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Chapter 5: The Literature Review

5.3 Acceptable sources for literature reviews

Following are a few acceptable sources for literature reviews, listed in order from what will be considered most acceptable to less acceptable sources for your literature review assignments:

  • Peer reviewed journal articles.
  • Edited academic books.
  • Articles in professional journals.
  • Statistical data from government websites.
  • Website material from professional associations (use sparingly and carefully). The following sections will explain and provide examples of these various sources.

Peer reviewed journal articles (papers)

A peer reviewed journal article is a paper that has been submitted to a scholarly journal, accepted, and published. Peer review journal papers go through a rigorous, blind review process of peer review. What this means is that two to three experts in the area of research featured in the paper have reviewed and accepted the paper for publication. The names of the author(s) who are seeking to publish the research have been removed (blind review), so as to minimize any bias towards the authors of the research (albeit, sometimes a savvy reviewer can discern who has done the research based upon previous publications, etc.). This blind review process can be long (often 12 to 18 months) and may involve many back and forth edits on the behalf of the researchers, as they work to address the edits and concerns of the peers who reviewed their paper. Often, reviewers will reject the paper for a variety of reasons, such as unclear or questionable methods, lack of contribution to the field, etc. Because peer reviewed journal articles have gone through a rigorous process of review, they are considered to be the premier source for research. Peer reviewed journal articles should serve as the foundation for your literature review.

The following link will provide more information on peer reviewed journal articles. Make sure you watch the little video on the upper left-hand side of your screen, in addition to reading the material at the following website:    http://guides.lib.jjay.cuny.edu/c.php?g=288333&p=1922599

Edited academic books

An edited academic book is a collection of scholarly scientific papers written by different authors. The works are original papers, not published elsewhere (“Edited volume,” 2018). The papers within the text also go through a process of review; however, the review is often not a blind review because the authors have been invited to contribute to the book. Consequently, edited academic books are fine to use for your literature review, but you also want to ensure that your literature review contains mostly peer reviewed journal papers.

Articles in professional journals

Articles from professional journals should be used with caution for your literature review. This is because articles in trade journals are not usually peer reviewed, even though they may appear to be. A good way to find out is to read the “About Us” section of the professional journal, which should state whether or not the papers are peer reviewed. You can also find out by Googling the name of the journal and adding “peer reviewed” to the search.

Statistical data from governmental websites

Governmental websites can be excellent sources for statistical data, e.g, Statistics Canada collects and publishes data related to the economy, society, and the environment (see https://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/start ).

Website material from professional associations

Material from other websites can also serve as a source for statistics that you may need for your literature review. Since you want to justify the value of the research that interests you, you might make use of a professional association’s website to learn how many members they have, for example. You might want to demonstrate, as part of the introduction to your literature review, why more research on the topic of PTSD in police officers is important. You could use peer reviewed journal articles to determine the prevalence of PTSD in police officers in Canada in the last ten years, and then use the Ontario Police Officers´ Association website to determine the approximate number of police officers employed in the Province of Ontario over the last ten years. This might help you estimate how many police officers could be suffering with PTSD in Ontario. That number could potentially help to justify a research grant down the road. But again, this type of website- based material should be used with caution and sparingly.

Research Methods for the Social Sciences: An Introduction by Valerie Sheppard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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sources of literature for literature review

The Literature Review

Primary and secondary sources, the literature review: primary and secondary sources.


  • Searching the literature
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  • Primary vs secondary sources: The differences explained 

Can something be both a primary and secondary source?

Research for your literature review can be categorised as either primary or secondary in nature. The simplest definition of primary sources is either original information (such as survey data) or a first person account of an event (such as an interview transcript). Whereas secondary sources are any publshed or unpublished works that describe, summarise, analyse, evaluate, interpret or review primary source materials. Secondary sources can incorporate primary sources to support their arguments.

Ideally, good research should use a combination of both primary and secondary sources. For example, if a researcher were to investigate the introduction of a law and the impacts it had on a community, he/she might look at the transcripts of the parliamentary debates as well as the parliamentary commentary and news reporting surrounding the laws at the time. 

Examples of primary and secondary sources

Primary vs secondary sources: The differences explained

Finding primary sources

  • VU Special Collections  - The Special Collections at Victoria University Library are a valuable research resource. The Collections have strong threads of radical literature, particularly Australian Communist literature, much of which is rare or unique. Women and urban planning also feature across the Collections. There are collections that give you a picture of the people who donated them like Ray Verrills, John McLaren, Sir Zelman Cowen, and Ruth & Maurie Crow. Other collections focus on Australia's neighbours – PNG and Timor-Leste.
  • POLICY - Sharing the latest in policy knowledge and evidence, this database supports enhanced learning, collaboration and contribution.
  • Indigenous Australia  -  The Indigenous Australia database represents the collections of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Library.
  • Australian Heritage Bibliography - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Subset (AHB-ATSIS)  - AHB is a bibliographic database that indexes and abstracts articles from published and unpublished material on Australia's natural and cultural environment. The AHB-ATSIS subset contains records that specifically relate to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.include journal articles, unpublished reports, books, videos and conference proceedings from many different sources around Australia. Emphasis is placed on reports written or commissioned by government and non-government heritage agencies throughout the country.
  • ATSIhealth  - The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Bibliography (ATSIhealth), compiled by Neil Thomson and Natalie Weissofner at the School of Indigenous Australian Studies, Kurongkurl Katitjin, Edith Cowan University, is a bibliographic database that indexes published and unpublished material on Australian Indigenous health. Source documents include theses, unpublished articles, government reports, conference papers, abstracts, book chapters, books, discussion and working papers, and statistical documents. 
  • National Archive of Australia  - The National Archives of Australia holds the memory of our nation and keeps vital Australian Government records safe. 
  • National Library of Australia: Manuscripts  - Manuscripts collection that is wide ranging and provides rich evidence of the lives and activities of Australians who have shaped our society.
  • National Library of Australia: Printed ephemera  - The National Library has been selectively collecting Australian printed ephemera since the early 1960s as a record of Australian life and social customs, popular culture, national events, and issues of national concern.
  • National Library of Australia: Oral history and folklore - The Library’s Oral History and Folklore Collection dates back to the 1950’s and includes a rich and diverse collection of interviews and recordings with Australians from all walks of life.
  • Historic Hansard - Commonwealth of Australia parliamentary debates presented in an easy-to-read format for historians and other lovers of political speech.
  • The Old Bailey Online - A fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court. 
  • British Library Sounds  - Listen to a selection from the British Library’s extensive collections of unique sound recordings, which come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound: music, drama and literature, oral history, wildlife and environmental sounds.

Whether or not a source can be considered both primary and  secondary, depends on the context. In some instances, material may act as a secondary source for one research area, and as a primary source for another. For example, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince , published in 1513, is an important secondary source for any study of the various Renaissance princes in the Medici family; but the same book is also a primary source for the political thought that was characteristic of the sixteenth century because it reflects the attitudes of a person living in the 1500s.

Source: Craver, 1999, as cited in University of South Australia Library. (2021, Oct 6).  Can something be a primary and secondary source?.  University of South Australia Library. https://guides.library.unisa.edu.au/historycultural/sourcetypes

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Literature review sources

Sources for literature review can be divided into three categories as illustrated in table below. In your dissertation you will need to use all three categories of literature review sources:

Sources for literature review and examples

Generally, your literature review should integrate a wide range of sources such as:

  • Books . Textbooks remain as the most important source to find models and theories related to the research area. Research the most respected authorities in your selected research area and find the latest editions of books authored by them. For example, in the area of marketing the most notable authors include Philip Kotler, Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Emanuel Rosen and others.
  • Magazines . Industry-specific magazines are usually rich in scholarly articles and they can be effective source to learn about the latest trends and developments in the research area. Reading industry magazines can be the most enjoyable part of the literature review, assuming that your selected research area represents an area of your personal and professional interests, which should be the case anyways.
  • Newspapers can be referred to as the main source of up-to-date news about the latest events related to the research area. However, the proportion of the use of newspapers in literature review is recommended to be less compared to alternative sources of secondary data such as books and magazines. This is due to the fact that newspaper articles mainly lack depth of analyses and discussions.
  • Online articles . You can find online versions of all of the above sources. However, note that the levels of reliability of online articles can be highly compromised depending on the source due to the high levels of ease with which articles can be published online. Opinions offered in a wide range of online discussion blogs cannot be usually used in literature review. Similarly, dissertation assessors are not keen to appreciate references to a wide range of blogs, unless articles in these blogs are authored by respected authorities in the research area.

Your secondary data sources may comprise certain amount of grey literature as well. The term grey literature refers to type of literature produced by government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, which is not controlled by commercial publishers. It is called ‘grey’ because the status of the information in grey literature is not certain. In other words, any publication that has not been peer reviewed for publication is grey literature.

The necessity to use grey literature arises when there is no enough peer reviewed publications are available for the subject of your study.

Literature review sources

John Dudovskiy


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  • Subject Guides

Literature Review Basics

  • Primary & Secondary Sources
  • Literature Review Introduction
  • Writing Literature Reviews
  • Tutorials & Samples

The Literature

The Literature refers to the collection of scholarly writings on a topic. This includes peer-reviewed articles, books, dissertations and conference papers.

  • When reviewing the literature, be sure to include major works as well as studies that respond to major works. You will want to focus on primary sources, though secondary sources can be valuable as well.

Primary Sources

The term primary source is used broadly to embody all sources that are original. P rimary sources provide first-hand information that is closest to the object of study. Primary sources vary by discipline.

  • In the natural and social sciences, original reports of research found in academic journals detailing the methodology used in the research, in-depth descriptions, and discussions of the findings are considered primary sources of information.
  • Other common examples of primary sources include speeches, letters, diaries, autobiographies, interviews, official reports, court records, artifacts, photographs, and drawings.  

Galvan, J. L. (2013). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences . Glendale, CA: Pyrczak.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source is a source that provides non-original or secondhand data or information. 

  • Secondary sources are written about primary sources.
  • Research summaries reported in textbooks, magazines, and newspapers are considered secondary sources. They typically provide global descriptions of results with few details on the methodology. Other examples of secondary sources include biographies and critical studies of an author's work.

Secondary Source. (2005). In W. Paul Vogt (Ed.), Dictionary of Statistics & Methodology. (3 rd ed., p. 291). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Weidenborner, S., & Caruso, D. (1997). Writing research papers: A guide to the process . New York: St. Martin's Press.

More Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

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The Literature Review

  • Publications: A World of Information


Primary sources, secondary sources, tertiary sources.

  • Types of Reviews and Their Differences
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Scholarly, professional literature falls under 3 categories, primary, secondary, and tertiary.  Published works (also known as a publication) may fall into one or more of these categories, depending on the discipline.  See definitions and linked examples of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Differences in Publishing Norms by Broader Discipline  

Scholarly and professional communication norms can be different among various disciplines.  For instance, scholars in political science or law will generally publish their knowledge and research differently than those in chemistry or physics.  To show these distinctions, links to examples are provided for primary, secondary and tertiary sources.  The broader disciplines of business, education, and social science tend to use publications from both the sciences and humanities.

If you are in STEM or Nursing, see these examples of primary, secondary and tertiary literature within your disciplines:

  • Nursing - Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources (Using Library Resources for Information and Research)
  • STEM: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources (Guide to Science Information Sources)

sources of literature for literature review

Image:  Typewriter, by DanielMcCullough , Permission by Unsplash.com license .

A primary source is a document or work where its author had a direct interaction or was involved with what was studied or created.  These sources are recommended when you need to get information or findings that are a direct result or finding from a study, research, or creation.   A primary source can also be an actual creative work or original material.


  • Magazine or newspaper articles
  • Creative works ( literature , poetry , fiction books, film, works of art or design, performances)
  • Autobiographies and memoirs
  • Interviews and oral histories
  • Laws, statutes and official documents

Science / Health Sciences:

  • Reports of  original research :  journal articles, poster presentations, conference papers
  • Theses & dissertations
  • Technical reports

sources of literature for literature review

Image:   Library stacks.  Permission by Pixabay.com  license .

A secondary source is a document or work where its author had an indirect part in a study or creation; an author is usually writing about or reporting the work or research done by someone else.  Secondary sources can be used for additional or supporting information; they are not the direct product of research or the making of a creative work.

  • Books (monographs) written about a topic
  • Articles:  Criticism or interpretation of creative works
  • Biographies
  • Reviews of creative works
  • Bibliographies
  • Textbooks and books (monographs)  
  • Reviews: Literature or systematic
  • Articles in trade journals (not based on research)
  • Opinion pieces or commentaries

Tertiary Books Encyclopedia Set

Image:  Encyclopedias, by StockSnap, Permission by Pixabay.com  license .

A tertiary source provides agreed-upon facts like measurements, dates, and definitions.  They are usually known as reference works and include the following:

  • Encyclopedias
  • Standards :  a document with specifications that create rules, guidelines or characteristics to ensure that materials, processes, or services are fit for their purpose.  They are established by a professional organization to provide a baseline of acceptable quality.
  • Handbooks and manuals :  a resource that summarizes major topics or processes within a field.  These often provide established measurements, definitions or research methods.
  • Pathfinders ( Research Guides ): a list of recommended information sources on a topic or discipline.
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sources of literature for literature review

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Literature Review: Lit Review Sources

  • Lit Review Types
  • GRADE System
  • Do a Lit Review
  • Lit Review Sources

Where do I find information for a literature review?

Research is done by...

...by way of...

...communicated through...

...and organized in...

Types of sources for a review...

  • Primary source: Usually a report by the original researchers of a study (unfiltered sources)
  • Secondary source: Description or summary by somebody other than the original researcher, e.g. a review article (filtered sources)
  • Conceptual/theoretical: Papers concerned with description or analysis of theories or concepts associated with the topic
  • Anecdotal/opinion/clinical: Views or opinions about the subject that are not research, review or theoretical (case studies or reports from clinical settings)

A Heirarchy of research information:

Source: SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Medical Research Library of Brooklyn. Evidence Based Medicine Course. A Guide to Research Methods: The Evidence Pyramid: http://library.downstate.edu/EBM2/2100.htm

Life Cycle of Publication

Click image to enlarge

Publication Cycle of Scientific Literature

Scientific information has a ‘life cycle’ of its own… it is born as an idea, and then matures and becomes more available to the public. First it appears within the so-called ‘invisible college’ of experts in the field, discussed at conferences and symposia or posted as pre-prints for comments and corrections. Then it appears in the published literature (the primary literature), often as a journal article in a peer-reviewed journal.

Researchers can use the indexing and alerting services of the secondary literature to find out what has been published in a field. Depending on how much information is added by the indexer or abstracter, this may take a few months (though electronic publication has sped up this process). Finally, the information may appear in more popular or reference sources, sometimes called the tertiary literature.

The person beginning a literature search may take this process in reverse: using tertiary sources for general background, then going to the secondary literature to survey what has been published, following up by finding the original (primary) sources, and generating their own research Idea.

(Original content by Wade Lee-Smith)

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Literature Reviews: Types of Literature

  • Library Basics
  • 1. Choose Your Topic
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Types of Literature

  • 3. Search the Literature
  • 4. Read & Analyze the Literature
  • 5. Write the Review
  • Keeping Track of Information
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Different types of publications have different characteristics.

Primary Literature Primary sources means original studies, based on direct observation, use of statistical records, interviews, or experimental methods, of actual practices or the actual impact of practices or policies. They are authored by researchers, contains original research data, and are usually published in a peer-reviewed journal. Primary literature may also include conference papers, pre-prints, or preliminary reports. Also called empirical research .

Secondary Literature Secondary literature consists of interpretations and evaluations that are derived from or refer to the primary source literature. Examples include review articles (such as meta-analysis and systematic reviews) and reference works. Professionals within each discipline take the primary literature and synthesize, generalize, and integrate new research.

Tertiary Literature Tertiary literature consists of a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources such as textbooks, encyclopedia articles, and guidebooks or handbooks. The purpose of tertiary literature is to provide an overview of key research findings and an introduction to principles and practices within the discipline.

Adapted from the Information Services Department of the Library of the Health Sciences-Chicago , University of Illinois at Chicago.

Types of Scientific Publications

These examples and descriptions of publication types will give you an idea of how to use various works and why you would want to write a particular kind of paper.

  • Scholarly article aka empirical article
  • Review article
  • Conference paper

Scholarly (aka empirical) article -- example

Empirical studies use data derived from observation or experiment. Original research papers (also called primary research articles) that describe empirical studies and their results are published in academic journals.  Articles that report empirical research contain different sections which relate to the steps of the scientific method.

      Abstract - The abstract provides a very brief summary of the research.

     Introduction - The introduction sets the research in a context, which provides a review of related research and develops the hypotheses for the research.

     Method - The method section describes how the research was conducted.

     Results - The results section describes the outcomes of the study.

     Discussion - The discussion section contains the interpretations and implications of the study.

     References - A references section lists the articles, books, and other material cited in the report.

Review article -- example

A review article summarizes a particular field of study and places the recent research in context. It provides an overview and is an excellent introduction to a subject area. The references used in a review article are helpful as they lead to more in-depth research.

Many databases have limits or filters to search for review articles. You can also search by keywords like review article, survey, overview, summary, etc.

Conference proceedings, abstracts and reports -- example

Conference proceedings, abstracts and reports are not usually peer-reviewed.  A conference article is similar to a scholarly article insofar as it is academic. Conference articles are published much more quickly than scholarly articles. You can find conference papers in many of the same places as scholarly articles.

How Do You Identify Empirical Articles?

To identify an article based on empirical research, look for the following characteristics:

     The article is published in a peer-reviewed journal .

     The article includes charts, graphs, or statistical analysis .

     The article is substantial in size , likely to be more than 5 pages long.

     The article contains the following parts (the exact terms may vary): abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion, references .

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Lau F, Kuziemsky C, editors. Handbook of eHealth Evaluation: An Evidence-based Approach [Internet]. Victoria (BC): University of Victoria; 2017 Feb 27.

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Handbook of eHealth Evaluation: An Evidence-based Approach [Internet].

Chapter 9 methods for literature reviews.

Guy Paré and Spyros Kitsiou .

9.1. Introduction

Literature reviews play a critical role in scholarship because science remains, first and foremost, a cumulative endeavour ( vom Brocke et al., 2009 ). As in any academic discipline, rigorous knowledge syntheses are becoming indispensable in keeping up with an exponentially growing eHealth literature, assisting practitioners, academics, and graduate students in finding, evaluating, and synthesizing the contents of many empirical and conceptual papers. Among other methods, literature reviews are essential for: (a) identifying what has been written on a subject or topic; (b) determining the extent to which a specific research area reveals any interpretable trends or patterns; (c) aggregating empirical findings related to a narrow research question to support evidence-based practice; (d) generating new frameworks and theories; and (e) identifying topics or questions requiring more investigation ( Paré, Trudel, Jaana, & Kitsiou, 2015 ).

Literature reviews can take two major forms. The most prevalent one is the “literature review” or “background” section within a journal paper or a chapter in a graduate thesis. This section synthesizes the extant literature and usually identifies the gaps in knowledge that the empirical study addresses ( Sylvester, Tate, & Johnstone, 2013 ). It may also provide a theoretical foundation for the proposed study, substantiate the presence of the research problem, justify the research as one that contributes something new to the cumulated knowledge, or validate the methods and approaches for the proposed study ( Hart, 1998 ; Levy & Ellis, 2006 ).

The second form of literature review, which is the focus of this chapter, constitutes an original and valuable work of research in and of itself ( Paré et al., 2015 ). Rather than providing a base for a researcher’s own work, it creates a solid starting point for all members of the community interested in a particular area or topic ( Mulrow, 1987 ). The so-called “review article” is a journal-length paper which has an overarching purpose to synthesize the literature in a field, without collecting or analyzing any primary data ( Green, Johnson, & Adams, 2006 ).

When appropriately conducted, review articles represent powerful information sources for practitioners looking for state-of-the art evidence to guide their decision-making and work practices ( Paré et al., 2015 ). Further, high-quality reviews become frequently cited pieces of work which researchers seek out as a first clear outline of the literature when undertaking empirical studies ( Cooper, 1988 ; Rowe, 2014 ). Scholars who track and gauge the impact of articles have found that review papers are cited and downloaded more often than any other type of published article ( Cronin, Ryan, & Coughlan, 2008 ; Montori, Wilczynski, Morgan, Haynes, & Hedges, 2003 ; Patsopoulos, Analatos, & Ioannidis, 2005 ). The reason for their popularity may be the fact that reading the review enables one to have an overview, if not a detailed knowledge of the area in question, as well as references to the most useful primary sources ( Cronin et al., 2008 ). Although they are not easy to conduct, the commitment to complete a review article provides a tremendous service to one’s academic community ( Paré et al., 2015 ; Petticrew & Roberts, 2006 ). Most, if not all, peer-reviewed journals in the fields of medical informatics publish review articles of some type.

The main objectives of this chapter are fourfold: (a) to provide an overview of the major steps and activities involved in conducting a stand-alone literature review; (b) to describe and contrast the different types of review articles that can contribute to the eHealth knowledge base; (c) to illustrate each review type with one or two examples from the eHealth literature; and (d) to provide a series of recommendations for prospective authors of review articles in this domain.

9.2. Overview of the Literature Review Process and Steps

As explained in Templier and Paré (2015) , there are six generic steps involved in conducting a review article:

  • formulating the research question(s) and objective(s),
  • searching the extant literature,
  • screening for inclusion,
  • assessing the quality of primary studies,
  • extracting data, and
  • analyzing data.

Although these steps are presented here in sequential order, one must keep in mind that the review process can be iterative and that many activities can be initiated during the planning stage and later refined during subsequent phases ( Finfgeld-Connett & Johnson, 2013 ; Kitchenham & Charters, 2007 ).

Formulating the research question(s) and objective(s): As a first step, members of the review team must appropriately justify the need for the review itself ( Petticrew & Roberts, 2006 ), identify the review’s main objective(s) ( Okoli & Schabram, 2010 ), and define the concepts or variables at the heart of their synthesis ( Cooper & Hedges, 2009 ; Webster & Watson, 2002 ). Importantly, they also need to articulate the research question(s) they propose to investigate ( Kitchenham & Charters, 2007 ). In this regard, we concur with Jesson, Matheson, and Lacey (2011) that clearly articulated research questions are key ingredients that guide the entire review methodology; they underscore the type of information that is needed, inform the search for and selection of relevant literature, and guide or orient the subsequent analysis. Searching the extant literature: The next step consists of searching the literature and making decisions about the suitability of material to be considered in the review ( Cooper, 1988 ). There exist three main coverage strategies. First, exhaustive coverage means an effort is made to be as comprehensive as possible in order to ensure that all relevant studies, published and unpublished, are included in the review and, thus, conclusions are based on this all-inclusive knowledge base. The second type of coverage consists of presenting materials that are representative of most other works in a given field or area. Often authors who adopt this strategy will search for relevant articles in a small number of top-tier journals in a field ( Paré et al., 2015 ). In the third strategy, the review team concentrates on prior works that have been central or pivotal to a particular topic. This may include empirical studies or conceptual papers that initiated a line of investigation, changed how problems or questions were framed, introduced new methods or concepts, or engendered important debate ( Cooper, 1988 ). Screening for inclusion: The following step consists of evaluating the applicability of the material identified in the preceding step ( Levy & Ellis, 2006 ; vom Brocke et al., 2009 ). Once a group of potential studies has been identified, members of the review team must screen them to determine their relevance ( Petticrew & Roberts, 2006 ). A set of predetermined rules provides a basis for including or excluding certain studies. This exercise requires a significant investment on the part of researchers, who must ensure enhanced objectivity and avoid biases or mistakes. As discussed later in this chapter, for certain types of reviews there must be at least two independent reviewers involved in the screening process and a procedure to resolve disagreements must also be in place ( Liberati et al., 2009 ; Shea et al., 2009 ). Assessing the quality of primary studies: In addition to screening material for inclusion, members of the review team may need to assess the scientific quality of the selected studies, that is, appraise the rigour of the research design and methods. Such formal assessment, which is usually conducted independently by at least two coders, helps members of the review team refine which studies to include in the final sample, determine whether or not the differences in quality may affect their conclusions, or guide how they analyze the data and interpret the findings ( Petticrew & Roberts, 2006 ). Ascribing quality scores to each primary study or considering through domain-based evaluations which study components have or have not been designed and executed appropriately makes it possible to reflect on the extent to which the selected study addresses possible biases and maximizes validity ( Shea et al., 2009 ). Extracting data: The following step involves gathering or extracting applicable information from each primary study included in the sample and deciding what is relevant to the problem of interest ( Cooper & Hedges, 2009 ). Indeed, the type of data that should be recorded mainly depends on the initial research questions ( Okoli & Schabram, 2010 ). However, important information may also be gathered about how, when, where and by whom the primary study was conducted, the research design and methods, or qualitative/quantitative results ( Cooper & Hedges, 2009 ). Analyzing and synthesizing data : As a final step, members of the review team must collate, summarize, aggregate, organize, and compare the evidence extracted from the included studies. The extracted data must be presented in a meaningful way that suggests a new contribution to the extant literature ( Jesson et al., 2011 ). Webster and Watson (2002) warn researchers that literature reviews should be much more than lists of papers and should provide a coherent lens to make sense of extant knowledge on a given topic. There exist several methods and techniques for synthesizing quantitative (e.g., frequency analysis, meta-analysis) and qualitative (e.g., grounded theory, narrative analysis, meta-ethnography) evidence ( Dixon-Woods, Agarwal, Jones, Young, & Sutton, 2005 ; Thomas & Harden, 2008 ).

9.3. Types of Review Articles and Brief Illustrations

EHealth researchers have at their disposal a number of approaches and methods for making sense out of existing literature, all with the purpose of casting current research findings into historical contexts or explaining contradictions that might exist among a set of primary research studies conducted on a particular topic. Our classification scheme is largely inspired from Paré and colleagues’ (2015) typology. Below we present and illustrate those review types that we feel are central to the growth and development of the eHealth domain.

9.3.1. Narrative Reviews

The narrative review is the “traditional” way of reviewing the extant literature and is skewed towards a qualitative interpretation of prior knowledge ( Sylvester et al., 2013 ). Put simply, a narrative review attempts to summarize or synthesize what has been written on a particular topic but does not seek generalization or cumulative knowledge from what is reviewed ( Davies, 2000 ; Green et al., 2006 ). Instead, the review team often undertakes the task of accumulating and synthesizing the literature to demonstrate the value of a particular point of view ( Baumeister & Leary, 1997 ). As such, reviewers may selectively ignore or limit the attention paid to certain studies in order to make a point. In this rather unsystematic approach, the selection of information from primary articles is subjective, lacks explicit criteria for inclusion and can lead to biased interpretations or inferences ( Green et al., 2006 ). There are several narrative reviews in the particular eHealth domain, as in all fields, which follow such an unstructured approach ( Silva et al., 2015 ; Paul et al., 2015 ).

Despite these criticisms, this type of review can be very useful in gathering together a volume of literature in a specific subject area and synthesizing it. As mentioned above, its primary purpose is to provide the reader with a comprehensive background for understanding current knowledge and highlighting the significance of new research ( Cronin et al., 2008 ). Faculty like to use narrative reviews in the classroom because they are often more up to date than textbooks, provide a single source for students to reference, and expose students to peer-reviewed literature ( Green et al., 2006 ). For researchers, narrative reviews can inspire research ideas by identifying gaps or inconsistencies in a body of knowledge, thus helping researchers to determine research questions or formulate hypotheses. Importantly, narrative reviews can also be used as educational articles to bring practitioners up to date with certain topics of issues ( Green et al., 2006 ).

Recently, there have been several efforts to introduce more rigour in narrative reviews that will elucidate common pitfalls and bring changes into their publication standards. Information systems researchers, among others, have contributed to advancing knowledge on how to structure a “traditional” review. For instance, Levy and Ellis (2006) proposed a generic framework for conducting such reviews. Their model follows the systematic data processing approach comprised of three steps, namely: (a) literature search and screening; (b) data extraction and analysis; and (c) writing the literature review. They provide detailed and very helpful instructions on how to conduct each step of the review process. As another methodological contribution, vom Brocke et al. (2009) offered a series of guidelines for conducting literature reviews, with a particular focus on how to search and extract the relevant body of knowledge. Last, Bandara, Miskon, and Fielt (2011) proposed a structured, predefined and tool-supported method to identify primary studies within a feasible scope, extract relevant content from identified articles, synthesize and analyze the findings, and effectively write and present the results of the literature review. We highly recommend that prospective authors of narrative reviews consult these useful sources before embarking on their work.

Darlow and Wen (2015) provide a good example of a highly structured narrative review in the eHealth field. These authors synthesized published articles that describe the development process of mobile health ( m-health ) interventions for patients’ cancer care self-management. As in most narrative reviews, the scope of the research questions being investigated is broad: (a) how development of these systems are carried out; (b) which methods are used to investigate these systems; and (c) what conclusions can be drawn as a result of the development of these systems. To provide clear answers to these questions, a literature search was conducted on six electronic databases and Google Scholar . The search was performed using several terms and free text words, combining them in an appropriate manner. Four inclusion and three exclusion criteria were utilized during the screening process. Both authors independently reviewed each of the identified articles to determine eligibility and extract study information. A flow diagram shows the number of studies identified, screened, and included or excluded at each stage of study selection. In terms of contributions, this review provides a series of practical recommendations for m-health intervention development.

9.3.2. Descriptive or Mapping Reviews

The primary goal of a descriptive review is to determine the extent to which a body of knowledge in a particular research topic reveals any interpretable pattern or trend with respect to pre-existing propositions, theories, methodologies or findings ( King & He, 2005 ; Paré et al., 2015 ). In contrast with narrative reviews, descriptive reviews follow a systematic and transparent procedure, including searching, screening and classifying studies ( Petersen, Vakkalanka, & Kuzniarz, 2015 ). Indeed, structured search methods are used to form a representative sample of a larger group of published works ( Paré et al., 2015 ). Further, authors of descriptive reviews extract from each study certain characteristics of interest, such as publication year, research methods, data collection techniques, and direction or strength of research outcomes (e.g., positive, negative, or non-significant) in the form of frequency analysis to produce quantitative results ( Sylvester et al., 2013 ). In essence, each study included in a descriptive review is treated as the unit of analysis and the published literature as a whole provides a database from which the authors attempt to identify any interpretable trends or draw overall conclusions about the merits of existing conceptualizations, propositions, methods or findings ( Paré et al., 2015 ). In doing so, a descriptive review may claim that its findings represent the state of the art in a particular domain ( King & He, 2005 ).

In the fields of health sciences and medical informatics, reviews that focus on examining the range, nature and evolution of a topic area are described by Anderson, Allen, Peckham, and Goodwin (2008) as mapping reviews . Like descriptive reviews, the research questions are generic and usually relate to publication patterns and trends. There is no preconceived plan to systematically review all of the literature although this can be done. Instead, researchers often present studies that are representative of most works published in a particular area and they consider a specific time frame to be mapped.

An example of this approach in the eHealth domain is offered by DeShazo, Lavallie, and Wolf (2009). The purpose of this descriptive or mapping review was to characterize publication trends in the medical informatics literature over a 20-year period (1987 to 2006). To achieve this ambitious objective, the authors performed a bibliometric analysis of medical informatics citations indexed in medline using publication trends, journal frequencies, impact factors, Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) term frequencies, and characteristics of citations. Findings revealed that there were over 77,000 medical informatics articles published during the covered period in numerous journals and that the average annual growth rate was 12%. The MeSH term analysis also suggested a strong interdisciplinary trend. Finally, average impact scores increased over time with two notable growth periods. Overall, patterns in research outputs that seem to characterize the historic trends and current components of the field of medical informatics suggest it may be a maturing discipline (DeShazo et al., 2009).

9.3.3. Scoping Reviews

Scoping reviews attempt to provide an initial indication of the potential size and nature of the extant literature on an emergent topic (Arksey & O’Malley, 2005; Daudt, van Mossel, & Scott, 2013 ; Levac, Colquhoun, & O’Brien, 2010). A scoping review may be conducted to examine the extent, range and nature of research activities in a particular area, determine the value of undertaking a full systematic review (discussed next), or identify research gaps in the extant literature ( Paré et al., 2015 ). In line with their main objective, scoping reviews usually conclude with the presentation of a detailed research agenda for future works along with potential implications for both practice and research.

Unlike narrative and descriptive reviews, the whole point of scoping the field is to be as comprehensive as possible, including grey literature (Arksey & O’Malley, 2005). Inclusion and exclusion criteria must be established to help researchers eliminate studies that are not aligned with the research questions. It is also recommended that at least two independent coders review abstracts yielded from the search strategy and then the full articles for study selection ( Daudt et al., 2013 ). The synthesized evidence from content or thematic analysis is relatively easy to present in tabular form (Arksey & O’Malley, 2005; Thomas & Harden, 2008 ).

One of the most highly cited scoping reviews in the eHealth domain was published by Archer, Fevrier-Thomas, Lokker, McKibbon, and Straus (2011) . These authors reviewed the existing literature on personal health record ( phr ) systems including design, functionality, implementation, applications, outcomes, and benefits. Seven databases were searched from 1985 to March 2010. Several search terms relating to phr s were used during this process. Two authors independently screened titles and abstracts to determine inclusion status. A second screen of full-text articles, again by two independent members of the research team, ensured that the studies described phr s. All in all, 130 articles met the criteria and their data were extracted manually into a database. The authors concluded that although there is a large amount of survey, observational, cohort/panel, and anecdotal evidence of phr benefits and satisfaction for patients, more research is needed to evaluate the results of phr implementations. Their in-depth analysis of the literature signalled that there is little solid evidence from randomized controlled trials or other studies through the use of phr s. Hence, they suggested that more research is needed that addresses the current lack of understanding of optimal functionality and usability of these systems, and how they can play a beneficial role in supporting patient self-management ( Archer et al., 2011 ).

9.3.4. Forms of Aggregative Reviews

Healthcare providers, practitioners, and policy-makers are nowadays overwhelmed with large volumes of information, including research-based evidence from numerous clinical trials and evaluation studies, assessing the effectiveness of health information technologies and interventions ( Ammenwerth & de Keizer, 2004 ; Deshazo et al., 2009 ). It is unrealistic to expect that all these disparate actors will have the time, skills, and necessary resources to identify the available evidence in the area of their expertise and consider it when making decisions. Systematic reviews that involve the rigorous application of scientific strategies aimed at limiting subjectivity and bias (i.e., systematic and random errors) can respond to this challenge.

Systematic reviews attempt to aggregate, appraise, and synthesize in a single source all empirical evidence that meet a set of previously specified eligibility criteria in order to answer a clearly formulated and often narrow research question on a particular topic of interest to support evidence-based practice ( Liberati et al., 2009 ). They adhere closely to explicit scientific principles ( Liberati et al., 2009 ) and rigorous methodological guidelines (Higgins & Green, 2008) aimed at reducing random and systematic errors that can lead to deviations from the truth in results or inferences. The use of explicit methods allows systematic reviews to aggregate a large body of research evidence, assess whether effects or relationships are in the same direction and of the same general magnitude, explain possible inconsistencies between study results, and determine the strength of the overall evidence for every outcome of interest based on the quality of included studies and the general consistency among them ( Cook, Mulrow, & Haynes, 1997 ). The main procedures of a systematic review involve:

  • Formulating a review question and developing a search strategy based on explicit inclusion criteria for the identification of eligible studies (usually described in the context of a detailed review protocol).
  • Searching for eligible studies using multiple databases and information sources, including grey literature sources, without any language restrictions.
  • Selecting studies, extracting data, and assessing risk of bias in a duplicate manner using two independent reviewers to avoid random or systematic errors in the process.
  • Analyzing data using quantitative or qualitative methods.
  • Presenting results in summary of findings tables.
  • Interpreting results and drawing conclusions.

Many systematic reviews, but not all, use statistical methods to combine the results of independent studies into a single quantitative estimate or summary effect size. Known as meta-analyses , these reviews use specific data extraction and statistical techniques (e.g., network, frequentist, or Bayesian meta-analyses) to calculate from each study by outcome of interest an effect size along with a confidence interval that reflects the degree of uncertainty behind the point estimate of effect ( Borenstein, Hedges, Higgins, & Rothstein, 2009 ; Deeks, Higgins, & Altman, 2008 ). Subsequently, they use fixed or random-effects analysis models to combine the results of the included studies, assess statistical heterogeneity, and calculate a weighted average of the effect estimates from the different studies, taking into account their sample sizes. The summary effect size is a value that reflects the average magnitude of the intervention effect for a particular outcome of interest or, more generally, the strength of a relationship between two variables across all studies included in the systematic review. By statistically combining data from multiple studies, meta-analyses can create more precise and reliable estimates of intervention effects than those derived from individual studies alone, when these are examined independently as discrete sources of information.

The review by Gurol-Urganci, de Jongh, Vodopivec-Jamsek, Atun, and Car (2013) on the effects of mobile phone messaging reminders for attendance at healthcare appointments is an illustrative example of a high-quality systematic review with meta-analysis. Missed appointments are a major cause of inefficiency in healthcare delivery with substantial monetary costs to health systems. These authors sought to assess whether mobile phone-based appointment reminders delivered through Short Message Service ( sms ) or Multimedia Messaging Service ( mms ) are effective in improving rates of patient attendance and reducing overall costs. To this end, they conducted a comprehensive search on multiple databases using highly sensitive search strategies without language or publication-type restrictions to identify all rct s that are eligible for inclusion. In order to minimize the risk of omitting eligible studies not captured by the original search, they supplemented all electronic searches with manual screening of trial registers and references contained in the included studies. Study selection, data extraction, and risk of bias assessments were performed inde­­pen­dently by two coders using standardized methods to ensure consistency and to eliminate potential errors. Findings from eight rct s involving 6,615 participants were pooled into meta-analyses to calculate the magnitude of effects that mobile text message reminders have on the rate of attendance at healthcare appointments compared to no reminders and phone call reminders.

Meta-analyses are regarded as powerful tools for deriving meaningful conclusions. However, there are situations in which it is neither reasonable nor appropriate to pool studies together using meta-analytic methods simply because there is extensive clinical heterogeneity between the included studies or variation in measurement tools, comparisons, or outcomes of interest. In these cases, systematic reviews can use qualitative synthesis methods such as vote counting, content analysis, classification schemes and tabulations, as an alternative approach to narratively synthesize the results of the independent studies included in the review. This form of review is known as qualitative systematic review.

A rigorous example of one such review in the eHealth domain is presented by Mickan, Atherton, Roberts, Heneghan, and Tilson (2014) on the use of handheld computers by healthcare professionals and their impact on access to information and clinical decision-making. In line with the methodological guide­lines for systematic reviews, these authors: (a) developed and registered with prospero ( www.crd.york.ac.uk/ prospero / ) an a priori review protocol; (b) conducted comprehensive searches for eligible studies using multiple databases and other supplementary strategies (e.g., forward searches); and (c) subsequently carried out study selection, data extraction, and risk of bias assessments in a duplicate manner to eliminate potential errors in the review process. Heterogeneity between the included studies in terms of reported outcomes and measures precluded the use of meta-analytic methods. To this end, the authors resorted to using narrative analysis and synthesis to describe the effectiveness of handheld computers on accessing information for clinical knowledge, adherence to safety and clinical quality guidelines, and diagnostic decision-making.

In recent years, the number of systematic reviews in the field of health informatics has increased considerably. Systematic reviews with discordant findings can cause great confusion and make it difficult for decision-makers to interpret the review-level evidence ( Moher, 2013 ). Therefore, there is a growing need for appraisal and synthesis of prior systematic reviews to ensure that decision-making is constantly informed by the best available accumulated evidence. Umbrella reviews , also known as overviews of systematic reviews, are tertiary types of evidence synthesis that aim to accomplish this; that is, they aim to compare and contrast findings from multiple systematic reviews and meta-analyses ( Becker & Oxman, 2008 ). Umbrella reviews generally adhere to the same principles and rigorous methodological guidelines used in systematic reviews. However, the unit of analysis in umbrella reviews is the systematic review rather than the primary study ( Becker & Oxman, 2008 ). Unlike systematic reviews that have a narrow focus of inquiry, umbrella reviews focus on broader research topics for which there are several potential interventions ( Smith, Devane, Begley, & Clarke, 2011 ). A recent umbrella review on the effects of home telemonitoring interventions for patients with heart failure critically appraised, compared, and synthesized evidence from 15 systematic reviews to investigate which types of home telemonitoring technologies and forms of interventions are more effective in reducing mortality and hospital admissions ( Kitsiou, Paré, & Jaana, 2015 ).

9.3.5. Realist Reviews

Realist reviews are theory-driven interpretative reviews developed to inform, enhance, or supplement conventional systematic reviews by making sense of heterogeneous evidence about complex interventions applied in diverse contexts in a way that informs policy decision-making ( Greenhalgh, Wong, Westhorp, & Pawson, 2011 ). They originated from criticisms of positivist systematic reviews which centre on their “simplistic” underlying assumptions ( Oates, 2011 ). As explained above, systematic reviews seek to identify causation. Such logic is appropriate for fields like medicine and education where findings of randomized controlled trials can be aggregated to see whether a new treatment or intervention does improve outcomes. However, many argue that it is not possible to establish such direct causal links between interventions and outcomes in fields such as social policy, management, and information systems where for any intervention there is unlikely to be a regular or consistent outcome ( Oates, 2011 ; Pawson, 2006 ; Rousseau, Manning, & Denyer, 2008 ).

To circumvent these limitations, Pawson, Greenhalgh, Harvey, and Walshe (2005) have proposed a new approach for synthesizing knowledge that seeks to unpack the mechanism of how “complex interventions” work in particular contexts. The basic research question — what works? — which is usually associated with systematic reviews changes to: what is it about this intervention that works, for whom, in what circumstances, in what respects and why? Realist reviews have no particular preference for either quantitative or qualitative evidence. As a theory-building approach, a realist review usually starts by articulating likely underlying mechanisms and then scrutinizes available evidence to find out whether and where these mechanisms are applicable ( Shepperd et al., 2009 ). Primary studies found in the extant literature are viewed as case studies which can test and modify the initial theories ( Rousseau et al., 2008 ).

The main objective pursued in the realist review conducted by Otte-Trojel, de Bont, Rundall, and van de Klundert (2014) was to examine how patient portals contribute to health service delivery and patient outcomes. The specific goals were to investigate how outcomes are produced and, most importantly, how variations in outcomes can be explained. The research team started with an exploratory review of background documents and research studies to identify ways in which patient portals may contribute to health service delivery and patient outcomes. The authors identified six main ways which represent “educated guesses” to be tested against the data in the evaluation studies. These studies were identified through a formal and systematic search in four databases between 2003 and 2013. Two members of the research team selected the articles using a pre-established list of inclusion and exclusion criteria and following a two-step procedure. The authors then extracted data from the selected articles and created several tables, one for each outcome category. They organized information to bring forward those mechanisms where patient portals contribute to outcomes and the variation in outcomes across different contexts.

9.3.6. Critical Reviews

Lastly, critical reviews aim to provide a critical evaluation and interpretive analysis of existing literature on a particular topic of interest to reveal strengths, weaknesses, contradictions, controversies, inconsistencies, and/or other important issues with respect to theories, hypotheses, research methods or results ( Baumeister & Leary, 1997 ; Kirkevold, 1997 ). Unlike other review types, critical reviews attempt to take a reflective account of the research that has been done in a particular area of interest, and assess its credibility by using appraisal instruments or critical interpretive methods. In this way, critical reviews attempt to constructively inform other scholars about the weaknesses of prior research and strengthen knowledge development by giving focus and direction to studies for further improvement ( Kirkevold, 1997 ).

Kitsiou, Paré, and Jaana (2013) provide an example of a critical review that assessed the methodological quality of prior systematic reviews of home telemonitoring studies for chronic patients. The authors conducted a comprehensive search on multiple databases to identify eligible reviews and subsequently used a validated instrument to conduct an in-depth quality appraisal. Results indicate that the majority of systematic reviews in this particular area suffer from important methodological flaws and biases that impair their internal validity and limit their usefulness for clinical and decision-making purposes. To this end, they provide a number of recommendations to strengthen knowledge development towards improving the design and execution of future reviews on home telemonitoring.

9.4. Summary

Table 9.1 outlines the main types of literature reviews that were described in the previous sub-sections and summarizes the main characteristics that distinguish one review type from another. It also includes key references to methodological guidelines and useful sources that can be used by eHealth scholars and researchers for planning and developing reviews.

Table 9.1. Typology of Literature Reviews (adapted from Paré et al., 2015).

Typology of Literature Reviews (adapted from Paré et al., 2015).

As shown in Table 9.1 , each review type addresses different kinds of research questions or objectives, which subsequently define and dictate the methods and approaches that need to be used to achieve the overarching goal(s) of the review. For example, in the case of narrative reviews, there is greater flexibility in searching and synthesizing articles ( Green et al., 2006 ). Researchers are often relatively free to use a diversity of approaches to search, identify, and select relevant scientific articles, describe their operational characteristics, present how the individual studies fit together, and formulate conclusions. On the other hand, systematic reviews are characterized by their high level of systematicity, rigour, and use of explicit methods, based on an “a priori” review plan that aims to minimize bias in the analysis and synthesis process (Higgins & Green, 2008). Some reviews are exploratory in nature (e.g., scoping/mapping reviews), whereas others may be conducted to discover patterns (e.g., descriptive reviews) or involve a synthesis approach that may include the critical analysis of prior research ( Paré et al., 2015 ). Hence, in order to select the most appropriate type of review, it is critical to know before embarking on a review project, why the research synthesis is conducted and what type of methods are best aligned with the pursued goals.

9.5. Concluding Remarks

In light of the increased use of evidence-based practice and research generating stronger evidence ( Grady et al., 2011 ; Lyden et al., 2013 ), review articles have become essential tools for summarizing, synthesizing, integrating or critically appraising prior knowledge in the eHealth field. As mentioned earlier, when rigorously conducted review articles represent powerful information sources for eHealth scholars and practitioners looking for state-of-the-art evidence. The typology of literature reviews we used herein will allow eHealth researchers, graduate students and practitioners to gain a better understanding of the similarities and differences between review types.

We must stress that this classification scheme does not privilege any specific type of review as being of higher quality than another ( Paré et al., 2015 ). As explained above, each type of review has its own strengths and limitations. Having said that, we realize that the methodological rigour of any review — be it qualitative, quantitative or mixed — is a critical aspect that should be considered seriously by prospective authors. In the present context, the notion of rigour refers to the reliability and validity of the review process described in section 9.2. For one thing, reliability is related to the reproducibility of the review process and steps, which is facilitated by a comprehensive documentation of the literature search process, extraction, coding and analysis performed in the review. Whether the search is comprehensive or not, whether it involves a methodical approach for data extraction and synthesis or not, it is important that the review documents in an explicit and transparent manner the steps and approach that were used in the process of its development. Next, validity characterizes the degree to which the review process was conducted appropriately. It goes beyond documentation and reflects decisions related to the selection of the sources, the search terms used, the period of time covered, the articles selected in the search, and the application of backward and forward searches ( vom Brocke et al., 2009 ). In short, the rigour of any review article is reflected by the explicitness of its methods (i.e., transparency) and the soundness of the approach used. We refer those interested in the concepts of rigour and quality to the work of Templier and Paré (2015) which offers a detailed set of methodological guidelines for conducting and evaluating various types of review articles.

To conclude, our main objective in this chapter was to demystify the various types of literature reviews that are central to the continuous development of the eHealth field. It is our hope that our descriptive account will serve as a valuable source for those conducting, evaluating or using reviews in this important and growing domain.

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  • Cite this Page Paré G, Kitsiou S. Chapter 9 Methods for Literature Reviews. In: Lau F, Kuziemsky C, editors. Handbook of eHealth Evaluation: An Evidence-based Approach [Internet]. Victoria (BC): University of Victoria; 2017 Feb 27.
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  • Concluding Remarks

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How To Find A-Grade Literature For Review

Sourcing, evaluating and organising.

By: David Phair (PhD) and Peter Quella (PhD) | January 2022

As we’ve discussed previously on our blog and YouTube channel, the first step of the literature review process is to source high-quality , relevant resources for your review, and to catalogue these pieces of literature in a systematic way so that you can digest and synthesise all the content efficiently.

In this article, we’ll look discuss 6 important things to keep in mind for the initial stage of your literature review so that you can source high-quality, relevant resources, quickly and efficiently. Let’s get started!

Overview: Literature Review Sourcing

  • Develop and follow a clear literature search strategy
  • Understand and use different types of literature correctly
  • Carefully evaluate the quality of your potential sources
  • Use a reference manager and a literature catalogue
  • Read as broadly and comprehensively as possible
  • Keep your golden thread front of mind throughout the process

1. Have a clear literature search strategy

As with any task in the research process, you need to have a clear plan of action before you get started, or you’ll end up wasting a lot of time and energy. So, before you begin your literature review , it’s useful to develop a simple search strategy . Broadly speaking, a good literature search strategy should include the following steps:

Step one – Clearly identify your golden thread

Your golden thread consists of your research aims , research objectives and research questions . These three components should be tightly aligned to form the focus of your research. If you’re unclear what your research aims and research questions are, you’re not going to have a clear direction when trying to source literature. As a result, you’re going to waste a lot of time reviewing irrelevant resources.

So, make sure that you have clarity regarding your golden thread before you start searching for literature. Of course, your research aims, objectives and questions may evolve or shift as a result of the literature review process (in fact, this is quite common), but you still need to have a clear focus to get things started.

Step two – Develop a keyword/keyphrase list

Once you’ve clearly articulated your golden thread in terms of the research aims, objectives and questions, the next step is to develop a list of keywords or keyphrases, based on these three elements (the golden thread). You’ll also want to include synonyms and alternative spellings (for example, American vs British English) in your list.

For example, if your research aims and research questions involve investigating organisational trust , your keyword list might include:

  • Organisational trust
  • Organizational trust (US spelling)
  • Consumer trust
  • Brand trust
  • Online trust

When it comes to brainstorming keywords, the more the better . Don’t hold back at this stage. You’ll quickly find out which ones are useful, and which aren’t when you start searching. So, it’s best to just go as broad as possible here to ensure you cast a wide net.

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Step three – Identify the relevant databases

Now that you’ve got a comprehensive set of keywords, the next step is to identify which literature databases will be most useful and relevant for your particular study. There are hundreds, if not thousands of databases out there, and they are often subject or discipline-specific . For example, within the medicine space, Medline is a popular one.

To identify relevant databases, it’s best to speak to your research advisor/supervisor, Grad Coach or a librarian at your university library. Oftentimes, a quick chat with a skilled librarian can yield tremendous insight. Don’t be shy to ask – chances are, they’ll be thrilled that you asked!

At this stage, you might be asking, “why not just use Google Scholar?”. Of course, an academic search engine like Google Scholar will be useful in terms of getting started and finding a broad range of resources, but it won’t always present every possible resource  or the best quality resources. It also has limited filtering options compared to some of the specialist databases, so you shouldn’t rely purely on Google Scholar.

Step four – Use Boolean operators to refine your search

Once you’ve identified your keywords and databases, it’s time to start searching for literature – hooray! However, you’ll quickly find that there is a seemingly endless number of journal articles to sift through, and you have limited time to work through the literature. So, you’ll need to get smart about how you use these databases – enter Boolean operators.

Boolean operators are special characters that allow you to refine your search. Common operators include:

  • AND – only show results that contain both X and Y
  • OR – show results that contain X or Y
  • NOT – show results that include X, but not Y

These operators are incredibly useful, especially when there are topics that are very similar to yours but are not relevant . For example, if you’re researching something about the growth of apples, you’ll want to exclude all literature related to Apple, the company. Boolean operators allow you to cut out the irrelevant content and improve the signal to noise ratio in your search.

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sources of literature for literature review

2. Use different types of literature correctly

Once you start searching for literature, you’ll quickly notice that there are different “types” of resources that come up. It’s important to understand the different types of literature available to you and how to use each of them appropriately.

Generally speaking, you’ll find three categories of literature:

Primary literature

Secondary literature

Tertiary literature

Primary literature refers to journal articles , typically peer reviewed, which document a study that was undertaken, where data were collected and analysed, and findings were discussed. For example, a journal article that involves the collection and analysis of survey data to identify differences in personality between two groups of people.

Primary literature should, ideally, form the foundation of your literature review – the bread and butter, so to speak. You’ll likely refer to many of the arguments made and findings identified in these types of articles to build your own arguments throughout your literature review. You’ll also rely on these types of articles for theoretical models and frameworks, which may form the foundation of your own proposed framework, depending on the nature of your research.

Lastly, primary literature can be a useful source of measurement scales for quantitative studies. For example, many journal articles will include a copy of the survey measures they used at the end of the article, which will typically be reliable and valid. You can either use these “as is” or as a foundation for your own survey measures .

So, long story short, you’ll need a good stockpile of these types of resources. They are, admittedly, more “dense” and challenging to digest than the other types of literature, but taking the time to work through them will pay off greatly.

Secondary literature refers to journal articles that summarise and integrate the findings from primary literature. For example, you’ll likely find “review of the literature” type journal articles which provide an overview of the current state of the research (at the time of publication, of course).

Secondary literature is very useful for orienting yourself with regards to the current state of knowledge and identifying key researchers , seminal works and so on. In other words, they’re a good tool to make sure you’ve got a broad, comprehensive view of what all is out there. They’re not going to give you the level of detail that primary literature will (and they’ll likely be a bit outdated), but they’ll point you in the right direction.

In practical terms, it’s a good idea to start by reviewing secondary literature-type articles to help you get a bird’s eye view of the landscape and then dive deeper into the primary literature to get a grasp of the specifics and to bring your knowledge up to date with the most current studies.

The final category of literature refers to sources that would be considered less academic and scientifically rigorous in nature, but up to date and highly relevant. For example, sources such as current industry and country reports published by management consulting groups, news articles, blog posts and so on.

While these sources are not as credible and trustworthy as journal articles (especially peer-reviewed ones), they can provide very up to date information , whereas academic research tends to roll out quite slowly. Therefore, they can be very useful for contextualising your research topic and/or demonstrating a current trend. Quite often, you’d cite these types of sources in your introduction chapter rather than your literature review chapter, but you may still have use for them in the latter.

In summary, it’s important to understand the three different types of literature – primary, secondary and tertiary, and use them appropriately in your dissertation, thesis or research project.

It’s important to understand the different types of literature available to you and how to use each of them appropriately in your literature review.

3. Carefully evaluate the quality of your sources

As we’ve alluded to, not all literature is created equally. Not only does literature vary in terms of type (i.e., primary vs secondary), it also varies in terms of overall quality .

Simply put, all sources exist on a quality spectrum . On the high end of the spectrum are peer-reviewed articles published in popular, credible journals. Next are journal articles that are not peer-reviewed, or that are published in lower quality or lesser-known journals. In the middle are sources like textbooks and reports by professional organisations (e.g., management consulting firms). On the low end are sources like newspapers, blog posts and social media posts.

As you can probably see, this loosely reflects the categories we mentioned previously (primary, secondary and tertiary literature), so there is once again a trade-off between quality and recency . Therefore, you need to carefully evaluate the quality of each potential source and let this inform how you use it in your literature review. Importantly, this doesn’t mean that you can’t include a newspaper article or blog post as a source – it just means that you shouldn’t rely too heavily on these types of courses as the core of your argument.

When evaluating journal articles, you can consider their citation count (i.e., the number of other articles that reference them) as a quality indicator. But keep in mind that citation count is a product of many factors , including the popularity of the article, the popularity of the research field and most importantly, time. In other words, it’s natural for newer articles to have lower citation counts. This is useful to keep in mind, as you ideally want to focus on more recent literature (published within the last 3-5 years) in your literature review.

In summary, aim to focus on higher-quality literature , especially when you’re building core arguments in your literature review. You don’t, for example, want to make an argument regarding the importance and novelty of your research (i.e., its justification) based on some blogger’s opinion.

All literature and resources exist on a quality spectrum, ranging from high-quality (typically less recent) to low-quality (oftentimes recent).

4. Use a reference manager and literature catalogue

As you review the literature and build your collection of potential sources, you’ll need a way to stay on top of all the details. To this end, it’s essential that you make use of both a reference manager and a literature catalogue . Let’s take a look at each of these.

The reference manager

Reference management software helps you store the reference information for each of your articles and manages the citation and reference list building task as you write up your actual literature review chapter. In other words, a reference manager ensures that your citations and reference list are correctly formatted in the reference style required by your university – e.g., Harvard, APA , MLA, etc.

Using a reference manager saves you the hassle of trying to manually type out your in-text citations and reference list, which you’re bound to mess up in some way. A simple comma out of place, incorrect italicisation or boldfacing can result in you losing marks, and that’s highly likely when you’re dealing with a large number of references. So, it just makes sense to use a piece of software for this task.

The good news is that there are loads of options , many of which are free . For new researchers, we usually recommend Mendeley or Zotero . So, don’t waste your time trying to manage your references manually – get yourself a reference manager ASAP.

The literature catalogue

The second tool you’ll need is a literature catalogue. This is simply an Excel document that you can easily compile yourself (or download our free one here ), where you list and categorise all your literature. You might doubt whether it’s really necessary to have a separate catalogue when you’ve already logged your reference data in a reference manager, but trust us, you’re going to need it. It’s quite common that throughout the literature review process, you’ll review hundreds of articles , so it’s simply impossible that you’ll remember all the details.

What makes a literature catalogue extremely powerful is that you can store as much information as you want for each piece of literature that you include (whereas a reference manager only includes basic fields). Typically, you would include things like:

  • Title of the article
  • One-line summary of the research
  • Key findings and takeaways
  • Context (i.e. where did it take place)
  • Useful quotes
  • Methodology (e.g. qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods)
  • Category (you can customise as many categories as makes sense for you)
  • Quality of resource
  • Type of literature (e.g. primary, secondary or tertiary)

These are just some examples – ultimately you need to customise your catalogue to suit your needs. But, as you can see, the more detailed you get, the more useful your catalogue will become when it’s time to synthesise the research and write up your literature. For example, you could quickly filter the catalogue to display all papers that support a certain hypothesis, that argue in a specific direction, or that were written at a certain time.

5. Read widely (and efficiently)

As we’ve discussed in other posts , the purpose of the literature review chapter is to present and synthesise the current state of knowledge in relation to your research aims, objectives and research questions. To do this, you’ll need to read as broadly and comprehensively as possible. You’ll need to demonstrate to your marker that you “know your stuff” and have a strong understanding of the relevant literature.

Ideally, your literature review should include an eclectic mix of research that features multiple perspectives . In other words, you need to avoid getting tunnel vision and running down one narrow stream of literature. Ideally, you want to highlight both the agreements and disagreements in the literature to show that you’ve got a well-balanced view of the situation.

If your topic is particularly novel and there isn’t a lot of literature available, you can focus your efforts on adjacent literature . For example, if you’re researching factors that cultivate organisational trust in Germany, but there’s very little literature on this, you can draw on US and UK-based studies to form your theoretical foundation. Similarly, if you’re investigating an occurrence in an under-researched industry, you can look at other industries for literature.

As you read each journal article, be sure to scan the reference list for further reading (this technique is called “snowballing”). By doing this, you will quickly identify key literature within a topic area and fast-track your literature review process. You can also check which articles have cited any given article using Google Scholar, which will give you a “forward view” in terms of the progress of the literature.

Given that you’ll need to work through a large amount of literature, it’s useful to adopt a “strategic skimming ” approach when you’re initially assessing articles, so that you don’t need to read the entire journal article . In practical terms, this means you can focus on just the title and abstract at first, and if the article seems relevant based on those, you can jump to the findings section and limitations section. These sections will give you a solid indicator as to whether the resource is relevant to your study, which you can then shortlist for full reading.

eclectic mix of research that features multiple perspectives to avoid tunnel vision.

6. Keep your golden thread front of mind

Your golden thread (i.e., your research aims, objectives and research questions) needs to guide every decision you make throughout your dissertation, thesis, or research project. This is especially true in the literature review stage, as the golden thread should act as a litmus test for relevance whenever you’re reviewing potential articles or resources. In other words, if an article doesn’t relate to your golden thread, its probably not worth spending time on.

Keep in mind that your research aims, objectives and research questions may evolve as a result of the literature review process. For example, you may find that after reviewing the literature in more depth, your topic focus is not as novel as you originally thought, or that there’s an adjacent area that is more deserving of investigation. This is perfectly natural, so don’t be surprised if your focus shifts somewhat during the review process. Just remember to update your literature review in this case and be sure to update any previous chapters so that your document has a consistent focus throughout.

Wrapping up

In this article, we covered 6 pointers to help you find and evaluate high-quality resources for your literature review. To recap:

  • Understand and use different types of literature for the right purpose

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment . Alternatively, if you’d like hands-on help with your literature review, be sure to check out our 1-on-1 private coaching services here.

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What are the sources of literature review

What are the sources of literature review


  • What is a literature review?  
  • How many sources should a literature review has?
  • Types of sources for literature review
  • Differentiation between literature review sources 
  • How many sources are there for academic research?
  • The second group types of academic sources
  • Different ways to organize sources in a literature review
  • Video: Sources of Literature Review

 What is a literature review? 

A literature review is a document that written for scholarly reviewing some literatures and publication researches about a specific topic. The concept of literature review is to collect relevant researches and publications from good sources to review and analyze these studies which are about a specific topic.

The literature review can be a stand-alone literature review or  the literature review  can be a part of research paper document. As a stand-alone literature review the literature is written to summarize and evaluate the current knowledge of a specific topic. But the literature review which is a part of research paper document is written to determine the gaps in the current knowledge that the research paper document written to address

 How many sources should a literature review has? 

The required number of sources needed for a literature review depends if the literature review is a stand-alone or a part of research paper.

First: if a literature review is a part of  research  paper document:

Min number of sources needed = the number of pages in the literature review body part (where the body does not contain title page, abstract, appendices and references)

For example, a literature review with 5 page of body content requires 5 sources in minimum.

Second: if a literature review is a stand-alone literature review:

Min number of sources needed = three times of the number of pages of body part (where the body does not contain title page, abstract, appendices and references)

For example, a literature review with 5 page of body content requires 3*5 = 15 sources in minimum.

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 Types of sources for literature review 

When you are work on reviewing a literature, you have to include major studies and researches that support a specific topic. The included studies and researches are called sources where these sources can be primary sources, secondary sources or tertiary sources. There are three types of literature review sources which are:

First type of literature review sources/ Primary sources: in primary sources of literature review includes the original studies and researches. Where these original studies based on direct observation, experimental methods, interviews and the use of statistical records. Examples of primary sources are diaries, speeches, court records, official reports, autobiographies, photographs and drawings. Which all of the primary sources contain original data of research.

Primary sources usually contain a first-hand information that closer to the field of study.

Second type of  literature  review sources/ Secondary sources: the secondary sources usually written about the primary sources and provide a second-hand information about the field of study. In other word, secondary sources contain interpretations and evaluations that derived from primary sources. As examples of secondary source biographies and critical studies about author’s work also, secondary sources contain research summaries in textbooks and magazines.  

Third type of literature review sources/ Tertiary sources: the tertiary sources include textbooks, encyclopedias, handbooks, newspapers. Tertiary sources consist of primary and secondary sources which aims to provide an overview of key research outcomes.

 Differentiation between literature review sources 

In this paragraph, you will read more details and examples about each type of literature review sources:

 How many sources are there for academic research? 

Types of sources are different when you are working on written academic research document and these types are:

  • First academic sources type/ Scholarly publication: which directs to the original sources and studies. Scholarly publications are written by and for experts in a specific field and written with scholarly or technical language. Journals are example of scholarly publication academic sources.
  • Second academic sources type/ Popular sources: the popular sources are written for people in a society so the popular sources written by journalists or professional writers. Popular sources often written in a simple language that enables popular people to understand it. News and magazines are examples of popular sources. Here the writers of popular sources should not have an experience of what they write and these sources may include  analysis  of an issue.
  • Third academic sources type/ Professional sources: professional sources are written by participators in a specific field (nursing, sport, health, teaching) and also written by using language and jargons of the written filed. For example, a nurse can write a source by using nursing jargons and nursing language.

 The second group types of academic sources 

  • Fourth academic sources type/ Books: the academic books/ chapter of book should be written and edited by experts and in academic language. When you need to make an investigation about a specific topic, books are good sources for your investigation.
  • Fifth academic sources type/ Conference proceedings: the conference proceedings are a collection of documents, papers, researches and information which prepared for a conference.
  • Sixth academic sources type/ Government documents: the government document sources are established by the government printing office. Some of governmental departments publish reports, white papers, statistics and other more documents. Some of governmental documents are published for public.
  • Seventh academic sources type/ Thesis and dissertations: the final type of academic sources is thesis and dissertations which written by students in postgraduate studies. Thesis and dissertations documents are written by guidance of academic committee.

 Different ways to organize sources in a literature review 

  • First different type: Chronological is the first type to organize a literature review written document. So, you can review your source in a written  literature review  according to when the sources published. Use the chronological type when the written literature review follows a chronological method.
  • Second different type: the second different type of organizing source is by publication type. By publication type of organizing is the best when the sources in written literature review explain a clearest trend. In this type the sources organizing by its publication chronological.
  • Third different type: the third type to organize sources for a written literature review is by trend. Organizing sources in a literature review by trend type using to examine sources under another trend.
  • Fourth different type: thematic type is the fourth type to organize sources in a written literature review. Thematic type using to organize written literature review according to specific topic or issue rather than organizing them by time.
  • Fifth different type: the fifth and final type of organizing sources in written literature review is Methodological type. Methodological type is of organizing written literatures according to the methods that the writer uses it to write the sources of a literature review.

It will be easiest for you when decide to what type of organization you will use to order sources in a literature review. For example, in thematic type you can divide your review into sections where each section reviews one theme. The job is not just writing a literature review and find sources but you need to organize your source in a literature. 

 Video: Sources of Literature Review

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  4. 5.3 Acceptable sources for literature reviews

    5.3 Acceptable sources for literature reviews · Peer reviewed journal articles (papers) · Edited academic books · Articles in professional journals.

  5. The Literature Review: Primary and secondary sources

    Source documents include theses, unpublished articles, government reports, conference papers, abstracts, book chapters, books, discussion and

  6. Literature review sources

    Literature review sources · Books. Textbooks remain as the most important source to find models and theories related to the research area. · Magazines.

  7. Primary & Secondary Sources

    Research summaries reported in textbooks, magazines, and newspapers are considered secondary sources. They typically provide global descriptions

  8. Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

    Primary Sources · Magazine or newspaper articles · Creative works (literature, poetry, fiction books, film, works of art or design, performances)

  9. Sources for Conducting a Literature Review: Where to Find Relevant

    There are several sources you can use to conduct a literature review, including: Academic databases: These include Google Scholar, PubMed

  10. Literature Review: Lit Review Sources

    Where do I find information for a literature review? · Anthologies · Blogs · Conference Papers · Journals · Lectures · Letters · Meetings

  11. Types of Literature

    Primary sources means original studies, based on direct observation, use of statistical records, interviews, or experimental methods, of actual

  12. Chapter 9 Methods for Literature Reviews

    sources, including grey literature sources, without any language

  13. Finding High-Quality Articles For A Literature Review

    Primary literature refers to journal articles, typically peer reviewed, which document a study that was undertaken, where data were collected and analysed, and

  14. What are the sources of literature review

    First type of literature review sources/ Primary sources: in primary sources of literature review includes the original studies and researches. Where these