Literature review

The literature review is carried out at the start of a research project to enable the researcher to find out what is already known about the topic so that the research does not simply repeat work already done by others. The review involves reading around the immediate topic of the research to acquire knowledge and understanding relating to the context of the research. A literature review also helps to narrow down the research topic and identify the specific aspects that will be the focus of the research project.

The review is likely to involve accessing a range of secondary sources. It is important to be systematic in recording all the details needed to construct a reference list from every source used. You could expand a literature review by following up items from bibliographies and reference lists in the sources you have already viewed. Sources where sufficient information is provided to make a judgement about their reliability should be used in preference to poorly validated sources, such as online encyclopaedias, or where there is no named author or other identifier to enable reliability or validity to be established. It is usual to return to the literature review and sources used when writing up the report of research. Once you have established the usefulness of a source, you can go back and read it more carefully.

Stages in a literature review

Extracting information

• skimming and scanning for preliminary judgement on relevance

• identifying key words for exploration in text

• establishing type of information, e.g. research report, essay, comment, quantitative/qualitative, etc.

• detailed reading in order: 1 Abstract or summary; 2 recommendations; 3 introduction; 4 discussion; 5 results and methodology


• understanding what is being said in the source

• understanding the reasons for the interpretation presented

• how objective is the interpretation?

• identifying the relationship with research topic/your purpose


• what are the arguments presented in the source?

• to what extent are they supported by valid and reliable evidence?

• what assumptions are being made?

• what are the similarities to, and differences from, your own research?

• how does the source compare with other secondary sources?

• who are the participants?

• what methodology was used?

• how objective is the data?

• exploring other factors relating to the data, e.g. when and where it was collected


• bringing together the knowledge and data from all the sources to develop a new or different perspective on the topic

• possibly identifying gaps in the knowledge

• acknowledging similarities and disagreements between your own findings and information in the literature

• possibly suggesting explanations, influences, etc.

• defining the limitations of the source in relation to your own project


Analysis means a detailed exploration of a text to better understand different aspects of the information it contains. Analysis involves dissecting the text of the source, or breaking it down, by exploring and discussing each detail. An important part of analysis is to identify any arguments being proposed by the authors. Strengths and weaknesses in the evidence or arguments should be discussed as part of a critical analysis.


Synthesis is the process of constructing or developing a new/different argument or perspective, based on the issues revealed by the preceding analysis. Once each source in the literature search has been critically analysed individually, the researcher will have a different perspective on the research topic and be able to identify more specifically how further research could contribute new knowledge and understanding. The researcher can then decide on exactly what aspect of the topic to research, formulate a suitable hypothesis or research question and plan their project.


Quantitative data, in the form of graphs, tables and statistics, often features in health and social care research.

Tables enable data to be viewed systematically, without the need for a lot of text. They are most frequently used to present numerical data, but can also be used to summarise qualitative information concisely and for clarity.

Graphs and charts present quantitative data visually, which usually assists interpretation of the data. They also enable large quantities of data to be presented in a manageable format.

Demographic statistics collected by government departments or agencies, local authorities and health trusts are valuable for comparison with data gathered in your project.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes a range of demographic statistics that are categorised under health, social care, education, etc. They provide national data as well as a breakdown of the data for each of the UK regions. They also present comparisons with similar data from earlier years.

The ONS website has several reports that present health and social care data through its link to the NHS Information Centre. Statistical information may be presented in various formats such as tables, graphs and charts.


Now complete the literature review quiz to show your understanding

Last modified: Monday, 30 Mar 2020, 13:25