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Literature Reviews

Article Spotlight

Improving the reliability and accessibility of narrative review articles (Byrne, 2016):

  • Is the review article required/important?
  • Was the conduct of literature searches defined?
  • Were literature citations appropriate and balanced?
  • Were original references cited?
  • Was information summarised correctly?
  • Were studies critically evaluated?
  • Are there adequate tables/figures/diagrams?
  • Will the review help readers entering the field?
  • Does the review expand the body of knowledge?


The information and resources on this page mostly refer to literature reviews (aka narrative/traditional reviews) performed in order to write a review article. However, literature reviews/searches may also be conducted in order to introduce and discuss relevant information when writing other types of articles. Traditional literature reviews should not be confused with research reviews such as systematic reviews and other evidence syntheses.

The literature review comes in many shapes and sizes. It is widely used across disciplines because it offers a useful snapshot of the state of research on a particular topic. It provides background and helps to frame research questions and findings in empirical articles, theses, or dissertations. A literature review can also stand alone as an article, providing a valuable overview for those with an interest in the topic. Entire journals are devoted to publishing literature reviews. …

Whether a reviewer is writing about biology or sociology, conducting a qualitative or quantitative review, preparing a literature review as a part of another piece of work, or as its own stand-alone article, every good reviewer of literature must successfully filter large amounts of information into a condensed report that allows others to understand what is currently known about a specific topic” (Pan, 2016).

The Review Article

Purpose:  To summarize and synthesize research that has been done on a particular topic. A review emphasizes important findings in a field and may identify gaps or shortcomings in the research. As it describes and evaluates the studies of others, its primary focus is on what the research has demonstrated through the methodologies and results of study and experimentation.

Audience:  Usually a science journal’s broadest readership because a review is more general in its focus than a research article.


  • Introduction – introduces the topic and its significance and provides a brief preview of the sub-topics or major trends to be covered in the paper.
  • Body – presents a survey of the stages or significant trends in the research.
    Studies are discussed in groups or clusters often identified with subheadings. To develop the body, the writer must determine criteria for grouping: will studies be clustered according to major advances in the research (chronological development) or areas of consensus or lack of consensus in the field? Will the body highlight similarities and differences in the findings in terms of methods, results, and/or the focus of research studies?
    *Tips: The body should contain both generalizations about the set of studies under review (written in the present tense) and citations of specific studies (past tense) to identify and verify observed trends. Topic and concluding sentences of paragraphs and/or sections should synthesize research findings and may show differences and similarities or points of agreement/disagreement.
  • Conclusion – provides a final general overview of what is known and what is left to explore in the field This section may discuss practical implications or suggest directions for future research.

Distinguishing Elements:  The review article is largely descriptive in that it identifies trends or patterns in an area of research across studies. However, analysis is required as the writer offers an interpretation of the state of knowledge in the field, perhaps calling attention to an issue in the field, proposing a theory or model to resolve it, or suggesting directions for future research. As well, unlike research papers that feature functional headings related to the IMRAD format, the review article uses topical or content headings to indicate the sections of the review.

From Types and Conventions of Science Writing by The Writing Centre at Queen's University.

Books @ Other Queen's Libraries

Relevant Articles

Pautasso, M. (2013). Ten simple rules for writing a literature reviewPLoS Computational Biology9(7), e1003149.

  1. Define a Topic and Audience
  2. Search and Re-search the Literature
  3. Take Notes While Reading
  4. Choose the Type of Review You Wish to Write
  5. Keep the Review Focused, but Make It of Broad Interest
  6. Be Critical and Consistent
  7. Find a Logical Structure
  8. Make Use of Feedback
  9. Include Your Own Relevant Research, but Be Objective
  10. Be Up-to-Date, but Do Not Forget Older Studies

Baker, J. D. (2016). The purpose, process, and methods of writing a literature review. Association of Operating Room Nurses Journal, 103(3), 265-269.

      Specific purposes of literature reviews are to:

  1. Provide a theoretical framework for the specific topic under study;
  2. Define relevant or key terms and important variables used for a study or manuscript development;
  3. Provide a synthesized overview of current evidence for practice to gain new perspectives and support assumptions and opinions presented in a manuscript using research studies, quality improvement projects, models, case studies, and so forth;
  4. Identify the main methodology and research techniques previously used; and
  5. Demonstrate the gap (distinguishing what has been done from what needs to be done) in the literature, pointing to the significance of the problem and need for the study or building a case for the quality improvement project to be conducted.


Baker, J. D. (2016). The purpose, process, and methods of writing a literature review. Association of Operating Room Nurses Journal, 103(3), 265-269.

Pan, M. L. (2016). Preparing literature reviews: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Routledge.

Pautasso, M. (2013). Ten simple rules for writing a literature review. PLoS Computational Biology, 9(7), e1003149.