What Is The Difference Between Literature Review And Systematic Review

Literature reviews and systematic reviews are fundamental tools in academic research, helping scholars synthesize existing knowledge on a given topic. Both types of reviews play crucial roles in the research process, yet they serve distinct purposes and follow different methodologies. Understanding the differences between them can significantly enhance the quality and impact of a research project.

A literature review provides a broad overview of existing research, summarizing and synthesizing findings from various sources. In contrast, a systematic review employs a more structured approach, using predefined criteria and rigorous methods to answer specific research questions. The systematic review’s detailed and methodical process ensures comprehensive coverage and minimizes bias.

Grasping the nuances between literature reviews and systematic reviews is essential for researchers. This knowledge not only informs the selection of the appropriate review type for a study but also improves the overall research strategy. By distinguishing these two methodologies, researchers can more effectively navigate the wealth of available information and draw meaningful, evidence-based conclusions.

Literature Review

Definition and Purpose

A literature review is an essential part of academic research that involves summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing the existing literature on a particular topic. Its primary purpose is to provide an overview of the current state of knowledge, identify gaps in the literature, and set the context for new research. By reviewing previous studies, researchers can understand the progress made in their field and build upon existing work.

Types of Literature Reviews

Narrative Reviews

Narrative reviews are qualitative summaries of literature on a specific topic. They aim to provide a comprehensive overview of the subject, highlighting significant findings and key themes. Narrative reviews are flexible and allow researchers to present a broad perspective on the topic. They are particularly useful for exploring areas where research is limited or emerging.

Scoping Reviews

Scoping reviews map the existing literature on a topic to identify the main concepts, theories, and sources of evidence. Unlike systematic reviews, scoping reviews do not typically assess the quality of the studies included. Instead, they focus on the breadth of coverage and aim to identify research gaps and future research directions. Scoping reviews are valuable for clarifying key concepts and definitions in a field.

Methods and Processes

Selecting Sources

Selecting appropriate sources is crucial for a comprehensive literature review. Researchers should use multiple databases and search engines to gather relevant studies. Key steps include:

  • Identifying relevant keywords and search terms
  • Using Boolean operators to refine searches
  • Screening titles and abstracts for relevance
  • Reviewing the full text of selected articles

Analyzing and Synthesizing Information

After collecting the sources, the next step is to analyze and synthesize the information. This involves:

  • Organizing the studies based on themes or categories
  • Summarizing the main findings of each study
  • Comparing and contrasting different studies
  • Identifying patterns, trends, and gaps in the literature
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Advantages and Limitations


  • Broad Perspective: Literature reviews provide a comprehensive overview of a topic.
  • Identifying Gaps: They help identify gaps in the existing research, guiding future studies.
  • Contextualizing Research: Literature reviews set the context for new research by summarizing previous findings.


  • Subjectivity: The flexibility of narrative reviews can lead to subjectivity and bias.
  • Time-Consuming: Conducting a thorough literature review can be time-consuming.
  • Quality Variation: The quality of the included studies may vary, affecting the overall review.

Systematic Review

Definition and Purpose

A systematic review is a rigorous and structured approach to reviewing the literature. It aims to answer specific research questions by systematically identifying, evaluating, and synthesizing all relevant studies. Systematic reviews minimize bias and provide high-quality evidence, making them valuable for informing policy and practice.

Key Characteristics

Protocol Development

Developing a detailed protocol is a crucial first step in a systematic review. The protocol outlines the objectives, methods, and criteria for the review, ensuring transparency and reproducibility. Key elements of a protocol include:

  • Research Questions: Clearly defined questions the review aims to answer
  • Eligibility Criteria: Inclusion and exclusion criteria for selecting studies
  • Search Strategy: Detailed plan for searching databases and sources

Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria

Inclusion and exclusion criteria are essential for selecting relevant studies. These criteria ensure that only studies meeting specific standards are included, reducing bias. Common criteria include:

  • Population: Characteristics of the study population
  • Interventions: Types of interventions or exposures studied
  • Outcomes: Specific outcomes measured
  • Study Design: Types of study designs considered

Methods and Processes

Comprehensive Search Strategy

A comprehensive search strategy is vital for identifying all relevant studies. This involves:

  • Using Multiple Databases: Searching various databases like PubMed, Cochrane Library, and Google Scholar
  • Combining Search Terms: Using keywords, synonyms, and Boolean operators
  • Screening and Selection: Reviewing titles, abstracts, and full texts for relevance

Data Extraction and Analysis

Data extraction involves systematically collecting data from the included studies. This data is then analyzed to answer the research questions. Steps include:

  • Creating Data Extraction Forms: Standardized forms to ensure consistent data collection
  • Extracting Key Information: Details such as study design, sample size, interventions, and outcomes
  • Synthesizing Data: Using qualitative or quantitative methods to combine and analyze the data

Quality Assessment

Assessing the quality of the included studies is a critical component of a systematic review. This involves evaluating the methodological rigor and potential biases of each study. Common tools for quality assessment include:

  • Risk of Bias Tools: Instruments like the Cochrane Risk of Bias Tool
  • Quality Checklists: Checklists like the CONSORT or STROBE guidelines

Advantages and Limitations


  • Rigor and Transparency: Systematic reviews follow a structured and transparent process, minimizing bias.
  • High-Quality Evidence: They provide robust evidence for clinical practice and policy-making.
  • Comprehensive Coverage: Systematic reviews aim to include all relevant studies, offering a thorough overview.


  • Time-Consuming: Conducting a systematic review can be resource-intensive and time-consuming.
  • Complexity: The process is complex and requires a high level of expertise.
  • Limited Scope: Systematic reviews focus on specific research questions, which may limit their generalizability.

Key Differences

Purpose and Scope

Broad vs. Specific Research Questions

Literature reviews typically address broad research questions, providing a general overview of a topic. They are useful for exploring new areas of research and gaining a comprehensive understanding of a field. Systematic reviews, however, focus on specific research questions, aiming to provide detailed and precise answers. This specificity makes systematic reviews particularly valuable for informing clinical and policy decisions.


Structured vs. Flexible Approach

Literature reviews often follow a flexible approach, allowing researchers to adapt their methods based on the available literature. This flexibility can lead to variability in the review process and potential bias. In contrast, systematic reviews use a structured and predefined methodology, ensuring consistency and reducing bias. This structured approach enhances the reproducibility and reliability of systematic reviews.

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Reproducibility and Transparency

Reproducibility and transparency are key strengths of systematic reviews. By following a predefined protocol and documenting each step of the process, systematic reviews allow other researchers to replicate the study. This transparency contrasts with literature reviews, where the methodology may be less clearly defined and harder to replicate.

Analysis and Synthesis

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Synthesis

Literature reviews primarily involve qualitative synthesis, summarizing and interpreting the findings from various studies. This narrative approach allows for a broader interpretation of the literature but may introduce subjectivity. Systematic reviews, on the other hand, often include quantitative synthesis, such as meta-analysis. Meta-analysis combines the results of multiple studies using statistical methods, providing a more objective and precise estimate of the effects.

Meta-Analysis in Systematic Reviews

Meta-analysis is a significant component of many systematic reviews. It involves statistically combining the results of several studies to derive a pooled estimate of effect size. Meta-analysis enhances the power and precision of systematic reviews, making them a valuable tool for evidence-based decision-making. This quantitative approach is not typically used in literature reviews, which rely more on qualitative synthesis.

Time and Resources

Duration of Conducting Reviews

The duration of conducting reviews varies significantly between literature reviews and systematic reviews. Literature reviews can be completed relatively quickly, depending on the scope and depth of the review. In contrast, systematic reviews are time-consuming, often taking several months to over a year to complete. This extended timeline reflects the rigorous and comprehensive nature of systematic reviews.

Required Expertise and Tools

Conducting a systematic review requires a high level of expertise and specialized tools. Researchers need to be proficient in systematic review methodologies and familiar with various quality assessment tools and statistical software. Literature reviews, while still requiring expertise, are generally less demanding in terms of methodological rigor and technical requirements.

When to Use Each

Appropriate Contexts for Literature Review

Literature reviews are ideal for exploring a broad topic or understanding the current state of research in a field. They are useful in the following contexts:

  • Early Stages of Research: When starting a new research project, a literature review helps identify what has already been studied and where gaps exist.
  • Theoretical Overviews: Literature reviews provide a comprehensive overview of theories and concepts, making them valuable for theoretical research.
  • Broad Topics: When the research question is broad, a literature review allows for a wide-ranging exploration of the topic.

Appropriate Contexts for Systematic Review

Systematic reviews are best suited for answering specific research questions with high precision. They are valuable in contexts such as:

  • Clinical Practice: Systematic reviews provide evidence-based answers to specific clinical questions, guiding healthcare decisions.
  • Policy Making: Policymakers use systematic reviews to inform decisions with rigorous and comprehensive evidence.
  • Specific Research Questions: When the research question is narrow and well-defined, a systematic review offers detailed and reliable answers.

Decision-Making Factors

Research Objectives

The research objectives play a crucial role in deciding between a literature review and a systematic review. If the goal is to gain a broad understanding of a topic, a literature review is suitable. However, if the objective is to answer a specific question with high accuracy, a systematic review is the better choice.

Available Resources and Time

Available resources and time also influence the choice of review type. Literature reviews are generally quicker and less resource-intensive. In contrast, systematic reviews require more time, expertise, and resources due to their rigorous methodology.

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Desired Outcomes

Desired outcomes should align with the chosen review type. Literature reviews provide a broad overview and highlight general trends and gaps. Systematic reviews offer precise and reliable answers, making them ideal for informing practice and policy decisions.

Common Misconceptions

Literature Review Misconceptions

There are several misconceptions about literature reviews:

  • Lack of Rigor: Some believe literature reviews are not rigorous. However, they can be thorough and systematic, especially when conducted methodically.
  • Quick and Easy: Another misconception is that literature reviews are quick and easy to complete. In reality, a high-quality literature review requires careful planning, extensive reading, and critical analysis.

Systematic Review Misconceptions

Systematic reviews also face misconceptions:

  • Only for Medical Research: While common in medical research, systematic reviews are valuable in various fields, including social sciences and education.
  • Always Include Meta-Analysis: Not all systematic reviews include meta-analysis. Some focus on qualitative synthesis, depending on the research question and available data.

Clarifying the Confusion

Clarifying these misconceptions helps researchers choose the appropriate review type. Literature reviews can be rigorous and systematic, offering broad insights. Systematic reviews, while resource-intensive, provide precise answers applicable across various fields.

Practical Tips

Conducting an Effective Literature Review

Organizing Sources and Notes

Organizing sources and notes is crucial for an effective literature review. Steps to follow include:

  • Create a Database: Use reference management software to store and organize sources.
  • Categorize by Theme: Group sources by themes or categories to identify patterns and gaps.
  • Take Detailed Notes: Summarize key findings, methodologies, and implications of each study.

Synthesizing Information Clearly

Clear synthesis is vital for a literature review. Tips include:

  • Summarize Main Findings: Focus on the main findings of each study.
  • Compare and Contrast: Highlight similarities and differences between studies.
  • Identify Trends: Look for patterns and trends in the literature.

Conducting an Effective Systematic Review

Developing a Robust Protocol

A robust protocol ensures the systematic review is thorough and unbiased. Steps include:

  • Define Research Questions: Clearly state the questions the review aims to answer.
  • Set Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria: Define criteria for selecting studies.
  • Plan the Search Strategy: Develop a detailed plan for searching databases and sources.

Ensuring Comprehensive Data Collection

Comprehensive data collection is essential for a systematic review. Tips include:

  • Use Multiple Databases: Search various databases like PubMed, Cochrane Library, and Google Scholar.
  • Combine Search Terms: Use keywords, synonyms, and Boolean operators to refine searches.
  • Screen and Select: Review titles, abstracts, and full texts for relevance.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main difference between a literature review and a systematic review?

A literature review provides a broad overview of a topic, summarizing and synthesizing existing research. A systematic review, on the other hand, uses a structured methodology to answer specific research questions, ensuring comprehensive and unbiased coverage of the literature.

Why are systematic reviews considered more rigorous than literature reviews?

Systematic reviews are considered more rigorous because they follow a predefined protocol, use specific inclusion and exclusion criteria, and employ systematic methods for data collection and analysis. This approach minimizes bias and ensures reproducibility.

Can a literature review be used to answer a specific research question?

While a literature review can provide insights into a specific topic, it is generally less structured than a systematic review. Therefore, it may not offer the same level of rigor and comprehensiveness required to answer specific research questions definitively.

How long does it typically take to complete a systematic review?

The duration of a systematic review varies depending on the scope of the research question and the volume of literature to be reviewed. Typically, it can take several months to over a year to complete a thorough systematic review.

Are there specific tools used in conducting systematic reviews?

Yes, systematic reviews often use specialized tools such as PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) for reporting, and software like RevMan or Covidence for data management and analysis.


Understanding the distinctions between literature reviews and systematic reviews is vital for researchers aiming to conduct high-quality, impactful research. Each type of review has its strengths and is suited to different research needs, from providing broad overviews to answering specific questions with rigorous methods.

By selecting the appropriate review type, researchers can enhance the credibility and reliability of their findings. This informed choice not only strengthens the research process but also contributes to the advancement of knowledge in their field.

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