation, including non-participant (“fly on the wall”). In this category we have also isolated claims and opposing views, arguing that this type of research is distinguished primarily by where it is conducted (natural settings) (Hughes 1971:496), and how it is carried out (a variety of methods are applied) or, for some most importantly, by involving an active, empathetic immersion in those being studied (Emerson 1988 :2). We also retrieved descriptions of the goals it attends in relation to how it is taught (understanding subjective meanings of the people studied, primarily develop theory, or contribute to social change) (see for example, Corte and Irwin 2017 ; Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 :281; Trier-Bieniek 2012 :639) by collecting the richest possible data (Lofland et al. 2006 ) to derive “thick descriptions” (Geertz 1973 ), and/or to aim at theoretical statements of general scope and applicability (for example, Emerson 1988 ; Fine 2003 ). We have identified guidelines on how to evaluate it (for example Becker 1996 ; Lamont 2004 ) and have retrieved instructions on how it should be conducted (for example, Lofland et al. 2006 ). For instance, analysis should take place while the data gathering unfolds (Emerson 1988 ; Hammersley and Atkinson 2007 ; Lofland et al. 2006 ), observations should be of long duration (Becker 1970 :54; Goffman 1989 ), and data should be of high quantity (Becker 1970 :52–53), as well as other questionable distinctions between fieldwork and other methods:

Field studies differ from other methods of research in that the researcher performs the task of selecting topics, decides what questions to ask, and forges interest in the course of the research itself . This is in sharp contrast to many ‘theory-driven’ and ‘hypothesis-testing’ methods. (Lofland and Lofland 1995 :5)

But could not, for example, a strictly interview-based study be carried out with the same amount of flexibility, such as sequential interviewing (for example, Small 2009 )? Once again, are quantitative approaches really as inflexible as some qualitative researchers think? Moreover, this category stresses the role of the actors’ meaning, which requires knowledge and close interaction with people, their practices and their lifeworld.

It is clear that field studies – which are seen by some as the “gold standard” of qualitative research – are nonetheless only one way of doing qualitative research. There are other methods, but it is not clear why some are more qualitative than others, or why they are better or worse. Fieldwork is characterized by interaction with the field (the material) and understanding of the phenomenon that is being studied. In Becker’s case, he had general experience from fields in which marihuana was used, based on which he did interviews with actual users in several fields.

Grounded Theory

Another major category we identified in our sample is Grounded Theory. We found descriptions of it most clearly in Glaser and Strauss’ ([1967] 2010 ) original articulation, Strauss and Corbin ( 1998 ) and Charmaz ( 2006 ), as well as many other accounts of what it is for: generating and testing theory (Strauss 2003 :xi). We identified explanations of how this task can be accomplished – such as through two main procedures: constant comparison and theoretical sampling (Emerson 1998:96), and how using it has helped researchers to “think differently” (for example, Strauss and Corbin 1998 :1). We also read descriptions of its main traits, what it entails and fosters – for instance, an exceptional flexibility, an inductive approach (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :31–33; 1990; Esterberg 2002 :7), an ability to step back and critically analyze situations, recognize tendencies towards bias, think abstractly and be open to criticism, enhance sensitivity towards the words and actions of respondents, and develop a sense of absorption and devotion to the research process (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :5–6). Accordingly, we identified discussions of the value of triangulating different methods (both using and not using grounded theory), including quantitative ones, and theories to achieve theoretical development (most comprehensively in Denzin 1970 ; Strauss and Corbin 1998 ; Timmermans and Tavory 2012 ). We have also located arguments about how its practice helps to systematize data collection, analysis and presentation of results (Glaser and Strauss [1967] 2010 :16).

Grounded theory offers a systematic approach which requires researchers to get close to the field; closeness is a requirement of identifying questions and developing new concepts or making further distinctions with regard to old concepts. In contrast to other qualitative approaches, grounded theory emphasizes the detailed coding process, and the numerous fine-tuned distinctions that the researcher makes during the process. Within this category, too, we could not find a satisfying discussion of the meaning of qualitative research.

Defining Qualitative Research

In sum, our analysis shows that some notions reappear in the discussion of qualitative research, such as understanding, interpretation, “getting close” and making distinctions. These notions capture aspects of what we think is “qualitative.” However, a comprehensive definition that is useful and that can further develop the field is lacking, and not even a clear picture of its essential elements appears. In other words no definition emerges from our data, and in our research process we have moved back and forth between our empirical data and the attempt to present a definition. Our concrete strategy, as stated above, is to relate qualitative and quantitative research, or more specifically, qualitative and quantitative work. We use an ideal-typical notion of quantitative research which relies on taken for granted and numbered variables. This means that the data consists of variables on different scales, such as ordinal, but frequently ratio and absolute scales, and the representation of the numbers to the variables, i.e. the justification of the assignment of numbers to object or phenomenon, are not questioned, though the validity may be questioned. In this section we return to the notion of quality and try to clarify it while presenting our contribution.

Broadly, research refers to the activity performed by people trained to obtain knowledge through systematic procedures. Notions such as “objectivity” and “reflexivity,” “systematic,” “theory,” “evidence” and “openness” are here taken for granted in any type of research. Next, building on our empirical analysis we explain the four notions that we have identified as central to qualitative work: distinctions, process, closeness, and improved understanding. In discussing them, ultimately in relation to one another, we make their meaning even more precise. Our idea, in short, is that only when these ideas that we present separately for analytic purposes are brought together can we speak of qualitative research.

Distinctions

We believe that the possibility of making new distinctions is one the defining characteristics of qualitative research. It clearly sets it apart from quantitative analysis which works with taken-for-granted variables, albeit as mentioned, meta-analyses, for example, factor analysis may result in new variables. “Quality” refers essentially to distinctions, as already pointed out by Aristotle. He discusses the term “qualitative” commenting: “By a quality I mean that in virtue of which things are said to be qualified somehow” (Aristotle 1984:14). Quality is about what something is or has, which means that the distinction from its environment is crucial. We see qualitative research as a process in which significant new distinctions are made to the scholarly community; to make distinctions is a key aspect of obtaining new knowledge; a point, as we will see, that also has implications for “quantitative research.” The notion of being “significant” is paramount. New distinctions by themselves are not enough; just adding concepts only increases complexity without furthering our knowledge. The significance of new distinctions is judged against the communal knowledge of the research community. To enable this discussion and judgements central elements of rational discussion are required (cf. Habermas [1981] 1987 ; Davidsson [ 1988 ] 2001) to identify what is new and relevant scientific knowledge. Relatedly, Ragin alludes to the idea of new and useful knowledge at a more concrete level: “Qualitative methods are appropriate for in-depth examination of cases because they aid the identification of key features of cases. Most qualitative methods enhance data” (1994:79). When Becker ( 1963 ) studied deviant behavior and investigated how people became marihuana smokers, he made distinctions between the ways in which people learned how to smoke. This is a classic example of how the strategy of “getting close” to the material, for example the text, people or pictures that are subject to analysis, may enable researchers to obtain deeper insight and new knowledge by making distinctions – in this instance on the initial notion of learning how to smoke. Others have stressed the making of distinctions in relation to coding or theorizing. Emerson et al. ( 1995 ), for example, hold that “qualitative coding is a way of opening up avenues of inquiry,” meaning that the researcher identifies and develops concepts and analytic insights through close examination of and reflection on data (Emerson et al. 1995 :151). Goodwin and Horowitz highlight making distinctions in relation to theory-building writing: “Close engagement with their cases typically requires qualitative researchers to adapt existing theories or to make new conceptual distinctions or theoretical arguments to accommodate new data” ( 2002 : 37). In the ideal-typical quantitative research only existing and so to speak, given, variables would be used. If this is the case no new distinction are made. But, would not also many “quantitative” researchers make new distinctions?

Process does not merely suggest that research takes time. It mainly implies that qualitative new knowledge results from a process that involves several phases, and above all iteration. Qualitative research is about oscillation between theory and evidence, analysis and generating material, between first- and second -order constructs (Schütz 1962 :59), between getting in contact with something, finding sources, becoming deeply familiar with a topic, and then distilling and communicating some of its essential features. The main point is that the categories that the researcher uses, and perhaps takes for granted at the beginning of the research process, usually undergo qualitative changes resulting from what is found. Becker describes how he tested hypotheses and let the jargon of the users develop into theoretical concepts. This happens over time while the study is being conducted, exemplifying what we mean by process.

In the research process, a pilot-study may be used to get a first glance of, for example, the field, how to approach it, and what methods can be used, after which the method and theory are chosen or refined before the main study begins. Thus, the empirical material is often central from the start of the project and frequently leads to adjustments by the researcher. Likewise, during the main study categories are not fixed; the empirical material is seen in light of the theory used, but it is also given the opportunity to kick back, thereby resisting attempts to apply theoretical straightjackets (Becker 1970 :43). In this process, coding and analysis are interwoven, and thus are often important steps for getting closer to the phenomenon and deciding what to focus on next. Becker began his research by interviewing musicians close to him, then asking them to refer him to other musicians, and later on doubling his original sample of about 25 to include individuals in other professions (Becker 1973:46). Additionally, he made use of some participant observation, documents, and interviews with opiate users made available to him by colleagues. As his inductive theory of deviance evolved, Becker expanded his sample in order to fine tune it, and test the accuracy and generality of his hypotheses. In addition, he introduced a negative case and discussed the null hypothesis ( 1963 :44). His phasic career model is thus based on a research design that embraces processual work. Typically, process means to move between “theory” and “material” but also to deal with negative cases, and Becker ( 1998 ) describes how discovering these negative cases impacted his research design and ultimately its findings.

Obviously, all research is process-oriented to some degree. The point is that the ideal-typical quantitative process does not imply change of the data, and iteration between data, evidence, hypotheses, empirical work, and theory. The data, quantified variables, are, in most cases fixed. Merging of data, which of course can be done in a quantitative research process, does not mean new data. New hypotheses are frequently tested, but the “raw data is often the “the same.” Obviously, over time new datasets are made available and put into use.

Another characteristic that is emphasized in our sample is that qualitative researchers – and in particular ethnographers – can, or as Goffman put it, ought to ( 1989 ), get closer to the phenomenon being studied and their data than quantitative researchers (for example, Silverman 2009 :85). Put differently, essentially because of their methods qualitative researchers get into direct close contact with those being investigated and/or the material, such as texts, being analyzed. Becker started out his interview study, as we noted, by talking to those he knew in the field of music to get closer to the phenomenon he was studying. By conducting interviews he got even closer. Had he done more observations, he would undoubtedly have got even closer to the field.

Additionally, ethnographers’ design enables researchers to follow the field over time, and the research they do is almost by definition longitudinal, though the time in the field is studied obviously differs between studies. The general characteristic of closeness over time maximizes the chances of unexpected events, new data (related, for example, to archival research as additional sources, and for ethnography for situations not necessarily previously thought of as instrumental – what Mannay and Morgan ( 2015 ) term the “waiting field”), serendipity (Merton and Barber 2004 ; Åkerström 2013 ), and possibly reactivity, as well as the opportunity to observe disrupted patterns that translate into exemplars of negative cases. Two classic examples of this are Becker’s finding of what medical students call “crocks” (Becker et al. 1961 :317), and Geertz’s ( 1973 ) study of “deep play” in Balinese society.

By getting and staying so close to their data – be it pictures, text or humans interacting (Becker was himself a musician) – for a long time, as the research progressively focuses, qualitative researchers are prompted to continually test their hunches, presuppositions and hypotheses. They test them against a reality that often (but certainly not always), and practically, as well as metaphorically, talks back, whether by validating them, or disqualifying their premises – correctly, as well as incorrectly (Fine 2003 ; Becker 1970 ). This testing nonetheless often leads to new directions for the research. Becker, for example, says that he was initially reading psychological theories, but when facing the data he develops a theory that looks at, you may say, everything but psychological dispositions to explain the use of marihuana. Especially researchers involved with ethnographic methods have a fairly unique opportunity to dig up and then test (in a circular, continuous and temporal way) new research questions and findings as the research progresses, and thereby to derive previously unimagined and uncharted distinctions by getting closer to the phenomenon under study.

Let us stress that getting close is by no means restricted to ethnography. The notion of hermeneutic circle and hermeneutics as a general way of understanding implies that we must get close to the details in order to get the big picture. This also means that qualitative researchers can literally also make use of details of pictures as evidence (cf. Harper 2002). Thus, researchers may get closer both when generating the material or when analyzing it.

Quantitative research, we maintain, in the ideal-typical representation cannot get closer to the data. The data is essentially numbers in tables making up the variables (Franzosi 2016 :138). The data may originally have been “qualitative,” but once reduced to numbers there can only be a type of “hermeneutics” about what the number may stand for. The numbers themselves, however, are non-ambiguous. Thus, in quantitative research, interpretation, if done, is not about the data itself—the numbers—but what the numbers stand for. It follows that the interpretation is essentially done in a more “speculative” mode without direct empirical evidence (cf. Becker 2017 ).

Improved Understanding

While distinction, process and getting closer refer to the qualitative work of the researcher, improved understanding refers to its conditions and outcome of this work. Understanding cuts deeper than explanation, which to some may mean a causally verified correlation between variables. The notion of explanation presupposes the notion of understanding since explanation does not include an idea of how knowledge is gained (Manicas 2006 : 15). Understanding, we argue, is the core concept of what we call the outcome of the process when research has made use of all the other elements that were integrated in the research. Understanding, then, has a special status in qualitative research since it refers both to the conditions of knowledge and the outcome of the process. Understanding can to some extent be seen as the condition of explanation and occurs in a process of interpretation, which naturally refers to meaning (Gadamer 1990 ). It is fundamentally connected to knowing, and to the knowing of how to do things (Heidegger [1927] 2001 ). Conceptually the term hermeneutics is used to account for this process. Heidegger ties hermeneutics to human being and not possible to separate from the understanding of being ( 1988 ). Here we use it in a broader sense, and more connected to method in general (cf. Seiffert 1992 ). The abovementioned aspects – for example, “objectivity” and “reflexivity” – of the approach are conditions of scientific understanding. Understanding is the result of a circular process and means that the parts are understood in light of the whole, and vice versa. Understanding presupposes pre-understanding, or in other words, some knowledge of the phenomenon studied. The pre-understanding, even in the form of prejudices, are in qualitative research process, which we see as iterative, questioned, which gradually or suddenly change due to the iteration of data, evidence and concepts. However, qualitative research generates understanding in the iterative process when the researcher gets closer to the data, e.g., by going back and forth between field and analysis in a process that generates new data that changes the evidence, and, ultimately, the findings. Questioning, to ask questions, and put what one assumes—prejudices and presumption—in question, is central to understand something (Heidegger [1927] 2001 ; Gadamer 1990 :368–384). We propose that this iterative process in which the process of understanding occurs is characteristic of qualitative research.

Improved understanding means that we obtain scientific knowledge of something that we as a scholarly community did not know before, or that we get to know something better. It means that we understand more about how parts are related to one another, and to other things we already understand (see also Fine and Hallett 2014 ). Understanding is an important condition for qualitative research. It is not enough to identify correlations, make distinctions, and work in a process in which one gets close to the field or phenomena. Understanding is accomplished when the elements are integrated in an iterative process.

It is, moreover, possible to understand many things, and researchers, just like children, may come to understand new things every day as they engage with the world. This subjective condition of understanding – namely, that a person gains a better understanding of something –is easily met. To be qualified as “scientific,” the understanding must be general and useful to many; it must be public. But even this generally accessible understanding is not enough in order to speak of “scientific understanding.” Though we as a collective can increase understanding of everything in virtually all potential directions as a result also of qualitative work, we refrain from this “objective” way of understanding, which has no means of discriminating between what we gain in understanding. Scientific understanding means that it is deemed relevant from the scientific horizon (compare Schütz 1962 : 35–38, 46, 63), and that it rests on the pre-understanding that the scientists have and must have in order to understand. In other words, the understanding gained must be deemed useful by other researchers, so that they can build on it. We thus see understanding from a pragmatic, rather than a subjective or objective perspective. Improved understanding is related to the question(s) at hand. Understanding, in order to represent an improvement, must be an improvement in relation to the existing body of knowledge of the scientific community (James [ 1907 ] 1955). Scientific understanding is, by definition, collective, as expressed in Weber’s famous note on objectivity, namely that scientific work aims at truths “which … can claim, even for a Chinese, the validity appropriate to an empirical analysis” ([1904] 1949 :59). By qualifying “improved understanding” we argue that it is a general defining characteristic of qualitative research. Becker‘s ( 1966 ) study and other research of deviant behavior increased our understanding of the social learning processes of how individuals start a behavior. And it also added new knowledge about the labeling of deviant behavior as a social process. Few studies, of course, make the same large contribution as Becker’s, but are nonetheless qualitative research.

Understanding in the phenomenological sense, which is a hallmark of qualitative research, we argue, requires meaning and this meaning is derived from the context, and above all the data being analyzed. The ideal-typical quantitative research operates with given variables with different numbers. This type of material is not enough to establish meaning at the level that truly justifies understanding. In other words, many social science explanations offer ideas about correlations or even causal relations, but this does not mean that the meaning at the level of the data analyzed, is understood. This leads us to say that there are indeed many explanations that meet the criteria of understanding, for example the explanation of how one becomes a marihuana smoker presented by Becker. However, we may also understand a phenomenon without explaining it, and we may have potential explanations, or better correlations, that are not really understood.

We may speak more generally of quantitative research and its data to clarify what we see as an important distinction. The “raw data” that quantitative research—as an idealtypical activity, refers to is not available for further analysis; the numbers, once created, are not to be questioned (Franzosi 2016 : 138). If the researcher is to do “more” or “change” something, this will be done by conjectures based on theoretical knowledge or based on the researcher’s lifeworld. Both qualitative and quantitative research is based on the lifeworld, and all researchers use prejudices and pre-understanding in the research process. This idea is present in the works of Heidegger ( 2001 ) and Heisenberg (cited in Franzosi 2010 :619). Qualitative research, as we argued, involves the interaction and questioning of concepts (theory), data, and evidence.

Ragin ( 2004 :22) points out that “a good definition of qualitative research should be inclusive and should emphasize its key strengths and features, not what it lacks (for example, the use of sophisticated quantitative techniques).” We define qualitative research as an iterative process in which improved understanding to the scientific community is achieved by making new significant distinctions resulting from getting closer to the phenomenon studied. Qualitative research, as defined here, is consequently a combination of two criteria: (i) how to do things –namely, generating and analyzing empirical material, in an iterative process in which one gets closer by making distinctions, and (ii) the outcome –improved understanding novel to the scholarly community. Is our definition applicable to our own study? In this study we have closely read the empirical material that we generated, and the novel distinction of the notion “qualitative research” is the outcome of an iterative process in which both deduction and induction were involved, in which we identified the categories that we analyzed. We thus claim to meet the first criteria, “how to do things.” The second criteria cannot be judged but in a partial way by us, namely that the “outcome” —in concrete form the definition-improves our understanding to others in the scientific community.

We have defined qualitative research, or qualitative scientific work, in relation to quantitative scientific work. Given this definition, qualitative research is about questioning the pre-given (taken for granted) variables, but it is thus also about making new distinctions of any type of phenomenon, for example, by coining new concepts, including the identification of new variables. This process, as we have discussed, is carried out in relation to empirical material, previous research, and thus in relation to theory. Theory and previous research cannot be escaped or bracketed. According to hermeneutic principles all scientific work is grounded in the lifeworld, and as social scientists we can thus never fully bracket our pre-understanding.

We have proposed that quantitative research, as an idealtype, is concerned with pre-determined variables (Small 2008 ). Variables are epistemically fixed, but can vary in terms of dimensions, such as frequency or number. Age is an example; as a variable it can take on different numbers. In relation to quantitative research, qualitative research does not reduce its material to number and variables. If this is done the process of comes to a halt, the researcher gets more distanced from her data, and it makes it no longer possible to make new distinctions that increase our understanding. We have above discussed the components of our definition in relation to quantitative research. Our conclusion is that in the research that is called quantitative there are frequent and necessary qualitative elements.

Further, comparative empirical research on researchers primarily working with ”quantitative” approaches and those working with ”qualitative” approaches, we propose, would perhaps show that there are many similarities in practices of these two approaches. This is not to deny dissimilarities, or the different epistemic and ontic presuppositions that may be more or less strongly associated with the two different strands (see Goertz and Mahoney 2012 ). Our point is nonetheless that prejudices and preconceptions about researchers are unproductive, and that as other researchers have argued, differences may be exaggerated (e.g., Becker 1996 : 53, 2017 ; Marchel and Owens 2007 :303; Ragin 1994 ), and that a qualitative dimension is present in both kinds of work.

Several things follow from our findings. The most important result is the relation to quantitative research. In our analysis we have separated qualitative research from quantitative research. The point is not to label individual researchers, methods, projects, or works as either “quantitative” or “qualitative.” By analyzing, i.e., taking apart, the notions of quantitative and qualitative, we hope to have shown the elements of qualitative research. Our definition captures the elements, and how they, when combined in practice, generate understanding. As many of the quotations we have used suggest, one conclusion of our study holds that qualitative approaches are not inherently connected with a specific method. Put differently, none of the methods that are frequently labelled “qualitative,” such as interviews or participant observation, are inherently “qualitative.” What matters, given our definition, is whether one works qualitatively or quantitatively in the research process, until the results are produced. Consequently, our analysis also suggests that those researchers working with what in the literature and in jargon is often called “quantitative research” are almost bound to make use of what we have identified as qualitative elements in any research project. Our findings also suggest that many” quantitative” researchers, at least to some extent, are engaged with qualitative work, such as when research questions are developed, variables are constructed and combined, and hypotheses are formulated. Furthermore, a research project may hover between “qualitative” and “quantitative” or start out as “qualitative” and later move into a “quantitative” (a distinct strategy that is not similar to “mixed methods” or just simply combining induction and deduction). More generally speaking, the categories of “qualitative” and “quantitative,” unfortunately, often cover up practices, and it may lead to “camps” of researchers opposing one another. For example, regardless of the researcher is primarily oriented to “quantitative” or “qualitative” research, the role of theory is neglected (cf. Swedberg 2017 ). Our results open up for an interaction not characterized by differences, but by different emphasis, and similarities.

Let us take two examples to briefly indicate how qualitative elements can fruitfully be combined with quantitative. Franzosi ( 2010 ) has discussed the relations between quantitative and qualitative approaches, and more specifically the relation between words and numbers. He analyzes texts and argues that scientific meaning cannot be reduced to numbers. Put differently, the meaning of the numbers is to be understood by what is taken for granted, and what is part of the lifeworld (Schütz 1962 ). Franzosi shows how one can go about using qualitative and quantitative methods and data to address scientific questions analyzing violence in Italy at the time when fascism was rising (1919–1922). Aspers ( 2006 ) studied the meaning of fashion photographers. He uses an empirical phenomenological approach, and establishes meaning at the level of actors. In a second step this meaning, and the different ideal-typical photographers constructed as a result of participant observation and interviews, are tested using quantitative data from a database; in the first phase to verify the different ideal-types, in the second phase to use these types to establish new knowledge about the types. In both of these cases—and more examples can be found—authors move from qualitative data and try to keep the meaning established when using the quantitative data.

A second main result of our study is that a definition, and we provided one, offers a way for research to clarify, and even evaluate, what is done. Hence, our definition can guide researchers and students, informing them on how to think about concrete research problems they face, and to show what it means to get closer in a process in which new distinctions are made. The definition can also be used to evaluate the results, given that it is a standard of evaluation (cf. Hammersley 2007 ), to see whether new distinctions are made and whether this improves our understanding of what is researched, in addition to the evaluation of how the research was conducted. By making what is qualitative research explicit it becomes easier to communicate findings, and it is thereby much harder to fly under the radar with substandard research since there are standards of evaluation which make it easier to separate “good” from “not so good” qualitative research.

To conclude, our analysis, which ends with a definition of qualitative research can thus both address the “internal” issues of what is qualitative research, and the “external” critiques that make it harder to do qualitative research, to which both pressure from quantitative methods and general changes in society contribute.

Acknowledgements

Financial Support for this research is given by the European Research Council, CEV (263699). The authors are grateful to Susann Krieglsteiner for assistance in collecting the data. The paper has benefitted from the many useful comments by the three reviewers and the editor, comments by members of the Uppsala Laboratory of Economic Sociology, as well as Jukka Gronow, Sebastian Kohl, Marcin Serafin, Richard Swedberg, Anders Vassenden and Turid Rødne.

Biographies

is professor of sociology at the Department of Sociology, Uppsala University and Universität St. Gallen. His main focus is economic sociology, and in particular, markets. He has published numerous articles and books, including Orderly Fashion (Princeton University Press 2010), Markets (Polity Press 2011) and Re-Imagining Economic Sociology (edited with N. Dodd, Oxford University Press 2015). His book Ethnographic Methods (in Swedish) has already gone through several editions.

is associate professor of sociology at the Department of Media and Social Sciences, University of Stavanger. His research has been published in journals such as Social Psychology Quarterly, Sociological Theory, Teaching Sociology, and Music and Arts in Action. As an ethnographer he is working on a book on he social world of big-wave surfing.

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Contributor Information

Patrik Aspers, Email: [email protected] .

Ugo Corte, Email: [email protected] .

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Qualitative Research Design: Start

Qualitative Research Design

literature review qualitative

What is Qualitative research design?

Qualitative research is a type of research that explores and provides deeper insights into real-world problems. Instead of collecting numerical data points or intervening or introducing treatments just like in quantitative research, qualitative research helps generate hypotheses as well as further investigate and understand quantitative data. Qualitative research gathers participants' experiences, perceptions, and behavior. It answers the hows and whys instead of how many or how much . It could be structured as a stand-alone study, purely relying on qualitative data or it could be part of mixed-methods research that combines qualitative and quantitative data.

Qualitative research involves collecting and analyzing non-numerical data (e.g., text, video, or audio) to understand concepts, opinions, or experiences. It can be used to gather in-depth insights into a problem or generate new ideas for research. Qualitative research is the opposite of quantitative research, which involves collecting and analyzing numerical data for statistical analysis. Qualitative research is commonly used in the humanities and social sciences, in subjects such as anthropology, sociology, education, health sciences, history, etc.

While qualitative and quantitative approaches are different, they are not necessarily opposites, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive. For instance, qualitative research can help expand and deepen understanding of data or results obtained from quantitative analysis. For example, say a quantitative analysis has determined that there is a correlation between length of stay and level of patient satisfaction, but why does this correlation exist? This dual-focus scenario shows one way in which qualitative and quantitative research could be integrated together.

Research Paradigms 

  • Positivist versus Post-Positivist
  • Social Constructivist (this paradigm/ideology mostly birth qualitative studies)

Events Relating to the Qualitative Research and Community Engagement Workshops @ CMU Libraries

CMU Libraries is committed to helping members of our community become data experts. To that end, CMU is offering public facing workshops that discuss Qualitative Research, Coding, and Community Engagement best practices.

The following workshops are a part of a broader series on using data. Please follow the links to register for the events. 

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Upcoming Event: March 21st, 2024 (12:00pm -1:00 pm)

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The conversation features representatives from CMU departments and local organizations about the community engagement efforts currently underway at CMU and opportunities to improve upon them. Speakers will highlight current and ongoing projects and share resources to support future collaboration.

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Qualitative Research Methods

What are Qualitative Research methods?

Qualitative research adopts numerous methods or techniques including interviews, focus groups, and observation. Interviews may be unstructured, with open-ended questions on a topic and the interviewer adapts to the responses. Structured interviews have a predetermined number of questions that every participant is asked. It is usually one-on-one and is appropriate for sensitive topics or topics needing an in-depth exploration. Focus groups are often held with 8-12 target participants and are used when group dynamics and collective views on a topic are desired. Researchers can be participant observers to share the experiences of the subject or non-participant or detached observers.

What constitutes a good research question? Does the question drive research design choices?

According to Doody and Bailey (2014);

 We can only develop a good research question by consulting relevant literature, colleagues, and supervisors experienced in the area of research. (inductive interactions).

Helps to have a directed research aim and objective.

Researchers should not be “ research trendy” and have enough evidence. This is why research objectives are important. It helps to take time, and resources into consideration.

Research questions can be developed from theoretical knowledge, previous research or experience, or a practical need at work (Parahoo 2014). They have numerous roles, such as identifying the importance of the research and providing clarity of purpose for the research, in terms of what the research intends to achieve in the end.

Qualitative Research Questions

What constitutes a good Qualitative research question?

A good qualitative question answers the hows and whys instead of how many or how much. It could be structured as a stand-alone study, purely relying on qualitative data or it could be part of mixed-methods research that combines qualitative and quantitative data. Qualitative research gathers participants' experiences, perceptions and behavior.

Examples of good Qualitative Research Questions:

What are people's thoughts on the new library? 

How does it feel to be a first-generation student attending college?

Difference example (between Qualitative and Quantitative research questions):

How many college students signed up for the new semester? (Quan) 

How do college students feel about the new semester? What are their experiences so far? (Qual)

  • Qualitative Research Design Workshop Powerpoint

Foley G, Timonen V. Using Grounded Theory Method to Capture and Analyze Health Care Experiences. Health Serv Res. 2015 Aug;50(4):1195-210. [ PMC free article: PMC4545354 ] [ PubMed: 25523315 ]

Devers KJ. How will we know "good" qualitative research when we see it? Beginning the dialogue in health services research. Health Serv Res. 1999 Dec;34(5 Pt 2):1153-88. [ PMC free article: PMC1089058 ] [ PubMed: 10591278 ]

Huston P, Rowan M. Qualitative studies. Their role in medical research. Can Fam Physician. 1998 Nov;44:2453-8. [ PMC free article: PMC2277956 ] [ PubMed: 9839063 ]

Corner EJ, Murray EJ, Brett SJ. Qualitative, grounded theory exploration of patients' experience of early mobilisation, rehabilitation and recovery after critical illness. BMJ Open. 2019 Feb 24;9(2):e026348. [ PMC free article: PMC6443050 ] [ PubMed: 30804034 ]

Moser A, Korstjens I. Series: Practical guidance to qualitative research. Part 3: Sampling, data collection and analysis. Eur J Gen Pract. 2018 Dec;24(1):9-18. [ PMC free article: PMC5774281 ] [ PubMed: 29199486 ]

Houghton C, Murphy K, Meehan B, Thomas J, Brooker D, Casey D. From screening to synthesis: using nvivo to enhance transparency in qualitative evidence synthesis. J Clin Nurs. 2017 Mar;26(5-6):873-881. [ PubMed: 27324875 ]

Soratto J, Pires DEP, Friese S. Thematic content analysis using ATLAS.ti software: Potentialities for researchs in health. Rev Bras Enferm. 2020;73(3):e20190250. [ PubMed: 32321144 ]

Zamawe FC. The Implication of Using NVivo Software in Qualitative Data Analysis: Evidence-Based Reflections. Malawi Med J. 2015 Mar;27(1):13-5. [ PMC free article: PMC4478399 ] [ PubMed: 26137192 ]

Korstjens I, Moser A. Series: Practical guidance to qualitative research. Part 4: Trustworthiness and publishing. Eur J Gen Pract. 2018 Dec;24(1):120-124. [ PMC free article: PMC8816392 ] [ PubMed: 29202616 ]

Saldaña, J. (2021). The coding manual for qualitative researchers. The coding manual for qualitative researchers, 1-440.

O'Brien BC, Harris IB, Beckman TJ, Reed DA, Cook DA. Standards for reporting qualitative research: a synthesis of recommendations. Acad Med. 2014 Sep;89(9):1245-51. [ PubMed: 24979285 ]

Palermo C, King O, Brock T, Brown T, Crampton P, Hall H, Macaulay J, Morphet J, Mundy M, Oliaro L, Paynter S, Williams B, Wright C, E Rees C. Setting priorities for health education research: A mixed methods study. Med Teach. 2019 Sep;41(9):1029-1038. [ PubMed: 31141390 ]

  • Last Updated: Feb 14, 2024 4:25 PM
  • URL: https://guides.library.cmu.edu/c.php?g=1346006

Qualitative Research

Literature Review

Literature review is important because it:

  • Provides ideas about what should be studied;
  • Helps us conduct inquires that have not already been done
  • Connects our research to existing studies

But…doing a literature review is not simply summarizing (or copying) what you think is related and useful to your work. BEING CRITICAL AND CAREFUL IS A MUST !

In reviewing existing literature, you may try to look for gaps in the field and rework your study in a different setting or with different people. Nonetheless, literature review is a continuous sense-making process -- you need to review the literature continuously in order to organize your thoughts and refine your analysis.

A good literature review should be able to:  

  • Connect to your research questions
  • Connect to your choice of methods and research design
  • Support your data analysis
  • Help you draw conclusions and make claims about your research.

Selecting your literature with a purpose

It is impossible to read everything, so when selecting literature  for reviewing, consider these:

  • Is it relevant to your topic/field of study?
  • Is it a primary source from the researcher(s) or secondary source (e.g. a summary you read in a book about someone’s research)?
  • Is it updated?

Nature of literatures:

Your literature review can be of different dimensions. Each has its foci and purposes

literature review qualitative

Literature Reviews

  • Getting Started
  • Choosing a Type of Review
  • Developing a Research Question
  • Searching the Literature
  • Searching Tips
  • ChatGPT [beta]
  • Documenting your Search
  • Using Citation Managers
  • Concept Mapping
  • Concept Map Definition

MindMeister

  • Writing the Review
  • Further Resources

Additional Tools

Google slides.

GSlides can create concept maps using their Diagram feature. Insert > Diagram > Hierarchy will give you some editable templates to use.

Tutorial on diagrams in GSlides .

MICROSOFT WORD

MS Word can create concept maps using Insert > SmartArt Graphic. Select Process, Cycle, Hierarchy, or Relationship to see templates.

NVivo  is software for qualitative analysis that has a concept map feature. Zotero libraries can be uploaded using ris files. NVivo Concept Map information.

A concept map or mind map is a visual representation of knowledge that illustrates relationships between concepts or ideas. It is a tool for organizing and representing information in a hierarchical and interconnected manner. At its core, a concept map consists of nodes, which represent individual concepts or ideas, and links, which depict the relationships between these concepts .

Below is a non-exhaustive list of tools that can facilitate the creation of concept maps.

literature review qualitative

www.canva.com

Canva is a user-friendly graphic design platform that enables individuals to create visual content quickly and easily. It offers a diverse array of customizable templates, design elements, and tools, making it accessible to users with varying levels of design experience. 

Pros: comes with many pre-made concept map templates to get you started

Cons : not all features are available in the free version

Explore Canva concept map templates here .

Note: Although Canva advertises an "education" option, this is for K-12 only and does not apply to university users.

literature review qualitative

www.lucidchart.com

Lucid has two tools that can create mind maps (what they're called inside Lucid): Lucidchart is the place to build, document, and diagram, and Lucidspark is the place to ideate, connect, and plan.

Lucidchart is a collaborative online diagramming and visualization tool that allows users to create a wide range of diagrams, including flowcharts, org charts, wireframes, and mind maps. Its mind-mapping feature provides a structured framework for brainstorming ideas, organizing thoughts, and visualizing relationships between concepts. 

Lucidspark , works as a virtual whiteboard. Here, you can add sticky notes, develop ideas through freehand drawing, and collaborate with your teammates. Has only one template for mind mapping.

Explore Lucid mind map creation here .

How to create mind maps using LucidSpark: 

Note: U-M students have access to Lucid through ITS. [ info here ] Choose the "Login w Google" option, use your @umich.edu account, and access should happen automatically.

literature review qualitative

www.figma.com

Figma is a cloud-based design tool that enables collaborative interface design and prototyping. It's widely used by UI/UX designers to create, prototype, and iterate on digital designs. Figma is the main design tool, and FigJam is their virtual whiteboard:

Figma  is a comprehensive design tool that enables designers to create and prototype high-fidelity designs

FigJam focuses on collaboration and brainstorming, providing a virtual whiteboard-like experience, best for concept maps

Explore FigJam concept maps here .

literature review qualitative

Note: There is a " Figma for Education " version for students that will provide access. Choose the "Login w Google" option, use your @umich.edu account, and access should happen automatically.

literature review qualitative

www.mindmeister.com

MindMeister  is an online mind mapping tool that allows users to visually organize their thoughts, ideas, and information in a structured and hierarchical format. It provides a digital canvas where users can create and manipulate nodes representing concepts or topics, and connect them with lines to show relationships and associations.

Features : collaborative, permits multiple co-authors, and multiple export formats. The free version allows up to 3 mind maps.

Explore  MindMeister templates here .

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  • http://orcid.org/0000-0003-4808-3880 Andrew Booth 1 , 2 ,
  • Isolde Sommer 3 , 4 ,
  • Jane Noyes 2 , 5 ,
  • Catherine Houghton 2 , 6 ,
  • Fiona Campbell 1 , 7
  • The Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group and Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group (CQIMG)
  • 1 EnSyGN Sheffield Evidence Synthesis Group , University of Sheffield , Sheffield , UK
  • 2 Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group (CQIMG) , London , UK
  • 3 Department for Evidence-based Medicine and Evaluation , University for Continuing Education Krems , Krems , Austria
  • 4 Cochrane Rapid Reviews Group & Cochrane Austria , Krems , Austria
  • 5 Bangor University , Bangor , UK
  • 6 University of Galway , Galway , Ireland
  • 7 University of Newcastle upon Tyne , Newcastle upon Tyne , UK
  • Correspondence to Professor Andrew Booth, Univ Sheffield, Sheffield, UK; a.booth{at}sheffield.ac.uk

This paper forms part of a series of methodological guidance from the Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group and addresses rapid qualitative evidence syntheses (QESs), which use modified systematic, transparent and reproducible methodsu to accelerate the synthesis of qualitative evidence when faced with resource constraints. This guidance covers the review process as it relates to synthesis of qualitative research. ‘Rapid’ or ‘resource-constrained’ QES require use of templates and targeted knowledge user involvement. Clear definition of perspectives and decisions on indirect evidence, sampling and use of existing QES help in targeting eligibility criteria. Involvement of an information specialist, especially in prioritising databases, targeting grey literature and planning supplemental searches, can prove invaluable. Use of templates and frameworks in study selection and data extraction can be accompanied by quality assurance procedures targeting areas of likely weakness. Current Cochrane guidance informs selection of tools for quality assessment and of synthesis method. Thematic and framework synthesis facilitate efficient synthesis of large numbers of studies or plentiful data. Finally, judicious use of Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation approach for assessing the Confidence of Evidence from Reviews of Qualitative research assessments and of software as appropriate help to achieve a timely and useful review product.

  • Systematic Reviews as Topic
  • Patient Care

Data availability statement

No data are available. Not applicable. All data is from published articles.

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See:  http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ .

https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjebm-2023-112620

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WHAT IS ALREADY KNOWN ON THIS TOPIC

Rapid Qualitative Evidence Synthesis (QES) is a relatively recent innovation in evidence synthesis and few published examples currently exists.

Guidance for authoring a rapid QES is scattered and requires compilation and summary.

WHAT THIS STUDY ADDS

This paper represents the first attempt to compile current guidance, illustrated by the experience of several international review teams.

We identify features of rapid QES methods that could be accelerated or abbreviated and where methods resemble those for conventional QESs.

HOW THIS STUDY MIGHT AFFECT RESEARCH, PRACTICE OR POLICY

This paper offers guidance for researchers when conducting a rapid QES and informs commissioners of research and policy-makers what to expect when commissioning such a review.

Introduction

This paper forms part of a series from the Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group providing methodological guidance for rapid reviews. While other papers in the series 1–4 focus on generic considerations, we aim to provide in-depth recommendations specific to a resource-constrained (or rapid) qualitative evidence synthesis (rQES). 5 This paper is accompanied by recommended resources ( online supplemental appendix A ) and an elaboration with practical considerations ( online supplemental appendix B ).

Supplemental material

The role of qualitative evidence in decision-making is increasingly recognised. 6 This, in turn, has led to appreciation of the value of qualitative evidence syntheses (QESs) that summarise findings across multiple contexts. 7 Recognition of the need for such syntheses to be available at the time most useful to decision-making has, in turn, driven demand for rapid qualitative evidence syntheses. 8 The breadth of potential rQES mirrors the versatility of QES in general (from focused questions to broad overviews) and outputs range from descriptive thematic maps through to theory-informed syntheses (see table 1 ).

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Glossary of important terms (alphabetically)

As with other resource-constrained reviews, no one size fits all. A team should start by specifying the phenomenon of interest, the review question, 9 the perspectives to be included 9 and the sample to be determined and selected. 10 Subsequently, the team must finalise the appropriate choice of synthesis. 11 Above all, the review team should consider the intended knowledge users, 3 including requirements of the funder.

An rQES team, in particular, cannot afford any extra time or resource requirements that might arise from either a misunderstanding of the review question, an unclear picture of user requirements or an inappropriate choice of methods. The team seeks to align the review question and the requirements of the knowledge user with available time and resources. They also need to ensure that the choice of data and choice of synthesis are appropriate to the intended ‘knowledge claims’ (epistemology) made by the rQES. 11 This involves the team asking ‘what types of data are meaningful for this review question?’, ‘what types of data are trustworthy?’ and ‘is the favoured synthesis method appropriate for this type of data?’. 12 This paper aims to help rQES teams to choose methods that best fit their project while understanding the limitations of those choices. Our recommendations derive from current QES guidance, 5 evidence on modified QES methods, 8 13 and practical experience. 14 15

This paper presents an overview of considerations and recommendations as described in table 2 . Supplemental materials including additional resources details of our recommendations and practical examples are provided in online supplemental appendices A and B .

Recommendations for resource-constrained qualitative evidence synthesis (rQES)

Setting the review question and topic refinement

Rapid reviews summarise information from multiple research studies to produce evidence for ‘the public, researchers, policymakers and funders in a systematic, resource-efficient manner’. 16 Involvement of knowledge users is critical. 3 Given time constraints, individual knowledge users could be asked only to feedback on very specific decisions and tasks or on selective sections of the protocol. Specifically, whenever a QES is abbreviated or accelerated, a team should ensure that the review question is agreed by a minimum number of knowledge users with expertise or experience that reflects all the important review perspectives and with authority to approve the final version 2 5 11 ( table 2 , item R1).

Involvement of topic experts can ensure that the rQES is responsive to need. 14 17 One Cochrane rQES saved considerable time by agreeing the review topic within a single meeting and one-phase iteration. 9 Decisions on topics to be omitted are also informed by a knowledge of existing QESs. 17

An information specialist can help to manage the quantity and quality of available evidence by setting conceptual boundaries and logistic limits. A structured question format, such as Setting-Perspective-Interest, phenomenon of-Comparison-Evaluation or Population-Interest, phenomenon of-Context helps in communicating the scope and, subsequently, in operationalising study selection. 9 18

Scoping (of review parameters) and mapping (of key types of evidence and likely richness of data) helps when planning the review. 5 19 The option to choose purposive sampling over comprehensive sampling approaches, as offered by standard QES, may be particularly helpful in the context of a rapid QES. 8 Once a team knows the approximate number and distribution of studies, perhaps mapping them against country, age, ethnicity, etc), they can decide whether or not to use purposive sampling. 12 An rQES for the WHO combined purposive with variation sampling. Sampling in two stages started by reducing the initial number of studies to a more manageable sampling frame and then sampling approximately a third of the remaining studies from within the sampling frame. 20

Sampling may target richer studies and/or privilege diversity. 8 21 A rich qualitative study typically illustrates findings with verbatim extracts from transcripts from interviews or textual responses from questionnaires. Rich studies are often found in specialist qualitative research or social science journals. In contrast, less rich studies may itemise themes with an occasional indicative text extract and tend to summarise findings. In clinical or biomedical journals less rich findings may be placed within a single table or box.

No rule exists on an optimal number of studies; too many studies makes it challenging to ‘maintain insight’, 22 too few does not sustain rigorous analysis. 23 Guidance on sampling is available from the forthcoming Cochrane-Campbell QES Handbook.

A review team can use templates to fast-track writing of a protocol. The protocol should always be publicly available ( table 2 , item R2). 24 25 Formal registration may require that the team has not commenced data extraction but should be considered if it does not compromise the rQES timeframe. Time pressures may require that methods are left suitably flexible to allow well-justified changes to be made as a detailed picture of the studies and data emerge. 26 The first Cochrane rQES drew heavily on text from a joint protocol/review template previously produced within Cochrane. 24

Setting eligibility criteria

An rQES team may need to limit the number of perspectives, focusing on those most important for decision-making 5 9 27 ( table 2 , item R3). Beyond the patients/clients each additional perspective (eg, family members, health professionals, other professionals, etc) multiplies the additional effort involved.

A rapid QES may require strict date and setting restrictions 17 and language restrictions that accommodate the specific requirements of the review. Specifically, the team should consider whether changes in context over time or substantive differences between geographical regions could be used to justify a narrower date range or a limited coverage of countries and/or languages. The team should also decide if ‘indirect evidence’ is to substitute for the absence of direct evidence. An rQES typically focuses on direct evidence, except when only indirect evidence is available 28 ( table 2 , item R4). Decisions on relevance are challenging—precautions for swine influenza may inform precautions for bird influenza. 28 A smoking ban may operate similarly to seat belt legislation, etc. A review team should identify where such shared mechanisms might operate. 28 An rQES team must also decide whether to use frameworks or models to focus the review. Theories may be unearthed within the topic search or be already known to team members, fro example, Theory of Planned Behaviour. 29

Options for managing the quantity and quality of studies and data emerge during the scoping (see above). In summary, the review team should consider privileging rich qualitative studies 2 ; consider a stepwise approach to inclusion of qualitative data and explore the possibility of sampling ( table 2 , item R5). For example, where data is plentiful an rQES may be limited to qualitative research and/or to mixed methods studies. Where data is less plentiful then surveys or other qualitative data sources may need to be included. Where plentiful reviews already exist, a team may decide to conduct a review of reviews 5 by including multiple QES within a mega-synthesis 28 29 ( table 2 , item R6).

Searching for QES merits its own guidance, 21–23 30 this section reinforces important considerations from guidance specific to qualitative research. Generic guidance for rapid reviews in this series broadly applies to rapid QESs. 1

In addition to journal articles, by far the most plentiful source, qualitative research is found in book chapters, theses and in published and unpublished reports. 21 Searches to support an rQES can (a) limit the number of databases searched, deliberately selecting databases from diverse disciplines, (b) use abbreviated study filters to retrieve qualitative designs and (c) employ high yield complementary methods (eg, reference checking, citation searching and Related Articles features). An information specialist (eg, librarian) should be involved in prioritising sources and search methods ( table 2 , item R7). 11 14

According to empirical evidence optimal database combinations include Scopus plus CINAHL or Scopus plus ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global (two-database combinations) and Scopus plus CINAHL plus ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global (three-database combination) with both choices retrieving between 89% and 92% of relevant studies. 30

If resources allow, searches should include one or two specialised databases ( table 2 , item R8) from different disciplines or contexts 21 (eg, social science databases, specialist discipline databases or regional or institutional repositories). Even when resources are limited, the information specialist should factor in time for peer review of at least one search strategy ( table 2 , item R9). 31 Searches for ‘grey literature’ should selectively target appropriate types of grey literature (such as theses or process evaluations) and supplemental searches, including citation chaining or Related Articles features ( table 2 , item R10). 32 The first Cochrane rQES reported that searching reference lists of key papers yielded an extra 30 candidate papers for review. However, the team documented exclusion of grey literature as a limitation of their review. 15

Study selection

Consistency in study selection is achieved by using templates, by gaining a shared team understanding of the audience and purpose, and by ongoing communication within, and beyond, the team. 2 33 Individuals may work in parallel on the same task, as in the first Cochrane rQES, or follow a ‘segmented’ approach where each reviewer is allocated a different task. 14 The use of machine learning in the specific context of rQES remains experimental. However, the possibility of developing qualitative study classifiers comparable to those for randomised controlled trials offers an achievable aspiration. 34

Title and abstract screening

The entire screening team should use pre-prepared, pretested title and abstract templates to limit the scale of piloting, calibration and testing ( table 2 , item R11). 1 14 The first Cochrane rQES team double-screened titles and abstracts within Covidence review software. 14 Disagreements were resolved with reference to a third reviewer achieving a shared understanding of the eligibility criteria and enhancing familiarity with target studies and insight from data. 14 The team should target and prioritise identified risks of either over-zealous inclusion or over-exclusion specific to each rQES ( table 2 , item R12). 14 The team should maximise opportunities to capture divergent views and perspectives within study findings. 35

Full-text screening

Full-text screening similarly benefits from using a pre-prepared pretested standardised template where possible 1 14 ( table 2 , item R11). If a single reviewer undertakes full-text screening, 8 the team should identify likely risks to trustworthiness of findings and focus quality control procedures (eg, use of additional reviewers and percentages for double screening) on specific threats 14 ( table 2 , item R13). The Cochrane rQES team opted for double screening to assist their immersion within the topic. 14

Data extraction

Data extraction of descriptive/contextual data may be facilitated by review management software (eg, EPPI-Reviewer) or home-made approaches using Google Forms, or other survey software. 36 Where extraction of qualitative findings requires line-by-line coding with multiple iterations of the data then a qualitative data management analysis package, such as QSR NVivo, reaps dividends. 36 The team must decide if, collectively, they favour extracting data to a template or coding direct within an electronic version of an article.

Quality control must be fit for purpose but not excessive. Published examples typically use a single reviewer for data extraction 8 with use of two independent reviewers being the exception. The team could limit data extraction to minimal essential items. They may also consider re-using descriptive details and findings previously extracted within previous well-conducted QES ( table 2 , item R14). A pre-existing framework, where readily identified, may help to structure the data extraction template. 15 37 The same framework may be used to present the findings. Some organisations may specify a preferred framework, such as an evidence-to-decision-making framework. 38

Assessment of methodological limitations

The QES community assess ‘methodological limitations’ rather than use ‘risk of bias’ terminology. An rQES team should pick an approach appropriate to their specific review. For example, a thematic map may not require assessment of individual studies—a brief statement of the generic limitations of the set of studies may be sufficient. However, for any synthesis that underpins practice recommendations 39 assessment of included studies is integral to the credibility of findings. In any decision-making context that involves recommendations or guidelines, an assessment of methodological limitations is mandatory. 40 41

Each review team should work with knowledge users to determine a review-specific approach to quality assessment. 27 While ‘traffic lights’, similar to the outputs from the Cochrane Risk of Bias tool, may facilitate rapid interpretation, accompanying textual notes are invaluable in highlighting specific areas for concern. In particular, the rQES team should demonstrate that they are aware (a) that research designs for qualitative research seek to elicit divergent views, rather than control for variation; (b) that, for qualitative research, the selection of the sample is far more informative than the size of the sample; and (c) that researchers from primary research, and equally reviewers for the qualitative synthesis, need to be thoughtful and reflexive about their possible influences on interpretation of either the primary data or the synthesised findings.

Selection of checklist

Numerous scales and checklists exist for assessing the quality of qualitative studies. In the absence of validated risk of bias tools for qualitative studies, the team should choose a tool according to Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group (CQIMG) guidance together with expediency (according to ease of use, prior familiarity, etc) ( table 2 , item R15). 41 In comparison to the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme checklist which was never designed for use in synthesis, 42 the Cochrane qualitative tool is similarly easy to use and was designed for QES use. Work is underway to identify an assessment process that is compatible with QESs that support decision-making. 41 For now the choice of a checklist remains determined by interim Cochrane guidance and, beyond this, by personal preference and experience. For an rQES a team could use a single reviewer to assess methodological limitations, with verification of judgements (and support statements) by a second reviewer ( table 2 , item R16).

The CQIMG endorses three types of synthesis; thematic synthesis, framework synthesis and meta-ethnography ( box 1 ). 43 44 Rapid QES favour descriptive thematic synthesis 45 or framework synthesis, 46 47 except when theory generation (meta-ethnography 48 49 or analytical thematic synthesis) is a priority ( table 2 , item R17).

Choosing a method for rapid qualitative synthesis

Thematic synthesis: first choice method for rQES. 45 For example, in their rapid QES Crooks and colleagues 44 used a thematic synthesis to understand the experiences of both academic and lived experience coresearchers within palliative and end of life research. 45

Framework synthesis: alternative where a suitable framework can be speedily identified. 46 For example, Bright and colleagues 46 considered ‘best-fit framework synthesis’ as appropriate for mapping study findings to an ‘a priori framework of dimensions measured by prenatal maternal anxiety tools’ within their ‘streamlined and time-limited evidence review’. 47

Less commonly, an adapted meta-ethnographical approach was used for an implementation model of social distancing where supportive data (29 studies) was plentiful. 48 However, this QES demonstrates several features that subsequently challenge its original identification as ‘rapid’. 49

Abbrevations: QES, qualitative evidence synthesis; rQES, resource-constrained qualitative evidence synthesis.

The team should consider whether a conceptual model, theory or framework offers a rapid way for organising, coding, interpreting and presenting findings ( table 2 , item R18). If the extracted data appears rich enough to sustain further interpretation, data from a thematic or framework synthesis can subsequently be explored within a subsequent meta-ethnography. 43 However, this requires a team with substantial interpretative expertise. 11

Assessments of confidence in the evidence 4 are central to any rQES that seeks to support decision-making and the QES-specific Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation approach for assessing the Confidence of Evidence from Reviews of Qualitative research (GRADE-CERQual) approach is designed to assess confidence in qualitative evidence. 50 This can be performed by a single reviewer, confirmed by a second reviewer. 26 Additional reviewers could verify all, or a sample of, assessments. For a rapid assessment a team must prioritise findings, using objective criteria; a WHO rQES focused only on the three ‘highly synthesised findings’. 20 The team could consider reusing GRADE-CERQual assessments from published QESs if findings are relevant and of demonstrable high quality ( table 2 , item R19). 50 No rapid approach to full application of GRADE-CERQual currently exists.

Reporting and record management

Little is written on optimal use of technology. 8 A rapid review is not a good time to learn review management software or qualitative analysis management software. Using such software for all general QES processes ( table 2 , item R20), and then harnessing these skills and tools when specifically under resource pressures, is a sounder strategy. Good file labelling and folder management and a ‘develop once, re-use multi-times’ approach facilitates resource savings.

Reporting requirements include the meta-ethnography reporting guidance (eMERGe) 51 and the Enhancing transparency in reporting the synthesis of qualitative research (ENTREQ) statement. 52 An rQES should describe limitations and their implications for confidence in the evidence even more thoroughly than a regular QES; detailing the consequences of fast-tracking, streamlining or of omitting processes all together. 8 Time spent documenting reflexivity is similarly important. 27 If QES methodology is to remain credible rapid approaches must be applied with insight and documented with circumspection. 53 54 (56)

Ethics statements

Patient consent for publication.

Not applicable.

Ethics approval

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Contributors All authors (AB, IS, JN, CH, FC) have made substantial contributions to the conception and design of the guidance document. AB led on drafting the work and revising it critically for important intellectual content. All other authors (IS, JN, CH, FC) contributed to revisions of the document. All authors (AB, IS, JN, CH, FC) have given final approval of the version to be published. As members of the Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group and/or the Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group all authors (AB, IS, JN, CH, FC) agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Competing interests AB is co-convenor of the Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group. In the last 36 months, he received royalties from Systematic Approaches To a Successful Literature Review (Sage 3rd edition), honoraria from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and travel support from the WHO. JN is lead convenor of the Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group. In the last 36 months, she has received honoraria from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and travel support from the WHO. CH is co-convenor of the Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group.

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Academic Entrepreneurship Ecosystems: Systematic Literature Review and Future Research Directions

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  • Published: 16 February 2024

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  • Maria Patrocínia Correia 1 , 2 ,
  • Carla Susana Marques   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-1557-1319 2 ,
  • Rui Silva 2 &
  • Veland Ramadani 3  

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Research on the entrepreneurship ecosystem, based on different data and scales, limits the acceptance of a single definition. This conceptual limitation and the still recent research and higher education institutions have come to be seen as ecosystems associated with entrepreneurship. The aim of this study is to contribute to the field of knowledge, identify current and emerging thematic areas and trends and reveal the scientific roots of research on entrepreneurial ecosystems and their relationship with higher education institutions. A bibliometric analysis was developed to analyse a final sample of 110 articles published between 2011 and 2022. In order to develop the analysis, Bibliometrix R-Tool was used and the metadata of two databases (Web of Science and Scopus) was retrieved and merged. The software creates a reference co-citation’s map, which allowed emphasize the state of the art and indicate three thematic clusters: (i) the importance of the higher education context for the entrepreneurial ecosystem, (ii) the evolution and challenges of entrepreneurship education and (iii) academic entrepreneurship ecosystems. The paper concludes by suggesting future research focused on the importance of building an integrated approach to entrepreneurial ecosystems and higher education institutions on a context regional scale.

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Introduction

The new research on the “entrepreneurship ecosystem” (EE) limits the acceptance of a single definition. According to this conceptual limitation and the still recent research, higher education institutions (HEIs) have come to be seen as ecosystems associated with entrepreneurship. While several bibliometric and systematic literature reviews have advanced for a research agenda for academic entrepreneurial ecosystems (AEEs), a holistic approach that integrates theories, attributes and methods is still necessary.

The concept of EE in HEIs has emerged in the literature (Fetters et al., 2010 ). Consequently, initial studies have addressed the components of these ecosystems (Fetters et al., 2010 ; Graham, 2014 ; Meyer et al., 2020 ), and internal and external actors have been identified (e.g. Hayter, 2016 ; Hayter et al., 2018 ; Meyer et al., 2020 ). Hayter ( 2016 ) and Hayter et al. ( 2018 ) further elaborated on the research by relating the effectiveness of academic EEs to the levels of the interconnectedness of the constituent elements and their collective capacity.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) and their surroundings play a “fundamental role for contemporary societies in the field of education and knowledge generation” (Kobylinska & Lavios, 2020 : 118). For the authors, during the last decade, the university and its surroundings have become a special ecosystem. Specifically, favourable conditions are created for cooperation between various entities, namely, HEI, business incubators, technology transfer centres and funding institutions, which contribute to developing academic entrepreneurship ecosystem (AEE) (Meyer et al., 2020 ; Kobylinska & Lavios, 2020 ). The combination of EE and HEI requires further research.

The systematic literature review (SLR) developed in this article found five studies that allow us to assess what is known about this subject. Malecki ( 2018 ) reviews the literature, concepts and operationalizations of the concept of EE with a bibliometric analysis. Kansheba and Wald ( 2020 ) present a systematic review of the existing literature, develop a research agenda and analysing, only, articles that focused on EEs (conceptual, theoretical or empirical). They concluded that the concept of EEs is poorly theorised and dominated by conceptual studies, revealing existing theoretical and empirical gaps on EEs. In the third SLR found, Kobylinska and Lavios ( 2020 ) aimed to analyse the state of research on University EE and to identify research trends related to the topic. They concluded that the study of University EE is little recognized in the literature, lacking a solid methodological basis and revealed that the topic may constitute a research area of interest. In the fourth review, Guindalini et al. ( 2021 ) present an SLR with bibliometric and network analysis, with the aim of mapping AEE. In this SLR, as in the two previously mentioned, the authors conclude that this topic is at an “embryonic stage of academic research” (Guindalini et al., 2021 : 6). They also find a gap in research regarding evaluation studies that support the targeting of potential scientific discoveries in the market. With bibliometric and SLR, the study develops a holistic framework that integrates sustainability factors into the EE literature. They confirm that EE research has mostly focused on academic entrepreneurship, innovation and regional development, among others.

The originality of this research is directly linked to the chosen emerging theme. In this context, this study aims to complement and stand out from the five reviews found and understand the characteristics of an AEE and their successful development as a potential research area relevant in the future. To this end, a bibliometric analysis is proposed to answer the following research questions: (a) RQ1: Is it possible establish common attributes for AEE?; (b) RQ2: What are the opportunities and challenges that HEIs must recognize to achieve an successful EE?; (c) RQ3: What key areas require further research with regards to AEE?

In order to complement the proposed research questions, this study also responds to the subsequent objectives: to provide a comprehensive overview of the origins of the EE concept, to explore the research conducted so far in this field of study, to reveal the scientific roots of research on EEs and their relationship with the HEIs and to create knowledge for future research on AEEs.

To achieve them, the SLR followed in this article included a rigorous protocol and definition of research steps and a literature review based on scientific articles published in Web of Science (WoS) and Scopus. In addition, the 110 articles related to EEs were submitted to a bibliometric analysis with the Bibliometrix-R tool . In this quantitative bibliometric, we used the analysis of co-citations, which allowed obtaining a citation network composed of clusters.

The article is structured in seven parts. After this introductory section, the theoretical framework on the concept is presented in the second section of the paper and is organized as follows: entrepreneurial ecosystems and academic entrepreneurial ecosystems. In the third section, the methodological characteristics of the research used in the SLR, the sample and the bibliometric analysis method are presented. The results are explained in the fourth section. The thematic analysis exposing the resulting visual maps and discussing the results of the articles classified by clusters is the fifth section. In the sixth and final section, the future lines of research and conclusions are addressed presenting limitations that resulted from the review and future of research.

Theoretical Framework

Defining entrepreneurial ecosystems and academic entrepreneurship ecosystem.

The concept of entrepreneurial ecosystem is an ambiguous term, but, in fact, this concept has been increasingly explored by researchers over the years (Bischoff et al., 2018 ; Clarysse et al., 2014 ; Cohen, 2006 ; Isenberg, 2010 , 2011 ; Kansheba & Wald, 2020 ; Stam & Spigel, 2017 ; Van de Ven, 1993 ). The term entrepreneurial ecosystem (EE) is a composite of two terms.

The component of the term—entrepreneur—according to Mason and Brown ( 2014 ) is often associated with “high growth start-ups” or “economies of scale” as being a source of innovation and growth in productivity and employment. The other component of the term—ecosystem—is associated with biology and is defined as the physical environment and all possible interactions in the complex of living and non-living components (Stam, 2015 ). As in ecology, the biological perspective focuses on the rise and fall of many organizations and institutions that are mutually related and play different but complementary roles that enable their birth, growth and survival (Astley & Van de Ven, 1983 ; Freeman & Audia, 2006 ).

Cohen ( 2006 ) was the first to use the concept of EE building on the study of Neck et al. ( 2004 ). Neck et al. ( 2004 ) used qualitative analysis to identify the components present in the EE in Boulder, USA. This concept became more prominent through Daniel Isenberg, in 2010. For this author, an EE is a set of individual elements combined in a complex way. In isolation, each can generate entrepreneurship but cannot sustain it (Isenberg, 2010 , 2011 ). Mason and Brown ( 2014 : 5) more broadly defined an EE as a “set of interrelated entrepreneurial actors, entrepreneurial organizations, institutions and entrepreneurial processes that formally or informally cooperate in relating and mediate performance within the local entrepreneurial environment.” Audretsh and Belitski ( 2017 : 1031) define EE as “institutional and organisational systems as well as other systemic factors that interact and influence the identification and commercialisation of entrepreneurial opportunities.” Acs et al. ( 2014 ) defined entrepreneurial ecosystems as a dynamic, institutionally embedded interaction between entrepreneurial attitudes, capabilities and aspirations of individuals that drives the allocation of resources through the creation and operation of new projects. Stam and Spigel ( 2017 ) point out that it is the coordination that occurs between actors and interdependent factors that enables productive entrepreneurship in each territory.

As this term has captured the attention of researchers, experts and policymakers significant knowledge gaps have also emerged in terms of its conceptual meaning, theoretical foundation and application (Audretsh et al., 2019 ; Kansheba & Wald, 2020 ). According to Audretsh et al. ( 2019 ), the question remains as to what exactly an EE is and what it comprises. It also mentions that the definition of EE does not add value to academic discourses that rely on “networks”, “cluster initiatives”, “triple helix initiatives” or “public–private partnerships”. For the authors, thinking in terms of EEs may only reflect the importance of a particular topic, such as “business ecosystems”, “digital ecosystems”, “financial ecosystems” and “university ecosystems”, among others.

Combining EEs and HEIs: An Overview of Academic Entrepreneurship Ecosystems

In recent decades, some universities have oriented themselves towards a more entrepreneurial direction through the realization of the third mission as a key player in promoting national and regional economic and social development (Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 2000 ; Yi & Uyarra, 2018 ) resulting from the interaction of three actors belonging to different helixes—university-industry-government: triple helix model (Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 2000 ). Etzkowitz and Zhou ( 2017 ) point out that the thesis of the model is that the university starts to abandon a social, yet important, role of providing higher education and research and starts to assume an essential role equivalent to that of industry and government as a generator of new industries and enterprises. As a result, the entrepreneurial university has become an increasingly significant academic configuration and is considered a vital element (Etzkowitz & Zhou, 2017 ; Wang et al., 2021 ). Pita et al. ( 2021 ) agree, pointing out that universities actively contribute to the development of EEs by providing a skilled workforce and stimulating new enterprises, such as start-ups or spin-offs.

In the entrepreneurial university, knowledge-sharing processes are outlined, which requires the university to reconfigure its traditional educational programmes and approaches to create a favourable context for university entrepreneurship by supporting students in a process that moves from idea generation to idea development, business model and commercialisation (Secundo et al., 2021 ). Another challenge facing HEIs is to shift their focus from education about entrepreneurship to educating for entrepreneurship. This encompasses any programme or pedagogical process of education aimed at achieving entrepreneurial skills and attitudes (Bischoff et al., 2018 ).

Against entrepreneurial HEIs and their pedagogical competencies of entrepreneurship education, researchers highlight that the entrepreneurial university itself can form an EE (Miller & Acs, 2017 ; Wang et al., 2021 ). The EE developed with an academic campus as a context is referred to as “University-based Entrepreneurship Ecosystem” (UBEE) or “University Entrepreneurship Ecosystem” (UEE) or “Academic Entrepreneurship Ecosystem” (AEE). All these terms refer to the ecosystem developed on the university campus, which are part of a wider ecosystem. For Wang et al., ( 2021 : 2), the creation of UEEs, currently, is a “hot topic.”

Naturally, many definitions were put forward, leading to the decision to present, chronologically, a selection of definitions (Table  1 ).

An effective AEE is critical for entrepreneurial academic activities as they not only act as a catalyst for the acceleration of knowledge commercialisation but also as a platform and dynamic in maintaining the sustainable development of academic entrepreneurship (Yi & Uyarra, 2018 ). However, little literature exists on the AEE’s structure and function and particularly how the transition from the academic entrepreneurial system to an AEE occurs (Hayter, 2016 ; Yi & Uyarra, 2018 ).

Similarly, to research on EE, academics attach greater importance to the conceptualisation and elements of the UEE. Several authors identify the factors contributing to the evolution of EEUs (Fetters et al., 2010 ; Graham, 2014 ; Meyer et al., 2020 ). Fetters et al. ( 2010 ) cite seven factors contributing to the evolution of UBEEs: senior leadership, strong teaching and programmatic capacity, long-term commitment, the commitment of financial resources, the commitment to continuous innovation in programmes and curricula, adequate organizational infrastructure and the commitment to increasing critical mass and creating enterprises. Graham ( 2014 ) also identifies seven factors that underpin UEEs: institutions, culture, university leadership, university research capacity, regional or governmental support, effective institutional strategies and strong demand for entrepreneurial students.

Brush ( 2014 ) believed that entrepreneurship education is the core of the UEE. The researcher divided the internal entrepreneurial education ecosystem into three broad areas (introductory/curricular courses, extracurricular activities and research) and four dimensions (stakeholders, resources, infrastructure and culture). Sherwood ( 2018 ), in addition to the elements, identified curricular, extra-curricular components, Technology Transfer Offices (TTO), resources and informal and community engagement. For Wang et al. ( 2021 ), diversified extracurricular activities have played an important role in stimulating students’ interest in entrepreneurship by providing them with a large number of resources. For the authors, student entrepreneurs also tend to get the guidance and resources they need through these activities.

For Bischoff et al. ( 2018 ), although the concrete strengths and conceptualization of UBEEs generally vary between universities, a number of common characteristics can be identified. Secundo et al. ( 2021 ) mention that UBEE facilitates innovation and entrepreneurial opportunities thanks to the knowledge-sharing processes between the various actors. Within a UBEE, for the author, each actor needs to be connected to the other members through a constant flow of knowledge from information that enables the overflow of entrepreneurial knowledge. The author points out that universities may assume different roles according to the size and composition of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, interacting through different channels.

In accordance with the review carried out, the other authors initiate the development of methods to evaluate an AEE. Table 2 shows three of the conceptual models highlighted in the literature review and published chronologically in the last 5 years.

Within this context, further research work on evaluations of AEE is needed. The findings draw attention to considerations as “unique entrepreneurial architecture” (Prokop & Thompson, 2022 : 17). The Prokop and Thompson ( 2022 : 181) study include 81 UEE and, according to the author, “it is in no way reflective of all types of sub-ecosystems, or broader ecosystems.” The study of university and broader EEs is a critical feature to recognize and involve in future studies. This study aims to contribute to this challenge.

Methodology

To produce a comprehensive review article, Hulland ( 2020 ) refers that authors should carry out their studies in a systematic way. A systematic review needs the definition of clear questions, criteria and conclusions that provide new information based on the examined content. According to Aria and Cuccurullo ( 2017 ), this means that the phases adopted in the review can be replicated in all procedures and there should be clarity in all of them. The authors state that the working model of an SLR is based on five stages: study design, data collection, data analysis, data visualization and interpretation.

Ferreira et al. ( 2019 ) mention that one of the most suitable methods for analysing past research works is bibliometric analysis. According to Aria and Cuccurullo ( 2017 ) and Thelwall ( 2008 ), there are relevant points when using bibliometric. For Aria and Cuccurullo ( 2017 ), there are three types of research questions that can be answered using bibliometrics: identify the knowledge base of a topic or field of research, examine the conceptual structure of a topic or field of research and produce a network structure based on a particular scientific community. The relevance for Thelwall ( 2008 ) concerns the types of procedures in bibliometric analysis. The author identified two types of procedures, evaluation bibliometric and relational bibliometric. The first evaluates the productivity and impact of researchers, research centres and countries. The second type examines the similarity and relationship between publications, authors and keywords using co-word, co-authorship and co-citation analyses.

The article will use the suggestions of both authors in bibliometric analysis. It will respond to the three types of questions posed by Aria and Cuccurullo ( 2017 ) and uses both types of procedures, evaluation bibliometric and relational bibliometric. In evaluation bibliometric, mappings, qualitative analyses and baseline indicators are carried out. In relational bibliometrics will analyse co-citations and the respective clusters.

Data Collection and Eligibility Criteria

In additional search, the research papers were determined through the comprehensive advanced search in two databases including Scopus and Web of Science. These choices were justified for two reasons: they are two multidisciplinary databases that include all indexed journals with the highest number of citations in their respective areas of scientific specialization (Huang et al., 2020 ; Pranckuté, 2021 ). They also provide a citation index, generating information about each publication in documents that cite them as well as cited.

Table 3 elucidates the stages that followed in this study.

The keywords come from the research question and was defined the following search query: “entrepreneur* ecosystem*” (in title) AND “universit*” OR “polytechnic*” OR “higher education institution*” (in topic). All the articles from the current year were excluded because at the time of this research the year had not finished. The document type was limited to “article” and “review.” After applying these criteria, it was obtained 183 papers from the research process (104 obtained in SCOPUS and 79 results in Web of Science) (stages 1 and 2 from Table  3 and Fig.  1 ).

figure 1

Process of data collection and analysis

In the third stage, wherein some records were excluded, the data was filtered. To this end, other restrictions were applied:

Eliminating the repeats by cross-referencing the databases (62 documents)

The exclusion of 11 documents, after analysing the content of each, because the global subject of the articles was different from the scope of the study

Although language was not a filter, it should be noted that the search was developed utilizing English, which could be understood as “quasi-filter.”

The procedures followed in the data collection and the application of the eligibility criteria complete Fig.  1 which demonstrates the careful way in which the final database was obtained ( n  = 110).

Mapping and Qualitative Analysis

R-Bibliometrix summarized the mapping of the documents included in the final database with the information considered relevant, as shown in Table  4 . Table 4 reveals that the dataset contains 110 documents published between 2011 and 2022, representing the work of 276 authors from 32 different countries. The average years from publication is 3.31 and the average number of citations per documents 13.4. The number of authors and co-authors per document is 2.5 and 2.7.

The first study in the final database addressed the entrepreneurship ecosystems, and the global innovation networks were written by Malecki in 2011. For the author, the existing knowledge is dispersed as it results from entrepreneurial activity originating from small and medium enterprises, research institutes and universities. Malecki ( 2011 ) suggested the simultaneous integration of local and global knowledge as well as internal and external.

A reading of Tables  4 and  5 reveals that various articles have been published recently (during 2011–2022). Moreover, an increase of publications (except 2012 and 2013) shows an increasing trend, suggesting that the subject has been progressively gaining popularity in the academic community. The results reveal and confirm the increase prevalence of research on EEs over the past 11 years.

In 2022, the number reached 24 articles in the last year of the period. After 2014, there was a considerable increase in the number of published articles. The data shows a turning point in 2018 (14) and 2019 (23). This latter year and 2022 standing out with the highest number of published articles. It is important to mention that more than half of the articles (62) were published in the last 3 years. The production growth rate is 33.5%.

According to the average number of citations, per year, the articles written in 2022 were those with a higher number (9.79) followed by articles from the years 2011, 2018 and 2019. This increment in the interest of EE results from the fact that this concept has assumed a global and multidisciplinary dimension recognized and associated with innovation by the various economic and social actors.

Table 6 presents the five authors and journals that have contributed for research’s development. The most cited papers by author were those of Malecki, with 185, followed by Audretsh, with 111, and Carayannis, with 110. The three authors who have published the most with the highest local impact (TC index) are Cunningham (4 publications, TC 156), Audretsh (3 publications, TC 184) and Menter (3 publications, TC 154).

R-Bibliometrix software was used to identify the keywords mentioned in the 110 documents of the final sample. As can be seen in the Fig.  2 , the most frequently terms mentioned are “entrepreneurial ecosystem”, “entrepreneurial university”, “entrepreneurial education”, “university”, innovation” and “higher education”. This also shows that of the studies analysed word association results as “academic entrepreneurship”.

figure 2

Most mentioned keywords

Table 7 summarizes the applied methodologies. As an emerging theoretical stream, EEs have been studied through qualitative methods. Thus, several articles use a case study technique. There is an increase on quantitative methods using factor analysis and structural equation modelling to understand variations in entrepreneurship and develop metrics. Researchers have used mixed methods, both qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques to address the complexity of the phenomenon.

Concerning methodologies, of a total 110 articles, 59 documents (54%) use a qualitative approach, through the technique of data collection via interviews (in-depth and semi-structured), samples, observation and documentary analysis. The case study technique, inserted in this approach, focuses on 25 articles, meaning that its weighting is 42% in relation to the total number of articles that use qualitative methodologies. The 28 articles (around 25%) use a quantitative approach through data collection techniques involving the application of questionnaires and secondary data (statistics) and eight articles (7%) use mixed methods, namely, they use both qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques. Eight conceptual articles (7%) and seven literature review articles (6%) were identified. Of this literature review, five are based on systematic literature reviews. From the numbers, we deduce that there is no balance of methods in EE and HEI studies and literature reviews are the least frequent type of publication.

Thematic Analysis

In this part of the article, the thematic analysis results will be examined. It will start with the strategic and evolutionary analysis and, subsequently, the networks created by the co-citation analysis. The subsequent figures will be presented all results.

Strategic and Evolutionary Thematic Analysis

The strategic diagram for the studied subject is presented in Fig.  3 . The size of the circles represents the number of occurrences of these words. The upper right quadrant represents the main themes, and the upper left quadrant depicts the more specific themes, considered niche themes. The lower right quadrant represents the basic themes, and the lower left means that the theme may be emerging or disappearing.

figure 3

Strategic diagram

The themes in the upper right quadrant are “academic entrepreneurship” and “entrepreneurial”. All these sets of themes are crucial to the research in this paper.

The theme in the upper left quadrant is “start-ups”, “case study” and “networks.

The lower right quadrant represents the basic themes necessary for understanding the present study: “entrepreneurial ecosystem”, “entrepreneurial education”, “entrepreneurial university”. Also “university” and “technology transfer” are essential for the understanding on the topic. The lower left quadrant given the inexistence of declining themes but also gives the emerging themes, “entrepreneurial education” and “entrepreneur”. All this fact enhances the importance of the sets of themes in the article.

Thus, “networks”, “case study” and “academic entrepreneurship” reveal themselves as major themes. The transversal themes are “entrepreneurial ecosystems” and “university incubators”. This last phase, 2022, was the growth stage of an approach integrating Entrepreneurial Ecosystems and the Entrepreneurial University. Therefore, 2023 could be a high growth phase for an integrated approach to AEEs.

Figure  4 presents the evolution of research topics in entrepreneurial ecosystems and the relationship with the university. The data were analysed using the author’s keywords and cut-off points in the years 2014, 2018 and 2020. The results reveal a thematic evolution of the conceptual frameworks from 2011 to 2022. From the general concept of “Entrepreneurial Ecosystem” (2011–2014), “innovation” emerges in the thematic evolution (2015–2017). Therefore, the cut-off points were two periods when the first publications on the topic of the paper appeared (three publications in 2011–2014 and nine publications in 2015–2017).

figure 4

Thematic evolution, with cut-off points

In 2018, results of the emergence of thematic areas such as “education” and “higher education” are revealed. From 2019, “entrepreneurial ecosystem” gives way to “entrepreneurial education”, “entrepreneurial university” and its “ecosystem”. Likewise, the area of “innovation” gives way to a unique “entrepreneurial ecosystem” based on “entrepreneurial education”, “university”, “higher education” and “academic entrepreneurship”. The thematic evolution of the conceptual framework between 2018 and 2022 revealed that these periods are the most productive and creative with the highest number of base themes and driving themes evolving in these periods.

Cluster Analysis

A bibliometric analysis was carried out to understand how this field of study is divided into research clusters, and the co-citations were analysed. No cut-off point for the number of citations per document has been defined. All linked documents were selected, leaving us with a final analysis with 50 documents distributed by clusters. Each of the clusters, identified with different colours, can be observed in Fig.  5 . The colours indicate the clusters and the articles belonging to them. In addition, each article’s weight is assigned based on the links’ total strength, and the number of citations the publication has received. The top nodes are the publications with the highest link strength.

figure 5

Clusters networks through the co-citation analysis technique

Based on the visualization of Fig.  5 and after analysing the resulting network and the content of the articles, it is concluded that the research is divided into three thematic clusters (Table  8 ).

Cluster 1 (Blue)—Conceptualization and Attributes of Entrepreneurship Ecosystems

The first cluster is focused on the definition and attributes present in EEs. No consensus has been reached in the academic community on the theoretical characterization of the concept and the elements that characterize it.

While there is none accepted definition of an EE, as Spigel ( 2018 ) points out, the most active area of interest has been around the types of domains (Isenberg, 2010 , 2011 ), components (Cohen, 2006 ) or attributes (Spigel, 2017 ).

Diverse literature provides tools that show several factors considered important for a successful EE. Cohen ( 2006 ) refers to formal and informal networks, government, university, skilled human resources, support services, funding and talent. The works of Isenberg ( 2010 , 2011 ) list six domains present in the ecosystem: policy, funding, culture, support, human capital and markets.

Spigel ( 2017 ) efforts to rank the categories of an EE in terms of (i) cultural attributes (entrepreneurship stories, supportive culture), (ii) social attributes (talent, mentors, networks, investment capital) and (iii) material attributes (infrastructure, universities, support services, public policies, open markets). Spigel and Harrison ( 2018 ) give attention to several factors such as governance, knowledge, industry, actors, resources and benefits.

Table 9 summarizes the attributes by applying them to the EEs.

Although the topic on the attributes of EEs is innovative, it has not been without trials. Several articles highlight criticisms of previous work (Alvedalen & Boschma, 2017 ; Brown & Mason, 2017 ; Malecki, 2018 ; Nicotra et al., 2018 ; Stam & Spigel, 2017 ). Alvedalen and Boschma ( 2017 ), Nicotra et al. ( 2018 ) and Stam and Spigel ( 2017 ) highlighted the lack of a clear analytical framework to empirically explain the cause-effect relationship of EEs’ attributes and their effects on productive entrepreneurship. The static approach of EE studies was another criticism highlighted as its evolution over time was not considered. Finally, Malecki ( 2018 ) noted the lack of an issue related to spatial scale.

Cluster 2 (Red)—Spatial Context and Knowledge Ecosystems

Beyond definitional debates, the lead author of this cluster, Stam ( 2015 ), expresses himself critically concerning studies of EEs. He underlines that it is not only generating entrepreneurship that makes it a good EE. He also mentions that the approaches only offer a long list of elements without a cause-effect relationship and concludes that it is unclear what level of geographical analysis the approaches have taken into consideration. The author refers that a new emerging approach to EE occurs, conveying a new view on people, networks and institutions. From this emerging approach, differentiations have emerged at two levels: spatial context and dynamics of knowledge ecosystems.

The first sub-division of this cluster refers to the importance of context in EEs (Acs et al., 2014 ; Cohen, 2006 ; Spigel, 2017 ; Stam, 2015 ). For Stam ( 2015 ), the common denominator in this sub-cluster seems to be that entrepreneurs create value in a specific institutional context. The author approach emphasizes the interdependencies within the context and provides a bottom-up analysis of the performance of regional economies. Stam ( 2015 ) argues that EEs open the door to a shared responsibility among actors that foster, encourage and support entrepreneurs, asking about the systemic services that a region tries to achieve.

The second sub-cluster analyses the dynamics of knowledge ecosystems, namely, the role of HEIs for value creation in a given context. Kuratko ( 2005 ), in his study, notes that younger people have become the most entrepreneurial generation since the Industrial Revolution. The growth and development in programmes and curricula dedicated to entrepreneurship and the creation of new projects have been remarkable. The number of colleges and universities offering entrepreneurship-related courses has increased. However, among this enormous expansion, for Kuratko ( 2005 ) there remains the challenge of the academic legitimacy of entrepreneurship. Although there has been this significant growth, the author points out two specific challenges to academia: (i) development of academic programmes and specialized human resources to improve the quality of courses and (ii) commitment by institutions to create formal academic programmes.

Clarysse et al. ( 2014 ) analysed the tension between knowledge and business ecosystems. In relation to the success factors, they seem similar: diversity of organizations and key actors. However, regarding the factors, anchor organizations in knowledge are universities and public research organizations that do not directly compete with the ecosystem. In contrast, key actors in EEs are based on companies that are competitors in the ecosystem. Another difference lies in value creation. In knowledge ecosystems, to Clarysse et al. ( 2014 ), the value creation flows from upstream to downstream, while in EEs, the value creation process is non-linear . The author’s note that some studies already include universities as part of the knowledge system but that further research could focus on analysing the circumstances under which a university could be considered an ecosystem and how the interaction between knowledge and business ecosystems would occur. Miller and Acs ( 2017 ) explore the EE of higher education by choosing a university campus because the “entrepreneurial opportunities had been identified and/or the process of firm-formation had begun by multiple founders…” (p. 82).

Cluster 3 (Green)—Inter-institutional Relationships in University’s Ecosystem

This third cluster leads us to the wider set of relationships in the university’s ecosystem, strategies and their specificities of regional/local factors. Audretsch et al. ( 2019 ) refers that EE is a vehicle for carrying entrepreneurs, policymakers and managers of linked companies and all their relationships organizing the EE. For the author, an EE is defined by frontiers, and the necessary resources are produced and absorbed within and beyond those boundaries.

Audretsch and Belitski ( 2017 ) set out to develop a model that captured both regional and local systemic factors to better understand and explain variations in entrepreneurial activity. In their study, they found four domains under EEs in European cities: norms and culture, infrastructure and equipment, formal institutions and Internet access and connections. To Audretsch and Link ( 2017 : 431), conceptually a university represents a “reservoir of knowledge, knowledge embodied in faculty…”. Universities are one part of the complexity of the research. They have evolved towards taking an active role in regional development and the dynamics of local networks. This evolution in the model involves inter-institutional relationships between the three actors, leading to an increasing overlap of their roles. The work of Schaeffer and Matt ( 2016 ) showed that universities cannot replicate the mechanisms that lead to the success of an EE but rather adapt their strategies to the specificities of each regional context.

Can academia encompass a third mission, beyond research and teaching? This question was formulated by Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff ( 2000 : 110). Three spaces emerge from the triple helix model: the consensus space, a knowledge space (R&D activities) and innovation space.

Schaeffer and Matt ( 2016 ) state these are coordinated and managed by a regional innovation officer. The authors refer that this responsibility can be assigned to the university to contribute to developing the regional networks. They analysed the university of Strasbourg’s Technology Transfer Offices (TTO) and supported entrepreneurial academic activities over 15 years. The study reveals a strong growth in the structure of the TTO and its role as a boundary, changing objectives and developing collaborations with other regional actors. As pointed by Fini et al. ( 2011 ) and Vohora et al. ( 2004 ), since university faculty have limited entrepreneurial experience, networks with outside contacts are crucial to motivate the creation of entrepreneurial activities as well as their success.

In addition to TTOs, entrepreneurship education, either as part of the academic programme or as an extra-curricular offering, can provide students and faculty with important knowledge to stimulate and support entrepreneurial efforts (relationship to Cluster 2). While most of the study streams have focused on the role of faculty as academic entrepreneurs, Boh et al. ( 2016 ) focused on the role of students. The typology created by the authors provides insight into the various responsibilities of students and faculty in technology commercialisation. It is the different relationships between students, faculty and entrepreneurs and the analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each that can lead to the creation of a successful spinoff. The authors, Boh et al. ( 2016 ), group into six the university practices, independent of the TTOs: project disciplines for technology commercialisation, mentoring programmes, incubator programmes, entrepreneurial business plans and entrepreneurial education for students and university professionals.

Other authors analyse the relation between social networks and academic entrepreneurship (Clarysse et al., 2011 ; Fini et al., 2011 ; Vohora et al., 2004 ), Spinoffs (Lockett & Wright, 2005 ; Fini et al, 2011 , 2017 ; Vohora et al., 2004 ; Clarysse et al., 2011 ; Hayter, 2016 ) and the entrepreneurial environment and academic programmes supporting entrepreneurship (Fini et al., 2011 ). As pointed by Fini et al. ( 2011 ) and Vohora et al. ( 2004 ), since university faculty have limited entrepreneurial experience, networks with outside contacts are crucial to motivate the creation of entrepreneurial activities as well as their success. Vohora et al. ( 2004 ) argues that networks are pathways through which access to opportunities will be achieved, for example, gaining knowledge of the market that motivates the creation of the spinoff. Hayter ( 2016 ) uses Vohora et al. ( 2004 ) qualitative model of entrepreneurial development and that includes four stages of development: opportunity recognition, commitment, credibility and sustainability, as well as the resources and network elements associated with each stage. Entrepreneurial development and its success are reflected in the progression of the university spinoff , overcoming the obstacles of each stage, with the aim of achieving entrepreneurial sustainability.

Hayter ( 2016 ), using mixed methods, compares the composition and contribution of social networks among entrepreneurial academics and analyses how these networks relate to the development trajectory of university spinoffs . The traditional definition of spinoff , according to Hayter et al. ( 2017 ) focuses on the role of faculty establishing a company based on a technology licensing agreement, with their home university. University spinoffs , for Hayter ( 2016 ), are an important vehicle for generating productivity, job creation and prosperity for regional economies. The author also mentions that spinoffs are a window through which the contributions of universities can be examined. He compares the composition and contribution of social networks among entrepreneurial academics and analyses how these networks relate to the development trajectory of university spinoffs.

Cluster Relations

The three clusters are related. The cluster 2 indicates the importance of higher education for EE and cluster 3 leads us to the triple helix model with the focus on university entrepreneurial experience. Cluster 1 introduces definitions and attributes necessaries to understand the EE and their relationship with or within the HEIs. This cluster creates a theoretical background with relevant publications in entrepreneurship research.

Clusters 2 and 3 have a robust relation. Notably, the position of Stam ( 2015 ) and Spigel ( 2017 ) influences 2 clusters, indicating higher link strength and confirming its centrality in the EE literature. Various articles from cluster 2 criticize the analytical framework that produces long lists of factors that enhance entrepreneurship. Their perspective enables researchers to measure an EE within a country or territory by considering their specificities. This understanding highlights the configuration, structure and evolution of ecosystems influenced by ecosystem process and territorial boundaries.

In cluster 3 it is evident that the challenge of the third mission that academia encompass emphasizes entrepreneurship and the corresponding emergence of the entrepreneurial university. The relationships between students, faculty and entrepreneurs and the analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each can lead to the creation of a successful spinoff.

To understand the substance of AEE and how the broad research was advanced, the group of these three clusters creates a fundamental and theoretical base to: the terminology of EE, the higher education context and the emergence of an AEE (Fig.  6 ).

figure 6

Academic entrepreneurship ecosystem model

Contributions and Future Research Directions

The scientific literature about entrepreneurial ecosystems has been growing, and within it, one area that has been gaining impulse has been the academic ecosystem. This paper contributes by attempting to consolidate the most important of this growing literature and to try to confirm it.

This study brings important theoretical contributions to the existing literature. Firstly, this study led to a survey and mapping of the main investigations on EE and their relationship with the HEI. Secondly, this study strengthens the credibility of the AEE theoretical frameworks in lending support to the importance of analysing the specific contributions of HEIs to the development of an EE. Thirdly, the developed co-citation analysis allowed obtaining an understanding about the existing field of knowledge on EEs and AEE, identifying their scientific origins and revealing research roots.

Most contributions are conceptual providing an understanding of the different elements that form conducive AEE. Therefore, as a fourth contribution, this study emphasizes the need for more empirical research, especially regarding potential causal relations between elements, context factors, outputs and outcomes of entrepreneurial ecosystems. The few empirical studies on entrepreneurial ecosystems have majorly applied case studies including qualitative methods (Kansheba & Wald, 2020 ; Malecki, 2018 ; Nicotra et al., 2018 ). There is a need of deploying other methodological approaches for more rigor and generalizability purposes.

The above leads us to propose as possible future research directions. As mentioned, most research studies on EEs and AEEs have adopted the qualitative methodological approach (particularly case studies), which is understandable since the research topic is emergent. However, considering the systematic research conducted here, it is believed that this topic would benefit from implementing mixed methodologies (as has already been carried out by some of the authors included here). Thus, with the adoption of qualitative and quantitative methodologies, it will be attempted, in a future line of research, to build an assessment tool for an AEE.

The composition of clusters groups generated research points. Studying an AEE based on a regional scale will imply, firstly, building a theoretical framework, based on multiple dimensions, which allows the development of the EE model. HEIs are a complex process which involves an extensive research approach to accurately represent the levels and components of the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem (cluster 1). It will be necessary to study whether the HEI develops strategies adapted to the specificities of its EE. Likewise, to explore the pillars of the model from the point of view of young university students who show varying degrees of entrepreneurial intention (cluster 2). Several studies have found that entrepreneurship education has a positive impact on students’ entrepreneurial intention (Peterman & Kennedy, 2003 ; Souitaris et al., 2007 ; Pruett et al., 2009 ; Engle et al., 2010 ; Lanero et al., 2011 ; Sanchez, 2013 ; Bae et al., 2014 ; Sansone et al., 2021 ). Vanevenhoven ( 2013 ) and Fiore et al. ( 2019 ) have warned of the need for more research into the impact of entrepreneurship education on students in different contexts. Although there has been a growing number of publications on the role of intentions in the entrepreneurial process (Liñán & Fayolle, 2015 ; Ferreira-Neto et al, 2023 ), there is still a gap in research on how to improve the presence of higher education students in entrepreneurial activities so that they can face the problems of the labour market. A broader study could be undertaken, from a mixed approach, to establish mechanisms to collect appropriate data and to establish the different levels of success of EE outcomes, by the HEI (cluster 3).

Finally, the relevance of knowledge of skilled people has brought to the policy agenda of governments worldwide the need to modernize science and higher education systems and institutions (Santos et al., 2016 ; Scott, 2000 ). Portugal is characterized as a developed country but with a poorly qualified workforce in European average terms, facing structural barriers to economic growth (Carneiro et al., 2014 ). It was also a country that has seen one of the fastest developments in its scientific system at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Heitor et al., 2014 ). The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges to the country: the establishment of telework and the intense decline in economic activity were some of the most evident cross-cutting changes, with direct consequences for the emergence of new forms and policies to support the employment (Sousa & Paiva, 2023 ).

All these reasons have been supporting the need to make a RSL focused on how young graduates capture new forms and conditions of the exercise of work. This knowledge is crucial to investigate wow the entrepreneurial skills or the academic entrepreneurship path is in the future.

Conclusions and Limitations

The quest to identify and define EEs has become an issue of great importance as countries, regions and cities handle with an entrepreneurial economy. The range of these topics is wide and ambiguous. Researchers and practitioners have assessed various contributions, most of which identify HEIs as important development institutions. Marques et al., ( 2021 : 133) highlight their importance, stating that HEIs “… are seen as organizations responsible for human resource training, knowledge transfer, and regional development”.

This work used data from the Scopus and WoS databases. Based on 110 academic articles obtained through a rigorous data collection process, the study went beyond describing elementary information, standing out in relation to the review studies found and filling a gap in the field of EEs taking into consideration higher education institutions. It also revealed the embryonic state of research (2011–2022) and reinforced the scientific importance of the topic since about 56% of the articles were published in the last 3 years. The results were published in a variety of indexed journals. However, this study shows the limitations in other literature reviews.

Despite considering that this study constitutes a work that will be the object of the development in the coming years, the study is not without limitations. The first limitation concerns to the search strategy. This study is based on the regular updating of databases with the consequent increase or decrease in the number of indexed journals, so a bibliometric analysis of an emerging topic can be subject to substantial variations in just a very few years. The other limitation of this study is that it used two different databases to analyse a particular topic. Despite being two of the most influential databases, the overview could be improved by including other databases. Another limitation is the subjectivity present in the scientific articles analysis. Although bibliometric methods help to reduce subjectivity, it is not possible to completely exclude some interpretative biases.

Data Availability

Available upon reasonable request from the corresponding author.

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Open access funding provided by FCT|FCCN (b-on). This research is supported by national funds, through the FCT–Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology under the project UIDB/04011/2020 ( https://doi.org/10.54499/UIDB/0401 1/2020), and by NECE-UBI, Research Centre for Business Sciences, Research Centre under the project UIDB/04630/2022 and by CEECINST/00127/2018/CP1501/CT0010.

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Correia, M.P., Marques, C.S., Silva, R. et al. Academic Entrepreneurship Ecosystems: Systematic Literature Review and Future Research Directions. J Knowl Econ (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13132-024-01819-x

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Received : 20 June 2023

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Published : 16 February 2024

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/s13132-024-01819-x

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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.

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    1. Select a Topic "All research begins with curiosity" (Machi & McEvoy, 2009, p. 14) Selection of a topic, and fully defined research interest and question, is supervised (and approved) by your professor. Tips for crafting your topic include: Be specific. Take time to define your interest. Topic Focus.

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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).

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    Moreover, the literature review is a complex process that can be defined as "an interpretation of a selection of published and/or unpublished documents available from various sources on a specific topic that optimally involves summarization, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of the documents" (Onwuegbuzie et al., 2010, p. 173).

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    A literature review is a review or discussion of the current published material available on a particular topic. It attempts to synthesizeand evaluatethe material and information according to the research question(s), thesis, and central theme(s). In other words, instead of supporting an argument, or simply making a list of summarized research ...

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    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 ...

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    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 ...

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    A good qualitative question answers the hows and whys instead of how many or how much. It could be structured as a stand-alone study, purely relying on qualitative data or it could be part of mixed-methods research that combines qualitative and quantitative data. Qualitative research gathers participants' experiences, perceptions and behavior.

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    Meta‐synthesis method for qualitative research: a literature review Go to citation Crossref Google Scholar Family involvement in residential long-term care: A synthesis and crit...

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

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    The systematic literature review (SLR) developed in this article found five studies that allow us to assess what is known about this subject. ... Neck et al. used qualitative analysis to identify the components present in the EE in Boulder, USA. This concept became more prominent through Daniel Isenberg, in 2010. For this author, an EE is a set ...

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