Types of literature reviews

The type of literature review you write will depend on your discipline and whether you are a researcher writing your PhD, publishing a study in a journal or completing an assessment task in your undergraduate study.

A literature review for a subject in an undergraduate degree will not be as comprehensive as the literature review required for a PhD thesis.

An undergraduate literature review may be in the form of an annotated bibliography or a narrative review of a small selection of literature, for example ten relevant articles. If you are asked to write a literature review, and you are an undergraduate student, be guided by your subject coordinator or lecturer.

The common types of literature reviews will be explained in the pages of this section.

  1. Narrative or traditional literature reviews
  2. Critically Appraised Topic (CAT)
  3. Scoping reviews
  4. Systematic literature reviews
  5. Annotated bibliographies

These are not the only types of reviews of literature that can be conducted. Often the term "review" and "literature" can be confusing and used in the wrong context. Grant and Booth (2009) attempt to clear up this confusion by discussing 14 review types and the associated methodology, and advantages and disadvantages associated with each review.

 

Grant, M. J. and Booth, A. (2009), A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 26, 91–108. doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x

 

What's the difference between reviews?

Researchers, academics and librarians all use various terms to describe different types of literature reviews. Indeed there is often inconsistency between the ways the types are discussed. Here are a couple of simple explanations.

The image below describes common review types in terms of speed, detail, risk of bias and comprehensiveness:

Description of the differences between review types in image form

"Schematic of the main differences between the types of literature review" by Brennan, M. L., Arlt, S. P., Belshaw, Z., Buckley, L., Corah, L., Doit, H., Fajt, V. R., Grindlay, D., Moberly, H. K., Morrow, L. D., Stavisky, J., & White, C. (2020). Critically Appraised Topics (CATs) in veterinary medicine: Applying evidence in clinical practice. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 7, 314. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.00314 is licensed under CC BY 3.0

 

The table below has been adapted from a widely used typology of fourteen types of reviews, (Grant & Booth, 2009).  Here are four of the most common types:

REVIEW TYPES DESCRIPTION APPROXIMATE TIMEFRAME NO. OF REVIEWERS
Systematic review Seeks to systematically search for, appraise and synthesise research evidence in order to aid decision-making and determine best practice. Systematic reviews can vary in their approach, and are often specific to the type of study: studies of effectiveness, qualitative research, economic evaluation, prevalence, aetiology or risk, diagnostic test accuracy and so on. 8 months to 2 years 2 or more
Rapid review Assesses what is known about an issue by using a systematic review method to search and appraise research and determine best practice. 2-6 months 2
Scoping review Assesses the potential scope of the research literature on a particular topic. Helps determine gaps in the research. 2-8 weeks 1-2
Traditional (narrative) literature review A generic review which identifies and reviews published literature on a topic, which may be broad. Typically employs a narrative approach to reporting the review findings. Can include a wide range of related subjects. 1-4 weeks 1

For a more detailed list of review types, see:

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.  DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x

See also our Library Resource Guide, Literature Review.

Critical Appraised Topic (CAT)

For information on conducting a Critically Appraised Topic or CAT

Callander, J., Anstey, A. V., Ingram, J. R., Limpens, J., Flohr, C., & Spuls, P. I. (2017). How to write a Critically Appraised Topic: evidence to underpin routine clinical practice. British Journal of Dermatology (1951), 177(4), 1007-1013. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjd.15873