A literature review is a thorough and systematic appraisal of research literature on a specific topic. It comprises a number of logical steps. There is a range of different approaches that can be used to review the literature and many have been formalised and given names. These include systematic review; meta-analysis, narrative reviews and integrative reviews. Rather than instruct you to perform a particular brand of review (there is inconsistency in defining them anyway), we will offer you some explicit guidance on what we expect. Regardless of the different methods used to review the literature they should all use a systematic approach where every decision you make is documented and justified and which aims at presenting an objective and unbiased account of what is known about a topic.
Choosing a topic
The first step in your literature review is choosing the topic, and the first step in this is a preliminary search of the literature to see what previous work has been done on your proposed topic. This can help you to refine the topic and the aims of the review. You should choose a topic where there is a good amount of existing research on the topic (otherwise you will be stuck). Your topic should be:
Must be relevant to the field of nursing.
Personally interesting so that you are more likely to stay engaged with it.
Do-able in terms of having sufficient focus.
Do-able in terms of having enough material to work with.
Ideas for topics could come from a wide range of sources:
The material in the taught course which is of interest
A subject there was no time to investigate in previous work
Questions raised by published research or previous student's essays
Arising from discussion with the advisor
An issue, conflict or policy in the local area
A desire to track the history and development of a treatment or problem
After you have chosen and refined your topic and established that there is sufficient material to work with, then you can start the actual review. The first step here is to establish a search strategy. You need to provide a step-by-step account of this in your Methods section. The most efficient way to start is by searching electronic databases, usually on-line. You need to choose the databases likely to be most relevant for your topic. In nursing and healthcare, these are likely to be MEDLINE and CINAHL (Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature), but there are others that may be relevant. To access the databases students should log into UniHub and the module page for access. Our library system gives you access to these databases, currently via the EBSCOHOST system. A full description of this system is beyond the scope of this handbook but available from the Sheppard library Hendon campus. In your essay, it is crucial to state which databases you have used in your review.
The next step is to decide which keywords to search with. The library staff will be pleased to help you with this as it is not always intuitive, the best way to access this support is through the timetabled workshops, bookable from the subject guides or through the appointments system. If you have found very few ‘hits’ when searching, the likelihood is that you have not chosen the best keywords.
Choosing keywords is one of the main ways of delimiting your search i.e. keeping it within reasonable limits. By combining different sets of keywords you can focus on the information that you require and exclude the potentially huge number of papers that have some peripheral relevance to the topic. Not wishing to spoil the fun of the library staff that will help you, suffice it so say here that the trick is finding suitable single words that represent the key concepts of your topic. We will leave it to the librarians to explain the usefulness of MeSH terms when searching. You will also need to list the keywords and combinations of these that you used in your search.
The idea is that a researcher following in your footsteps, perhaps a few years later will be able to copy you and see what they find. You are likely to also limit the search in some other way, for example limiting it only to papers published since a certain year, or particular types of publication (i.e. only research articles and not opinion pieces or general journalism, perhaps even particular types of research design). You would write about these decisions in terms of ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ criteria.
Once you have identified relevant papers, and then retrieved the actual articles, now comes the time to read each one and make notes. Your notes should include the following: the purpose of the study reviewed a synopsis of the content, the research design or methods used in the study and a brief summary of the findings. You should note, as far as you can, any limitations or weaknesses in the study. Regardless of the technique that you use it is essential to always write the complete reference down for each set of information that you extract from a study. This is the time when you are most likely to feel a lack of research knowledge. Perhaps you will come across research terminology or statistical reporting about which you have little knowledge. As we are not asking you to review a huge number of articles, this is your opportunity to spend time with some research methods texts and Internet sites to get a working knowledge of various research methods and their associated terminology.
Remember reading, re-reading and gaining an understanding of the papers is an extremely important stage because what you glean about the papers such as the emerging themes will be your results which will inform the critical review of the literature section.