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Literature review & study skills resources for intercalating medical students

What is a literature review?

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” - Sir Isaac Newton


It’s useful to learn by “standing on the shoulders of giants”, or, using what has already been found to inform your own thinking and to shape your research. You need to be aware of what others have done and written about the area, and you’ll need to draw on their work for your own project.

Even if your dissertation project is lab-based, it is likely you will still need to do a literature review, to provide a rationale for your research by describing what has been done before and identifying gaps in the research. It may be you don’t need to do primary research yourself; maybe there is already data available in the research literature, or your question may have already been answered in the literature.

"In the natural sciences, the 'literature review' is the term used to describe an agreed body of knowledge, which the researcher will set out before building on that base in their project [...] In social science a literature review always includes the sense of the issues being contested, not only in terms of what we know, but how we know it."
(Byrne, D. (2017). Why do I need to do a literature review?. Project Planner, SAGE Research Methods).

There are different types of literature reviews. It may be that your entire project is a large-scale review of the literature on a topic, or a smaller part of a wider project. Further down this page you will find examples of different types of literature reviews.

This page includes resources on carrying out and writing a literature review. 

For guidance on finding research and academic literature, see the page on Where can I find literature on my topic?.

Types of literature review

There are different types of literature review. The most common that intercalating students will be asked to do is a review of the research literature as part of your dissertation project. However, some students carry out a structured literature review or systematic review as their project.

Differences between a literature review, systematic review/meta-analysis, and evidence-based clinical review are described in Taylor R.B. (2018) How to Write a Review Article. In: Medical Writing. Springer

This diagram shows the different types of review mapped against their features and purposes:

See : Grant, M. J. and A. Booth (2009). "A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies." Health Info Libr J 26(2): 91-108.

Some common types of review and their features

Narrative review

  • The literature search may or may not be comprehensive
  • Narrative synthesis of the literature
  • Analysis can be in many formats, i.e. chronological, conceptual, thematic, etc.

Rapid review

  • Uses systematic review methods to search and critically appraise existing research, but completeness of search is determined by time constraints

Scoping review

  • Aims to identify potential size and scope of available research literature. 
  • Often used to identify viability of a full systematic review

Systematic review

  • Seeks to systematically search for, appraise and synthesise research evidence
  • Reviewers often adhere to guidelines on the conduct of a review
  • Aims for exhaustive, comprehensive literature searching

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

Resources on doing a literature review