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Literature Reviews: Conduct a Lit Review

Steps for the Literature review

How do I do a literature review?

Step One: Selecting a topic:

  • Topic of interest to you? Is there enough data?
  • Start with a narrow and focused topic;  broaden if necessary
  • Form a research question
    • Comprehensiveness (sensitivity) and relevance (Specificity)
    • More specific the topic or question = more focused the result

Types of Questions:

Diagnosis How to select and interpret diagnostic tests in order to confirm or exclude a diagnosis, based on considering their specificity, sensitivity, likelihood ratios, expense, safety, etc.
Therapy How to select treatments to offer patients that do more good than harm and that are worth the efforts and costs of using them.
Prognosis How to estimate the patient's likely clinical course over time and anticipate likely complications of the disease.
Etiology/Harm How to identify causes for disease.
Prevention How to reduce the chance of disease by identifying and modifying risk factors and how to diagnose early by screening.

How to Phrase your PICO

Diagnosis Are (is) ______________(I) more accurate in diagnosing __________________(P) compared with _______________(C) for ____________________(O)?
Therapy In  ______________(P), what is the effect of  __________________(I) on  _______________(O) compared with ____________________(C)?
Prognosis Does _______________________ (I) influence ___________________(O) in patients who have _______________ (P)?
Etiology/Harm Are  ______________(P) who have  __________________(I) at (increased/decreased) risk for/of _____________(O) compared with ________________________________ (P) with/without  ____________________(C)?
Prevention For  ______________(P), does the use of  __________________(I) reduce the future risk of  _______________(O) compared with ____________________(C)?


Step Two: Searching the Literature:

  • Identify relevant databases
    • Lesser-known journals may not be included
    • Watch for publication bias
      • including only significant findings (Negative findings have valuable)
      • excluding replication studies (replication provides a means of checking)
      • Overcome this by surveying references cited
  • Search the Internet (with caution) and other sources
  • Consider how much time to allocate
  • Keep a record of the keywords and methods used in searching (for describing how the search was conducted)
  • Keywords: remember variations in spelling and synonyms (use the database thesaurus)
    • paediatric/pediatric
    • pressure ulcers/pressure sores
  • Subject searching/MeSH (more focus)Use Boolean operators 'AND','OR' and 'NOT’
  • Use limits/filters provided
  • Use existing literature reviews and systematic reviews
    • Good overview of the research
    • Source of bibliographic references
  • Time frame 5-10 years (except seminal/influential works)

Step Three: Gather, read and analyzing the literature:

Analyze and synthesize the literature:

  • First read of the articles (summary or abstract)
  • Initial classification and grouping of articles by type of source
  • Preview, question, read, summarize (PQRS)
    • Title, author, purpose, methodology, findings, outcomes, your notes
    • Source and full reference (EndNote!)

For quality and credibility, pay attention to:

  • The journal (consider prestige, impact factor, circulation, field of the publication)
  • The peer review process used (no peer review, single-blind, double-blind, open peer review)
  • The author(s) standing and claims
  • Accuracy of content
  • Coherence with what is already known

Questions to critique a review:

  • Thorough?
  • Current?
  • Citing primary sources?
  • Summary or appraisal?
  • Identifies gaps?
  • Appropriate language (tentativeness)?
  • Objective?
  • Organized and clear?
  • Foundation for a new study?
Primary source reading questions Secondary source reading questions Non-research source reading questions
  • Title:
  • Author and year:
  • Journal (full reference):
  • Purpose of study:
  • Type of study:
  • Setting:
  • Data collection method:
  • Major findings:
  • Recommendations:
  • Key thoughts/comments, e.g. strengths/weakness:

Print a checklist

  • Title:
  • Author and year:
  • journal (full reference):
  • Review questions/purpose:
  • Key definitions:
  • Review boundaries:
  • Appraisal criteria:
  • Synthesis of studies:
  • Summary/conclusions:
  • Key thoughts/comments, e.g. strengths/weakness:

Print a checklist

  • Title:
  • Author and year:
  • journal (full reference):
  • Purpose of paper:
  • Credibility:
  • Quality:
  • Content:
  • Coherence:
  • Recommendations:
  • Key thoughts/comments, e.g. strengths/weakness:

Print a checklist


Create a Literature Map:

  • Helps identify what has been done
  • Helps identify links among research
    • Feature map: standardized format
    • Diagrammatic format
    • Linear relationship format
    • Tree construction
    • Content map
    • Taxonomic/semantic feature maps
    • Concept map (see example below)

Retrieval and exclusion criteria:

  • Prescreen the article:
    • May wish to limit to type of study, trial, language, etc. and give clear rationale
    • Utilize abstracts to determine relevance
  • After obtaining the article:
    • Relevance?
    • Quality?
    • Duplicates?



Step Four: Writing the Review:

When writing the review The Introduction The Main Body
  • Work out a structure
    • Make an outline
    • Cluster and compare
  • Avoid long and confusing words jargon
  • Use short sentences
  • Use accurate spelling and grammar
  • Consists generally of introduction, body and conclusion
  • Purpose of review
  • Overview of the problem
  • Outline key search terms
  • Describe limits, boundaries or inclusion/ exclusion criteria
  • Comment about amount of literature found
  • Presents and discusses findings:
    • Divide the literature into themes or categories
    • Present literature chronologically
    • Explore the theoretical and methodological literature
    • Examine theoretical and empirical literature in separate sections
  • Personal opinions about quality only!
In the Conclusion Convince the reader you understand Things to avoid
  • Conclude with summary of the findings
  • Expose gaps in knowledge that should lead to purpose of the proposed study
  • Provide a rationale for future research
  • Recommendations or implications for practice, education and research
  • Not just a description of a series of studies
  • Avoid definite statements about the research
  • Remain objective
  • Use your own words
  • Highlight and compare results from key sources
  • Point out inconsistencies and contradictions
  • Falsification/misrepresentation
  • Fabrication
  • Sloppiness (improper citations)
  • Nepotism
  • Plagiarism

This handout from UNC - Chapel Hill provides several effective strategies for writing the literature review.

  • Include only the most important points from each source -- you want to summarize, not quote from the sources.
  • Include your own conclusions from analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing what you learned from these articles.
  • Avoid plagiarism in your lit review. Consult this tutorial on Academic Integrity if you need some guidance.

Step 5: Preparing the Reference List:

It is best to keep accurate references from the beginning to avoid the appearance of sloppiness, to avoid having to hunt for missing citation information later on, and to save time in general. Using EndNote or another citation manager from the start will make this process easier.

Steps in a Literature Search