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Literature review vs.systematic review

literature review is a type of writing that explores, analyses and synthesizes current literature around a particular topic or area of study. It can be included as part of a broader submission such as a research thesis or a report, or it may be a standalone essay assignment. It considers related texts together, comparing and contrasting them with each other.

Note that a literature review is not simply a summary of articles and sources, but rather a well-woven review of related literature. It looks for aspects of consensus and explores areas of academic disagreement within the scope of the theme or area being addressed by the review.

systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making. (See Section 1.2 in the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions).

Choose your review

Are systematic reviews the best study design for you? Here is a guide to some of the literature review types available and their key characteristics.

Type of review Features
Literature (narrative) reviews •    Broad, selective view of the literature
•    Definition can vary across and within disciplines
•    Analysis may be chronological, conceptual, or thematic
•    Usually lacks specific inclusion criteria and search strategies
•    Vulnerable to bias
•    Usually not comprehensive in scope
Integrative review •    Similar to a systematic review in process but broader and more holistic in scope 
•    Synthesises a mix of research types: empirical, methodological and theoretical
•    States inclusion criteria, search strategy, extraction, appraisal and analysis process
Scoping review •    Assess size and scope of the literature on a topic
•    Can be done as a preliminary step toward a systematic review
•    Usually lack rigorous analysis of findings
Umbrella review

•    Synthesise the findings of published systematic reviews and meta-analyses

Rapid review •    Similar to a systematic review, but undergone in a shorter timeframe with a more focused question
•    As a result, rapid reviews can be more resource-intensive to ensure quality remains intact.

Further reading

Dobbins, M. (2017). Rapid review guidebook. National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools.

Grant, M.J., & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: An analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 26(2), 91–108.

Munn, Z., Peters, M. D. J., Stern, C., Tufanaru, C., McArthur, A., & Aromataris, E. (2018). Systematic review or scoping review? Guidance for authors when choosing between a systematic or scoping review approach. BMC Medical Research Methodology18(1), 143–143.

Toronto, C., & Remington, R. (2020). A step-by-step guide to conducting an integrative review. Springer International.



What is involved in a literature review?

A literature review typically involves the following steps:

  1. Identifying the research question or topic that you want to explore.
  2. Searching and selecting relevant literature and sources.
  3. Reading and evaluating the literature for its quality, relevance, and significance.
  4. Organizing and synthesizing the information obtained from the literature.
  5. Writing a review that summarizes the major findings, identifies gaps in the literature, and suggests areas for future research.

What is a systematic review?

Systematic reviews aim to bring together all the best quality evidence on a topic to answer a particular research question. Systematic reviews are defined by their rigour, transparency and objectivity. Authors conduct thorough literature searches, then use pre-specified eligibility criteria to include studies for analysis. The entire process is well-documented in order to facilitate replication. Because of the exhaustive nature of the searching and analysis, systematic reviews are commonly done in teams. 

You might undertake a systematic review under the following circumstances:

  • You want to bring together all the known research on a topic
  • There are conflicting findings in existing research
  • There are underpowered studies with non-significant outcomes in your field
  • You want to see how others have addressed a question
  • Existing systematic reviews don't cover the population/study type you are interested in

Explore the Guidelines tab on this page to find materials that will take you through the systematic review process step by step. 

Adapted from Salis, A. Systematically review the literature [Webinar]. Salis Institute.

The following documents provide guidance for what to include in a systematic review, and best practices for conducting them.

Cochrane systematic review:

Kumar, A., Delbaere, K., Zijlstra, G. A. R., Carpenter, H., Iliffe, S., Masud, T., Skelton, D., Morris, R., & Kenick, D. (2014). Exercise for reducing fear of falling in older people living in the community. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Qualitative systematic review:

Mytton, J., Ingram, J., Manns, S., & Thomas, J. (2014). Facilitators and Barriers to Engagement in Parenting Programs: A Qualitative Systematic Review. Health Education & Behavior, 41(2), 127–137.

Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) systematic review:

Ellwood, L., Torun, G., Bahar, Z., & Fernandez, R. (2019). Effects of flavonoid-rich fruits on hypertension in adults: A systematic review. JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports, 17, 2075-2105.

Mixed methods systematic review:

Kinsella, N., Stattin, P., Cahill, D., Brown, C., Bill-Axelson, A., Bratt, O., Carlsson, S., & Van Hemelrijck, M. (2018). Factors influencing men’s choice of and adherence to active surveillance for low-risk prostate cancer: A mixed-method systematic review. European Urology, 74(3), 261–280.