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How to... carry out a literature review for a dissertation or research paper

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Systematic literature reviews

A systematic literature review is a review where all procedures are documented – the research audit trail of databases and search terms used is made explicit.

Systematic reviews were originally developed in the field of medicine, through the Cochrane Collaboration (Hemsley-Brown and Oplatka, 2006). Its origin lies in the field of evidence-based health care, but it has also been adopted by researchers in education and management.

Because of its rigorous approach and transparent methodology, it helps eliminate bias from the selection of literature, and hence create a reliable knowledge base. A systematic review involves adopting a "replicable, scientific and transparent" approach and providing an "audit trail of reviewers' decisions, procedures and conclusions" (Moustaghfir, 2008). The search process inevitably throws up a very large number of papers which are then reviewed according to agreed criteria for inclusion, often by a reviewing panel.

List of what may be part of a described approach

  • The type of literature searched, and excluded (e.g. articles in particular types of journals, but not conference papers, dissertations, textbooks) giving the reason.
  • The method of classification – for example, years of publication, theme.
  • Databases, search and thesaurus terms.
  • Any other type of searching used, for example manual searching.
  • Limiting criteria, for example dates, geographical coverage, type of publication, size of firm (e.g. just SMEs).
  • Tracking method for citations.
  • How the papers were analysed.
  • What the criteria were for inclusion and exclusion in the final review.

An example of a systematic approach

In "Universities in a competitive global marketplace", Hemsley-Brown and Oplatka (2006) conduct a literature review of higher education marketing in an international context.

They list the business management and education databases they used as well as their hand and Internet searches with which they located secondary references and further publications by identified authors.

For their search strings they combined “higher education” or “university[ies]” with various thesaurus-obtained terms for marketing:

  • branding;
  • markets [not labour markets];
  • marketing;
  • marketization;
  • positioning;
  • segmentation; and
  • targeting.

The intention was to create a search that was simultaneously thorough and likely to yield the most relevant examples. The start date of 1992 was justified as this was the year when polytechnics became universities. Priority was given to reports of empirical research. The authors also provide a thorough description of their framework of analysis and reporting.

Moustaghfir (2008) describes the stages followed in the systematic review, which is based on the methodology of Tranfield et al. (2003):

  1. Produce a review protocol for the review, with a consultation panel.
  2. Identify keywords, and construct these into search strings.
  3. Select databases.
  4. Analyse identified papers (via their abstracts) and evaluate according to the agreed inclusion/exclusion criteria.
  5. Import selected papers into a reference management database (in this case, Procite). These papers are then subject to a process which he terms "peer review" according to set quality assessment criteria:
       – An explicit account of the theory.
       – Succinct statement of objectives.
       – Clear description of context.
       – Adequately chosen sample.
       – Appropriate data analysis method clearly described.
       – Appropriate interpretation of data.
       – Findings relevant to theory.
  6. Grounded theory was used to synthesize the information, and generate assumptions.