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Literature reviews - research guide

Systematic literature reviews

Systematic Literature Reviews

What is a systematic literature review?

Systematic literature review is an in-depth, structured literature review designed to answer a specific question. 

Each paper is read systematically against a set of evaluation criteria to:

  • Assess inclusion and exclusion in the review
  • Record consistent data about each paper
  • Identify common elements and patterns emerging from the literature
  • Structure the review consistently 

The review is conducted using rigorous methods to:

  • Limit unconscious or conscious bias in the selection of publications chosen to support the reviewer's hypothesis  
  • Enable transparency of the review methodology for evaluation, auditability, and replication (useful for updating or extending a review)
  • Provide confidence in the review results

A systematic literature review is where the search protocol is specified BEFORE the literature review is begun. This protocol, or rigorous search methodology, is just as important as the literature review itself. You will therefore need to spend time planning your approach to the literature review. The search terms, search strategies (including database names, platforms, dates of search) and limiters used to conduct your research are included in the submitted review.     

A systematic literature review aggregates, categorises and quantitively analyses aspects of every piece of research on a clearly formulated question as determined by the predefined criteria, protocol or plan. The process for conducting a systematic literature review is similar to conducting a systematic review (which is specifically conducted to answer a clinical research question).

See our Systematic review guide for more information on the systematic review process:

See the video below for an overview of the systematic literature review process:


PRISMA Checklists (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses)

Use the PRISMA 2020 Checklist to guide your eligibility criteria, evaluation criteria and methodology.

Use the PRISMA for Searching checklist to structure your search strategy.

Example evaluation criteria:

  • Type of paper - media (book, journal, video, web page), literature (research paper, case study, a review, other)
  • Bibliography elements of the paper
    • Author/s
    • Institution of author/s
    • Title
    • Year
    • Publisher
    • Country of origin
  • Theme/topic of paper
  • Limits, scope, variables, assumptions - size, location, duration
  • Theory/theorist used in the paper - (Cartesian theories, constructivism learning, cultural transmission, utilitarian theory)
  • Theory context/setting used in the paper
  • Theory application in the paper
  • Data collection method used in the paper 
  • Research method used in the paper - qualitative, quantitative, case study, empirical study, observations
  • Analysis of results - meta-analysis, statistics, software


Methodology used to search for, select, and analyse literature is included in a systematic literature review.

Three types of methodologies:

  1. Aggregative
    • Use predetermined questions to guide analysis
    • Focus is on summarising the findings of multiple qualitative research studies
    • Produce effect sizes or percentages across studies such as meta-summary
  2. Integrative
    • Use predetermined questions to guide analysis
    • Focus is on summarising the findings of multiple qualitative research studies
    • Produce taxonomies of descriptions from conceptual findings
  3. Interpretive 
    • Use an iterative process to explore information to understand how concepts connect and interact
    • Focus is on findings across studies
    • Produce an inductive understanding of phenomena, experiences, and events

Record of Search

Systematic literature reviews present statistical information about how many studies were searched and selected, and how many studies contained specific topics. Use a spreadsheet or table to record searches as evidence of your search method and process.

Record all searches in each database, the search strings used for each search, the number of search results, as well as the date of when each search was conducted.

Example headings :

  • Date search conducted
  • Database name
  • Search type - basic, advanced
  • Search scope - date range, peer reviewed, full text, Murdoch full text only
  • Search words
  • Search strings used - refinements, subject headings included
  • Number of results from each search