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Understanding the importance of a literature review in research

Understanding the importance of a literature review in research

8 minutes to read

When conducting research, a literature review plays a crucial role as it provides an overview of the existing literature related to a specific topic. Its main objective is to identify the gaps in the current knowledge and provide direction for future research. This article delves into the purpose and structure of a literature review, along with the various types of literature reviews typically employed in research. By familiarising themselves with the different types of literature reviews and their unique features, researchers can determine which review type would best suit their research question and help them achieve their desired results.

Purpose of a literature review in research

The primary goal of a literature review in research is to offer a comprehensive overview of the relevant research within a given area. A well-executed literature review should provide readers with a clear understanding of the theoretical and empirical contributions made in the field, while also highlighting areas that require further exploration or investigation. Additionally, literature reviews help researchers identify gaps in existing knowledge that can lead to new hypotheses or questions for future study.

When conducting a literature review, researchers should pay close attention to key themes and topics covered by previous studies, including the approaches used to answer specific questions or address particular issues. This ensures that any conclusions drawn by the researcher are supported by established evidence and build on prior work in the field. Moreover, when synthesising information from multiple studies, researchers should aim to identify conflicting opinions or discrepancies in the literature and draw implications for further study. Through this process, a comprehensive literature review can provide invaluable insights into the current state of research and inform future studies.

Literature review format

The format of a literature review in research typically consists of the following elements:

Introduction: The introduction is an important part of a literature review, as it gives the reader a sense of what to expect. It should start with a clear statement of the research question or objective, so that the reader understands what the review is trying to achieve. It’s also important to explain why the topic is important, so that the reader understands the relevance of the review. Finally, the introduction should give the reader an overview of the structure and organisation of the review, so that they can easily navigate through the rest of the content.

Search Strategy: The search strategy should be comprehensive, focused, and systematic. It involves selecting appropriate databases, developing effective search terms, and utilizing other sources to collect information. To begin, the researcher needs to determine the most relevant databases to search. Depending on the topic, discipline, and research question, different databases may be more suitable. Some commonly used databases are PubMed, Scopus, Web of Science, and Google Scholar. Once the databases are selected, the researcher can develop a set of search terms that accurately reflect the topic and research question. These search terms can be a combination of keywords and subject headings. Other sources of information may include reference lists, grey literature, conference proceedings, and experts in the field. These sources can provide additional insights and help to ensure a comprehensive search.

The search strategy should be documented in detail to enable replication and transparency. This documentation should include the databases searched, search terms used, search dates, and any filters or limits applied. By having a clear and systematic search strategy, the researcher can ensure that they have identified all relevant literature and that the research findings are reliable and valid.

Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria: Inclusion criteria refer to the characteristics that a study must have to be included in the review, while exclusion criteria refer to the characteristics that disqualify a study from being included. The inclusion and exclusion criteria may vary depending on the research question, but generally, they should be clearly defined and stated in the methods section of the review. Common criteria include study design, population, intervention or exposure, and outcome measures. For example, a systematic review on the effectiveness of a particular drug for a specific condition may include only randomized controlled trials (RCTs) with a minimum sample size of 50 participants, and exclude non-randomized studies or studies with a high risk of bias.

Defining clear inclusion and exclusion criteria is crucial in ensuring that the studies included in the review are relevant, appropriate, and of high quality. It also helps to minimize bias and enhance the validity of the review’s findings. Additionally, transparent reporting of inclusion and exclusion criteria allows readers to assess the rigor of the review process and the generalizability of the findings to their own context.

Methodology: The methodology section typically involves outlining the procedures and techniques employed to collect relevant data and information, including any data extraction forms that were used. Additionally, this section may also include information about the process of data extraction, such as how the data was collected, coded, and analysed. Furthermore, it is essential to include a description of the quality assessment process used to ensure that the extracted data was reliable and valid. This may involve explaining the criteria used to evaluate the quality of the studies, as well as any potential biases or limitations that were taken into consideration. By providing a thorough description of the methodology, readers will be able to assess the rigor of the research and better understand the context and implications of the findings.

Results: The results section summarises the main outcomes and findings of the review process, including the key themes, concepts, and trends identified in the literature. The results section provides a clear and concise description of the analysed data and should be presented in a logical and organized manner to make it easy for readers to understand. The results section of a literature review provides an overview of the evidence and information obtained from the analysed sources and explains how the findings support or challenge the research question or hypothesis. It is essential to ensure that the results are presented accurately, and any limitations or weaknesses of the study are acknowledged to provide a transparent and objective review of the literature.

Discussion: The discussion section of a literature review in research is an important component that provides a critical analysis of the literature reviewed in the study. This section allows the researcher to present their findings and interpretations of the literature, as well as to draw conclusions about the research question or problem being investigated. In the discussion section, the researcher will typically summarise the key findings of the literature review and then discuss these findings in relation to the research question or problem. The discussion section may also identify gaps in the literature and suggest areas for further research, as well as discuss the implications of the findings for theory, practice, or policy. Ultimately, the discussion section of a literature review should provide a comprehensive and insightful analysis of the literature reviewed, which contributes to the overall understanding of the research question or problem at hand.

Conclusion: The conclusion section in a literature review summarises the key findings and implications of the reviewed studies. It is the final part of the literature review that brings together all the main points and themes discussed in the previous sections. In this section, the researcher should provide a critical evaluation of the reviewed literature, highlighting the strengths and limitations of the studies, and how they relate to the research question or problem. The conclusion section should also address any gaps or inconsistencies in the existing literature and suggest future research directions. Furthermore, it should provide a clear and concise summary of the main findings and their significance for the field of study.

References: The reference section provides a comprehensive list of all the sources that have been cited in the literature review, including books, journal articles, reports, and other relevant materials. The purpose of the reference section is to give credit to the authors whose work has been used to support the arguments and ideas presented in the paper. Additionally, the reference section allows readers to locate and retrieve the sources that have been cited, which can help them further explore the topic or verify the accuracy of the information presented. The reference section is typically organized in alphabetical order by the last name of the first author of each source, and it includes all of the necessary bibliographic information such as the title of the work, the name of the journal or book, the date of publication, and the page numbers

Types of literature review in research

Literature reviews in research can be conducted for a variety of reasons, including to gain a comprehensive understanding of a topic, to identify research gaps, or to support the development of research proposals.

Here are the different types of literature reviews in research:

  • Narrative Literature Review: A narrative literature review is an overview of the literature on a specific topic or research question that does not follow a structured or systematic approach. It is a qualitative review that summarizes and synthesizes the findings from different studies.
  • Systematic Literature Review: A systematic literature review is a rigorous and structured approach to reviewing literature that involves a comprehensive search strategy, inclusion/exclusion criteria, and critical appraisal of the quality of evidence. It involves a meta-analysis and quantitative synthesis of data from multiple studies.
  • Meta-analysis: A meta-analysis is a quantitative review of the literature that involves statistical analysis of the data from multiple studies. It combines the results of different studies to produce an overall estimate of the effect size of a particular intervention or treatment.
  • Scoping Review: A scoping review is a type of literature review that aims to map the existing literature on a topic, identify research gaps, and provide an overview of the evidence. It is useful when the research question is broad or unclear.
  • Rapid Review: A rapid review is a type of systematic review that uses streamlined methods to quickly and efficiently review the literature. It is useful when there is a time constraint or when there is a need to update a previous review.
  • Umbrella Review: An umbrella review is a type of systematic review that synthesizes the findings of multiple systematic reviews on a particular topic. It provides a higher level of evidence by combining the findings from multiple studies.
  • Critical Review: A critical review involves the evaluation and analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the literature on a particular topic. It assesses the quality, credibility, and relevance of the literature and identifies research gaps.

Literature review example:

A literature review can play a crucial role in connecting with qualitative talanoa research. Talanoa is a research approach that emphasises collaboration, dialogue, and relationships within Pacific communities. Conducting a thorough literature review can help researchers to identify existing knowledge and gaps in ta specific field. This can inform the design of Talanoa research that centers on community engagement and dialogue. By reviewing literature that focuses on Pacific cultures, histories, and knowledge systems, researchers can develop a deeper understanding of the context and values of the community they are working with. This can help to build trust and establish meaningful relationships between researchers and community members.

An example of a literature review is our social research on Pacific peoples’ concerns about COVID-19, titled “The $7 cabbage dilemma: Pacific peoples’ experiences and New Zealand’s COVID-19 response.pdf” The objective of our study was to investigate how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the wellbeing of Pacific peoples in New Zealand. To accomplish this, we conducted a comprehensive literature review of existing research on Pacific peoples’ urban climate change, health, economy, and housing in New Zealand. Through our talanoa-based research, we discovered that many Pacific peoples were worried about the cost of living, access to healthcare, support for parents, and affordable healthy food options, which were all connected to the broader themes of urban climate change, health, economy, and housing that we had identified in our literature review.


In conclusion, a literature review is an essential component of research as it helps to identify gaps in existing knowledge, provide direction for future research and support or challenge research questions or hypotheses. The purpose of a literature review is to offer a comprehensive overview of the relevant research within a given area, identify key themes and topics, and synthesize information from multiple studies. Researchers need to pay attention to the different types of literature reviews and their unique features when conducting literature reviews to determine which review type would best suit their research question and help them achieve their desired results. A well-structured literature review should include an introduction, search strategy, inclusion and exclusion criteria, methodology and results sections. A well-executed literature review ensures that the research findings are reliable and valid and provides invaluable insights into the current state of research to inform future studies.


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Matada is a social enterprise that specializes in transformative research, evaluation, consultation, knowledge dissemination and program development to improve the health and wellbeing of communities in Aotearoa New Zealand. Our mission is to create solutions that enhance the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and society. We are backed by highly qualified and experienced researchers with both international and domestic experience. We lead with core values (relationships, respect, reciprocity, community and service) that shape our goals and vision which helps us create positive change.

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By: Gerald Naepi