Literature review guidelines
Disclosure statement Neal Haddaway receives funding from the Literature review guidelines research council Formas.
He is affiliated with the Stockholm Environment Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. University of Johannesburg provides funding as a partner of The Conversation AFRICA. There is an enormous amount of academic research in the world. And the number is growing all the literature review guidelines. The volume of research articles doubles every nine years. In any one topic area there’s often so much research that people wanting to rapidly understand a subject and make a decision for policy or practice cannot read up on it comprehensively. This is one of the main reasons that researchers write literature reviews.
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They provide a summary of a complex, large evidence base in a way that can be quickly and easily understood. Some literature reviews act as introductions to a well understood topic. Some aim to summarise key theories that explain a phenomenon. Some try to comprehensively map what research has been done and how. Others aim to accurately and precisely summarise the impact of one factor on a specific outcome.
In many cases reviewers try to be comprehensive or transparent so their work could be repeated by other scientists and their conclusions can be verified relative to the evidence they found. Reviewers might reach a conclusion that uses unreliable evidence or summarises the evidence in a way that isn’t as reliable as it could be. This might cause policymakers or practitioners to make an expensive or damaging decision. The review was funded by the sugar industry, which also contributed to the planning and conduct of the review, even though no details of this were reported. A detailed recent analysis showed the review used unreliable and biased methods to claim that research linking sugar to coronary heart disease was invalid. The original finding benefited the sugar industry, but it may have caused significant damage to human health because of ill-informed policy.
This is why researchers should try to make their literature reviews as reliable as possible. They can do this by following guidelines and standards when they plan and conduct their reviews. Another approach is to adhere to established standards in how to report what they did and found in detail. That’s what prompted myself and several colleagues to design a new set of rigorous standards specifically for reviews that do not fit the well defined field of health care. Such standards help review authors to remember to report all of their methods in sufficient detail to be repeatable and verifiable. If a review skips an important step, the review conclusions may not be correct. Generally speaking, two key factors affect the reliability of a literature review.
One is the quality and appropriateness of the studies going into the review. The other is the quality and appropriateness of the methods used to review the evidence. There’s a whole suite of carefully designed literature review methods to ensure these factors are addressed. In describing their methods, authors should outline the system they studied, how they measured what they were interested in and how they calculated their summary data in detail so that someone could repeat exactly what they did.
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It was here that another fellow, Mike Larson, introduced me to his alternative to the traditional research paper.
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