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PAH Library and Knowledge Centre: Literature Reviews

Choose a review format and project type

Nurses, before you start....

Doctors, before you start.....

  • PAH MDs please first consult "Research" Centres of Health Research. These documents are useful.
  • If you plan to undertake a Systematic Review, this is not the same as a standard literature review.
    • Please first read the Cochrane Handbook (Cochrane Collaboration, March 2011)
    • Then Consult the Systematic Reviews page for further readings


For the standard literature reviews required for intial research proposals / ethics committee submissions, read on......

  • Considering where/how your review will be published should guide you to select the best process for conducting the review and the best format for writing the review. You may plan to publish your review as an article, use the review for the development of the background of a scientific report, or the background for a research proposal.
  • Some journals, organizations or academic institutions have specific publishing guide lines.
  • There are many types of literature reviews (as also featured in this article) some of the more common ones include:
    • Brief literature review – Contained within a research protocol or research/grant proposal, these are written for a general audience and identifying gaps in research areas. See ‚ÄčMetro South Health ECF1 Research Protocol Template  or for a broader summary research proposals.
    • Traditional literature review – Selecting and analyzing the most relevant information about the topic and often published as an article or report.
    • Scoping Review – Locating all background information about the topic and often published as part of preparations for an academic dissertation or broader study.

Define the purpose and scope of the review

The PICO framework is method used to help define health care related questions. PICO Elements Change According to Question Type (Domain)

P – patient, problem or population  

I – intervention

C – comparison, control or comparator

O – outcome

Defining your purpose and scope clearly will help you later when writing article abstracts and selecting an effective title for your work.

Search for literature

Search methods

  • As you search you will begin to build a better picture of the kinds of terms and methods that yield the most useful results.
    • Snowballing - is the process of building from known references. Typically this involves checking the references of articles included in your review. - Trisha, G. and P. Richard (2005). "Effectiveness and efficiency of search methods in systematic reviews of complex evidence: audit of primary sources." BMJ 331(7524): 1064-1065.
    • Pearl Growing -  involves finding  a relevant article and finding the terms under which the article is indexed in database and using these terms or keywords to  find other relevant articles in database. This is repeated until there is a diminishing return in results. (This is used more commonly in the social sciences). - Schlosser, R. W., O. Wendt, et al. (2006). "Use of information-seeking strategies for developing systematic reviews and engaging in evidence-based practice: the application of traditional and comprehensive Pearl Growing. A review." Int J Lang Commun Disord 41(5): 567-82.
  • There are two main ways to search within most databases, discovery-layers or search-engines:
    • Algorithmic searches use an algorithm to analyse your search and predict the kinds of results that best fit the terms. (e.g. google search box)
    • Boolean searching enables you to create your own search algorithm and select where and how certain terms should be searched for within a text.

Keeping a list of terms, subjects and phrases

  • Keeping a list of terms, phrases and subject classifications helps you to refine or alter your searches, and record your search history.
  • If there is more than one theme in your search break-it down into its key components.
  • Think about alternative spellings (e.g. American), newer/older termionlogy (e.g. DSMIV Vs DSMV), synonyms and abbreviations.
  • Most papers in a databases are also classified by subjects headings. For example the 'MeSH classification scheme' is used by PubMed to classify papers. There are many different classification schemes.
    • MEDLINE/PubMed (MeSH subjects) – Go to -> Search for fragments, use the “MeSH Tree Structure” tab.
    • EMBASE (Emtree subjects) – Go to CKN -> Databases -> EMBASE -> tab at top”Emtree”
    • CINAHL (CINAHL subjects) – Go to CKN -> Databases -> CINAHL -> tick “Suggest Subject Terms”, enter a term and hit search.
  • There are many ways to keep a list of useful terms and phrases, some people prefer to use comparative a table
  • Others may prefer to just use a simple list. For example:

Phrase: “Open transthoracic Ivor Lewis (TTIL)  Oesophagectomy”
Procedure Terms: Oesophagectomy / Esophagectomy
Terms: Ivor Lewis / TTIL / ILE, Open transthoracic
AND NOT: Hybrid transthoracic, minimally invasive, transhiatal, thoracoscopic, sweet
MeSH Subjects: "Esophagectomy" [MeSH Major Topic] – in this case MeSH terms not that helpful because of cross-overs.
Other Terms of Interest: “supradiaphragmatic ligation”, “robot assisted”,

Where to search

CKNAggregator/discovery layer

  • CKN is an aggregator or discovery layer, it searches across many databases simultaneously.
  • You can quickly search millions of publications, however to retrieve a relevant set of results you need tailor your search strategy.
  • Using the advanced search function and using Boolean operators allows you to create narrow searches looking for key terms in specific sections of a publication.
  • You can visit your search history and save/share/export results.
  • Register for home use.
  • Recommend searching for specific terms in the:
    • TI: Search in the title for terms that are essential to your research.
    • AB: Search a combination of terms in the abstract, you can use proximity searching to limit to where words are mentioned next to each other.
    • TX: Search in the full text for phrases.

CKN Search Examples

Google & Wikipedia – helpful for alternative spelling, news and popular opinion

  • Google searches using a complex algorithm, it’s useful for finding alterative spellings.
  • If you use Google advance search you can limit the results geographically and by time period.
  • Looking at “News” items in a Google search may prompt more ideas for different angles on a topic.
  • Wikipedia sometimes has links to interesting articles from the bibliography.

       More places to search

  • Google Scholar  – Narrows your google search down to academic repositories and scholarly databases.
  • Secondary Sources/Hand Searching – Read the bibliography of a good article to find other publications of interest.
  • PROSPEROInternational prospective register of systematic reviews.
  • CDSR - Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
  • UpToDateHandy for bibliographic lists about particular medical conditions or drugs, don’t need a sub to see bibs.
  • DoRA Database of Research Activity - Lists Queensland Health research activities state wide, including clinical trials.
  • - Check for similar Clinical Trials being run on your topic.
  • Clinical Guidelines - Register contains information about clinical practice guidelines that are being developed in Australia.
  • CupQ -  utilizes a ranking algorithm to search PubMed 

Select and organise publications for review

Selecting publications

  • Select unbiased primary sources of information such as peer-reviewed journal articles, book-chapters, reports, academic studies/RTCs etc. from unbiased academic or government organisations.
  • Avoid journals that are not peer-reviewed, avoid reports produced by organisations/governments/institutions/Authors that may hold a bias about the topic. (Sponsored by Pfizer, Bayer & the propaganda department of the USSR.)
  • Find secondary or tertiary sources of information such as digests, encyclopaedias, reviews, UpToDate, textbooks etc. and locate articles mentioned by them, but don’t analyse these sources.
  • Skimming the title and abstract will usually provide enough information to decide whether to include a publication for further reading.
  • The number of papers you choose to select for review really depends on the scope and depth of the review you are writing.



  • Installing Endnote X7 on your QH Computer  & Installing EndNote X7 on your home PC   During installation, choose "I am an EndNote customer" Enter the product key: (Contact Library for current product Key)
  • Create a new Endnote Library, this is a computer file where all your references will be saved (similar to a MS word doc, you can open and modify it on any pc with Endnote.)
  • You can sync your Endnote Library to an online cloud-based account if you wish, but some functionality is lost.
  • Import the references for your selected publications into your EndNote Library. You can also manually add references.
  • You can organising files you have saved to your PC by linking them to your EndNote Library  or finding the full-text article on CKN
  • If you have imported a lot of references, you can run the EndNote Find Duplicates command to get rid of double-ups (available from within EndNote, via References > Find Duplicates).
  • Use the “Endnote ribbon” in MS Word to insert citations or footnotes into your document, or insert a bibliography formatted in a particular style. You can also add additional bibliography styles if the one you want is missing.
  • Watch the training vids -
  • Read the Endnote Guide - 

Read and analyse literature

  • It can help to skim the abstracts of the selected publications and note down important sub-topics.
  • As you read through publications in more depth you can take notes around the sub-topics or identify additional sub-topics. In this way, when it comes to write it is much easier to group your notes and comments into paragraphs.
  • Consider quality of the publication. Critical Appraisal check-lists can help if you are unfamiliar with types of work. - 
  • The three key points of a literature review
    •     Tell me what the research says (theory).
    •     Tell me how the research was carried out (methodology).
    •     Tell me what is missing, ie the gap that your research intends to fill.
  • The hierarchy of disagreement is a concept proposed by computer scientist Paul GrahamWikipedia in his 2008 essay How to Disagree. The highest three levels of argument are most appropriate for scholarly writing, 'refuting the central point', 'refutation' and 'counterargument'. The lower levels of argument are not appropriate for scholarly writing.

Write and publish review

  • Before you publish, please read more about important publishing and copyright  information on the PA Library site.
  • Structure of literature reviews may vary, always best to talk to your supervisor/publisher to find out what kind of structure they would prefer, and provide examples if possible.
  • Copy and paste your abstract into MeSH on Demand, to find out what keywords you should list for your submission.
  • Consider including a "preferred citation" example, showing how you would like other researches to refer to your article in their bibliographies.
  • Below is just one example of structure from


Your introduction should give an outline of

    why you are writing a review, and why the topic is important

    the scope of the review — what aspects of the topic will be discussed

    the criteria used for your literature selection (e.g.. type of sources used, date range)

    the organisational pattern of the review.


Body paragraphs

Each body paragraph should deal with a different theme that is relevant to your topic. You will need to synthesise several of your reviewed readings into each paragraph, so that there is a clear connection between the various sources. You will need to critically analyse each source for how they contribute to the themes you are researching.

The body could include paragraphs on:

    historical background


    previous studies on the topic

    mainstream versus alternative viewpoints

    principal questions being asked

    general conclusions that are being drawn.



Your conclusion should give a summary of:

    the main agreements and disagreements in the literature

    any gaps or areas for further research

    your overall perspective on the topic.

Research assistance, subject guides, and useful resources compiled by your friendly librarians. Know what we know - find it in our Specialty Guides!