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How to Conduct a Literature Review: A Guide for Graduate Students

This is a guide to help graduate students successfully find, evaluate, and manage resources for a literature review.

Systematic Literature Reviews

A systematic literature review is a formal, structured research study that seeks to find, assess, and analyze studies on a specific question. Systematic reviews follow a  defined search plan where the criteria is clearly stated before the review is conducted. It is a comprehensive, transparent search that can be replicated and reproduced by other researchers.

Systematic reviews involve planning a well thought out search strategy with a specific focus or question. The review identifies the type of information searched, critiqued and reported within known timeframes. The search terms, search strategies (including database names, platforms, dates of search) and limits all need to be included in the review.

Pittway (2008) outlines seven key principles behind systematic literature reviews

  • Transparency
  • Clarity
  • Integration
  • Focus
  • Equality
  • Accessiblity
  • Coverage

Systematic literature reviews originated in medicine and are linked to evidence based practice, which is based on a combination of critical thinking and the best available evidence. According to Grant & Booth (p 91, 2009) "the expansion in evidence-based practice has lead to an increasing variety of review types". They compare and contrast 14 review types, listing the strengths and weaknesses of each review. 

Tranfield et al (2003) discusses the origins of the evidence-based approach to undertaking a literature review and its application to other disciplines including management and science.

References and additional resources

Gough, David A., David Gough, Sandy Oliver, and James Thomas. An Introduction to Systematic Reviews. Systematic Reviews. London: SAGE, 2017.

Grant, M. J. & Booth, A. (2009) A typology of reviews: An analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal 26(2), 91-108.

Pittway, L. (2008) Systematic literature reviews. In Thorpe, R. & Holt, R. The SAGE dictionary of qualitative management research. London: SAGE Publications.

Sambunjak D, Cumpston M, Watts C. Module 1: Introduction to conducting systematic reviews. In: Cochrane Interactive Learning: Conducting an intervention review. Cochrane, 2017. Available from

Tranfield, D., Denyer, D & Smart, P. (2003) Towards a methodology for developing evidence-informed management knowledge by means of systematic review. British Journal of Management 14(3), 207-222.

Systematic Review vs. Literature Review


Kysh, Lynn (2013): Difference between a systematic review and a literature review. [figshare]. Available at:

Google Slides-Guide to Systematic Reviews