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Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology: Lit Reviews

a library research guide to nutrition, metabolic biology, and toxicology resources.

what is

LITERATURE REVIEWS survey scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work.

SYSTEMATIC REVIEW reviews literature focused on a research question that identifies, appraises, selects and synthesizes all quality research evidence relevant to that question. Systematic reviews of high-quality randomized controlled trials are crucial to evidence-based medicine.


Similar to primary research, development of the literature review has four stages:

  1. Problem formulation—which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues?
  2. Literature search—finding materials relevant to the subject being explored
  3. Data evaluation—determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic
  4. Analysis and interpretation—discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature

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 works under review into categories (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative theses entirely)
  • Explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others
  • Conclusions as to which are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, 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?

Definition and Use/Purpose:
A literature review may be a chapter of a thesis or dissertation, or may be a self-contained review of writings on a subject. In either case, its purpose is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration
  • Identify new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
  • Point the way forward for further research
  • Place one's original work (in the case of theses or dissertations) in the context of existing literature

The literature review itself, however, does not present new primary scholarship.

Ten Steps for Writing a Literature Review:

1. Define a topic and audience:
    must be interesting to you
    an important aspect of the field
    a well-defined issue

2. Search and Re-Search the Literature:

  • keep track of databases and search items
  • keep a list of papers and pdfs,
  • use a management system: Refworks, EndNote, Mendeley
  • define criteria for exclusion
  • use reviews

3. Take NOTES while reading

4. Choose the type of review to write:

  • Mini-review: shorter in length, cover a specific time frame, or narrow subject area
  • Full review: longer, deeper coverage includes details.
  • Descriptive: focuses on methodology, findings, interpretation
  • Integrative: attempt to find common ideas and concepts.

5. Keep the review focused, but broad interest. (could discuss other disciplines affected)

6. Be Critical and consistent: 
A reader should have an idea of
 - The major achievements in the reviewed field.
 - The areas of debate.
 - The outstanding research questions.

7. Find a logical structure.

It can be helpful to use a mind-map to draw a conceptual scheme of the review.

Mind Map Art

8. Make use of feedback. Can be peer-reviewed or someone reading a draft.

9. Include your own relevant research but be objective.

10. Be Up-to-date, do not forget older studies.

Original by Marco Pautasso. PLOS. July 2013, vol. 9, issue 7.

AVOID these traps:

  • Trying to read everything: try to read the most relevant work instead.
  • Reading not writing: writing is a way of thinking, - write many drafts.
  • Reminder: Review papers can have abstracts and illustrations.
  • Failing to keep bibliographic information: remember that you will be writing a page entitled “References” at some point.
  • Organizing your review chronologically: Organize your paper by ideas.

Questions:  Your Librarian, Susan Koskinen,

Find Literature & Systematic Reviews

Annual Reviews
Reviews primary research literature, provides a gateway to essential primary research literature referenced within topics.

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

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews:
enter your search, limit to review.  [dates vary | Some full text |]

enter your search, limit to "Literature types"  and select review / apply. Key resource for systematic reviews and evidence-based medicine.  [dates vary]
enter your search, select filter - 'review'. Includes Systematic Reviews. (Guide: HTML | PDF). [1946 - present]

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