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Literature reviews - a guide how to carry them out

About this Guide

This guide provides an overview of the process of writing a systematised or structured literature review. 

This guide is for students undertaking a systematised literature review as a form of secondary research either as a dissertation or as a standalone piece of work.

If you are collecting primary data for your dissertation, you may need to include one chapter reviewing literature, typically called the “literature review”. This chapter is at the beginning of a dissertation, sitting between your aims and objectives and your methodology. This review is normally a narrative or traditional literature review selecting literature based on judgement (rather than a systematised review).

Please check the guidelines for your dissertation or speak to your supervisor  to ascertain which type of review is required.

The left hand menu takes you through each stage of your review, from scoping searches and planning your methodology, right through to the write up.

What is a Systematised Review?

Booth et al., (2021, 2) defines a systematised literature review as “a form of research synthesis that seeks to systematically search for, appraise and synthesize research evidence, using strategies to limit bias often adhering to guidelines on the conduct of a review”

Unlike a narrative literature review, a systematic review attempts to incorporate “transparent and well-defined steps”, answering a specific question.

What makes a literature review systematised?

A systematised literature review differs from a traditional narrative review  by including a transparent methodology that explains to the reader exactly what you did to get your search results and how you refined those results to produce your final sample. The key term here is reproducibility. A good systematised gives the reader all the information necessary to reproduce your results using your search strategy, inclusion criteria and analysis.

A systematised review should include most of the below:   

  • Step by step methodology – including search terms, database selection, and inclusion /exclusion criteria.
  • Reports the number of hits retrieved from database searching
  • Reports results using a specified framework (such as PRISMA)
  • Coordinated analysis (such as narrative synthesis)
  • Systematic approaches to presentation (tables etc.)

Systematic, Systematised or Structured?

The words “systematic literature review” have been used in a variety of different ways, often interchangeably to mean subtly different things. Strictly speaking, a systematic review is an exhaustive search for evidence. This kind of review, prominent within healthcare, is conducted by large teams of researchers and can take many months (or even years) to complete. To take a look at some examples, you can visit the Cochrane library here

For an undergraduate or postgraduate dissertation, however, you may wish to carry out a review with systematic features. Grant et al. (2009), refer to this kind of review as a “systematised review” which attempts “to include elements of systematic review process while stopping short of systematic review. Typically conducted as postgraduate student assignment.” The parameters of searching systematically are more flexible than those for a systematic review.​

A systematised review acknowledges that your project will have time constraints and that you will be the sole researcher (thus falling short of a systematic review in the strict sense). Despite this, your academic may still refer to your review as systematic, as terminology is used flexibly throughout the literature. You may also hear your review referred to as a structured review.

Difference between a systematised review and a traditional (narrative) literature review

The below table outlines some of the differences between a systematised review and a (traditional) narrative literature review.

Advantages of doing a systematised or structured review for your dissertation:

  • Removes difficulties involved in collecting data
  • Removes time consuming ethics forms
  • Gain a rigorous understanding of a topic
  • Large and rich pool of data
  • Facilitates connections between different areas of literature.