Charles Sturt University

Literature Review: Types of literature reviews

  • Traditional or narrative literature reviews
  • Scoping Reviews
  • Systematic literature reviews
  • Annotated bibliography
  • Keeping up to date with literature
  • Finding a thesis
  • Evaluating sources and critical appraisal of literature
  • Managing and analysing your literature
  • Further reading and resources

Types of literature reviews

what are the categories of literature review

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.

  • Narrative or traditional literature reviews
  • Critically Appraised Topic (CAT)
  • Scoping reviews
  • 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, and there is often inconsistency in 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. is licensed under CC BY 3.0

  • The table below lists four of the most common types of review , as adapted from a widely used typology of fourteen types of reviews (Grant & Booth, 2009).  

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.

See also the Library's  Literature Review guide.

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. 

Books on Literature Reviews

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Types of Literature Review

There are many types of literature review. The choice of a specific type depends on your research approach and design. The following types of literature review are the most popular in business studies:

Narrative literature review , also referred to as traditional literature review, critiques literature and summarizes the body of a literature. Narrative review also draws conclusions about the topic and identifies gaps or inconsistencies in a body of knowledge. You need to have a sufficiently focused research question to conduct a narrative literature review

Systematic literature review requires more rigorous and well-defined approach compared to most other types of literature review. Systematic literature review is comprehensive and details the timeframe within which the literature was selected. Systematic literature review can be divided into two categories: meta-analysis and meta-synthesis.

When you conduct meta-analysis you take findings from several studies on the same subject and analyze these using standardized statistical procedures. In meta-analysis patterns and relationships are detected and conclusions are drawn. Meta-analysis is associated with deductive research approach.

Meta-synthesis, on the other hand, is based on non-statistical techniques. This technique integrates, evaluates and interprets findings of multiple qualitative research studies. Meta-synthesis literature review is conducted usually when following inductive research approach.

Scoping literature review , as implied by its name is used to identify the scope or coverage of a body of literature on a given topic. It has been noted that “scoping reviews are useful for examining emerging evidence when it is still unclear what other, more specific questions can be posed and valuably addressed by a more precise systematic review.” [1] The main difference between systematic and scoping types of literature review is that, systematic literature review is conducted to find answer to more specific research questions, whereas scoping literature review is conducted to explore more general research question.

Argumentative literature review , as the name implies, examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply imbedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature. It should be noted that a potential for bias is a major shortcoming associated with argumentative literature review.

Integrative literature review reviews , critiques, and synthesizes secondary data about research topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated. If your research does not involve primary data collection and data analysis, then using integrative literature review will be your only option.

Theoretical literature review focuses on a pool of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. Theoretical literature reviews play an instrumental role in establishing what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested.

At the earlier parts of the literature review chapter, you need to specify the type of your literature review your chose and justify your choice. Your choice of a specific type of literature review should be based upon your research area, research problem and research methods.  Also, you can briefly discuss other most popular types of literature review mentioned above, to illustrate your awareness of them.

[1] Munn, A. et. al. (2018) “Systematic review or scoping review? Guidance for authors when choosing between a systematic or scoping review approach” BMC Medical Research Methodology

Types of Literature Review

  John Dudovskiy

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Types of Literature Reviews : Home

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  • Types of Literature Reviews

Need More Help?

  • Knowledge Synthesis Services
  • Literature Search Request
  • The Right Review for You - Workshop Recording (YouTube) 27min video From UHN Libraries Recorded Nov 2021
  • The Screening Phase for Reviews Tutorial This tutorial presents information on the screening process for systematic reviews or other knowledge syntheses, and contains a variety of resources for successfully preparing to complete this important research stage.
  • Workshops Find more UHN Libraries workshops, live and on-demand, and other learning opportunities helpful for knowledge synthesis projects.

How to Choose Your Review Method

TREAD* Lightly and Consider...

  • Available T ime for conducting your review
  • Any R esource constraints within which you must deliver your review
  • Any requirements for specialist E xpertise in order to complete the review
  • The requirements of the A udience for your review and its intended purpose
  • The richness, thickness and availability of D ata within included studies

* Booth A, Sutton A, Papaioannou D.  Systematic approaches to a successful literature review.  2nd edition.  Los Angeles, CA:  Sage, 2016.  (p.36)

How do I write a Review Protocol?

  • What is a Protocol? (UofT)
  • Guidance on Registering a Review with PROSPERO

Writing Resources

  • Advice on Academic Writing (University of Toronto)
  • How to write a great research paper using reporting guidelines (EQUATOR Network)
  • Instructions to Authors in the Health Sciences
  • Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly work in Medical Journals (ICMJE)
  • Referencing and Writing Help (Michener Institute)
  • Writing resources guide (BMC)

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review provides an overview of what's been written about a specific topic. It is a generic term. There are many different types of literature reviews which can cover a wide range of subjects at various levels of completeness and comprehensiveness. Choosing the type of review you wish to conduct will depend on the purpose of your review, and the time and resources you have available.

This page will provide definitions of some of the most common review types in the health sciences and links to relevant reporting guidelines or methodological papers.

Grant MJ, Booth A. A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies . Health Information & Libraries Journal . 2009 Jun 1;26(2):91-108. 

  • Summary of Five Types of Reviews Table summarizing the characteristics, guidelines etc. of 5 common types of review article.

Traditional (Narrative) Review

Traditional (narrative) literature reviews provide a broad overview of a research topic with no clear methodological approach. Information is collected and interpreted unsystematically with subjective summaries of findings. Authors aim to describe and discuss the literature from a contextual or theoretical point of view. Although the reviews may be conducted by topic experts, due to preconceived ideas or conclusions, they could be subject to bias. This sort of literature review can be appropriate if you have a broad topic area, are working on your own, or have time constraints.

Green BN, Johnson CD, Adams A. Writing narrative literature reviews for peer-reviewed journals: secrets of the trade . Journal of Chiropractic Medicine . 2006;5(3):101-117. doi:10.1016/S0899-3467(07)60142-6.

Ferrari R. Writing narrative style literature reviews . Medical Writing. 2015 Dec 1;24(4):230-5.

Greenhalgh T, Thorne S, Malterud K. Time to challenge the spurious hierarchy of systematic over narrative reviews ? European journal of clinical investigation . 2018;48:e12931.

Knowledge Synthesis

Literature reviews using systematic methods fall under the knowledge synthesis umbrella. Knowledge synthesis can be defined as “…the contextualization and integration of research findings of individual research studies within the larger body of knowledge on the topic. A synthesis must be reproducible and transparent in its methods, using quantitative and/or qualitative methods. It could take the form of a systematic review, follow the methods developed by the Cochrane Collaboration, result from a consensus conference or expert panel or synthesize qualitative or quantitative results. Realist syntheses, narrative syntheses, meta-analyses, meta-syntheses and practice guidelines are all forms of synthesis.” (Canadian Institutes of Health Research. (2016, July 28). Knowledge Translation. Retrieved April 26, 2018, from l. )

KS Umbrella

Grimshaw J. A Guide to Knowledge Synthesis [Internet]. CIHR. Canadian Institutes of Health Research; 2010.

Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Synthesis Resources [Internet]. CIHR. Canadian Institutes of Health Research; 2013.

Booth A, Noyes J, Flemming K, Gerhardus A, Wahlster P, van der Wilt, Gert Jan, et al.  Structured methodology review identified seven (RETREAT) criteria for selecting qualitative evidence synthesis approaches . Journal of clinical epidemiology. 2018;99:41-52.

Kastner M, Tricco AC, Soobiah C, et al. What is the most appropriate knowledge synthesis method to conduct a review? Protocol for a scoping review . BMC Medical Research Methodology . 2012;12:114. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-12-114.

Kastner M, Antony J, Soobiah C, Straus SE, Tricco AC. Conceptual recommendations for selecting the most appropriate knowledge synthesis method to answer research questions related to complex evidence . Journal of Clinical Epidemiology . 2016;73:43-49.

Knowledge Synthesis Services at UHN

Common Types of Knowledge Syntheses

  • Systematic Reviews
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Scoping Reviews
  • Rapid or Restricted Reviews
  • Clinical Practice Guidelines
  • Realist Reviews
  • Mixed Methods Reviews
  • Qualitative Synthesis
  • Narrative Synthesis

A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making. (See Section 1.2 in the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions .)

A systematic review is not the same as a traditional (narrative) review or a literature review. Unlike other kinds of reviews, systematic reviews must be as thorough and unbiased as possible, and must also make explicit how the search was conducted. Systematic reviews may or may not include a meta-analysis.

On average, a systematic review project takes a year. If your timelines are shorter, you may wish to consider other types of synthesis projects or a traditional (narrative) review. See suggested timelines for a Cochrane Review for reference.

Systematic Review Overview (UHN)

Systematic Review Overview workshop recording (UHN)

Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA)

Greyson D, Rafferty E, Slater L, et al. Systematic review searches must be systematic, comprehensive, and transparent: a critique of Perman et al. BMC public health . 2019;19:153.

Ioannidis J. P. (2016). The Mass Production of Redundant, Misleading, and Conflicted Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses . The Milbank quarterly , 94 (3), 485-514.

Yale University Library.  Systematic Reviews and Evidence Synthesis: Review Types .

A subset of systematic reviews. Meta-analysis is a technique that statistically combines the results of quantitative studies to provide a more precise effect of the results.

"..a form of knowledge synthesis that addresses an exploratory research question aimed at mapping key concepts, types of evidence, and gaps in research related to a defined area or field by systematically searching, selecting and synthesizing existing knowledge." (Colquhoun, HL et al., 2014)

Arksey, H., & O'Malley, L. (2005). Scoping studies: Towards a methodological framework .   International Journal of Social Research Methodology: Theory and Practice , 8 (1), 19-32. doi:10.1080/1364557032000119616.

Levac, D., Colquhoun, H. & O'Brien, K.K. Scoping studies: advancing the methodology . Implementation Sci 5 , 69 (2010).

Colquhoun, H. L., Levac, D., O'Brien, K. K., Straus, S., Tricco, A. C., Perrier, L., . . . Moher, D. (2014). Scoping reviews: Time for clarity in definition, methods, and reporting . Journal of Clinical Epidemiology , 67(12), 1291-1294. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2014.03.013.

Peters MD, Godfrey CM, Khalil H, McInerney P, Parker D, Soares CB. Guidance for conducting systematic scoping reviews . Int.J.Evid Based.Healthc . 2015 Sep;13(3):141-146.

Peters MDJ, Godfrey C, McInerney P, Munn Z, Tricco AC, Khalil, H. Chapter 11: Scoping Reviews (2020 version). In: Aromataris E, Munn Z (Editors). JBI Manual for Evidence Synthesis , JBI, 2020.

Tricco AC, Lillie E, Zarin W, O'Brien KK, Colquhoun H, Levac D, et al. PRISMA Extension for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-ScR): Checklist and Explanation . Ann Intern Med . [Epub ahead of print ] doi: 10.7326/M18-0850.

“…a type of knowledge synthesis in which systematic review processes are accelerated and methods are streamlined to complete the review more quickly than is the case for typical systematic reviews. Rapid reviews take an average of 5–12 weeks to complete, thus providing evidence within a shorter time frame required for some health policy and systems decisions.” (Tricco AC et al., 2017)

Ganann R, Ciliska D, Thomas H. Expediting systematic reviews: methods and implications of rapid reviews . Implementation Science : IS . 2010;5:56. doi:10.1186/1748-5908-5-56.

Langlois EV, Straus SE, Antony J, King VJ, Tricco AC. Using rapid reviews to strengthen health policy and systems and progress towards universal health coverage . BMJ Global Health . 2019;4:e001178.

Tricco AC, Langlois EV, Straus SE, editors. Rapid reviews to strengthen health policy and systems: a practical guide . Geneva: World Health Organization; 2017. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

Watt A, Cameron A, Sturm L, Lathlean T , Babidge W, Blamey S, et al. Rapid reviews versus full systematic reviews: An inventory of current methods and practice in health technology assessment . International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care . 2008;24(2):133-9.

“Clinical practice guidelines are systematically developed statements to assist practitioner and patient decisions about appropriate health care for specific clinical circumstances.” Source: Institute of Medicine. (1990). Clinical Practice Guidelines: Directions for a New Program, M.J. Field and K.N. Lohr (eds.) Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Page 38.

–Disclosure of any author conflicts of interest

AGREE Reporting Checklist

Alonso-Coello, P., Oxman, A. D., Moberg, J., Brignardello-Petersen, R., Akl, E. A., Davoli, M., ... & Guyatt, G. H. (2016). GRADE Evidence to Decision (EtD) frameworks: a systematic and transparent approach to making well informed healthcare choices. 2: Clinical practice guidelines . BMJ , 353 , i2089.

Pawson R, Greenhalgh T, Harvey G, Walshe K. Realist review - a new method of systematic review designed for complex policy interventions . Journal of Health Services Research & Policy . 2005;10:21-34.

Rycroft-Malone J, McCormack B, Hutchinson AM, et al. Realist synthesis: illustrating the method for implementation research . Implementation science : IS . 2012;7:33.

Wong G, Greenhalgh T, Westhorp G, Pawson R. Realist methods in medical education research: what are they and what can they contribute? Medical Education . 2012;46(1):89-96.

"Mixed-methods systematic reviews can be defined as combining the findings of qualitative and quantitative studies within a single systematic review to address the same overlapping or complementary review questions." (Harden A, 2010)

Harden A.   Mixed-Methods Systematic Reviews: Integrating quantitative and qualitative findings .   NCDDR:FOCUS. 2010.

Pluye P, Hong QN. Combining the power of stories and the power of numbers: mixed methods research and mixed studies reviews . Annual review of public health . 2014;35:29-45.

Pearson A, White H, Bath-Hextall F, Salmond S, Apostolo J, Kirkpatrick P. A mixed-methods approach to systematic reviews . International journal of evidence-based healthcare . 2015;13:121-131.

The Joanna Briggs Institute 2014 Reviewers Manual: Methodology for JBI Mixed Methods Systematic Reviews .

There are various methods for integrating the results from qualitative studies. "Systematic reviews of qualitative research have an important role in informing the delivery of evidence-based healthcare. Qualitative systematic reviews have investigated the culture of communities, exploring how consumers experience, perceive and manage their health and journey through the health system, and can evaluate components and activities of health services such as health promotion and community development." (Lockwood C et al., 2015)

Booth A, Noyes J, Flemming K, Gerhardus A, Wahlster P, van der Wilt, Gert Jan, et al. Structured methodology review identified seven (RETREAT) criteria for selecting qualitative evidence synthesis approaches . Journal of clinical epidemiology. 2018;99:41-52.

Ring N, Jepson R, Ritchie K. Methods of synthesizing qualitative research studies for health technology assessment . International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care . 2011;27:384-390.

Lockwood C, Munn Z, Porritt K. Qualitative research synthesis: methodological guidance for systematic reviewers utilizing meta-aggregation . International journal of evidence-based healthcare . 2015;13:179-187.

France EF, Cunningham M, Ring N, et al. Improving reporting of meta-ethnography: The eMERGe reporting guidance . Journal of advanced nursing . 2019.

Seers K. Qualitative systematic reviews: their importance for our understanding of research relevant to pain . Br J Pain . 2015;9(1):36-40.

Barnett-Page E, Thomas J. Methods for the synthesis of qualitative research: a critical review . BMC Med Res Methodol . 2009;9:59. Published 2009 Aug 11. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-9-59.

Thomas J, Harden A. Methods for the thematic synthesis of qualitative research in systematic reviews . BMC Med Res Methodol . 2008;8:45. Published 2008 Jul 10. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-8-45

Lewin S, Booth A, Glenton C, et al. Applying GRADE-CERQual to qualitative evidence synthesis findings: introduction to the series . Implementation science : IS . 2018;13:2.

"Narrative synthesis refers to an approach to the systematic review and synthesis of findings from multiple studies that relies primarily on the use of words and text to summarise and explain the findings of the synthesis. Whilst narrative synthesis can involve the manipulation of statistical data, the defining characteristic is that it adopts a textual approach to the process of synthesis to ‘tell the story’ of the findings from the included studies." (Popay J, 2006)

Tricco AC, Soobiah C, Antony J, et al. A scoping review identifies multiple emerging knowledge synthesis methods, but few studies operationalize the method . Journal of Clinical Epidemiology . 2016;73:19-28.

Popay J, Roberts H, Sowden A, Petticrew M, Arai L, Rodgers M, et al. Guidance on the conduct of narrative synthesis in systematic reviews . Lancaster: ESRC Research Methods Programme; 2006.

Snilstveit B, Oliver S, Vojtkova M. Narrative approaches to systematic review and synthesis of evidence for international development policy and practice . Journal of development effectiveness . 2012 Sep 1;4(3):409-29. 

Lucas PJ, Baird J, Arai L, Law C, Roberts HM. Worked examples of alternative methods for the synthesis of qualitative and quantitative research in systematic reviews . BMC medical research methodology . 2007 Dec;7(1):4.

Ryan R. Cochrane Consumer sand Communication Review Group. Cochrane Consumers and Communication Review Group: data synthesis and analysis . June 2013.

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Doing the literature review: Types of literature review

  • The literature review: why?

Types of literature review

  • Selecting databases
  • Scoping search
  • Using a database thesaurus
  • Advanced search in a database
  • Citation information
  • Using a reference manager
  • Reporting your search strategy
  • Writing & structuring
  • When to stop

There are many terms for approaches to a literature review:

what are the categories of literature review

Word cloud based on: Some common types of literature review. Source: Booth, A. a.o. (2016) S ystematic approaches to a succesful literature review,  p. 10.

These approaches differ slightly from each other, but the main principles remain the same. Essential is that a literature review is question-led. At the same time your question is shaped and influenced by the goal and focus of the review:

  • effectiveness questions; what effect does intervention X, compared with intervention Y, have on outcome Z?
  • methodology questions: what research methods have previously been used to investigate phenomenon X?
  • conceptual questions: how has phenomenon X been identified and defined? Which theories have been used to explain phenomenon X?

The 2 most common forms of a literature review probably are labeled  narrative review , and  systematic review . The narrative style describes and discusses the state-of-the-art of a specific topic or theme from a more theoretical and contextual point of view, whereas the formalized systematic review follows explicit procedures  . These   are   often used in biomedical / healthcare fields to provide evidence of interventions .

what are the categories of literature review

See the hand out for a matrix of all mentioned types of literature review.

Whatever approach to reviewing is adopted, you have to make certain decisions concerning the following:

  • who are the intended readers?
  • how is the review to be structured?
  • how are relevant studies to be found, and which studies are to be included?
  • how much detail is to be provided about each study discussed; in particular, how much information is to be given about the research methods employed?
  • how are the studies and their findings to be evaluated and related to one another?

Interested in how good literature reviews can look like? See two examples under Suggested : a peer-reviewed publication (article) in the biomedical field ( systematic approach) and a book chapter as part of a thesis ( narrative approach).

  • EUR Research Portal: list of all dissertations
  • Hand out: Matrix types of literature review
  • Example of a systematic review: Labree, L.J.W. (2011) Differences in overweight and obesity among children from migrant and native origin. (Peer-reviewed article).
  • Example of a narrative review: Santen, R.A. van (2012) Popularization and personalizations: a histrical and cultural analysis of 50 years of Dutch political television journalism (chapter 2).
  • Companion website to Systematic approaches to a succesful literature review (2016)

what are the categories of literature review

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Literature Reviews, Introduction to Different Types of

There are many different types of literature reviews, each with its own approach, analysis, and purpose. To confuse matters, these types aren't named consistently. The following are some of the more common types of literature reviews.

These are more rigorous, with some level of appraisal:

  • The Systematic Review is important to health care and medical trials, and other subjects where methodology and data are important. Through rigorous review and analysis of literature that meets a specific criteria, the systematic review identifies and compares answers to health care related questions. The systematic review may include meta-analysis and meta-synthesis, which leads us to...
  • The Quantitative or Qualitative Meta-analysis Review can both make up the whole or part of systematic review(s). Both are thorough and comprehensive in condensing and making sense of a large body of research. The quantitative meta-analysis reviews quantitative research, is objective, and includes statistical analysis. The qualitative meta-analysis reviews qualitative research, is subjective (or evaluative, or interpretive), and identifies new themes or concepts.

These don't always include a formal assessment or analysis:

  • The Literature Review (see our Literature Review video) or Narrative Review often appears as a chapter in a thesis or dissertation. It describes what related research has already been conducted, how it informs the thesis, and how the thesis fits into the research in the field. (See for more information.)
  • The Critical Review is like a literature review, but requires a more detailed examination of the literature, in order to compare and evaluate a number of perspectives.
  • The Scoping Review is often used at the beginning of an article, dissertation or research proposal. It is conducted before the research begins, and sets the stage for this research by highlighting gaps in the literature, and explaining the need for the research about to be conducted, which is presented in the remainder of the article.
  • The Conceptual Review groups articles according to concepts, or categories, or themes. It identifies the current 'understanding' of the given research topic, discusses how this understanding was reached, and attempts to determine whether a greater understanding can be suggested. It provides a snapshot of where things are with this particular field of research.
  • The State-of-the-Art Review is conducted periodically, with a focus on the most recent research. It describes what is currently known, understood, or agreed upon regarding the research topic, and highlights where are there still disagreements.

Source: 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.

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