Different types of literature reviews

The shot shows a row of book shelves in a library.

Different types of literature reviews can serve a multitude of purposes. The volume of literature on any particular topic can be overwhelming, particularly for those new to the field. Literature reviews can serve as a great starting point in learning about a particular area of study.

Literature reviews can help find trends in the field, as well as identifying potential research gaps that need to be addressed. Certain types of literature reviews can also be used to generate evidence to inform the development of clinical practice guidelines.

Here we will discuss the five most common types of literature reviews: narrative reviews, systematic reviews, rapid reviews, meta analysis and scoping reviews; although there are others (see Grant and Booth’s article discussing 14 literature review types).

Narrative literature reviews

Narrative (or traditional) reviews usually present a comprehensive summary of where the field stands on a topic. While narrative reviews require some process for identifying material to include in the review, this process is not methodological and so there is a higher risk of bias in the information this type of review presents. Authors must be careful not to omit significant sections of the literature or to only select literature that supports their view.

Systematic literature reviews

Systematic reviews have their origins in medicine. They are commonly used to assess evidence-based practice and develop clinical practice guidelines. Systematic reviews are able to critically answer a predetermined research question. As the name suggests, they employ strict methods to systematically search and synthesize the available evidence. All systematic reviews follow a series of steps in order to reduce bias and random errors. Steps include defining the research question, reviewing the literature, screening the papers to select relevant studies, assessing the quality of the relevant studies, and presenting the findings. Completing these steps is time consuming. A well conducted systematic review can take as long as one year to complete (so start early!).

Rapid literature reviews

A rapid review is like a systematic review, but with a shorter time frame and less stringent methods. It quickly provides an overview of the current evidence on a specific topic. These days, web-based tools are available to aid in conducting systematic and rapid reviews, such as Covidence.


A good systematic review forms the basis of another type of review: the meta-analysis. A meta-analysis takes the studies identified through a systematic review and statistically combines their quantitative results. Combining the data from a multitude of individual studies provides a more precise general effect of the results, which can provide enough evidence to influence practice. For a meta-analysis to be valid, it must include studies with similar characteristics (such as the study population, intervention, and outcome measures) to allow for comparison between the studies.

Scoping review of the literature

Scoping reviews aim to identify and map out the extent, range, and nature of the available research on a specific topic. A scoping review identifies the key themes and findings of the research, and any gaps in the literature.

The medical writers at WriteSource Medical are trained professionals who can help you in all aspects of the literature review process. We can help you determine the type of review best suited to your needs, help you develop a research question, conduct the literature searches, and write your review.

Suggested further reading

Grant and Booth (2009), A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 26, 91–108. doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x

Pare ́ et al. (2015), Synthesizing information systems knowledge: A typology of literature reviews. Information & Management, 52, 183-199. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.im.2014.08.008