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Literature Reviews: What are they?


Several colourful arrows all merge into one as a metaphor for literature reviews



"A literature review is a search and evaluation of the available literature

in your given subject or chosen topic area."

Royal Literary Fund, 2023

A literature review aims at surveying the literature, synthesising the information, critically analysing it and presenting it in an organised way. 

You may be asked to write a literature review for an assessment or for your dissertation. There are different types of literature reviews, each with their own specific objective and methodology. Below you can find definitions, aims and methods of these different types. Please note that this terminology is largely based on healthcare research, where the methodologies are well established. Other research fields may be using these terms slightly differently, so it is important that you clarify expectations with your lecturer or supervisor. 

Narrative / standard / traditional literature reviews

icon of writing
  • A broad term used for reviews that can have a wide scope and no specific methodology
  • There is no specific requirement for search strategies, time scale, comprehensiveness, etc. These will be defined either by the assignment brief or by discussions with your supervisor. Sometimes, you might be asked to be systematic in your searches, but this doesn't mean you are doing a systematic review - this is a different type of review with its own specific methodology. 

Rapid reviews

icon of a book wit a clock, representing the time constraints of a rapid review
  • It is similar to a systematic review, but it is carried out in a much shorter amount of time. 
  • In order to accommodate time constraints, it employs methodological short-cuts (sometimes at the risk of introducing bias). Depending on the subject, there are guidelines and best practice specific for rapid reviews.

Umbrella reviews

icon of a pile of books representing a review of reviews
  • Also knows as a review of reviews, it gathers, evaluates and synthesises other reviews on a topic. For this reason, the question can be broader than a systematic review.
  • It follows a pre-established protocol and it is useful when there are several reviews on different aspects of the same topic

Systematic reviews

icon of a flow diagram representing the systematic review methods
  • A review that systematically and transparently gathers, evaluates and synthesises evidence to answer a focussed research question. 
  • It follows a pre-established protocol with advanced searching techniques. Depending on the subject, specific guidelines and best practice should be followed. It has a defined methodology that goes beyond simply being thorough with literature searches. 


icon of a sheet with statistics and graphs
  • Meta-analysis is a statistical technique to combine quantitative data from different studies. It is often conducted as part of a systematic review.
  • If done by itself, similarly to a systematic review, it tries to objective gather, evaluate and synthesise evidence to answer a focussed question. 

Scoping reviews

icon of a magnifying lens searching on a document
  • Similarly to a systematic review, it aims at gathering and synthesising evidence; however the scope of research question is broader. It tries to map our the literature and identify research gaps. This type of review is helpful when there isn't enough evidence to complete a systematic review, for example when the topic is very new.
  • It follows a pre-established protocol and it is transparent and thorough in the searching methods. It allows for more flexibility in the selection criteria of papers to review.

Need advice on the review type to choose?

If your lecturer or supervisor lets you choose the type of review, you might want to consider the objective of your project and the time you have available. This will largely determine the type of your review best for you. You can also book an appointment with your Information Specialist.