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Finding Information: Literature Reviews and Systematic Searches

Introduction to Literature Reviews and Systematics Searches

As a student enrolled at the University of Suffolk, your academic journey will likely culminate in a research project and dissertation. In order to effectively prepare for and write your dissertation, it is essential to employ the skills discussed throughout this guide, particularly when it comes to conducting a literature review or undertaking a systematic search.

This section will define and explain the purpose of literature reviews and systematic searches, providing you with some helpful tips and tricks to get started. 

Remember, the information skills required to complete a Literature Review or Systematic Search have been extensively covered throughout this guide. It is recommended to revisit different sections as required to reinforce your understanding: 

Students completing a systematic search in Health disciplines should consult our Guide to Systematic Searches in Health

Literature Reviews

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is an account of the current research and thinking in a specific area of study. It aims to introduce the reader to prior research, analysis, and understanding, and to provide you, the researcher, with a foundation which you can build on with your own research.

It often forms a section or chapter of a larger piece of work (such as a dissertation), but you may also be asked to produce one as a standalone work. 

The literature review also includes a critical evaluation of the material; this is why it is a review rather than a report. The literature review demonstrates to your readers that you have an in-depth command of your topic, and that you understand how your own research adds to an existing body of knowledge.

A literature review:

  • Introduces the reader to a specific area of study.
  • Organises relevant sources thematically, starting with the broader themes and narrowing towards more specific ones.
  • Introduces key theories.
  • Includes the most relevant, important or influential sources, carefully selected. 
  • Identifies gaps in the existing research.

When you start your research, one thing which will quickly become apparent is the overwhelming amount of potentially relevant material available. it's important that you don’t get overwhelmed. Your searches should be comprehensive and focussed, and you can find advice on how to develop searches of databases and of Discovery elsewhere in this guide.

The next thing you have to do is be selective of the material which you have found and then you have to synthesise it into a comprehensible whole. There are a number of strategies and tools which can help you with these stages, and prevent you from being overwhelmed by the amount of material available. Why not consult some of our suggested readings to help you with this step? 

Doing Your Literature Review: Top Tips

1. Hone your Reading Strategy 

Firstly you need to adopt appropriate reading strategies: this is a combination of such skills as skimming for gist, scanning for details, and focussed reading and note-taking for comprehension. In tandem with these, you need to be able to identify the different elements of an academic text so as to be able to navigate it quickly and identify whether it contributes to your research or not.

Principal amongst these is the abstract, the summary of an academic text, which allows you to decide immediately whether a research article might contribute to your literature review or can be passed over. The introduction will expand on the aims of the research, the methodology section will allow you to see how robust or reliable a piece of research is, and the conclusion will usually offer suggestions for further research. Guidance on reading strategies can be found here

2. Use a Reference Management Tool 

As you gather more sources it is a good idea to think about investing time in learning how to use a Reference Management Tool such as Zotero, RefWorks or Endnote. These will remove the stress and time of having to manually generate references and in-text citations for a large number of sources. Further information about these tools is available here

3. Create a Review Matrix 

As you start selecting your sources, a very useful tool for organising them is to create a Review Matrix. As its name suggests, this is a matrix which separates out the sources according to academically relevant criteria – e.g., methodology, cohort size, conclusions, limiting factors etc., as well as more basic details such as the reference information. This enables you to take in and contrast the salient factors of your sources at a glance and is a more reliable way of providing an overview than simple annotations.

An example can be found here and a blank template here (Word) and here (Excel). 

4. Create a Synthesis Matrix 

Once you have definitively selected your sources, you may find it helpful to use a Synthesis Matrix to break them down according to relevant themes and findings. Again this is a simple grid that allows you to maintain an overview of what relevant information, themes and findings you are pulling out of your sources and, as the name suggests, helps you to synthesise them by presenting them all at a glance. The process of populating the matrix is part of the writing process; ideally, you will already be reformulating, paraphrasing and referencing your sources as you fill in the grid. 

An example with commentary can be found here.

Systematic Searches

A systematic search refers to a structured and comprehensive approach to gathering information from various sources. It is a methodical process used to locate and access relevant literature, research studies, articles, and other scholarly resources related to a specific topic or research question.

A systematic search is often performed when conducting literature reviews, academic research, or preparing dissertations, theses, or scholarly papers. Its purpose is to ensure that all relevant information is identified and reviewed, minimizing the risk of bias and providing a comprehensive understanding of the existing knowledge on a given subject.

You have probably heard of systematic searches and wonder how they relate to literature reviews, and specifically, if there is something more that you should or could be doing.

There are a few answers to this question:

  • If you are an undergraduate student in any field other than the Health Sciences, then there’s nothing to worry about: the degree of systemisation described above, along with a good critical approach, will be sufficient.
  • If you are a Health Sciences undergraduate, then you have probably been asked to do a specialized form of literature review which aims to emulate on a small scale the principles and practice of a full systematic review. For more support on this see our Guide to Systematic Searches in Health
  • Thirdly, which underpins the two above, is that all searching for a literature review needs to be systematic to some extent: 

"Importantly, the more systematic we are, the less likely we are to introduce bias. If you introduce bias then people do not know whether they can believe what you have found or not...All research, by definition, follows some ‘system,’ although some systems are more formalised and pre-planned than others." Booth, A. et al. (2022) Systematic approaches to a successful literature review. 3rd edn. London: SAGE.