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Global Health Research: IB C195/ PH C117: Literature Reviews

what is

A literature review discusses published information such as scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) in a particular subject area, theory or time period.  It may includes a summary or an overview The purpose is to offer an overview of significant literature published on a topic.

Definition and Use/Purpose:
A literature review may be a chapter of a thesis, a dissertation, or a self-contained review of writings on a subject. The literature review itself, however, does not present new primary scholarship.

Steps to do a literature review

Step 1: Define research topic = find a focus
The problems addressed by the review should be in clear, structured questions. Once the review questions have been set, modifications should be allowed only if alternative ways of defining the populations, interventions, outcomes or study designs become apparent.

Step 2: Identify relevant work
Read review articles. The search for studies should be extensive. Multiple resources should be searched without language restrictions. The study selection criteria should flow directly from the review questions and be specified a priori. Reasons for inclusion and exclusion should be recorded.

Step 3: Assess the quality of sources
Study quality assessment is relevant to every step of a review. Selected studies should get a critical appraisal and design-based quality checklists.

Step 4: Summarize the evidence
Data synthesis consists of study characteristics, quality and effects of statistical methods.

Step 5: Interpret the findings = keep your own voice
Be careful of bias, determine whether the overall summary can be trusted, and, if not, the effects observed in high-quality studies should be used for generating inferences.


Search for Literature & Systematic Reviews

Annual Reviews
Annual Reviews critically reviews significant primary research literature. Each article provides a gateway to the essential primary research literature referenced within each topic.

BIOSIS Previews: enter your search, use limit to "Literature Types" and Review (if available).
Coverage: 1926 - present

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: enter your search, limit to review.
Coverage:  date varies | Some full text |

Embase: enter your search, left menu, use limit to "Literature types"  and select reivew / apply.
Embase is a key resource for systematic reviews and researching evidence-based medicine. Coverage: dates vary

PubMed: enter your search, select filter - 'review'. Includes Systematic Reviews search limit, and peer review. (Guide: HTML | PDF).
Covers: 1946 - present


A good literature review needs a clear line of argument. You should use the critical notes and comments you made doing your reading.
Make sure:
  • you include a clear, short introduction which gives an outline of the review, including the main topics covered and the order of the arguments, with a brief rationale for this.
  • there is always a clear link between your own arguments and the evidence uncovered in your reading. Include a short summary at the end of each section. Use quotations if appropriate.
  • you always acknowledge opinions which do not agree with your thesis. If you ignore opposing viewpoints, your argument will in fact be weaker.
Literature reviews should include the following elements:
  • An overview of the subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review.
  • Division of work under review into categories.
  • Explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others
  • Conclusion which are best considered in the argument, are most convincing, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research.
In assessing each piece, consider:
  • Provenance — What are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence (e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings)?
  • Objectivity — Is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness — Which of the author's theses are most/least convincing?
  • Value — Are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?
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