At some point in your graduate nursing program, you will most likely have to write a literature review about an assigned topic or a self-selected topic (e.g., your thesis, dissertation, or capstone project topic). Undergraduate students don’t typically have to write a full-blown literature review; however, the tips in this post will still help you when summarizing the literature for other assignments.
A review of the literature (ROL; AKA lit review) is a process of researching your topic or phenomenon of interest to find out what is known, and therefore, what is unknown. I’ll tell you why that is vital to know in a minute.
This post will discuss the basics of a literature review: what it is and is not, the benefits of doing the literature review, and provide some general guidelines to help you through the literature review process. Before I start, I have a free handout with some specifics about writing your literature review, if you want to download it! It contains specifics that I don’t have in this post, FYI. Get Your Free Literature Review Guide Now!
The Literature Review: What It Is
The process of reviewing the literature can be complicated or not, depending on the amount of research published on a topic.
For areas of new research, the lit review will most likely be limited because there may not be much published on your phenomenon of interest yet. In this case, it will probably be easy to create a search strategy and find the few published studies. This is a good thing – and a not-so-good thing!
It’s a good thing because the limited amount of studies means you only have to appraise those few. It should be easier to summarize studies with only one scope or a limited scope. Plus, the field is wide open to build the science, so your exploration of the topic is likely to unearth new areas for research and practice. And your research question for a thesis or dissertation is most likely not answered yet.
I say it may be a not-so-good thing because, with few published studies, you may not have a lot of information to help guide your study or project. One of the things the ROL does is to help you become aware of what is known and what is unknown – in this case, there are a lot of unknowns. So you may have to rely more heavily on the assistance of your research or project committee to help you determine the best methods to answer your study question or guide your project.
For areas with a lot of research, it’s likely that a lot of different studies on different aspects of the phenomenon have been conducted. If you are doing a comprehensive review of the literature, then your lit review may be lengthy and complicated to summarize all the relevant literature and compare one study to another. The good news is that you will see how the researchers conducted their studies and can use that information in your own study or project.
Why is a Literature Review Important?
As I said earlier, a literature review helps you to become aware of what is known about a phenomenon (or topic) and, therefore, what is unknown about a phenomenon. This level of understanding is important if you want to be knowledgeable about the phenomenon and be able to speak with a semblance of expertise.
A literature review enables you to:
- Use your time wiselyby not chasing questions that have already been answered!
- Conduct research or implement projectsthat will address gaps in the science of nursing and, therefore, help build the science of nursing.
- Become familiar with the previous research in this fieldso you know what has been studied to death and what questions still need to be answered. When reading the studies you found, use a literature matrix, evidence table, or spreadsheet to make a note of your answers to the following questions:
- What are the research questions being asked? What are the project goals (if a capstone or quality improvement [QI] project).
- What types of studies or projects are being conducted? (qualitative, quantitative, mixed methods, QI?)
- Which theoretical frameworks did the researchers choose to guide the studies?
- What methodologies are being used?
- Which settings are the research studies or projects being conducted in?
- How are the samples selected?
- Which research instruments are being used?
- How are the researchers conducting their studies (e.g., process, steps)?
- How are the researchers analyzing their data?
- What are the major conclusions of the study or project?
- What are the implications for future research, practice, and/or education?
- Hint: Implications for future research are the areas the researchers have determined still need to be studied about this phenomenon. This is a good place to look for the gaps in the science that you could possibly help to fill with your study or project!
“A literature review helps you to become aware of what is known about a phenomenon and, therefore, what is unknown about the phenomenon.”
So What? Why is this Information Important for You to Know?
Why is knowing about the research or projects already completed (and the details) important for your research or capstone project? Answer:Because this knowledge will enable you to Demonstrate your mastery of the phenomenon or topic.
You will be expected to have a scholarly discussion about what is known surrounding the topic of your choice with your Research/Project Chair and committee. This is where you show your committee that you understand what the state of the science is around your topic.
These discussions may be informal, as with a quick question of a committee member in the hallway or through email. You will also need to show your mastery of your topic during formal discussions, such as in a 1:1 meeting with your Chair, for comprehensive exams, and/or for your thesis/dissertation/capstone proposal defense.
A good grasp of the literature will also help you Become recognized as an expert related to your phenomenon by your classmates and in clinical practice.
You can become an expert on this topic because you will know what is known and unknown! You have read and appraised the literature! Your knowledge will help you be successful in your research or project because you’ll know what still needs to be studied and implemented.
You can use your expertise to get on policy committees in your institution and to improve clinical practice.
In addition, knowing the literature will Give you the confidenceto speak about the phenomenon with other students, faculty, colleagues, and researchers.
When you present your research or capstone during Nurse’s Week or at a conference, you will feel more confident when speaking about your project, answering questions, and in talking with other researchers, colleagues, or students interested in the same topic.
Guidelines for Writing a Literature Review: The 4Ps
First let me make a point to say that a literature review or state-of-the-science review is NOTthe same as a systematic review! While there is an orderly method to doing a lit review, it is not as exhaustive and deliberate as a systematic review (Thompson, 2011). A literature review is a broad report, which may discuss key points of a phenomenon but is not necessarily exhaustive in scope. A systematic review is a thorough, comprehensive, and systematic examination of a broad or narrow look at a phenomenon or topic. If conducted in a rigorous and transparent manner, a systematic review one of the highest levels of evidence we look for to support evidence-based practice.
In a chapter I wrote on for a book on evidence-based practice, I talked about using a mnemonic of 4Ps for designing studies: Prepare, Proceed, Publicize, Practice (Thompson, 2011). I’ve modified those 4Ps for conducting a lit review as: Prepare, Proceed, Produce, Proofread.
The preparatory phase is important for any project.
Decide on your phenomenon of interest and determine your research objectives or questions. Ask a question using a structured format such as PICOT. Create a sensitive and specific search strategy using keywords from your PICOT question. Decide which databases you will search.
Develop a form to abstract the data from the studies you read in an organized fashion. You can do this as a spreadsheet using the questions I outlined above or use an evidence table or literature synthesis matrix form you find online or from a faculty member. These forms typically have columns and rows in which you quickly summarize data from each study or theoretical paper you read on your phenomenon. I have an example of an evidence table in my book chapter (Thompson, 2011) and have had my students buy an excellent book on the subject by Garrard (2014) – I’ll link to it here and in the references.
A literature matrix or evidence table will help organize the studies you read and remind you of what they were about. This is an extremely helpful device that you should make a habit of creating – especially if you are a graduate student or plan on becoming a researcher. I’ll write more about this in a future post.
Create a folder and/or subfolders on your computer to keep your documents: articles, studies, notes, references, etc. Garrard (2014) has a good audit trail system outlined in her book to keep track of your work.
Conduct your literature search. Review the titles of the search results for relevance to your phenomenon; further refine your result list by reviewing the abstracts of the studies, if available. Keep the articles that are relevant to your topic.
Acquire the full-text articles. I suggest you save the pdfs to a folder on your computer, as Garrard (2014) describes, or that is specific to your class and/or project (e.g., 7200/PainResearch or EBP/QI/PressureUlcers).
Come up with a labeling system that will help you find the saved articles again. My system is to label the article pdf with the first author’s last name, an abbreviated title, and year of publication. So for example, ThompsonDesignStudies2011.
Read and abstract the information from each article to your data abstraction sheet or evidence table. You might organize your evidence table by publishing date, themes you identify as you read, types of studies, or results (e.g., significant, equivocal, not significant).
You should always assess the quality of the research studies you are including in a review. Make notes about the methodological rigor of research studies (i.e., critically appraise each study) and add comments about any other points you want to remember. Review the reference list of each article for other articles that might help you (this is called hand searching the reference list); acquire those articles and repeat.
Review the reference list of each article for other articles that might help you learn more about your topic (this is called hand searching the reference list); acquire those articles and repeat the process.
You’ve read a lot of literature on this topic – now you need to synthesize the information and produce a logical and coherent review of the literature.
Start your literature review by creating an outline. Trust me – make a habit of creating an outline before you write! An outline will help keep you focused and help you ensure that your thoughts flow in a logical manner.
Of course, you should rearrange your outline if you find that you are bouncing around one idea to another and not following a coherent line of thought. When I read student papers, I jot down an outline from what they’ve written to follow their train of thought and to remember what I’ve read!
After your introduction, your paper should include a brief description of the process you used to find the evidence for your paper, e.g., the search process. This section will give your reader an idea of the extent and comprehensiveness of your search. The description of the details of your search process will depend on the purpose of your lit review: is it for a class assignment? for a proposal defense? or to justify a project, such as a QI initiative? Follow your instructor’s instructions or the journal guidelines.
Okay, now synthesize all the information you collected, using your outline as a guide for what goes where. You could consider presenting an overall or general description of the literature you found (a descriptive analysis), as well as a more detailed description of the common themes you noted in the reading of the studies (a thematic analysis). As you discuss the studies, you can compare those using a similar methodology or presenting similar findings; don’t forget to contrast the studies in your critical review, also.
The usual format is to summarize each study in your own words (follow the guidelines from your faculty or journal), giving enough information so that the reader can understand what the project or study was about, how it was conducted, and what the results were. Don’t rewrite the abstract or rewrite the article! See my post on how to write an annotation and Download my free handout for more specific advice on how to summarize an article.
If the purpose of the literature review is only to discover the state-of-the-science around a topic, without relating the lit to your particular project, then just present the summaries with a conclusion.
If the purpose of the literature review is to provide the evidence for your capstone project or research study, then be sure to interpret the findings in the context of your project objectives or research questions. Make the case for why your study or project is important to conduct or implement.
Don’t forget to write concluding sentences for your paragraphs or for specific sections before you transition to another thought. Your last sentence at the end of a section should transition naturally into your next section topic.
Be sure to identify the gaps in the science either in your summaries or as a separate section. Identified gaps will give you the evidence you need to segue into the reasons why you want to study what you want to study.
Get additional tips on how to write a literature review. Download Your Free Literature Review Guide Now!
Make sure to proofread your paper before you turn it in. After all your hard work to research your phenomenon, don’t be sloppy with your writing! Many points are lost because of illogical flow, incoherent sentences, or grammar and spelling mistakes. Many campuses have resources to help students with language and writing skills. You can have someone read your paper and give you suggestions for editing or you can use the campus Writing Center experts to edit your paper.
Write coherently and logically. Keep your paragraphs relevant to your premise. Paragraphs that take up an entire page (i.e., run-ons) most likely have too many disparate thoughts and should be divided in a way that makes sense.
Please note that the paragraphs in my blog are deliberately short and truncated for easier readability (sometimes only one sentence!), but this format would not be appropriate for a formal paper or journal manuscript.
Realize that all of this preparation and process can only be accomplished if you’ve given yourself enough time to complete the paper! If you have a tendency to procrastinate, read the series of blog posts I published in November 2016 on productivity, starting with how not to procrastinate. You’ll find a free handout on strategies to help you form good work habits included with these posts.
If you are finding these posts and resources valuable, I would appreciate you sharing this website with your friends and colleagues! Thank You!
Garrard, J. (2017). Health sciences literature review made easy: The matrix method(5th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Thompson, C. J. (2011). Designing studies for EBP. In J. Houser & K. S. Oman (Eds.). Evidence-based practice: An implementation guide for healthcare organizations(pp. 151-173). Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Favorite Texts on this Topic
Bonnel, W., & Smith, K. V. (2014). Proposal writing for nursing capstones and clinical projects. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.
Garrard, J. (2017). Health sciences literature review made easy: The matrix method(5th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Moran, K., Burson, R., & Conrad, D. (2017). The doctor of nursing practice scholarly project: A framework for success (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
How-To, Nursing Education, Professional writinglit review, literature review, review of the literature, steps for writing, tips for students
Writing the proposal of a research work in the present era is a challenging task due to the constantly evolving trends in the qualitative research design and the need to incorporate medical advances into the methodology. The proposal is a detailed plan or ‘blueprint’ for the intended study, and once it is completed, the research project should flow smoothly. Even today, many of the proposals at post-graduate evaluation committees and application proposals for funding are substandard. A search was conducted with keywords such as research proposal, writing proposal and qualitative using search engines, namely, PubMed and Google Scholar, and an attempt has been made to provide broad guidelines for writing a scientifically appropriate research proposal.
Key words: Guidelines, proposal, qualitative, research
A clean, well-thought-out proposal forms the backbone for the research itself and hence becomes the most important step in the process of conduct of research. The objective of preparing a research proposal would be to obtain approvals from various committees including ethics committee [details under ‘Research methodology II’ section [Table 1] in this issue of IJA) and to request for grants. However, there are very few universally accepted guidelines for preparation of a good quality research proposal. A search was performed with keywords such as research proposal, funding, qualitative and writing proposals using search engines, namely, PubMed, Google Scholar and Scopus.
Five ‘C’s while writing a literature review
BASIC REQUIREMENTS OF A RESEARCH PROPOSAL
A proposal needs to show how your work fits into what is already known about the topic and what new paradigm will it add to the literature, while specifying the question that the research will answer, establishing its significance, and the implications of the answer. The proposal must be capable of convincing the evaluation committee about the credibility, achievability, practicality and reproducibility (repeatability) of the research design. Four categories of audience with different expectations may be present in the evaluation committees, namely academic colleagues, policy-makers, practitioners and lay audiences who evaluate the research proposal. Tips for preparation of a good research proposal include; ‘be practical, be persuasive, make broader links, aim for crystal clarity and plan before you write’. A researcher must be balanced, with a realistic understanding of what can be achieved. Being persuasive implies that researcher must be able to convince other researchers, research funding agencies, educational institutions and supervisors that the research is worth getting approval. The aim of the researcher should be clearly stated in simple language that describes the research in a way that non-specialists can comprehend, without use of jargons. The proposal must not only demonstrate that it is based on an intelligent understanding of the existing literature but also show that the writer has thought about the time needed to conduct each stage of the research.[4,5]
CONTENTS OF A RESEARCH PROPOSAL
The contents or formats of a research proposal vary depending on the requirements of evaluation committee and are generally provided by the evaluation committee or the institution.
In general, a cover page should contain the (i) title of the proposal, (ii) name and affiliation of the researcher (principal investigator) and co-investigators, (iii) institutional affiliation (degree of the investigator and the name of institution where the study will be performed), details of contact such as phone numbers, E-mail id's and lines for signatures of investigators.
The main contents of the proposal may be presented under the following headings: (i) introduction, (ii) review of literature, (iii) aims and objectives, (iv) research design and methods, (v) ethical considerations, (vi) budget, (vii) appendices and (viii) citations.
It is also sometimes termed as ‘need for study’ or ‘abstract’. Introduction is an initial pitch of an idea; it sets the scene and puts the research in context. The introduction should be designed to create interest in the reader about the topic and proposal. It should convey to the reader, what you want to do, what necessitates the study and your passion for the topic. Some questions that can be used to assess the significance of the study are: (i) Who has an interest in the domain of inquiry? (ii) What do we already know about the topic? (iii) What has not been answered adequately in previous research and practice? (iv) How will this research add to knowledge, practice and policy in this area? Some of the evaluation committees, expect the last two questions, elaborated under a separate heading of ‘background and significance’. Introduction should also contain the hypothesis behind the research design. If hypothesis cannot be constructed, the line of inquiry to be used in the research must be indicated.
Review of literature
It refers to all sources of scientific evidence pertaining to the topic in interest. In the present era of digitalisation and easy accessibility, there is an enormous amount of relevant data available, making it a challenge for the researcher to include all of it in his/her review. It is crucial to structure this section intelligently so that the reader can grasp the argument related to your study in relation to that of other researchers, while still demonstrating to your readers that your work is original and innovative. It is preferable to summarise each article in a paragraph, highlighting the details pertinent to the topic of interest. The progression of review can move from the more general to the more focused studies, or a historical progression can be used to develop the story, without making it exhaustive. Literature should include supporting data, disagreements and controversies. Five ‘C's may be kept in mind while writing a literature review [Table 1].
Aims and objectives
The research purpose (or goal or aim) gives a broad indication of what the researcher wishes to achieve in the research. The hypothesis to be tested can be the aim of the study. The objectives related to parameters or tools used to achieve the aim are generally categorised as primary and secondary objectives.
Research design and method
The objective here is to convince the reader that the overall research design and methods of analysis will correctly address the research problem and to impress upon the reader that the methodology/sources chosen are appropriate for the specific topic. It should be unmistakably tied to the specific aims of your study.
In this section, the methods and sources used to conduct the research must be discussed, including specific references to sites, databases, key texts or authors that will be indispensable to the project. There should be specific mention about the methodological approaches to be undertaken to gather information, about the techniques to be used to analyse it and about the tests of external validity to which researcher is committed.[10,11]
The components of this section include the following:
Population and sample
Population refers to all the elements (individuals, objects or substances) that meet certain criteria for inclusion in a given universe, and sample refers to subset of population which meets the inclusion criteria for enrolment into the study. The inclusion and exclusion criteria should be clearly defined. The details pertaining to sample size are discussed in the article “Sample size calculation: Basic priniciples” published in this issue of IJA.
The researcher is expected to give a detailed account of the methodology adopted for collection of data, which include the time frame required for the research. The methodology should be tested for its validity and ensure that, in pursuit of achieving the results, the participant's life is not jeopardised. The author should anticipate and acknowledge any potential barrier and pitfall in carrying out the research design and explain plans to address them, thereby avoiding lacunae due to incomplete data collection. If the researcher is planning to acquire data through interviews or questionnaires, copy of the questions used for the same should be attached as an annexure with the proposal.
Rigor (soundness of the research)
This addresses the strength of the research with respect to its neutrality, consistency and applicability. Rigor must be reflected throughout the proposal.
It refers to the robustness of a research method against bias. The author should convey the measures taken to avoid bias, viz. blinding and randomisation, in an elaborate way, thus ensuring that the result obtained from the adopted method is purely as chance and not influenced by other confounding variables.
Consistency considers whether the findings will be consistent if the inquiry was replicated with the same participants and in a similar context. This can be achieved by adopting standard and universally accepted methods and scales.
Applicability refers to the degree to which the findings can be applied to different contexts and groups.
This section deals with the reduction and reconstruction of data and its analysis including sample size calculation. The researcher is expected to explain the steps adopted for coding and sorting the data obtained. Various tests to be used to analyse the data for its robustness, significance should be clearly stated. Author should also mention the names of statistician and suitable software which will be used in due course of data analysis and their contribution to data analysis and sample calculation.
Medical research introduces special moral and ethical problems that are not usually encountered by other researchers during data collection, and hence, the researcher should take special care in ensuring that ethical standards are met. Ethical considerations refer to the protection of the participants' rights (right to self-determination, right to privacy, right to autonomy and confidentiality, right to fair treatment and right to protection from discomfort and harm), obtaining informed consent and the institutional review process (ethical approval). The researcher needs to provide adequate information on each of these aspects.
Informed consent needs to be obtained from the participants (details discussed in further chapters), as well as the research site and the relevant authorities.
When the researcher prepares a research budget, he/she should predict and cost all aspects of the research and then add an additional allowance for unpredictable disasters, delays and rising costs. All items in the budget should be justified.
Appendices are documents that support the proposal and application. The appendices will be specific for each proposal but documents that are usually required include informed consent form, supporting documents, questionnaires, measurement tools and patient information of the study in layman's language.
As with any scholarly research paper, you must cite the sources you used in composing your proposal. Although the words ‘references and bibliography’ are different, they are used interchangeably. It refers to all references cited in the research proposal.
Successful, qualitative research proposals should communicate the researcher's knowledge of the field and method and convey the emergent nature of the qualitative design. The proposal should follow a discernible logic from the introduction to presentation of the appendices.
Financial support and sponsorship
Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
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