• Published: 22 May 2014

What literature review is not: diversity, boundaries and recommendations

  • Frantz Rowe 1  

European Journal of Information Systems volume  23 ,  pages 241–255 ( 2014 ) Cite this article

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In Orlando the EJIS Board decided to implement a policy change that I had proposed in my last editorial addressing the IS community ( Rowe, 2012 ), asking authors (starting January 2013) to explicitly classify their papers as belonging to one of the following categories:

Literature review

Theory development

Research essay

Ethnography and narrative

Empirical research

Issues and opinion (and Response)

Aiming at giving continuous feedback and thoughts on the evolution of genres that we support and on related expectations for IS research, this editorial focuses on literature reviews. This choice stems from our strong belief in the need to stimulate genre diversity in order to continue to produce new knowledge, rather than to replicate or marginally extend the use of well-known empirical models. There is a healthy level of diversity in a field ( Benbasat & Weber, 1996 ), which, we think, should include at least all these genres, and is at risk with the increase in the institutional pressures to publish ( Loos et al, 2010 ). In this spirit, I offer a few words on the need for more theoretical work in IS research as well as a briefing on EJIS’s activity in relation to its editorial policy change.

The diversification of recently submitted papers, of what currently appears in Advanced Online Publishing (AOP), which represents about a year of publications, and of papers being reviewed, is encouraging (cf. Table 1 ). First EJIS has continued striving to publish among the best works on empirical research and our change of editorial policy has not provoked a dramatic change on the flow of this type of papers. The second good news is that we do get submissions in all new categories. We need, however, to ensure that they have approximately the same chance of getting published as do empirical papers. It is far too early to tell, but we hope that this editorial will help increase the quality of submissions in the interest of the authors and of the IS community.

Before our policy change, a few literature reviews, theory development papers, research essays, ethnographies, narratives and by extension the even rarer ‘alternative genres’, appeared in either the ‘Issues and Opinion’ or in the ‘Research Paper’ categories. However, these categories did not seem to have enough traction for the journal stakeholders. As an example, a quick search indicates that by the end of 2012, EJIS had only published eight literature reviews (cf. Appendix ) and even fewer theory development papers. This looks like a rather meager recognition of the value of these contributions compared to the 700 papers (exact count excluding editorials) published in EJIS from 1991 till the end of 2013!

The need to publish more literature reviews and theory development papers is crying for EJIS and beyond for the IS community. Despite its recognition by JAIS, since its inception in 2000, and by MISQ in 2001 and to some extent by other journals such as Database and JITTA, which occasionally publish literature reviews, the situation has not changed significantly on the IS community’s scene. The CAIS call for a Special Issue on literature review this year might send a strong signal and change the quality if not the frequency of the genre in IS. But ironically I cannot help paraphrasing Hambrick (2007 , p.1350) who tried to move management away from its theory polarization, ‘We are not proposing that our top journals should lower their standards, only that they should shift them’.

In fact, if we believe in the need to build a cumulative tradition ( Webster & Watson, 2002 ; Shapira, 2011 ) we should neither confine the set of journals in a community at the empirical pole nor at the theoretical pole. In IS the risk is that we become unable to produce theories with broad impact within IS and beyond. Implicitly we put ourselves in a position to depend on other disciplines to develop theories on IS-related phenomena, albeit with a limited view and understanding of the IS literature, or, more surely, to produce empirical research in unchartered territory where empirical objects self-organize themselves or contribute to non-IS theories. To evolve more rapidly towards a more comprehensive and effective research genre’s spectrum we need literature reviews that offer the most solid foundations for theory building and research landscaping. Producing such theories is all the more needed and legitimate since many of us work in Business Schools and social science institutes where theory and scholarly knowledge are greatly valued.

In my last editorial, I positioned the literature review genre as one of the necessary ingredients we should publish in top journals, but I did not have the space to insist on the diversity within the genre itself and to get to the level of precision, which should have been desirable as corresponding guidelines. I hope to clarify these points in the current editorial and to invite further comments on all genres. I believe that the message that literature reviews can be highly valuable needs to be also reinforced and developed with more examples emphasizing different types, along with some recommendations. First of all, a literature review is the genre of paper that every researcher looks for when starting a research study. In addition, all Ph.D. students do one when developing their monograph, and many of those who opt for the three essays genre, more prevailing in North America and in Scandinavia than in the rest of Europe, also perform one, albeit one, which is publishable and generally more systematic. It thus can provide tremendous value for the field. Not surprisingly for instance DeLone & Mc Lean’s (1992) and Alavi & Leidner’s (2001) reviews have had considerable impact if judged by citations.

This calls first for a definition of what is common across all these types. In order to make some recommendations, we need to define what is a literature review, delineate the genre with respect to other genres, including theory development papers, and what kind of purposes the different types of reviews may serve.

What is a literature review? Defining and delineating the genre

On the basis of a literature review in IS and in the social sciences confirmed by a survey in the IS community concerning statements regarding literature reviews and conceptual frameworks, Schwarz and colleagues (2006) classified literature review goals as follows:

to summarize prior research,

to critically examine contributions of past research,

to explain the results of prior research found within research streams,

to clarify alternative views of past research (not necessarily integrated together).

While these goals focus on the past, they are consistent with definitions given in well cited research methods textbooks: «a critical summary and assessment of the range of existing materials dealing with knowledge and understanding in a given field» ( Blaxter et al, 2006 , p. 123); «an appropriate summary of previous work. But it needs an added dimension – your interpretation» ( Blumberg et al, 2005 , p. 11). The laconism of the first part of this last definition contrasts with the imperative need to interpret the discourse. In other words, a literature review is not an unsurprising overview of the literature. It has to critically consolidate the existing literature on a given topic ( Schwarz et al., 2006 ) and be aligned with the research goals of the study.

Hence, a number of literature review’s subtitles indicate that the effort should not stop at summarizing: ‘a literature review, synthesis and research agenda’ ( Ahuja, 2002 ); ‘What we already know, what we still need to know, and how we can get there’ ( Schryen, 2013 ). Like Webster & Watson (2002) I emphasize that a good literature review also identifies critical knowledge gaps. This may be implicit in the ‘critical’ aspect of the review. But there are various ways to be critical; one of them is indicating what was not done in a rigorous or relevant way. A good literature review could, for example, identify systematic theoretical and methodological biases in a field and suggest fundamental reorientation for understanding the problem or central construct ( Alvesson & Sandberg, 2011 ). Such problematization should help identifying alternative theoretical underpinnings in the existing literature. Identifying missing or neglected themes in what has been researched, what Alvesson & Sandberg (2011) call gap-spotting, is another matter. Our first recommendation is that literature reviews strive to identify theoretical biases and thematic gaps and propose some corresponding stimulating research directions, and not just stop at the summarizing/ synthesizing stage. In other words, the identification of new research directions is not an option. The same paper does not have to explain how we can get there literally. If it does so to some extent, like in Schryen’s review (2013), this becomes an excellent value added. But this is not the essence of a literature review. Future research directions as part of a literature review should be proposed and justified but can be presented as suggestions without an accompanying detailed deployment plan.

Consistently with our comments, we propose the following definition: a literature review synthesizes past knowledge on a topic or domain of interest, identifies important biases and knowledge gaps in the literature and proposes corresponding future research directions.

An important point to retain also from Schwarz and colleagues’ explanation is that, unlike a conceptual framework, a literature review does not have to integrate all the knowledge elements provided by the literature into an overall logic. However, in reality comparing the two is difficult because often, as we will see, literature reviews incorporate one or several conceptual frameworks, whereas conceptual frameworks, like theory development papers, are always developed based on a literature review. Our guidelines will address this delineation issue.

A typology of literature reviews based on research goals

To shed some light on the diversity of literature reviews we propose a typology based on four dimensions (cf. Table 2 ). Regarding the first dimension, the goal with respect to theory, we mainly distinguish three main types: reviews for describing, for understanding and for explaining. We will use this typology for our concluding recommendations. However, in this section, we will also present an alternative way of addressing the theoretical goal of the review, which has some implications on the dimension of systematicity.

The second dimension, breadth or scope, is completely orthogonal to the first one; this allows us to present it together with the first dimension in the same section. Breadth cannot be subsumed in the contribution to theory and must always be specified to delineate the domain of the review.

The last two dimensions, systematicity and argumentative strategies, are partly related to the first dimension. Therefore positioning a literature review depends first and foremost on research goals: their expected contribution to theory and the breadth of the knowledge domain they attempt to cover.

First we can distinguish literature reviews according to their main theoretical goal or type of contribution to theory. In fact, Gregor (2006) distinguishes four main types of theoretical goals: ‘analysis and description’, ‘explanation’, ‘prediction’, ‘prescription’. The latter is a special case of prediction. Not only is it well-known that prediction is very difficult in the social world, because it is an open system, but literature reviews rarely espouse this goal. Therefore, we will retain only three types of goals with respect to theory. First, we must recognize that many literature reviews do not strive to contribute to theory; their main goals are to describe, to classify what has been produced by the literature. Strictly speaking, they just map the territory and do not theorize. Second, the review may want to explain why, how and when things happen in a phenomenon, and thus focus on causal relationships with certain outcomes. Explanation relies on deductive logic and is focused on specific outcomes. Third and more often, the review may aim at understanding the phenomenon as a whole, its overall meaning and its relationships from the parts to the whole and reciprocally, as in the hermeneutic circle. Not only are these reviews focusing more on interpretation than on deductive logic but they also adopt generally a broader perspective. This opposition between explanation and understanding parallels that of interpretation and deductive logic ( Von Wright, 1971 ; Hovorka & Lee, 2010 ). For Weber (1949) explanation (erklären) takes place within a larger understanding (verstehen), which is of overarching interest and relates fundamentally to meaning, and the two should be fundamentally distinguished, although, as pointed out by Hovorka and Lee they are often used as synonyms in IS. Habermas (1988 , p. 13) structured his book ‘on the logic of social sciences based on this Weberian distinction, while recognizing that “In this schema for the progress of social-scientific knowledge causal-analytic and interpretive methods alternate” ’.

Thus, some reviews aim at describing a phenomenon with little or no contribution to theory. Those summarize, under very general categories such as organizational, technical and environmental, the often very empirical literature that has been produced on the topic under investigation. Sometimes such reviews also detail the broader categories to emphasize more conceptual relationships (e.g. Wiener et al, 2010 ), but without discussing categorical assumptions and underlying assumptions. The descriptive review type is often used to classify what we know about a recent technology, service or practice, which becomes a trend in the industry such as IS offshoring ( Wiener et al, 2010 ), cloud computing ( Yang & Tate, 2012 ) or outsourcing ( Lacity et al, 2009 ). It may also be used to assess our own methodology practices. For instance, Polites et al (2012 ; for the coding of their complete set of examined papers (72), see http://www.palgrave-journals.com/ejis/journal/v23/n3/suppinfo/ejis20147s1.html ) performed a systematic review of research using multidimensional constructs according to the types of constructs (superordinate vs aggregate) with formative or reflective dimensions as well as using profiles and multiplicative and mixed models. In addition they offer a stimulating critique through dimension sets and precise guidelines for conceptualizing multidimensional models. In this issue, Keutel et al (2014 ; for the coding of their complete set of examined papers (327), see http://csr.uni-koeln.de ) classified research case studies according to their philosophical foundations, theorizing, study design, case selection and data sources. They moreover have identified a number of unexpected results such as very little theory testing even with a positivist epistemology.

Other literature reviews aim at understanding a new phenomenon or problem through related concept(s) that have been proposed in former research. Those generally adopt a narrative style to make sense of the content of the literature. We find here the traditional monograph done by European Ph.D. students, which always encompasses a critical review, and is still often paper-centered ( Webster & Watson, 2002 ). Such monographs analyze the results and methodologies of articles, books and other relevant sources with high level of details before drawing more synthetic conclusions. Such reviews are generally centered on the identification of research findings contributing to formulating and/or solving a specific problem . In a more elaborate form of reviews partly sharing this goal we find those that aim at conceptualizing the issue. An excellent recent example is the interdisciplinary review on privacy done by Smith et al (2011) where they show the fragmented picture of the privacy concept and point to what is not privacy. Clearly, conceptualizing the problem of the problem before even thinking of ‘solving’ it is what is expected in such type of reviews. Interestingly, this last example is also descriptive and in fact is considered as a mixed type of literature review since it builds on the double distinction between levels of analysis and whether the literature is normative, purely descriptive or empirically descriptive (i.e. based on some theory or framework). In our internet era IT causal agency on power offers another example of a typical provocative IS question that begs for a better understanding addressed by a literature review. Jasperson et al (2002) were focused on understanding; this goal was achieved by assessing the assumptions and underlying paradigms prevalent in the literature. They approach their review through a metatriangulation, a particular method that uses multiple lenses or paradigms (their review included the Markus & Robey (1988) on causal agency) and offers, in the last phase, a theoretical development. Reviews for understanding can alternatively put emphasis on the development of a conceptual framework but will combine it with a systematic literature review to the detriment of the analysis of the relationships within the framework in the collected papers and theory building. This deficiency may simply reflect the lack of such analysis in the studied literature. For instance Besson & Rowe’s (2012) conceptual framework allows highlighting particularly neglected dimensions of inertia, governing agency and risk failure for understanding information systems-enabled organizational transformation. The knowledge gaps appear then so wide and deep that recommendations can only be broad and there is still much work to be done to develop a theory.

Another literature review for understanding type tries to synthesize and make sense of a whole stream of research (see for instance Schryen (2013 ) on the business value of IT). This literature review type aims at identifying key findings, problems, and research thrusts and paths to solve them. Given the breadth of the review, the analysis moves away from paper contributions and becomes fully problem-centered , with a major role of distinguishing among the different problems with a necessary grouping of different sources addressing the same type of problem. The grouping can use well-known concepts to integrate the knowledge such as in Schryen’s example, but in such a case the value added lies in the correspondence between findings, problems or gaps, and research thrusts. In that sense the review is integrated but without providing new conceptual lenses. Another very different and original way to construct a review on a whole stream offers an epistemological framework where the conceptual aspect is multifaceted because concepts are closer to general notions but are also dependent on the adoption of a philosophical perspective. In their highly cited paper, Alavi & Leidner (2001) presented a set of six knowledge perspectives and their implications, before adopting one of these perspectives: a view of organizations as knowledge systems consisting in four mutually interdependent knowledge processes – creation, storage/retrieval, transfer and application of knowledge. They offered a research agenda through a set of questions for each of these knowledge processes. With the identification of the different perspective such frameworks show both an epistemological orientation and a systemic one in the way fundamental knowledge processes depend on each other.

An even broader literature review type synthesizes and makes sense of the literature in a discipline as a whole , albeit from a selective angle (e.g. by region or by type of publication). For instance in their review of IS research published in Management Science , Banker & Kauffman (2004) analyzed in a narrative manner the evolution of five major streams of research, including the business value of IT. Building on MISQ, ISR and JMIS publications since 1985 and using Latent Semantic Analysis, a technique very similar to factor analysis, Sidorova et al (2008) identified five cores or research areas that constitute the identity of the IS discipline: (1) information technology and organizations; (2) IS development; (3) IT and individuals; (4) IT and markets; and (5) IT and groups . Galliers & Whitley (2007) made sense of what has been presented at the European Conference of Information Systems and extended to 10 themes the Banker and Kauffman’s classification. Such contributions generally are theme-centered , which when grouped and interpreted become research domains (also called research streams) and offer a useful retrospective viewing of the literature. Some characterize the evolution of the literature through the identification of author-centered or paper-centered networks when using, respectively, citation or co-citation analysis. For instance comparing IS published in MISQ and EJIS and its evolution, Cordoba et al (2012) found a certain convergence towards an adoption of IT core, while the same team characterized IS by its fluid yet stable relationship to other disciplines ( Bernroider et al, 2013 ). While in my former editorial I had given the first as an example of a research essay, and more precisely a philology of IS, it could as well have been presented as a special case of a literature review, since it synthesizes the evolution of the IS discourse throughout these networks and related major themes. The second publication of the team is also a discourse on the interdisciplinary character of the literature. Yet, it does not identify, analyze or synthesize the content of the literature and thus cannot be considered as a literature review.

All the above types of literature reviews aim at a better understanding of a knowledge domain for which breadth can vary considerably from a specific problem to a stream of research and ultimately to what a discipline has produced. They have a strong interpretative stance as they critique papers or as they group various contents and have to make sense of what they globally mean when aggregated in a cluster.

When the review aims at explaining it is fundamentally concept-centric ( Webster & Watson, 2002 ), moving away from paper-centric or author-centric approaches, which do not allow to compare very systematically which concepts and underlying dimensions or categories are part of which paper in a given set of concepts belonging to a framework. Among variations or sub-types of the explaining purpose found in the IS literature, we find explanatory literature reviews based on (a) conceptual frameworks, (b) descriptive models, and (c) theories.

When based on a conceptual framework, this type emphasizes the development of a conceptual framework and relationships between concepts to the detriment of a systematic literature review. In this case most of the literature that is exposed is recent. Like Te’eni’s work on communication (2001), it combines a state of the art (i.e. a selection of recent research) literature review with the development of a framework. Unlike systematic literature reviews, their aim is not to be comprehensive but to put emphasis on the conceptual framework as a basis for theorizing.

When based on a descriptive model, such as in the success model ( Delone & McLean, 1992 ), where, as recognized by the authors in their example, a set of concepts is presented in a process model constructed in a temporal order, and the research moves towards modeling. However, when it lacks causal mechanisms or clearly specified assumptions between concepts, the model is merely descriptive ( Weber, 2012 ; Shapira, 2011 ). An explanatory theory moves beyond a descriptive model when it discusses such mechanisms ( Weber, 2012 ).

An explanatory literature review can also be based on these mechanisms and central theoretical concepts. This is typically the case when numerous empirical studies have analyzed a phenomenon, for instance the decision to outsource IT, with a particular theory, for instance transaction cost theory (TCT) or agency theory. In such situations, the literature review constitutes an opportunity to either assess the quality of the theory testing in the literature (e.g. Karimi-Alaghehband et al, 2011 ) or to build a theory overcoming the limitations of the base theory (e.g. Lacity et al, 2010 ).

Within these reviews for explaining an IS phenomena, I would also include another type that provides a conceptual framework, as well as theory development with a set of testable hypotheses. A good example builds on the dynamic capability theory (DCT), to develop a theory of enterprise systems-enabled organizational agility ( Trinh et al, 2012 ). Unlike the reviews on outsourcing, which build on TCT, the challenge faced by the authors was that they could only find eight papers, mostly a-theoretical that dealt with both enterprise systems (ES) and organizational agility. By using a theory like DCT they could develop a framework and precise hypotheses to deconstruct the problem while not falling into the trap of simply testing the facilitating hypothesis (is IS good or bad?). Therefore its construction was built on theoretical arguments coming either from DCT or from the authors’ own IS-based reasoning related to ES knowledge or to IT-enabled organizational agility. Thus, in contrast to a grounded theory approach, their theorizing is not based on previous empirical research of the strictly defined phenomena. Such a theory can be considered both as a theory development paper and as a literature review. In fact, despite the limited number of empirical papers at the intersection between ES literature and IT-enabled organizational agility, the authors reviewed both domains to develop their hypotheses.

Using a critical realist perspective Okoli (2012) distinguishes reviews for theory landscaping, for theory building and for theory testing. Reviews for theory landscaping are very close to those that aim at understanding. For Okoli (2012 , p. 5) literature reviews can also serve as theory building reviews when in addition to some landscaping they ‘conjecture new real phenomena to explain hitherto unexplained empirical phenomena’. Such papers propose to refine or to build a new theory, and the dividing line with a theory development paper as I had defined it in my previous editorial is extremely tenuous and difficult to argue from a theoretical viewpoint. In fact a theory building and a theory landscaping literature review both contribute to theory, but in my mind, the former integrates it in a theory or a conceptual framework, while the latter refers necessarily to multiple theories, which are rarely possible to integrate. The theory building type of review encompasses those that aim at explaining, whereas some reviews for understanding may also be theory building (e.g. Jasperson et al, 2002 ). Theory building reviews do not necessarily start with a lens like a framework, mode or theory but typically, as in the Grounded Theory Methodology (GTM), build a theory upon the knowledge of precedent research by careful interpretation and re-categorizing and coding the accumulated material. As carefully explained in IS by Wolfswinkel et al (2013) , GTM itself can be used for developing a literature review. They consider that a set of carefully selected published articles constitutes the data to explore in order to extract the relevant ‘excerpts’ for generating the theory according to the GTM process. In the very GTM spirit, the data set can be extended to practitioner’s articles and to anecdotal cases described by software developers and industry people in a greater variety of sources as demonstrated by Kumar & Stylianou (2014) in their process model for analyzing flexibility of the IS function. Conversely, when using GTM, different types of literature reviews are also needed at different phases of the theory building process ( Urquhart & Fernandez, 2013 ), and these types appear in several sections of the final paper (e.g. Hekkala & Urquhart, 2013 ).

Finally the theory testing review, more well-known as meta-analysis, is based exclusively on a quantitative approach to empirical papers, which have themselves followed a quantitative approach and reported their results in a sufficiently precise and rigorous way so that they can be taken as an input of a model that takes all this previous knowledge into account to statistically test and examine what remains robust overall ( King & He, 2005 ). This type of review makes some sense when a lot of studies have used the same base theory or model, such as the technology acceptance models (cf. King & He, 2006 ; Wu & Du, 2012 ). Another type of theory testing review can also include qualitative empirical papers in addition to the quantitative ones but it cannot be strictly considered as a meta-analysis (e.g. Lacity et al, 2010 ).

Systematizing the screening and search steps in the review process

Schwarz and colleagues (2006) argue that a review should aim at comprehensiveness, that is gathering all possible relevant and quality material for the purpose, hence the difficulty of integration in a unique framework, not to mention a theory. Whereas we agree that building an integrated framework is difficult, and that all reviews do not achieve that, we prefer to call for a good or reasonable coverage rather than a comprehensive one that would make a review process at best ephemeral if not unachievable. The current trend is to refer to systematicity, which is built into the search and into a selection process, rather than to an illusive complete picture. That said, we should also note that comprehensiveness can also mean sense-making, which is also important, especially when a review aims at understanding and viewing a landscape of the accumulated knowledge in a more cohesive way but without exploring all its details and thus does not require completeness in the paper’s collection.

In that vein, we can either embrace systematicity in the definition of the literature review as Fink does ( 2010 , p. 3): ‘A research literature review is a systematic, explicit and reproducable method for identifying, evaluating and synthesizing the existing body of completed and recorded work produced by researchers, scholars, and practitioners’; or consider that this definition qualifies for a particular literature review sub-type ‘A systematic literature review is defined as “a form of secondary study that uses a well-defined methodology to identify, analyze and interpret all available evidence related to a specific research question in a way that is unbiased and (to a degree) repeatable” ’ (Kitchenham cited in Wahyudin et al, 2011) . We opt for the latter as systematicity is not always required in the IS discipline compared to medical sciences for example where it is a paramount requirement of auditability and testability.

The quality of a literature review depends on its sytematicity, to an extent, which, as we will see, is a function of the theoretical review goal, since systematicity implies reproducability through documenting the search process and potentially indicates comprehensiveness. Coverage is obviously an issue when authors claim to review the literature. Describing the review process is necessary to envision what systematicity means.

After defining the purpose of the review, material collection begins (Mayring cited in Seuring & Müller (2008)). This involves searching, screening and selection of the relevant literature. Material collection corresponds to the first tasks identified by Fink (2010) , among seven tasks:

Selecting a research question.

Selecting bibliographic or article databases, websites and other sources.

Choosing search terms.

Applying practical screening criteria (e.g. language, funding, setting of a study).

Applying methodological screening criteria (adequacy of the study coverage and scientific quality).

Doing the review: reliable and valid reviews involve using a standardized form for abstracting data from articles, training reviewers (if more than one) to do the abstraction, monitoring the quality of the review, and pilot testing the process.

Synthesizing the results. Literature review results may be synthesized descriptively. Descriptive syntheses are interpretations of the review’s findings based on the reviewers’ experience and the quality and content of the available literature ‘ (Fink, p. 5).

The sixth task described by Fink involves the category selection (Mayring cited in Seuring & Müller (2008)), which we emphasize hereafter as the selection or design of the analytical tool for synthesizing.

Currently the trend is towards more systematic reviews, i.e. “literature surveys with defined research questions, search process, data extraction and data presentation, whether or not the researchers referred to their study as a systematic literature review”.» ( Kitchenham et al, 2009 , p. 8)

In a systematic review quality assessment may be performed using the DARE methodology based on four questions ( Kitchenham et al, 2009 ):

Are the review’s inclusion and exclusion criteria described and appropriate?

Is the literature search likely to have covered all relevant studies?

Did the reviewers assess the quality/validity of the included studies?

Were the basic data/studies adequately described?

The first question is naturally related to the way the problem and research questions are formulated. In a critical and European tradition such a formulation is very important because when delineating the search we reduce the risk of confusing findings. Inclusion/exclusion criteria are mainly related to search process automation, type of source, period and discipline:

The search process can be performed by querying electronic databases with defined keywords or by systematic personal reading without keywords entry. Keyword-based automated search has pros and cons. A systematic personal screening of all papers in a given set of sources might be in fact more effective, although much more time consuming. Search by keywords depends on the choice of keywords. In management, there is such a strong incentive to differentiate oneself by inventing our own concepts that in a given well-defined theme there might be dozens of completely different words or expressions for designating the same phenomenon, which makes the keyword approach very treacherous and necessarily iterative after one realizes one’s omissions.

The type of source depends on the number of papers available in good journals. If this number is high, selecting only ‘A-level’ journals is probably a good choice. A lot of lower rank journals do not address theory (e.g. Elgarah et al, 2005 ). However, preference for quality journals depends on the topic; for instance if the topic is rather technical, conference papers, which is the major source of publications in computer science, should be considered (e.g. Yang & Tate, 2012 ). Similarly if the phenomenon is relatively new, or conversely history-related, drawing on books and dissertations might be fruitful.

Typical reviews cover a period of 10 years. But when a phenomenon or a fashion wave started much earlier, especially when no review has been published before (e.g. Besson & Rowe, 2012 ), the review period should be inclusive of the first pieces of research and may cover 20 or 30 years. This may make a search based on keywords difficult, but good coverage has a cost.

Many phenomena we study in IS are interdisciplinary, in which case they should be studied as such when doing a review (e.g. Jasperson et al, 2002 ). For example virtual teams are being studied in management, IS, psychology, and Computer Supported and Cooperative Work (CSCW). Fortunately Shen et al (forthcoming) included the CSCW journal for their review on time. If the phenomenon is very interdisciplinary, this may imply relying on a very wide range of sources (e.g., Smith et al, 2011 ).

With the help of all sorts of IT search tools and databases, literature reviews are continuously evolving and the power these tools give to researchers has deep impact on the efficiency of the material collection. However, inclusion vs exclusion requires a balance between finding what has been researched vs the ability to review this material if the number of sources is high. Systematicity, like perfect coverage, may not always be the most important quality elements of a literature review. In fact, higher systematicity does not help much ‘abstracting data’ from papers and synthesizing it. Systematicity is more and more important for the assessment of the material in the collecting stages, and to some extent for ‘doing the review’ stage, but it is more important for explaining and testing reviews rather than for understanding and viewing the landscape. Okoli (2012) notes that, for theory-oriented literature, the need for quality assessment varies greatly from no real need for landscaping, to optional for theory building and highly recommended for theory testing.

A particular case of reviews, which has some similarity with theory testing or could even be considered a special case of it, is the policy review. For the design of a treatment or prevention policy such a review is essential. For such reviews, quality assessment of each piece of evidence becomes absolutely necessary including the screening of unpublished papers, because those might be too often rejected from publications when they confirm previous findings, and/or include elements of lower scientific quality. This type of review often requires the need to include lower quality evidence and to synthesize from fragments of such sparse evidence, which forces the author to make judgmental calls based on her or his implicit or explicit own theory to guide the integration or exclusion of such evidence ( Marjchzak & Markus, 2013 ).

Finally an extensive data description can be particularly important for descriptive reviews when, like the reviews for understanding (e.g. Jasperson et al, 2002 ), they do not focus on methodology but on the phenomenon itself and on its underlying paradigms. For explanatory reviews, as well as for descriptive reviews focusing on methodology, this is not the case. Nevertheless, availability of the coding of each paper is important for these types of reviews, as it will allow other researchers to access an important piece of synthetic knowledge, not always explicit in the papers, to reuse it but also to challenge the explanation.

What is synthesizing? When and how? Elements for argumentative strategies

According to Okoli (2012) the most important part of the review should be synthesizing, that is delivering a global representation of the literature as a whole once it has been screened, searched and after the quality of each paper has been assessed. He then discusses how to do this synthesizing of literature review depending on the type of primary sources (qualitative research, quantitative research or conceptual pieces) and the type of synthesis (quantitative, i.e, reliable detection of tendencies or qualitative, i.e, richer explanations and more comprehensive evidence, or mixed). While this allows him to identify several techniques for synthesis in systematic surveys that have not yet surfaced in IS, he does not touch the issue of what synthesizing really means.

In our view, synthesizing the literature involves summarizing numerous research findings sometimes using a novel interpretation. It can be based on analytical categories and on the use of appropriate semantic denomination of the classes/clusters allowing to map the literature. First, analytical categories can be selected to perform the analysis of the literature and synthesize the findings around these concepts. Alternatively a conceptual framework can be developed to read through the empirical literature. In that case, we suggest presenting this framework in the first part of the literature review (e. g., Besson & Rowe, 2012 ), before the selection of the literature because it will drive the analysis of the literature and thus constitute a pillar and an essential contribution of the whole paper. Second, a synthetic vision can be achieved through a developed mapping tool ( Alavi & Leidner, 2001 ) or through an existing one that is selected by the researchers ( Kappos & Rivard, 2008 ). To illustrate what we mean by synthesizing and analyzing the literature, Kappos and Rivard provide a good example of a literature review. For their mapping/landscaping of the literature they select a very broad framework (that of Ives and Piccoli) to sort and classify the literature. Then, in order to analyze the collected material they apply the three perspectives of Martin on culture along with the process of Giddens to analyze the manifestations of culture within this mapping. Synthesizing thus means abstracting in order to classify and make sense of sets of research pieces within broad categories, which deal with similar problems at a certain level. Conceptual frameworks support this task regardless of the purpose of the literature review. When the literature review aims at developing theoretical explanations, then other frameworks are needed to analyze the collected papers, to problematize the problems ( Weber, 2003 ). Thus, we can consider two types of categories related to two types of structural dimensions: those that help mapping the literature and those that help analyzing it. They are not necessarily the same.

Mayring (cited by Seuring & Müller, 2008 ) describes the typical literature review methodology as follows (cf. Table 3 ), that is after the delineation of the problem or domain to be researched and before eliciting research directions:

Material collection: The material to be collected is defined and delimitated. Furthermore, the unit of analysis (i.e., the single paper) is defined.

Descriptive analysis: Formal aspects of the material are assessed, for example, the number of publications per year, providing the background for subsequent theoretical analysis.

Category selection: Structural dimensions and related analytic categories are selected to be applied to the collected material. Structural dimensions form the major topics of analysis, which are constituted by single analytic categories.

Material evaluation: The material is analyzed according to the structural dimensions. This should allow identification of relevant issues and interpretation of results.

Iteration is built into this process, particularly for the last two steps.

The sequence and argumentative strategies ( de Vaujany et al, 2011 ) followed by the different types of reviews we encountered may considerably differ from Mayring’s model. Among numerous other possibilities and variants including those on which we have already commented we present three types of reviews for which the sequence clearly differs (cf. Table 3 ). First the descriptive review typically follows the first two stages with emphasis on the second stage. However, it stops short in terms of theorization and concludes with directions based on the description itself. The new framework based review puts emphasis on the framework. This one can be developed in the first part of the paper, as presented in Table 3 (e.g. Besson & Rowe, 2012 ) or it can be elaborated throughout the review (e.g. Te’eni, 2001 ). Third, the theory-based review puts emphasis on the material evaluation stage, which can either be developed as a discussion focusing on the main problems encountered in the empirical research with respect to the base theory ( Karimi-Alaghehband et al, 2011 ) or as a theory development, which is exogeneous to the base theory ( Lacity et al, 2011 ).

From Table 3 we see that there are clearly different argumentative strategies but they may depend only on the review goal with respect to theory, and thus be simply an attribute of this dimension. To show that the argumentative strategy is not just an attribute of the first dimension but also a dimension of its own, we take the case of reviews for understanding. Table 4 describes the various argumentative strategies used by the papers we already mentioned. It is organized by increasing breadth and publication chronology from top to bottom. The first and third examples are close to each other in terms of argumentative strategy. They mainly differ in their fifth part, which offers a focus and iteration of the same type of analysis as in its fourth part for Besson and Rowe’s paper, whereas Jasperson et al (2002) engage in theory building.

Of similar breadth, Smith et al’s (2011) review is organized very differently around three research questions including the conceptualization of the phenomenon itself.

As the breadth of the review widens, Schryen’s integrated review is built like Jasperson et al ’s on the selection of a few major papers, but also on the more intuitive findings of some gaps. Contrary to the first two reviews (top of table) these gaps are not justified by an assessment of the number of studies focusing on a given concept or dimension. The last three reviews address at various levels the research areas and their evolution in the discipline. Banker and Kauffman offer a landscaping review of IS papers in Management Science without a specific methodology. Focusing on content and problem findings, their review is simply divided across the five themes identified and expressed in their introduction. The last two bear stronger similarity to one another. To conclude on this table, and acknowledging the limitation of this very sketchy and unsystematic test, we nevertheless see strong variations in the argumentative strategy of this type of review. This seems to be related to the adopted methodology, to the number of research questions addressed by the review and by the review breadth. Despite the fact that Banker and Kauffman’s freedom may be explained by their role as Editors, a common standard argumentative strategy across diverse breadth of reviews for understanding does not seem to exist.

In conclusion: a few recommendations

We hasten to say that by no means we claim that the dimensions and guidelines we propose here should be applied in a dogmatic way by authors, nor that their papers should be reviewed as such by editorial teams, or that these dimensions reflect the only valid thinking on how to structure literature reviews. But we hope that this reflection will help in guiding Ph.D. students who often do such exercise and would like to publish in well recognized outlets if they feel that, beyond preparatory work to their other publications, their literature review can contribute to knowledge. We also hope it provides some practical guidance to other submitters, in particular if they hesitate with other submission categories.

This sketchy tour of the diversity of literature reviews shows that, beyond our definition, there is not a single type of literature review. They vary according to theoretical purpose (description, understanding, explaining), breadth, systematicity and argumentative strategy.

Whereas this unsystematic review of reviews first portrayed these dimensions as independent, we also suggest that argumentative strategies are partially related to the first dimension depending on the level of granularity we use to describe these argumentative strategies. In addition, they may vary according to the level of theorization of the theme. The more the review departs from the descriptive review type, the more it is oriented towards theory building, and the more argumentative strategies can become complex.

Comprehensiveness and systematicity is an obvious issue for a current and replicable piece of work, and is therefore particularly important for testing reviews, and to some extent for theory building reviews but this becomes less for descriptive or landscaping reviews ( Okoli, 2012 ). In fact, to understand the big picture of a knowledge domain we do not always need to identify all the pieces belonging to this domain when they present similar findings, whereas the frequency of similar findings play a very important role when one wants to explain and, even more so when testing. In fact literature reviews for theory testing is the only case where systematicity should be very high. An equal concern is the quality assessment of selected papers.

To conclude we recap our recommendations as follows:

Recommendation 1 (R1) ‘Overarching principle of respect and coherence’: Along all four investigated dimensions there is diversity and it should be respected.

However, as advocated by Sarker et al (2013) for qualitative research, this respect should not be at the expense of coherence. It is in that spirit that, based on our above comments, we wish to wrap up and formulate a few further recommendations that we encapsulate in Table 5 . This table reflects our thinking on the four dimensions. We add to it the gaps and biases identification and future research directions dimension, which is consistent with our definition and constitutes a necessary component of a review.

Recommendation 2 (R2) ‘Gaps, biases and directions’: Literature reviews should strive to identify thematic gaps and theoretical biases, propose some future research directions, including alternative theoretical underpinnings, and not just stop at the summarizing/synthesizing stage.

If the collected material presents only what we already know, it does not constitute a contribution to knowledge. Its synthetic character should entail an interpretation of this existing body of knowledge and lead to the identification of some gaps and directions.

Recommendation 3 (R3) ‘Which contribution to theory goal?’ And notably, how to choose between understanding vs explaining?: The choice of type of theoretical contribution depends on the theorization level and amount of available literature that already exist.

Distinguishing between understanding and explaining can be subtle to the point that, after evoking the close relationship between understanding and explanation (p. 617), Gregor stated that theories for explaining could well be labeled theories for understanding. However, in due epistemological order, new knowledge should first be described before theorizing, that is we should use current available knowledge to name things before advancing new knowledge ( Bachelard, 1934 ). And when theorizing one should aim at understanding before trying to explain which, as noted by Habermas (1988) , will lead to a better understanding in a virtuous circle. When the knowledge is still sparse with fundamental relevant concepts little used in empirical research it would be too demanding to try to explain. Identifying what has been neglected in terms of concepts and their dimensions is the first task when descriptions have been made. To explain we need to be able to already see the concepts at play and possibly consider alternative theories. For instance, to understand how IT-enabled organizational transformation can start and develop, we need the concept of organizational inertia, some phase changes modeled into a transformation process, and an understanding of the causal agency of the stakeholders that Besson and I (2012) call governing agency and working agency. However, to explain the radicalness of the organizational change, the role of IT in this change, the mere fact that it happens, and its outcomes, require a more comprehensive explanation that only the comparison of alternative theories like punctuated equilibrium, institutionalism or evolutionism can give.

Recommendation 4 (R4) ‘Descriptive reviews’: To be worthy of appearing in top journals there is a need to go beyond the descriptive literature type, unless it bears on methodological and epistemological issues (4a). For such outlets, descriptive reviews must be also highly systematic (4b). We should nevertheless emphasize that descriptive reviews are especially important for emerging topics and help the field as a whole to make better sense of new technologies, processes and systems faster.

Recommendation 5 (R5) ‘Integrative reviews’: A literature review does not have to be integrative like a conceptual framework or a theory ( Schwarz et al, 2006 ), but this is a nice to have feature. This is particularly relevant for reviews for understanding since reviews for theoretical explanations are generally highly integrated by nature.

Recommendation 6 (R6) ‘Conceptual framework’: A literature review that aims at understanding can benefit from using an analytical tool like a conceptual framework to identify knowledge gaps and theoretical bias, and future research directions (6a: desirable). A literature review that aims at explaining must use an analytical tool like a conceptual framework to identify knowledge gaps and future research directions (6b: required).

In particular, if the mapping was clear and well-known prior to the literature review, a review that is using an original and relevant analytical lens is very likely to lead to the identification of knowledge gaps and theoretical bias.

This recommendation does not imply that proposing a new conceptual framework ( Webster & Watson, 2002 ) or a new theory is necessary. To delineate the review genre and its border with the theory development paper ( Rowe, 2012 ), I consider that such novelty goes beyond a literature review per se .

Recommendation 7 (R7) ‘Reviews vs theory development’: If a literature review develops a conceptual framework, model or theory, and is highly systematic in reviewing the literature it should be evaluated as a literature review. If it is not highly systematic it would probably be better if submitted as a theory development paper.

Recommendation 8 (R8) ‘Systematicity’: A literature review must be highly systematic if it aims at theoretical explanations (8a). Reviews aiming at theoretical understanding do not have to be highly systematic, but a good coverage of topic or domain is nevertheless required (8b).

Recommendation 9 (R9) ‘Non-systematicity’: Papers that aim at theoretical explanations and are not systematic should be submitted as theory development papers. Those should at least enhance or develop new conceptual frameworks if not theories.

Note that R9 is not just a sub-case of R7 because R7 is concerned with the development and not just the application of a model, framework or theory. Theory development papers can be review-centric. They do not have to always present completely new theory ( Lepine & Willcox-King, 2010 ). But I leave the discussion over this matter for another editorial by more competent scholars (e.g. Weber, 2003 ; Rivard, 2014 ).

In this 3rd issue of 2014 , EJIS brings different paper genres valuable for the IS community.

The first paper, which is a literature review, resonates with my discussion topic in this editorial and falls in the describing review genre. ‘Towards mindful case study research in IS: a critical analysis of the past ten years’ is conducted by three colleagues from the University of Cologne Marcus Keutel, Bjoern Michalik and Janek Richter. It reviews 10 years of the IS discipline’s use of case study research (CSR) as published in six major IS journals. The authors observed a dualism of positivism and interpretivism in the analyzed articles, with each paradigm relating to almost half of the analyzed case studies. They also have identified a number of shortcomings in the CSR practice, and call for more mindfulness in the studies’ design. For instance they propose a few recommendations such as taking CSR for theory testing strategy more frequently into consideration in future research, presenting explicitly the case selection process in order to fully understand the researchers’ intentions and raising awareness about the limitations concerning the generalizability of the study findings. They also propose relying on real-time observations or archival data, along with quantitative data for primary data analysis instead of the more dominant interview data sources.

The second paper is an interesting research essay by Kai Riemer from The University of Sydney and Robert Johnston from The University College Dublin entitled ‘Rethinking the place of the artefact in IS using Heidegger’s analysis of equipment’. The essay portrays the story of an IT implementation project using Heidegger’s analysis of equipment and contrasting this account to the more orthodox Cartesian dualist view that differentiates between the artefact described as a bundle of features and the user for whom the artefact is designed. Relying on Heidegger’s concepts of engagement, present-at-hand and ready-at-hand and combining these with the ‘equipment’ view, the two researchers show how the Heideggerian view could be more suitable for analyzing the IT artefact. Moreover, they advance arguments for how such an analysis could resolve many of the classic Cartesian view messiness and the more general IS discipline sufferings. For example, it puts the IT artefact at the center of the IS discipline allowing for rethinking the central and peripheral phenomena of IS in a different manner and opens new opportunities for theorizing in the IS discipline. The research also discusses how research informed by a Heideggerian ontology and epistemology would probably necessitate some methodological adaptations and that IS design endeavors could become much more useful and adapted if they were to use the holistic shaping of the sociomaterial makeup of human practices.

The third article is an issues and opinion paper with the title ‘Guidelines for improving the contextual relevance of field surveys: the case of information security policy violations’ formulated by Mikko Siponen affiliated with the Universities of Jyväskylä and Oulu of Finland and Anthony Vance from Brigham Young University. The paper aims at improving practical relevance of the IS research by ensuring its contextual relevance. This goal involves whether the specific phenomenon under examination constitutes a critical problem in practice. It is the authors’ opinion that IS behavioral research’s practical relevance can be improved without loss of rigor by prudently addressing a number of contextual issues in survey design. Utilizing empirical evidence and research drawn from their extensive experience in the Information Security Policy (ISP) violations, the authors outline five guidelines to increase the contextual relevance of field survey research. They move afterwards towards the generalization of these guidelines so that they are suited as guidelines for application for IS field surveys in general. Namely, these guidelines are (1) ensuring that respondents recognize the phenomenon of interest in the instrumentation; (2) measuring the phenomenon concretely; (3) ensuring that the dependent variable focuses on important problems in practice; (4) ensuring the applicability of instrumentation to respondents’ organizational context; and (5) theorize the appropriate level of specificity and generalizability for instrumentation. While the authors acknowledge that these guidelines do not constitute an exhaustive practical relevance list of guidelines for IS field surveys and that more guidelines can be envisaged, they show that among the surveyed IS behavioral research on ISP violation, most studies meet two or fewer of their suggested guidelines.

This EJIS issue also brings forward four notable empirical research papers. Two of these address the value of IT; a long-standing critical topic in IS.

The article ‘Do you see what I see? The search for consensus among executives’ perceptions of IT business value’ presented by Paul P Tallon from Loyola University examines how executives’ perceptions about the IT are formed through the processes of sensemaking and sensegiving. These perceptions are key to defining and maintaining a strategic direction for IT inside firms. The researcher’s model is constituted of two related theories: distributed sensemaking, which is centered on sensemaking in groups or distributed settings, and sensegiving, a theory centered on communications and knowledge sharing as a means of allowing individuals or groups to engage in more directed sensemaking. Consensus and discord among executives over IT impacts are built through sensegiving. By empirically testing an 11-factor model over 133 senior business executives selected from 13 single-segment, single line Fortune 500 firms, the study reveals a clear explanation for the difference found between firms where IS-led sensegiving facilitates consensus and those where lack of sensegiving prevents consensus from taking place. Furthermore, the article makes a theoretical contribution to the literature by linking the theories of distributed sensemaking and sensegiving as a way to build consensus between executives over IT business value in the same firm.

The second research paper is a collaborative work presented by six IS scholars and also addressing the IT value: Yang Chen from Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, Yi Wang from Shantou University, Saggi Nevo from University at Albany, Jiafei Jin from Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, Luning Wang from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Wing S Chow from Hong Kong Baptist University. The research is entitled ‘IT capability and organizational performance: the roles of business process agility and environmental factors’ and looks into organizational performance through the mediating role of business process agility implying capabilities of speed, flexibility, and innovation and the moderating roles of environmental factors (namely environmental hostility, dynamism and complexity). Business process agility is seen as a form of organizational agility that is of particular relevance to IS research allowing a firm to adapt to its market environment. Developing multi-item reflective measures previously validated in other studies, and based on matched survey data obtained from 214 IT and business executives from manufacturing firms in China, the research hypotheses are tested showing support that the impact of IT capability over organizational performance is fully mediated by business process agility. Moreover, the study shows that environmental hostility (or the existence of unfavorable external forces in a firm’s business environment) weakens the effect of IT capability on business process agility, while environmental complexity (or heterogeneity and range of an industry and/or an organization’s activities) strengthens it.

Robert Wayne Gregory from University of Göttingen and Mark Keil from Georgia State University have co-written the article ‘Blending bureaucratic and collaborative management styles to achieve control ambidexterity in IS projects’. The study investigates how managers use contrasting management styles within IS project management, and looks into the tensions that ensue from combining these contrasting management styles as well as how such tensions are dealt with. Using a Structured-Pragmatic-Situational approach for case studies, the researchers used data collected from a large IS implementation project in the financial services industry. Two managers, one with a business background and one from IT, were running the project. The researchers initially began by collecting data from 25 interviews to conceptualize the ambidexterity control phenomenon and analyze the data. Then a further 14 interviews served the augmenting cycle along with secondary material. Consequently, the authors could articulate the two contrasting management styles: the bureaucratic management style that aims at ensuring that project members act in a way that is consistent with the organization’s pre-determined project goals and objectives, and the collaborative management style that aims at enabling effective collaboration among project members and stakeholders. Furthermore, the study illustrates that dissimilar management styles are needed in combination to achieve control ambidexterity. However, these styles create tensions. Such tensions are difficult to cope with by a single project manager. Therefore, the authors suggest to appoint two project managers who share responsibility for the IS project.

The empirical study ‘Why end-users move to the cloud: a migration-theoretic analysis’ by Anol Bhattacherjee from University of South Florida and Sang Cheol Park from Hyupsung University uses the migration theory as a theoretical lens to take full account of cloud migration in an integrative way. The study develops a hypothetical migration model containing pull, push and mooring factors that could most likely account for switching from a client-centric to cloud-based services. A structural equation modeling method is employed to test the cloud migration model. The authors use data drawn from a longitudinal survey of South Korean student’s adoption of Google Apps. The dataset counting 188 students validates the study’s proposed model. Among the confirmed study results we learn that some pull factors such as the relative usefulness and the expected omnipresence of cloud migration services are positively related to users’ intention to migrate to cloud computing services. In counterpart, some mooring effects are negatively associated with cloud migration such as the existence of high switching costs or security concerns. Finally, the authors also establish that dissatisfaction with client-centric IT is a push factor that positively influences the cloud migration decision. It is worth noting that the study is a pioneer in noting the differences incumbent between IT migration and IT adoption and has some obvious practical implications for cloud service providers. But despite such valuable research insights, it would be interesting to study cloud migration in organizational context.

We extend our gratitude to this issue’s associate editors recognizing their contribution to this selection of papers: Jyoti Choudrie, Robert Briggs, Merrill Warkentin, Gerald Grant, C Ranganathan, Christopher Davis and Sarah Spiekermann. In addition I would like to thank Chrisanthi Avgerou, Manju Ahuja, Tamara Dinev, Lynne Markus, Niamh O’Riordan, Suzanne Rivard, Carol Saunders, Pär Agerfalk, Walter Fernandez, Guido Schryen, Dov Te’eni and Michel Avital as well as the participants at the FNEGE Seminar in Paris for their very valuable feedback on this editorial. As usual my thanks to Myriam Raymond for compiling the summaries in this issue and for her precious comments on this editorial.

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Rowe, F. What literature review is not: diversity, boundaries and recommendations. Eur J Inf Syst 23 , 241–255 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1057/ejis.2014.7

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Institute for Academic Development

Literature review

A general guide on how to conduct and write a literature review.

Please check course or programme information and materials provided by teaching staff , including your project supervisor, for subject-specific guidance.

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a piece of academic writing demonstrating knowledge and understanding of the academic literature on a specific topic placed in context.  A literature review also includes a critical evaluation of the material; this is why it is called a literature review rather than a literature report. It is a process of reviewing the literature, as well as a form of writing.

To illustrate the difference between reporting and reviewing, think about television or film review articles.  These articles include content such as a brief synopsis or the key points of the film or programme plus the critic’s own evaluation.  Similarly the two main objectives of a literature review are firstly the content covering existing research, theories and evidence, and secondly your own critical evaluation and discussion of this content. 

Usually a literature review forms a section or part of a dissertation, research project or long essay.  However, it can also be set and assessed as a standalone piece of work.

What is the purpose of a literature review?

…your task is to build an argument, not a library. Rudestam, K.E. and Newton, R.R. (1992) Surviving your dissertation: A comprehensive guide to content and process. California: Sage, p49.

In a larger piece of written work, such as a dissertation or project, a literature review is usually one of the first tasks carried out after deciding on a topic.  Reading combined with critical analysis can help to refine a topic and frame research questions.  Conducting a literature review establishes your familiarity with and understanding of current research in a particular field before carrying out a new investigation.  After doing a literature review, you should know what research has already been done and be able to identify what is unknown within your topic.

When doing and writing a literature review, it is good practice to:

  • summarise and analyse previous research and theories;
  • identify areas of controversy and contested claims;
  • highlight any gaps that may exist in research to date.

Conducting a literature review

Focusing on different aspects of your literature review can be useful to help plan, develop, refine and write it.  You can use and adapt the prompt questions in our worksheet below at different points in the process of researching and writing your review.  These are suggestions to get you thinking and writing.

Developing and refining your literature review (pdf)

Developing and refining your literature review (Word)

Developing and refining your literature review (Word rtf)

Writing a literature review has a lot in common with other assignment tasks.  There is advice on our other pages about thinking critically, reading strategies and academic writing.  Our literature review top tips suggest some specific things you can do to help you submit a successful review.

Literature review top tips (pdf)

Literature review top tips (Word rtf)

Our reading page includes strategies and advice on using books and articles and a notes record sheet grid you can use.

Reading at university

The Academic writing page suggests ways to organise and structure information from a range of sources and how you can develop your argument as you read and write.

Academic writing

The Critical thinking page has advice on how to be a more critical researcher and a form you can use to help you think and break down the stages of developing your argument.

Critical thinking

As with other forms of academic writing, your literature review needs to demonstrate good academic practice by following the Code of Student Conduct and acknowledging the work of others through citing and referencing your sources.  

Good academic practice

As with any writing task, you will need to review, edit and rewrite sections of your literature review.  The Editing and proofreading page includes tips on how to do this and strategies for standing back and thinking about your structure and checking the flow of your argument.

Editing and proofreading

Guidance on literature searching from the University Library

The Academic Support Librarians have developed LibSmart I and II, Learn courses to help you develop and enhance your digital research skills and capabilities; from getting started with the Library to managing data for your dissertation.

Searching using the library’s DiscoverEd tool: DiscoverEd

Finding resources in your subject: Subject guides

The Academic Support Librarians also provide one-to-one appointments to help you develop your research strategies.

1 to 1 support for literature searching and systematic reviews

Advice to help you optimise use of Google Scholar, Google Books and Google for your research and study: Using Google

Managing and curating your references

A referencing management tool can help you to collect and organise and your source material to produce a bibliography or reference list. 

Referencing and reference management

Information Services provide access to Cite them right online which is a guide to the main referencing systems and tells you how to reference just about any source (EASE log-in may be required).

Cite them right

Published study guides

There are a number of scholarship skills books and guides available which can help with writing a literature review.  Our Resource List of study skills guides includes sections on Referencing, Dissertation and project writing and Literature reviews.

Study skills guides

What Is a Literature Review?

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Olivia Valdes was the Associate Editorial Director for ThoughtCo. She worked with Dotdash Meredith from 2017 to 2021.

a literature review is not

  • B.A., American Studies, Yale University

A literature review summarizes and synthesizes the existing scholarly research on a particular topic. Literature reviews are a form of academic writing commonly used in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. However, unlike research papers, which establish new arguments and make original contributions, literature reviews organize and present existing research. As a student or academic, you might produce a literature review as a standalone paper or as a portion of a larger research project.

What Literature Reviews Are Not 

In order to understand literature reviews, it's best to first understand what they are not . First, literature reviews are not bibliographies. A bibliography is a list of resources consulted when researching a particular topic. Literature reviews do more than list the sources you’ve consulted: they summarize and critically evaluate those sources.

Second, literature reviews are not subjective. Unlike some of the other well-known "reviews" (e.g. theater or book reviews), literature reviews steer clear of opinion statements. Instead, they summarize and critically assess a body of scholarly literature from a relatively objective perspective. Writing a literature review is a rigorous process, requiring a thorough evaluation of the quality and findings of each source discussed.

Why Write a Literature Review? 

Writing a literature review is a time-consuming process that requires extensive research and critical analysis . So, why should you spend so much time reviewing and writing about research that’s already been published? 

  • Justifying your own research . If you’re writing a literature review as part of a larger research project , the literature review allows you to demonstrate what makes your own research valuable. By summarizing the existing research on your research question, a literature review reveals points of consensus and points of disagreement, as well as the gaps and open questions that remain. Presumably, your original research has emerged from one of those open questions, so the literature review serves as a jumping-off point for the rest of your paper.
  • Demonstrating your expertise.  Before you can write a literature review, you must immerse yourself in a significant body of research. By the time you’ve written the review, you’ve read widely on your topic and are able to synthesize and logically present the information. This final product establishes you as a trustworthy authority on your topic.
  • Joining the conversation . All academic writing is part of one never-ending conversation: an ongoing dialogue among scholars and researchers across continents, centuries, and subject areas. By producing a literature review, you’re engaging with all of the prior scholars who examined your topic and continuing a cycle that moves the field forward.

​Tips for Writing a Literature Review

While specific style guidelines vary among disciplines, all literature reviews are well-researched and organized. Use the following strategies as a guide as you embark on the writing process.  

  • Choose a topic with a limited scope. The world of scholarly research is vast, and if you choose too broad a topic, the research process will seem never-ending. Choose a topic with a narrow focus, and be open to adjusting it as the research process unfolds. If you find yourself sorting through thousands of results every time you conduct a database search, you may need to further refine your topic .
  • Take organized notes. Organizational systems such as the literature grid are essential for keeping track of your readings. Use the grid strategy, or a similar system, to record key information and main findings/arguments for each source. Once you begin the writing process, you’ll be able to refer back to your literature grid each time you want to add information about a particular source.
  • Pay attention to patterns and trends . As you read, be on the lookout for any patterns or trends that emerge among your sources. You might discover that there are two clear existing schools of thought related to your research question. Or, you might discover that the prevailing ideas about your research question have shifted dramatically several times over the last hundred years. The structure of your literature review will be based on the patterns you discover. If no obvious trends stand out, choose the organizational structure that best suits your topic, such as theme, issue, or research methodology. ​

Writing a literature review takes time, patience, and a whole lot of intellectual energy. As you pore over countless academic articles, consider all the researchers who preceded you and those who will follow. Your literature review is much more than a routine assignment: it's a contribution to the future of your field.

  • How to Get Started on a Literature Review
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 What is a literature review? "A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries. " - Quote from Taylor, D. (n.d) "The literature review: A few tips on conducting it"

Source NC State University Libraries. This video is published under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY-NC-SA US license.

What are the goals of creating a Literature Review?

  • To develop a theory or evaluate an existing theory
  • To summarize the historical or existing state of a research topic
  • Identify a problem in a field of research 

- Baumeister, R.F. & Leary, M.R. (1997). "Writing narrative literature reviews," Review of General Psychology , 1(3), 311-320.

When do you need to write a Literature Review?

  • When writing a prospectus or a thesis/dissertation
  • When writing a research paper
  • When writing a grant proposal

In all these cases you need to dedicate a chapter in these works to showcase what have been written about your research topic and to point out how your own research will shed a new light into these body of scholarship.

Literature reviews are also written as standalone articles as a way to survey a particular research topic in-depth. This type of literature reviews look at a topic from a historical perspective to see how the understanding of the topic have change through time.

What kinds of literature reviews are written?

  • Narrative Review: The purpose of this type of review is to describe the current state of the research on a specific topic/research and to offer a critical analysis of the literature reviewed. Studies are grouped by research/theoretical categories, and themes and trends, strengths and weakness, and gaps are identified. The review ends with a conclusion section which summarizes the findings regarding the state of the research of the specific study, the gaps identify and if applicable, explains how the author's research will address gaps identify in the review and expand the knowledge on the topic reviewed.
  • Book review essays/ Historiographical review essays : This is a type of review that focus on a small set of research books on a particular topic " to locate these books within current scholarship, critical methodologies, and approaches" in the field. - LARR
  • Systematic review : "The authors of a systematic review use a specific procedure to search the research literature, select the studies to include in their review, and critically evaluate the studies they find." (p. 139). Nelson, L.K. (2013). Research in Communication Sciences and Disorders . San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing.
  • Meta-analysis : "Meta-analysis is a method of reviewing research findings in a quantitative fashion by transforming the data from individual studies into what is called an effect size and then pooling and analyzing this information. The basic goal in meta-analysis is to explain why different outcomes have occurred in different studies." (p. 197). Roberts, M.C. & Ilardi, S.S. (2003). Handbook of Research Methods in Clinical Psychology . Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
  • Meta-synthesis : "Qualitative meta-synthesis is a type of qualitative study that uses as data the findings from other qualitative studies linked by the same or related topic." (p.312). Zimmer, L. (2006). "Qualitative meta-synthesis: A question of dialoguing with texts," Journal of Advanced Nursing , 53(3), 311-318.

Guide adapted from "Literature Review" , a guide developed by Marisol Ramos used under CC BY 4.0 /modified from original.

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Writing A Literature Review  

7 common (and costly) mistakes to avoid ☠️.

By: David Phair (PhD) | Reviewed By: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | June 2021

Crafting a high-quality literature review is critical to earning marks and developing a strong dissertation, thesis or research project. But, it’s no simple task. Here at Grad Coach, we’ve reviewed thousands of literature reviews and seen a recurring set of mistakes and issues that drag students down.

In this post, we’ll unpack 7 common literature review mistakes , so that you can avoid these pitfalls and submit a literature review that impresses.

Overview: 7 Literature Review Killers

  • Over-reliance on low-quality sources
  • A lack of landmark/seminal literature
  • A lack of current literature
  • Description instead of integration and synthesis
  • Irrelevant or unfocused content
  • Poor chapter structure and layout
  • Plagiarism and poor referencing

Mistake #1: Over-reliance on low-quality sources

One of the most common issues we see in literature reviews is an over-reliance on low-quality sources . This includes a broad collection of non-academic sources like blog posts, opinion pieces, publications by advocacy groups and daily news articles.

Of course, just because a piece of content takes the form of a blog post doesn’t automatically mean it is low-quality . However, it’s (generally) unlikely to be as academically sound (i.e., well-researched, objective and scientific) as a journal article, so you need to be a lot more sceptical when considering this content and make sure that it has a strong, well-reasoned foundation. As a rule of thumb, your literature review shouldn’t rely heavily on these types of content – they should be used sparingly.

Ideally, your literature review should be built on a strong base of journal articles , ideally from well-recognised, peer-reviewed journals with a high H index . You can also draw on books written by well-established subject matter experts. When considering books, try to focus on those that are published by academic publishers , for example, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Routledge. You can also draw on government websites, provided they have a strong reputation for objectivity and data quality. As with any other source, be wary of any government website that seems to be pushing an agenda.

the literature review credibility continuum

Source: UCCS

As I mentioned, this doesn’t mean that your literature review can’t include the occasional blog post or news article. These types of content have their place , especially when setting the context for your study. For example, you may want to cite a collection of newspaper articles to demonstrate the emergence of a recent trend. However, your core arguments and theoretical foundations shouldn’t rely on these. Build your foundation on credible academic literature to ensure that your study stands on the proverbial shoulders of giants.

Webinar - how to write a literature review

Mistake #2: A lack of landmark/seminal literature

Another issue we see in weaker literature reviews is an absence of landmark literature for the research topic . Landmark literature (sometimes also referred to as seminal or pivotal work) refers to the articles that initially presented an idea of great importance or influence within a particular discipline. In other words, the articles that put the specific area of research “on the map”, so to speak.

The reason for the absence of landmark literature in poor literature reviews is most commonly that either the student isn’t aware of the literature (because they haven’t sufficiently immersed themselves in the existing research), or that they feel that they should only present the most up to date studies. Whatever the cause, it’s a problem, as a good literature review should always acknowledge the seminal writing in the field.

But, how do you find landmark literature?

Well, you can usually spot these by searching for the topic in Google Scholar and identifying the handful of articles with high citation counts. They’ll also be the studies most commonly cited in textbooks and, of course, Wikipedia (but please don’t use Wikipedia as a source!).

Google scholar for landmark studies

So, when you’re piecing your literature review together, remember to pay homage to the classics , even if only briefly. Seminal works are the theoretical foundation of a strong literature review.

Mistake #3: A lack of current literature

As I mentioned, it’s incredibly important to acknowledge the landmark studies and research in your literature review. However, a strong literature review should also incorporate the current literature . It should, ideally, compare and contrast the “classics” with the more up to date research, and briefly comment on the evolution.

Of course, you don’t want to burn precious word count providing an in-depth history lesson regarding the evolution of the topic (unless that’s one of your research aims, of course), but you should at least acknowledge any key differences between the old and the new.

But, how do you find current literature?

To find current literature in your research area, you can once again use Google Scholar by simply selecting the “Since…” link on the left-hand side. Depending on your area of study, recent may mean the last year or two, or a fair deal longer.

You have to justify every choice in your dissertation defence

So, as you develop your catalogue of literature, remember to incorporate both the classics and the more up to date research. By doing this, you’ll achieve a comprehensive literature base that is both well-rooted in tried and tested theory and current.

Mistake #4: Description instead of integration and synthesis

This one is a big one. And, unfortunately, it’s a very common one. In fact, it’s probably the most common issue we encounter in literature reviews.

All too often, students think that a literature review is simply a summary of what each researcher has said. A lengthy, detailed “he said, she said”. This is incorrect . A good literature review needs to go beyond just describing all the relevant literature. It needs to integrate the existing research to show how it all fits together.

A good literature review should also highlight what areas don’t fit together , and which pieces are missing . In other words, what do researchers disagree on and why might that be. It’s seldom the case that everyone agrees on everything because the “truth” is typically very nuanced and intricate in reality. A strong literature review is a balanced one , with a mix of different perspectives and findings that give the reader a clear view of the current state of knowledge.

A good analogy is that of a jigsaw puzzle. The various findings and arguments from each piece of literature form the individual puzzle pieces, and you then put these together to develop a picture of the current state of knowledge . Importantly, that puzzle will in all likelihood have pieces that don’t fit well together, and pieces that are missing. It’s seldom a pretty puzzle!

By the end of this process of critical review and synthesis of the existing literature , it should be clear what’s missing – in other words, the gaps that exist in the current research . These gaps then form the foundation for your proposed study. In other words, your study will attempt to contribute a missing puzzle piece (or get two pieces to fit together).

So, when you’re crafting your literature review chapter, remember that this chapter needs to go well beyond a basic description of the existing research – it needs to synthesise it (bring it all together) and form the foundation for your study.

The literature review knowledge gap

Mistake #5: Irrelevant or unfocused content

Another common mistake we see in literature review chapters is quite simply the inclusion of irrelevant content . Some chapters can waffle on for pages and pages and leave the reader thinking, “so what?”

So, how do you decide what’s relevant?

Well, to ensure you stay on-topic and focus, you need to revisit your research aims, objectives and research questions . Remember, the purpose of the literature review is to build the theoretical foundation that will help you achieve your research aims and objectives, and answer your research questions. Therefore, relevant content is the relatively narrow body of content that relates directly to those three components .

Let’s look at an example.

If your research aims to identify factors that cultivate employee loyalty and commitment, your literature review needs to focus on existing research that identifies such factors. Simple enough, right? Well, during your review process, you will invariably come across plenty of research relating to employee loyalty and commitment, including things like:

  • The benefits of high employee commitment
  • The different types of commitment
  • The impact of commitment on corporate culture
  • The links between commitment and productivity

While all of these relate to employee commitment, they’re not focused on the research aims , objectives and questions, as they’re not identifying factors that foster employee commitment. Of course, they may still be useful in helping you justify your topic, so they’ll likely have a place somewhere in your dissertation or thesis. However, for your literature review, you need to keep things focused.

So, as you work through your literature review, always circle back to your research aims, objective and research questions and use them as a litmus test for article relevance.

Need a helping hand?

a literature review is not

Mistake #6: Poor chapter structure and layout

Even the best content can fail to earn marks when the literature review chapter is poorly structured . Unfortunately, this is a fairly common issue, resulting in disjointed, poorly-flowing arguments that are difficult for the reader (the marker…) to follow.

The most common reason that students land up with a poor structure is that they start writing their literature review chapter without a plan or structure . Of course, as we’ve discussed before, writing is a form of thinking , so you don’t need to plan out every detail before you start writing. However, you should at least have an outline structure penned down before you hit the keyboard.

So, how should you structure your literature review?

We’ve covered literature review structure in detail previously , so I won’t go into it here. However, as a quick overview, your literature review should consist of three core sections :

  • The introduction section – where you outline your topic, introduce any definitions and jargon and define the scope of your literature review.
  • The body section – where you sink your teeth into the existing research. This can be arranged in various ways (e.g. thematically, chronologically or methodologically).
  • The conclusion section – where you present the key takeaways and highlight the research gap (or gaps), which lays the foundation for your study.

Another reason that students land up with a poor structure is that they start writing their literature chapter prematurely . In other words, they start writing before they’ve finished digesting the literature. This is a costly mistake, as it always results in extensive rewriting , which takes a lot longer than just doing it one step at a time. Again, it’s completely natural to do a little extra reading as thoughts crop up during the writing process, but you should complete your core reading before you start writing.

Long story short – don’t start writing your literature review without some sort of structural plan. This structure can (and likely will) evolve as you write, but you need some sort of outline as a starting point. Pro tip – check out our free literature review template to fast-track your structural outline.

Digest the literature before trying to write your lit review

Mistake #7: Plagiarism and poor referencing

This one is by far the most unforgivable literature review mistake, as it carries one of the heaviest penalties , while it is so easily avoidable .

All too often, we encounter literature reviews that, at first glance, look pretty good. However, a quick run through a plagiarism checker and it quickly becomes apparent that the student has failed to fully digest the literature they’ve reviewed and put it into their own words.

“But, the original author said it perfectly…”

I get it – sometimes the way an author phrased something is “just perfect” and you can’t find a better way to say it. In those (pretty rare) cases, you can use direct quotes (and a citation, of course). However, for the vast majority of your literature review, you need to put things into your own words .

The good news is that if you focus on integrating and synthesising the literature (as I mentioned in point 3), you shouldn’t run into this issue too often, as you’ll naturally be writing about the relationships between studies , not just about the studies themselves. Remember, if you can’t explain something simply (in your own words), you don’t really understand it.

A related issue that we see quite often is plain old-fashioned poor referencing . This can include citation and reference formatting issues (for example, Harvard or APA style errors), or just a straight out lack of references . In academic writing, if you fail to reference a source, you are effectively claiming the work as your own, which equates to plagiarism. This might seem harmless, but plagiarism is a serious form of academic misconduct and could cost you a lot more than just a few marks.

So, when you’re writing up your literature review, remember that you need to digest the content and put everything into your own words. You also need to reference the sources of any and all ideas, theories, frameworks and models you draw on.

Recap: 7 Literature Review Mistakes

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post. Let’s quickly recap on the 7 most common literature review mistakes.

Now that you’re aware of these common mistakes, be sure to also check out our literature review walkthrough video , where to dissect an actual literature review chapter . This will give you a clear picture of what a high-quality literature review looks like and hopefully provide some inspiration for your own.

If you have any questions about these literature review mistakes, leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to answer. If you’re interested in private coaching, book an initial consultation with a friendly coach to discuss how we can move you forward.

Literature Review Course

Psst… there’s more!

This post is an extract from our bestselling Udemy Course, Literature Review Bootcamp . If you want to work smart, you don't want to miss this .

You Might Also Like:

Research proposal mistakes

Dear GradCoach,

Thank you for making our uni student lives better. Could you kindly do a video on how to use your literature review excel template? I am sure a lot of students would appreciate that.

Ed Wilkinson

Hi I would enjoy the video on lit review. You mentioned cataloging references, I would like the template for excel. Would you please sent me this template.


on the plagiarism and referencing what is the correct way to cite the words said by the author . What are the different methods you can use

Godfrey Mpyangu

its clear, precise and understandable many thanks affectionately yours’ Godfrey

Wafiu Seidu

Thanks for this wonderful resource! I am final year student and will be commencing my dissertation work soon. This course has significantly improved my understanding of dissertation and has greater value in terms of its practical applicability compared to other literature works and articles out there on the internet. I will advice my colleague students more especially first time thesis writers to make good use of this course. It’s explained in simple, plain grammar and you will greatly appreciate it.


Thanks. A lot. This was excellent. I really enjoyed it. Again thank you.

Robert Le

The information in this article is very useful for students and very interesting I really like your article thanks for sharing this post!

Gift Achemi

Thank you for putting more knowledge in us. Thank you for using simple you’re bless.

Ramkumar S

This article is really useful. Thanks a lot for sharing this knowledge. Please continue the journey of sharing and facilitating the young researchers.


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    In other words, a literature review is not an unsurprising overview of the literature. It has to critically consolidate the existing

  5. Literature Review is… • Not a descriptive list of the material available

    Not a set of an annotated bibliographies;. • Not a collection of quotes and paraphrasing from other sources. Why conduct a literature review?

  6. Full article: What literature review is not: diversity, boundaries and

    In Orlando the EJIS Board decided to implement a policy change that I had proposed in my last editorial addressing the IS community (Rowe

  7. 5. The Literature Review

    A review does not always focus on what someone said [findings], but how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis]. Reviewing

  8. The Literature Review, Part 2: What Not to Include

    Do not include purely historical or informational material, such as information from websites. Be cautious about the use of books in literature reviews.

  9. Literature review

    What is the purpose of a literature review? …your task is to build an argument, not a library. Rudestam, K.E. and Newton

  10. What Is a Literature Review?

    First, literature reviews are not bibliographies. A bibliography is a list of resources consulted when researching a particular topic.

  11. what is a Literature Review, why it is important and how it is done

    In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader ... It is not just a descriptive list of the material available

  12. Writing A Literature Review: 7 Mistakes To Avoid

    Crafting a high-quality literature review is critical to earning marks and developing a strong dissertation, thesis or research project. But, it's no simple

  13. What is a Literature Review?

    Not an annotated bibliography in which you summarize each article you reviewed. A literature review goes beyond basic summarizing to

  14. What is not a systematic review?

    Literatures reviews focus on the existing literature of a subject. They lack the rigorous systematic methodology of systematic reviews. They rarely conduct