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Conducting your literature review

Your literature review

Most PhD and masters’ theses contain some form of literature review to provide the background for the research. 
The literature review is an essential step in the research process. A successful literature review will offer a coherent presentation and analysis of the existing research in your field, demonstrating:

  1. Your understanding of the subject area
  2. Gaps in current knowledge (that may in turn influence the direction of your research) 
  3. Relevant methodologies

There are different approaches and methods to literature reviews, and you may have heard of terms like systematic, structured, scoping or meta-analysis. This is when the literature review becomes the research methodology in its own right, instead of forming part of the research process.

This table shows the differences between a traditional literature review and a structured or systematic literature review.


Traditional vs Systematic literature reviews

Traditional or Narrative literature review Systematic or Structured literature review

Provides background information or discussion 

Attempts to answer a specific question from
evidence in the literature
Doesn't usually attempt to be exhaustive  Attempts to identify and review all relevant studies
May not specifically aim to eliminate bias Applies inclusion/exclusion eligibility criteria to avoid bias
Doesn't document the search process in detail Documents and justifies the search process rigorously
to enable replication
Doesn't explain why the studies included were selected                              

Applies quality control to ensure that high quality articles are included, and that poor quality ones are excluded

The main types of literature review conducted at Cranfield University are defined below.

Traditional literature review

A traditional literature review or narrative review, is a critical review of the literature on a particular topic, often taking a thematic approach. The aim of this type of literature review is to identify research on your topic, demonstrate your understanding of the research area, and to evaluate the quality and relevance of the literature. You will use your literature review to understand what has already been researched, help develop your research questions and the methodology that you should follow to collect and to identify any areas that your research can explore. You want your research to be unique so you will use a literature review to prevent you duplicating any previous research but also identifying any errors or mistakes that you would want to avoid. A narrative literature review will have uncontrolled bias.

Structured literature Review

A structured literature review involves bringing many research studies together to use them as the data to determine findings (known as secondary research). There is no other form of data collection involved such as creating your own surveys and questionnaires (primary research). This approach allows you to look beyond one dataset and synthesise the findings of many studies to answer a clearly formulated research question.

Sometimes a structured review may be called a systematic literature review. A structured review typically does not fulfil all the criteria of a full systematic review but may take a similar approach by taking a systematic, step by step method to finding literature. They tend to follow a set protocol for determining the research studies to be included and every stage is documented. The results and conclusions are based on the evidence found, not on the authors own views.

To help you prepare for your structured literature review please complete this interactive workbook.

For Supply chain students 

  • To help you prepare for your systematic literature review please complete this interactive workbook.

Positioning Study

Before conducting your systematic review, you need to know where your research fits in the literature.  Conducting a positioning study which will help you to identify the breadth, or scope of a topic. It will be broad and help you to map existing literature, identifying key concepts in the research. You will use the positioning study to identify and focus your research topic, becoming a subject matter expert with a strong understanding of the field. A positioning study acts as a precursor to a systematic review.

Systematic literature review

A systematic literature review is a specific research methodology to identify, select, evaluate, and synthesise relevant published and unpublished literature to answer a particular research question. The systematic literature review should be transparent and replicable, you should follow a predetermined set of criteria in your protocol to select studies and help minimise bias. The process will need to be documented throughout. A systematic literature review protocol may be registered, so that others can discover and minimise duplication, and can take several years to complete.

Useful background reading

Cranfield Libraries have several books offering guidance on how to approach and conduct literature reviews, and structured or systematic literature reviews:

Looking at previous structured and systematic literature reviews is an effective way to understand what is required and how they should be structured and written up. Structured literature reviews can be found in the Masters Thesis Archive (MTA) and systematic literature reviews can be found in the Cranfield University institutional Repository, CERES. Check out the Theses link.