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  • Steps in Conducting a Literature Review

What is a literature review?

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

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

Why is it important?

A literature review is important because it:

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

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1. Choose a topic. Define your research question.

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

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

2. Decide on the scope of your review

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

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

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

Make a list of the databases you will search. 

Where to find databases:

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

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

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

Review the literature

Some questions to help you analyze the research:

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


  • Review the abstracts carefully.  
  • Keep careful notes so that you may track your thought processes during the research process.
  • Create a matrix of the studies for easy analysis, and synthesis, across all of the studies.
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Literature Reviews

Steps in the literature review process.

  • What is a literature review?
  • Define your research question
  • Determine inclusion and exclusion criteria
  • Choose databases and search
  • Review Results
  • Synthesize Results
  • Analyze Results
  • Librarian Support
  • You may need to some exploratory searching of the literature to get a sense of scope, to determine whether you need to narrow or broaden your focus
  • Identify databases that provide the most relevant sources, and identify relevant terms (controlled vocabularies) to add to your search strategy
  • Finalize your research question
  • Think about relevant dates, geographies (and languages), methods, and conflicting points of view
  • Conduct searches in the published literature via the identified databases
  • Check to see if this topic has been covered in other discipline's databases
  • Examine the citations of on-point articles for keywords, authors, and previous research (via references) and cited reference searching.
  • Save your search results in a citation management tool (such as Zotero, Mendeley or EndNote)
  • De-duplicate your search results
  • Make sure that you've found the seminal pieces -- they have been cited many times, and their work is considered foundational 
  • Check with your professor or a librarian to make sure your search has been comprehensive
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of individual sources and evaluate for bias, methodologies, and thoroughness
  • Group your results in to an organizational structure that will support why your research needs to be done, or that provides the answer to your research question  
  • Develop your conclusions
  • Are there gaps in the literature?
  • Where has significant research taken place, and who has done it?
  • Is there consensus or debate on this topic?
  • Which methodological approaches work best?
  • For example: Background, Current Practices, Critics and Proponents, Where/How this study will fit in 
  • Organize your citations and focus on your research question and pertinent studies
  • Compile your bibliography

Note: The first four steps are the best points at which to contact a librarian. Your librarian can help you determine the best databases to use for your topic, assess scope, and formulate a search strategy.

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Writing a Graduate Thesis or Dissertation pp 31–42 Cite as

Conducting and Writing Literature Reviews

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To contribute new knowledge to a field of study, students must first establish a comprehensive understanding of existing knowledge. For Holbrook, Bourke, Fairbairn, and Lovat (2007), “The use and application of the literature is at the heart of scholarship—of belonging to the academy” (p. 346). It is the foundation on which the entire thesis rests. However, many students, despite having written many course papers, have no idea of how to write the literature review or even where to start.

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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.

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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).


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.


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


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.

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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.

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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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Conducting a Literature Review

Steps in conducting a literature review.

  • Benefits of Conducting a Literature Review
  • Summary of the Process
  • Additional Resources
  • Literature Review Tutorial by American University Library
  • The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It by University of Toronto
  • Write a Literature Review by UC Santa Cruz University Library

Conducting a literature review involves using research databases to identify materials that cover or are related in some sense to the research topic. In some cases the research topic may be so original in its scope that no one has done anything exactly like it, so research that is at least similar or related will provide source material for the literature review. The selection of databases will be driven by the subject matter and the scope of the project.

Selecting Databases -- Most academic libraries now provide access to a majority of their databases and their catalog via a so-called discovery tool. A discovery tool makes searching library systems more "Google-like" in that even the simplest of queries can be entered and results retrieved. However, many times the results are also "Google-like" in the sheer quantity of items retrieved. While a discovery tool can be invaluable for quickly finding a multitude of resources on nearly any topic, there are a number of considerations a researcher should keep in mind when using a discovery tool, especially for the researcher who is attempting a comprehensive literature review.

No discovery tool works with every database subscribed to by a library. Some libraries might subscribe to two or three hundred different research databases covering a large number of subject areas. Competing discovery systems might negotiate agreements with different database vendors in order to provide access to a large range of materials. There will be other vendors with whom agreements are not forthcoming, therefore their materials are not included in the discovery tool results. While this might be of only minor concern for a researcher looking to do a fairly limited research project, the researcher looking to do a comprehensive review of the literature in preparation for writing a master's thesis or a doctoral dissertation will run the risk of missing some materials by limiting the search just to a particular library's discovery system. If only one system covered everything that a researcher could possibly need, libraries would have no need to subscribe to hundreds of different databases. The reality is that no one tool does it all. Not even Google Scholar.

Book collections might be excluded from results delivered by a discovery tool. While many libraries are making results from their own catalogs available via their discovery tools, they might not cover books that are discoverable from other library collections, thus making a search of book collections incomplete. Most libraries subscribe to an international database of library catalogs known as WorldCat. This database will provide comprehensive coverage of books, media, and other physical library materials available in libraries worldwide.

Features available in a particular database might not be available in a discovery tool. Keep in mind that a discovery tool is a search system that enables searching across content from numerous individual databases. An individual database might have search features that cannot be provided through a discovery tool, since the discovery tool is designed to accommodate a large number of systems with a single search. For example, the nursing database  CINAHL  includes the ability to limit a search to specific practice areas, to limit to evidence-based practice, to limit to gender, and to search using medical subject headings, among other things, all specialized facets that are not available in a discovery tool. To have these advanced capabilities, a researcher would need to go directly to  CINAHL  and search it natively.

Some discovery tools are set, by default, to limit search results to those items directly available through a particular library's collections. While many researchers will be most concerned with what is immediately available to them at their own library, a researcher concerned with finding everything that has been done on a particular topic will need to go beyond what's available at his or her home library and include materials that are available elsewhere. Master's and doctoral candidates should take care to notice if their library's discovery tool automatically limits to available materials and broaden the scope to include ALL materials, not just those available.

With the foregoing in mind, a researcher might start a search by using the library's discovery tool and then follow up by reviewing which databases have been included in the search and, more importantly, which databases have not been included. Most libraries will facilitate locating its individual databases through a subject arrangement of some kind. Once those databases that are not discoverable have been identified, the researcher would do well to search them individually to find out if other materials can be identified outside of the discovery tool. One additional tool that a doctoral researcher should of necessity include in a search is ISI's  Web of Knowledge . The two major systems searchable within ISI's  Web  are the  Social Sciences Citation Index  and the  Science Citation Index . The purpose of these two systems is to enable a researcher to determine what research has been cited over the years by any number of researchers and how many times it has been cited.

Formulating an Effective Search Strategy -- Key to performing an effective literature review is selecting search terms that will effectively identify materials that are relevant to the research topic. An initial strategy for selecting search terminology might be to list all possible relevant terms and their synonyms in order to have a working vocabulary for use in the research databases. While an individual subject database will likely use a "controlled vocabulary" to index articles and other materials that are included in the database, the same vocabulary might not be as effective in a database that focuses on a different subject area. For example, terminology that is used frequently in psychological literature might not be as effective in searching a human resources management database. Brainstorming the topic before launching into a search will help a researcher arrive at a good working vocabulary to use when probing the databases for relevant literature.

As materials are identified with the initial search, the researcher will want to keep track of other terminology that could be of use in performing additional searches. Sometimes the most effective search terminology can be found by reading the abstracts of relevant materials located through a library's research databases. For example, an initial search on the concept of "mainstreaming" might lead the researcher to articles that discuss mainstreaming but which also look into the concept of "inclusion" in education. While the terms mainstreaming and inclusion are sometimes used synonymously, they really embody two different approaches to working with students having special needs. Abstracts of articles located in the initial search on mainstreaming will uncover related concepts such as inclusion and help a researcher develop a better, more effective vocabulary for fleshing out the literature review.

In addition to searching using key concepts aligned with the research topic, a researcher likely also will want to search for additional materials produced by key authors who are identified in the initial searches. As a researcher reviews items retrieved in the initial stages of the survey, he or she will begin to notice certain authors coming up over and over in relation to the topic. To make sure that no stone is left unturned, it would be advisable to search the available, relevant library databases for other materials by those key authors, just to make sure something of importance has not been missed. A review of the reference lists for each of the items identified in the search will also help to identify key literature that should be reviewed.

Locating the Materials and Composing the Review -- In many cases the items identified through the library's databases will also be available online through the same or related databases. This, however, is not always the case. When materials are not available online, the researcher should check the library's physical collections (print, media, etc.) to determine if the items are available in the library, itself. For those materials not physically available in the home library, the researcher will use interlibrary loan to procure copies from other libraries or services. While abstracts are extremely useful in identifying the right types of materials, they are no substitute for the actual items, themselves. The thorough researcher will make sure that all the key literature has been retrieved and read thoroughly before proceeding too far with the original research.

The end result of the literature review is a discussion of the central themes in the research and an overview of the significant studies located by the researcher. This discussion serves as the lead section of a paper or article that reports the findings of an original research study and sets the stage for presentation of the original study by providing a review of research that has been conducted prior to the current study. As the researcher conducts his or her own study, other relevant materials might enter into the professional literature. It is the researcher's responsibility to update the literature review with newly released information prior to completing his or her own study.

Updating the Initial Search -- Most research projects will take place over a period of time and are not completed in the short term. Especially in the case of master's and doctoral projects, the research process might take a year or several years to complete. During this time, it will be important for the researcher to periodically review the research that has been going on at the same time as his or her own research. Revisiting the search strategies employed in the initial pass of the ltierature will turn up any new studies that might have come to light since the initial search. Fortunately, most research databases and discovery systems provide researchers with the means for automatically notifying them when new materials matching the search strategy have entered the system. This requires that a researcher sign up for a personal "account" with the database in order to save his or her searches and set up "alerts" when new materials come online. Setting up an account does not involve charges to the researcher; this is all a part of the cost borne by the home library in providing access to the databases.

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  • v.96(3); 2003 Mar

Five steps to conducting a systematic review

Regina kunz.

1 German Cochrane Centre, Freiburg and Department of Nephrology, Charité, Berlin, Germany

Jos Kleijnen

2 Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, York, UK

3 German Cochrane Centre, Freiburg, Germany

Systematic reviews and meta-analyses are a key element of evidence-based healthcare, yet they remain in some ways mysterious. Why did the authors select certain studies and reject others? What did they do to pool results? How did a bunch of insignificant findings suddenly become significant? This paper, along with a book 1 that goes into more detail, demystifies these and other related intrigues.

A review earns the adjective systematic if it is based on a clearly formulated question, identifies relevant studies, appraises their quality and summarizes the evidence by use of explicit methodology. It is the explicit and systematic approach that distinguishes systematic reviews from traditional reviews and commentaries. Whenever we use the term review in this paper it will mean a systematic review . Reviews should never be done in any other way.

In this paper we provide a step-by-step explanation—there are just five steps—of the methods behind reviewing, and the quality elements inherent in each step (Box 1). For purposes of illustration we use a published review concerning the safety of public water fluoridation, but we must emphasize that our subject is review methodology, not fluoridation.


You are a public health professional in a locality that has public water fluoridation. For many years, your colleagues and you have believed that it improves dental health. Recently there has been pressure from various interest groups to consider the safety of this public health intervention because they fear that it is causing cancer. Public health decisions have been based on professional judgment and practical feasibility without explicit consideration of the scientific evidence. (This was yesterday; today the evidence is available in a York review 2 , 3 , identifiable on MEDLINE through the freely accessible PubMed clinical queries interface [ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nib.gov/entrez/query/static/clinical.html ], under ‘systematic reviews’.)


The research question may initially be stated as a query in free form but reviewers prefer to pose it in a structured and explicit way. The relations between various components of the question and the structure of the research design are shown in Figure 1 . This paper focuses only on the question of safety related to the outcomes described below.

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Structured questions for systematic reviews and relations between question components in a comparative study

Box 1 The steps in a systematic review

The problems to be addressed by the review should be specified in the form of clear, unambiguous and structured questions before beginning the review work. Once the review questions have been set, modifications to the protocol should be allowed only if alternative ways of defining the populations, interventions, outcomes or study designs become apparent

The search for studies should be extensive. Multiple resources (both computerized and printed) should be searched without language restrictions. The study selection criteria should flow directly from the review questions and be specified a priori . Reasons for inclusion and exclusion should be recorded

Study quality assessment is relevant to every step of a review. Question formulation (Step 1) and study selection criteria (Step 2) should describe the minimum acceptable level of design. Selected studies should be subjected to a more refined quality assessment by use of general critical appraisal guides and design-based quality checklists (Step 3). These detailed quality assessments will be used for exploring heterogeneity and informing decisions regarding suitability of meta-analysis (Step 4). In addition they help in assessing the strength of inferences and making recommendations for future research (Step 5)

Data synthesis consists of tabulation of study characteristics, quality and effects as well as use of statistical methods for exploring differences between studies and combining their effects (meta-analysis). Exploration of heterogeneity and its sources should be planned in advance (Step 3). If an overall meta-analysis cannot be done, subgroup meta-analysis may be feasible

The issues highlighted in each of the four steps above should be met. The risk of publication bias and related biases should be explored. Exploration for heterogeneity should help determine whether the overall summary can be trusted, and, if not, the effects observed in high-quality studies should be used for generating inferences. Any recommendations should be graded by reference to the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence

Free-form question

Is it safe to provide population-wide drinking water fluoridation to prevent caries?

Structured question

  • The populations —Populations receiving drinking water sourced through a public water supply
  • The interventions or exposures —Fluoridation of drinking water (natural or artificial) compared with non-fluoridated water
  • The outcomes —Cancer is the main outcome of interest for the debate in your health authority
  • The study designs —Comparative studies of any design examining the harmful outcomes in at least two population groups, one with fluoridated drinking water and the other without. Harmful outcomes can be rare and they may develop over a long time. There are considerable difficulties in designing and conducting safety studies to capture these outcomes, since a large number of people need to be observed over a long period. These circumstances demand observational, not randomized studies. With this background, systematic reviews on safety have to include evidence from studies with a range of designs.


To capture as many relevant citations as possible, a wide range of medical, environmental and scientific databases were searched to identify primary studies of the effects of water fluoridation. The electronic searches were supplemented by hand searching of Index Medicus and Excerpta Medica back to 1945. Furthermore, various internet engines were searched for web pages that might provide references. This effort resulted in 3246 citations from which relevant studies were selected for the review. Their potential relevance was examined, and 2511 citations were excluded as irrelevant. The full papers of the remaining 735 citations were assessed to select those primary studies in man that directly related to fluoride in drinking water supplies, comparing at least two groups. These criteria excluded 481 studies and left 254 in the review. They came from thirty countries, published in fourteen languages between 1939 and 2000. Of these studies 175 were relevant to the question of safety, of which 26 used cancer as an outcome.


Design threshold for study selection.

Adequate study design as a marker of quality, is listed as an inclusion criterion in Box 1. This approach is most applicable when the main source of evidence is randomized studies. However, randomized studies are almost impossible to conduct at community level for a public health intervention such as water fluoridation. Thus, systematic reviews assessing the safety of such interventions have to include evidence from a broader range of study designs. Consideration of the type and amount of research likely to be available led to inclusion of comparative studies of any design. In this way, selected studies provided information about the harmful effects of exposure to fluoridated water compared with non-exposure.

Quality assessment of safety studies

After studies of an acceptable design have been selected, their in-depth assessment for the risk of various biases allows us to gauge the quality of the evidence in a more refined way. Biases either exaggerate or underestimate the ‘true’ effect of an exposure. The objective of the included studies was to compare groups exposed to fluoridated drinking water and those without such exposure for rates of undesirable outcomes, without bias. Safety studies should ascertain exposures and outcomes in such a way that the risk of misclassification is minimized. The exposure is likely to be more accurately ascertained if the study was prospective rather than retrospective and if it was started soon after water fluoridation rather than later. The outcomes of those developing cancer (and remaining free of cancer) are likely to be more accurately ascertained if the follow-up was long and if the assessment was blind to exposure status.

When examining how the effect of exposure on outcome was established, reviewers assessed whether the comparison groups were similar in all respects other than their exposure to fluoridated water. This is because the other differences may be related to the outcomes of interest independent of the drinking-water fluoridation, and this would bias the comparison. For example, if the people exposed to fluoridated water had other risk factors that made them more prone to have cancer, the apparent association between exposure and outcome might be explained by the more frequent occurrence of these factors among the exposed group. The technical word for such defects is confounding. In a randomized study, confounding factors are expected to be roughly equally distributed between groups. In observational studies their distribution may be unequal. Primary researchers can statistically adjust for these differences, when estimating the effect of exposure on outcomes, by use of multivariable modelling.

Put simply, use of a prospective design, robust ascertainment of exposure and outcomes, and control for confounding are the generic issues one would look for in quality assessment of studies on safety. Consequently, studies may range from satisfactorily meeting quality criteria, to having some deficiencies, to not meeting the criteria at all, and they can be assigned to one of three prespecified quality categories as shown in Table 1 . A quality hierarchy can then be developed, based on the degree to which studies comply with the criteria. None of the studies on cancer were in the high-quality category, but this was because randomized studies were non-existent and control for confounding was not always ideal in the observational studies. There were 8 studies of moderate quality and 18 of low quality.

Description of quality assessment of studies on safety of public water fluoridation


To summarize the evidence from studies of variable design and quality is not easy. The original review 3 provides details of how the differences between study results were investigated and how they were summarized (with or without meta-analysis). This paper restricts itself to summarizing the findings narratively. The association between exposure to fluoridated water and cancer in general was examined in 26 studies. Of these, 10 examined all-cause cancer incidence or mortality, in 22 analyses. Of these, 11 analyses found a negative association (fewer cancers due to exposure), 9 found a positive one and 2 found no association. Only 2 studies reported statistically significant differences. Thus no clear association between water fluoridation and increased cancer incidence or mortality was apparent. Bone/joint and thyroid cancers were of particular concern because of fluoride uptake by these organs. Neither the 6 studies of osteosarcoma nor the 2 studies of thyroid cancer and water fluoridation revealed significant differences. Overall no association was detected between water fluoridation and mortality from any cancer. These findings were also borne out in the moderate-quality subgroup of studies.


In the fluoridation example, the focus was on the safety of a community-based public health intervention. The generally low quality of available studies means that the results must be interpreted with caution. However, the elaborate efforts in searching an unusually large number of databases provide some safeguard against missing relevant studies. Thus the evidence summarized in this review is likely to be as good as it will get in the foreseeable future. Cancer was the harmful outcome of most interest in this instance. No association was found between exposure to fluoridated water and specific cancers or all cancers. The interpretation of the results may be generally limited because of the low quality of studies, but the findings for the cancer outcomes are supported by the moderate-quality studies.

After having spent some time reading and understanding the review, you are impressed by the sheer amount of published work relevant to the question of safety. However, you are somewhat disappointed by the poor quality of the primary studies. Of course, examination of safety only makes sense in a context where the intervention has some beneficial effect. Benefit and harm have to be compared to provide the basis for decision making. On the issue of the beneficial effect of public water fluoridation, the review 3 reassures you that the health authority was correct in judging that fluoridation of drinking water prevents caries. From the review you also discovered that dental fluorosis (mottled teeth) was related to concentration of fluoride. When the interest groups raise the issue of safety again, you will be able to declare that there is no evidence to link cancer with drinking-water fluoridation; however, you will have to come clean about the risk of dental fluorosis, which appears to be dose dependent, and you may want to measure the fluoride concentration in the water supply and share this information with the interest groups.

The ability to quantify the safety concerns of your population through a review, albeit from studies of moderate to low quality, allows your health authority, the politicians and the public to consider the balance between beneficial and harmful effects of water fluoridation. Those who see the prevention of caries as of primary importance will favour fluoridation. Others, worried about the disfigurement of mottled teeth, may prefer other means of fluoride administration or even occasional treatment for dental caries. Whatever the opinions on this matter, you are able to reassure all parties that there is no evidence that fluoridation of drinking water increases the risk of cancer.

With increasing focus on generating guidance and recommendations for practice through systematic reviews, healthcare professionals need to understand the principles of preparing such reviews. Here we have provided a brief step-by-step explanation of the principles. Our book 1 describes them in detail.

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Literature Reviews

  • Getting started

What is a literature review?

Why conduct a literature review, stages of a literature review, lit reviews: an overview (video), check out these books.

  • Types of reviews
  • 1. Define your research question
  • 2. Plan your search
  • 3. Search the literature
  • 4. Organize your results
  • 5. Synthesize your findings
  • 6. Write the review
  • Thompson Writing Studio This link opens in a new window
  • Need to write a systematic review? This link opens in a new window

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steps in conducting literature review pdf

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.

steps in conducting literature review pdf

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

What is a literature review NOT?

❌ An annotated bibliography

❌ Original research

❌ A summary

❌ Something to be conducted at the end of your research

❌ An opinion piece

❌ A chronological compilation of studies

The reason for conducting a literature review is to:

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Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students

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

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Writing the literature review: A practical guide

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

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

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Telling a research story: Writing a literature review

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The literature review: Six steps to success

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Systematic approaches to a successful literature review

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Doing a systematic review: A student's guide

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  • Last Updated: Feb 15, 2024 1:45 PM
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Evidence Syntheses and Systematic Reviews: Overview

  • Choosing a Review

Analyze and Report

What is evidence synthesis.

Evidence Synthesis: general term used to refer to any method of identifying, selecting, and combining results from multiple studies. There are several types of reviews which fall under this term; the main ones are in the table below: 

Types of Reviews

General steps for conducting systematic reviews.

The number of steps for conducting Evidence Synthesis varies a little, depending on the source that one consults. However, the following steps are generally accepted in how Systematic Reviews are done:

  • Identify a gap in the literature and form a well-developed and answerable research question which will form the basis of your search
  • Select a framework that will help guide the type of study you’re undertaking
  • Different guidelines are used for documenting and reporting the protocols of your systematic review before the review is conducted. The protocol is created following whatever guideline you select.
  • Select Databases and Grey Literature Sources
  • For steps 3 and 4, it is advisable to consult a librarian before embarking on this phase of the review process. They can recommend databases and other sources to use and even help design complex searches.
  • A protocol is a detailed plan for the project, and after it is written, it should be registered with an appropriate registry.
  • Search Databases and Other Sources
  • Not all databases use the same search syntax, so when searching multiple databases, use search syntaxes that would work in individual databases.
  • Use a citation management tool to help store and organize your citations during the review process; great help when de-duplicating your citation results
  • Inclusion and exclusion criteria already developed help you remove articles that are not relevant to your topic. 
  • Assess the quality of your findings to eliminate bias in either the design of the study or in the results/conclusions (generally not done outside of Systematic Reviews).

Extract and Synthesize

  • Extract the data from what's left of the studies that have been analyzed
  • Extraction tools are used to get data from individual studies that will be analyzed or summarized. 
  • Synthesize the main findings of your research

Report Findings

Report the results using a statistical approach or in a narrative form.

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Librarians can:

  • Provide guidance on which methodology best suits your goals
  • Recommend databases and other information sources for searching
  • Design and implement comprehensive and reproducible database-specific search strategies 
  • Recommend software for article screening
  • Assist with the use of citation management
  • Offer best practices on documentation of searches

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  • Literature Reviews
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Steps of a Systematic Review - Video

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  • Last Updated: Feb 15, 2024 1:33 PM
  • URL: https://guides.smu.edu/evidencesyntheses


  1. How To Write A Literature Review

    steps in conducting literature review pdf

  2. How to Write a Literature Review in 5 Simple Steps

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  3. Group 6 Five Steps in Conducting Literature Review

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  4. steps for conducting a literature review

    steps in conducting literature review pdf

  5. How to Write a Literature Review in 5 Simple Steps

    steps in conducting literature review pdf

  6. [PDF] Guidance on Conducting a Systematic Literature Review

    steps in conducting literature review pdf


  1. Conducting Literature Review for Project

  2. Part 2 Writing the Review of Literature

  3. Literature Review 101

  4. Write Your Literature Review FAST

  5. Effective Review of Literature

  6. Literature review and its process


  1. PDF CHAPTER 3 Conducting a Literature Review

    Conduct a Literature Review This chapter describes the steps taken to conduct a literature review. Although the following sections provide detail on these steps, this initial section presents an overview, or a road map, of this process. As shown in Figure 3.1, the first step in conducting a literature review is to

  2. PDF Undertaking a literature review: a step'by-step approacii

    • Writing the review • References literature {Table 2). The first step involves identifying the subject ofthe literature review. The researcher undertaking a quantitative study may have decided this already. However, for the individual undertaking a non-research based literature review this will be the first step. Selecting a review topic

  3. Steps in Conducting a Literature Review

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

  4. PDF How to Write a Literature Review

    of a literature review are. The Purpose of a Literature Review A literature review demonstrates your ability to research; it also showcases your expertise on your chosen topic. By including a literature review in your project or thesis, you are also providing your reader with the most prevalent theories and studies on your topic, evaluations ...

  5. (PDF) Writing a Literature Review Research Paper: A step-by-step approach

    Writing a literature review in the pre or post-qualification, will be required to undertake a literature review, either as part of a course of study, as a key step in the research process. A ...

  6. PDF Conducting Your Literature Review

    CONDUCTING YOUR LITERATURE REVIEW 6 produce a reliable and unbiased summary of the existing research. This book will walk you through those steps one by one. Each chapter targets a specific part or stage in the literature review. Throughout this book, the elements and reporting structure of a systematic review serve as a

  7. Steps in the Literature Review Process

    The Literature Review by Diana Ridley The Literature Review is a step-by-step guide to conducting a literature search and writing up the literature review chapter in Masters dissertations and in Ph.D. and professional doctorate theses. The author provides strategies for reading, conducting searches, organizing information and writing the review.

  8. PDF Conducting a Literature Review

    An overview of the subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review. Division of works under review into categories (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative theses entirely)


    it into their own research. For Randolf (2009), the steps used to conduct and write a literature review mirror the research process. Students start by formulating a question that the literature will answer. They gather data in the form of literature to answer the question, and assess the quality of the evidence found.

  10. PDF Conducting a Literature Review

    The first step in conducting a literature review is to articulate the question(s) that you plan to research and how you intend to provide answers • Spending time on this step will reduce work later stemming from changes to the questions, scope, or framework. • You should be able to clearly articulate the contribution of your literature ...

  11. (PDF) How to Conduct a Literature Review

    It begins with a discussion of the purposes of a review, presents taxonomy of literature reviews, and then discusses the steps in conducting a quantitative or qualitative literature review.

  12. How to 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.

  13. (PDF) A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Literature Review

    In this step, you will screen and select resources closely related to your research question. This step will require reading the titles, abstracts, or conclusions to identify the most relevant ...

  14. PDF A Guide for Developing a Protocol for Conducting Literature Reviews

    A review protocol provides a step-by-step guide for conducting literature reviews, which may include systematic reviews, scoping reviews, and meta-analysis. It is necessary for the review team to develop the protocol before starting the literature review so that the process is clear and consistent throughout. In particular, the protocol should ...

  15. Steps in Conducting a Literature Review

    Conducting a literature review involves using research databases to identify materials that cover or are related in some sense to the research topic. In some cases the research topic may be so original in its scope that no one has done anything exactly like it, so research that is at least similar or related will provide source material for the ...

  16. Five steps to conducting a systematic review

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  17. (PDF) Approach to Conduct an Effective Literature Review

    The proposed guideline follows: 1- Find literature associated with the topic. 2- Search and analyze the literature. 3- Evaluate the paper before reading. 4- Cite literature properly. 5- Make a ...

  18. Getting started

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

  19. Literature review as a research methodology: An ...

    Independent of what approach will be used to conduct the literature review, a number of steps that must be taken and decisions made to create a review that meets the requirements for publication (for specific considerations in relationship to each step. See Table 3). In the following, the basics steps and important choices involved in ...

  20. (PDF) Conducting Your Literature Review

    It covers the systematic review steps: (1) define the question, (2) create a protocol, (3) conduct a literature search and screen for inclusion, (4) document and assess included studies, and (5 ...

  21. Evidence Syntheses and Systematic Reviews: Overview

    Narrative literature review: Standalone review (not to be confused with a literature review in an empirical study), may be broad or focused, represents a range of levels of comprehensiveness ... General Steps for Conducting Systematic Reviews. The number of steps for conducting Evidence Synthesis varies a little, depending on the source that ...

  22. (PDF) Conducting a literature review

    A literature review needs to draw on and evaluate a range of different types of sources including academic and professional journal articles, books, and web-based resources. The literature search ...