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NCPC Scholars: Introduction to Literature Reviews: Types of literature reviews

A guide to types of literature reviews, building a literature review, and a review of annotated bibliographies


Traditional or narrative literature reviews are typically broad in scope. They cover as much as possible of the existing literature or research on a given topic or subject. Often, this sort of literature review is included in theses and dissertations written for degree credit at universities. They're written as an essential part of the theoretical framework for the thesis or dissertation writer's argument: here's what's known, here's what's not known, here's what my work needs to answer and will answer. Because they describe what's known and not, their focus tends to be descriptive rather than analytical.

Examples of traditional literature reviews

Because a traditional or narrative literature review is so often a part of a thesis or dissertation, it's good to look at dissertations to find examples of literature reviews. The following links will take you to dissertations with literature reviews; check the tables of contents to find the literature reviews within the dissertations. They're usually the second chapter of the dissertation.

Coleman, B. N. (2015). The association between electronic cigarette use and cigarette smoking behavior among young adults in the United States (Publication no. 3712206). University of Maryland, College Park. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.



A systemic or systematic literature review is hard to define. Depending on the discipline or the field of study, systematic literature reviews can be many different things. Essentially, systematic literature reviews are created with carefully selected resources which are themselves chosen based on a predetermined selection criteria. In contrast, the traditional or narrative literature review examines all available resources in a particular discipline and is created with any and all resources that the investigator deems relevant.

The quality of the resources to be included in a systematic review is an important part of the decision to include resources in the systematic review. In other words, the author may choose to include or exclude a resource depending on an assessment of the validity of the resource.

From Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions version 6.2 (updated February 2021). Cochrane, 2021. Available from

  • Systematic reviews address a need for health decision makers to be able to access high quality, relevant, accessible and up-to-date information.
  • Systematic reviews aim to minimize bias through the use of pre-specified research questions and methods that are documented in protocols, and by basing their findings on reliable research.
  • Systematic reviews should be conducted by a team that includes domain expertise and methodological expertise, who are free of potential conflicts of interest.
  • People who might make – or be affected by – decisions around the use of interventions should be involved in important decisions about the review.
  • Good data management, project management and quality assurance mechanisms are essential for the completion of a successful systematic review.

Examples of systematic literature reviews

Chan, G. C. K., et al. (2021). Gateway or common liability? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies of adolescent e-cigarette use and future smoking initiation. Addiction, 116(4), 743-756.

Patel, S., et al. (2020). A systematic review of the impact of cigarettes and e-cigarettes in otology. Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 134(11), 951-956.


A critical literature review has two main purposes:

  • To demonstrate that the writer has a comprehensive understanding of the resources and research related to the topic being addressed, and that the writer has carefully reviewed those resources and research before including them in her or his analysis
  • As with systematic literature reviews, to apply a certain amount of analysis in the selection of resources and research to be included in the literature review. However, the scope of critical literature reviews is generally more broad and inclusive than the systematic literature review.

Useful Tools

Systematic Reviews by Elizabeth Salmon