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The difference between a systematic review and a literature review
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Covidence takes a look at the difference between the two
Most of us are familiar with the terms systematic review and literature review. Both review types synthesise evidence and provide summary information. So what are the differences? What does systematic mean? And which approach is best 🤔 ?
‘ Systematic ‘ describes the review’s methods. It means that they are transparent, reproducible and defined before the search gets underway. That’s important because it helps to minimise the bias that would result from cherry-picking studies in a non-systematic way.
This brings us to literature reviews. Literature reviews don’t usually apply the same rigour in their methods. That’s because, unlike systematic reviews, they don’t aim to produce an answer to a clinical question. Literature reviews can provide context or background information for a new piece of research. They can also stand alone as a general guide to what is already known about a particular topic.
Interest in systematic reviews has grown in recent years and the frequency of ‘systematic reviews’ in Google books has overtaken ‘literature reviews’ (with all the usual Ngram Viewer warnings – it searches around 6% of all books, no journals).
Let’s take a look at the two review types in more detail to highlight some key similarities and differences 👀.
🙋🏾♂️ What is a systematic review?
Systematic reviews ask a specific question about the effectiveness of a treatment and answer it by summarising evidence that meets a set of pre-specified criteria.
The process starts with a research question and a protocol or research plan. A review team searches for studies to answer the question using a highly sensitive search strategy. The retrieved studies are then screened for eligibility using the inclusion and exclusion criteria (this is done by at least two people working independently). Next, the reviewers extract the relevant data and assess the quality of the included studies. Finally, the review team synthesises the extracted study data and presents the results. The process is shown in figure 2 .
The results of a systematic review can be presented in many ways and the choice will depend on factors such as the type of data. Some reviews use meta-analysis to produce a statistical summary of effect estimates. Other reviews use narrative synthesis to present a textual summary.
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When is it appropriate to do a systematic review?
If you have a clinical question about the effectiveness of a particular treatment or treatments, you could answer it by conducting a systematic review. Systematic reviews in clinical medicine often follow the PICO framework, which stands for:
👦 Population (or patients)
Here’s a typical example of a systematic review title that uses the PICO framework: Alarms [intervention] versus drug treatments [comparison] for the prevention of nocturnal enuresis [outcome] in children [population]
- Systematic reviews follow prespecified methods
- The methods are explicit and replicable
- The review team assesses the quality of the evidence and attempts to minimise bias
- Results and conclusions are based on the evidence
🙋🏻♀️ What is a literature review?
Literature reviews provide an overview of what is known about a particular topic. They evaluate the material, rather than simply restating it, but the methods used to do this are not usually prespecified and they are not described in detail in the review. The search might be comprehensive but it does not aim to be exhaustive. Literature reviews are also referred to as narrative reviews.
Literature reviews use a topical approach and often take the form of a discussion. Precision and replicability are not the focus, rather the author seeks to demonstrate their understanding and perhaps also present their work in the context of what has come before. Often, this sort of synthesis does not attempt to control for the author’s own bias. The results or conclusion of a literature review is likely to be presented using words rather than statistical methods.
When is it appropriate to do a literature review?
We’ve all written some form of literature review: they are a central part of academic research ✍🏾. Literature reviews often form the introduction to a piece of writing, to provide the context. They can also be used to identify gaps in the literature and the need to fill them with new research 📚.
- Literature reviews take a thematic approach
- They do not specify inclusion or exclusion criteria
- They do not answer a clinical question
- The conclusions might be influenced by the author’s own views
🙋🏽 Ok, but what is a systematic literature review?
A quick internet search retrieves a cool 200 million hits for ‘systematic literature review’. What strange hybrid is this 🤯🤯 ?
Systematic review methodology has its roots in evidence-based medicine but it quickly gained traction in other areas – the social sciences for example – where researchers recognise the value of being methodical and minimising bias. Systematic review methods are increasingly applied to the more traditional types of review, including literature reviews, hence the proliferation of terms like ‘systematic literature review’ and many more.
Beware of the labels 🚨. The terminology used to describe review types can vary by discipline and changes over time. To really understand how any review was done you will need to examine the methods critically and make your own assessment of the quality and reliability of each synthesis 🤓.
Review methods are evolving constantly as researchers find new ways to meet the challenge of synthesising the evidence. Systematic review methods have influenced many other review types, including the traditional literature review.
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Laura Mellor. Portsmouth, UK
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Know the Difference! Systematic Review vs. Literature Review
It is common to confuse systematic and literature reviews as both are used to provide a summary of the existent literature or research on a specific topic. Even with this common ground, both types vary significantly. Please review the following chart (and its corresponding poster linked below) for the detailed explanation of each as well as the differences between each type of review.
- What's in a name? The difference between a Systematic Review and a Literature Review, and why it matters by Lynn Kysh, MLIS, University of Southern California - Norris Medical Library
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Systematic Literature Review or Literature Review?
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Table of Contents
As a researcher, you may be required to conduct a literature review. But what kind of review do you need to complete? Is it a systematic literature review or a standard literature review? In this article, we’ll outline the purpose of a systematic literature review, the difference between literature review and systematic review, and other important aspects of systematic literature reviews.
What is a Systematic Literature Review?
The purpose of systematic literature reviews is simple. Essentially, it is to provide a high-level of a particular research question. This question, in and of itself, is highly focused to match the review of the literature related to the topic at hand. For example, a focused question related to medical or clinical outcomes.
The components of a systematic literature review are quite different from the standard literature review research theses that most of us are used to (more on this below). And because of the specificity of the research question, typically a systematic literature review involves more than one primary author. There’s more work related to a systematic literature review, so it makes sense to divide the work among two or three (or even more) researchers.
Your systematic literature review will follow very clear and defined protocols that are decided on prior to any review. This involves extensive planning, and a deliberately designed search strategy that is in tune with the specific research question. Every aspect of a systematic literature review, including the research protocols, which databases are used, and dates of each search, must be transparent so that other researchers can be assured that the systematic literature review is comprehensive and focused.
Most systematic literature reviews originated in the world of medicine science. Now, they also include any evidence-based research questions. In addition to the focus and transparency of these types of reviews, additional aspects of a quality systematic literature review includes:
- Clear and concise review and summary
- Comprehensive coverage of the topic
- Accessibility and equality of the research reviewed
Systematic Review vs Literature Review
The difference between literature review and systematic review comes back to the initial research question. Whereas the systematic review is very specific and focused, the standard literature review is much more general. The components of a literature review, for example, are similar to any other research paper. That is, it includes an introduction, description of the methods used, a discussion and conclusion, as well as a reference list or bibliography.
A systematic review, however, includes entirely different components that reflect the specificity of its research question, and the requirement for transparency and inclusion. For instance, the systematic review will include:
- Eligibility criteria for included research
- A description of the systematic research search strategy
- An assessment of the validity of reviewed research
- Interpretations of the results of research included in the review
As you can see, contrary to the general overview or summary of a topic, the systematic literature review includes much more detail and work to compile than a standard literature review. Indeed, it can take years to conduct and write a systematic literature review. But the information that practitioners and other researchers can glean from a systematic literature review is, by its very nature, exceptionally valuable.
This is not to diminish the value of the standard literature review. The importance of literature reviews in research writing is discussed in this article . It’s just that the two types of research reviews answer different questions, and, therefore, have different purposes and roles in the world of research and evidence-based writing.
Systematic Literature Review vs Meta Analysis
It would be understandable to think that a systematic literature review is similar to a meta analysis. But, whereas a systematic review can include several research studies to answer a specific question, typically a meta analysis includes a comparison of different studies to suss out any inconsistencies or discrepancies. For more about this topic, check out Systematic Review VS Meta-Analysis article.
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5 differences between a systematic review and other types of literature review
September 26, 2017.
There are many types of reviews of the medical and public health evidence, each with its own benefits and challenges. In this blog post, we detail five key differences between a systematic review and other types of reviews, including narrative and comprehensive reviews.
First, we must define some terms. “Literature review” is a general term that describes a summary of the evidence on a certain topic. Literature reviews can be very simple or highly complex, and they can use a variety of methods for finding, assessing, and presenting evidence. A “systematic review” is a specific type of review that uses rigorous and transparent methods in an effort to summarize all of the available evidence with little to no bias. A good systematic review adheres to the international standards set forth in the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) 27-item checklist. 1 Reviews that are less rigorous are often called “narrative,” “comprehensive,” or simply “literature reviews.”
So, what are the 5 key differences between a systematic review and other types of review?
1. The goal of the review The goal of a literature review can be broad and descriptive (example: “ Describe the available treatments for sleep apnea ”) or it can be to answer a specific question (example: “ What is the efficacy of CPAP for people with sleep apnea? ”). The goal of a systematic review is to answer a specific and focused question (example: “ Which treatment for sleep apnea reduces the apnea-hypopnea index more: CPAP or mandibular advancement device? ”). People seeking to make evidence-based decisions look to systematic reviews due to their completeness and reduced risk of bias.
2. Searching for evidence Where and how one searches for evidence is an important difference. While literature reviews require only one database or source, systematic reviews require more comprehensive efforts to locate evidence. Multiple databases are searched, each with a specifically tailored search strategy (usually designed and implemented by a specialist librarian). In addition, systematic reviews often include attempts to find data beyond typical databases. Systematic reviewers might search conference abstracts or the web sites of professional associations or pharmaceutical companies, and they may contact study authors to obtain additional or unpublished data. All of these extra steps reflect an attempt to minimize bias in the summary of the evidence. 3. Assessing search results In a systematic review, the parameters for inclusion are established at the start of the project and applied consistently to search results. Usually, such parameters take the form of PICOs (population, intervention, comparison, outcomes). Reviewers hold search results against strict criteria based on the PICOs to determine appropriateness for inclusion. Another key component of a systematic review is dual independent review of search results; each search result is reviewed by at least two people independently. In many other literature reviews, there is only a single reviewer. This can result in bias (even if it is unintentional) and missed studies.
4. Summary of findings In a systematic review, an effort is usually made to assess the quality of the evidence, often using risk of bias assessment, at the study level and often across studies. Other literature reviews rarely assess and report any formal quality assessment by individual study. Risk of bias assessment is important to a thorough summary of the evidence, since conclusions based on biased results can be incorrect (and dangerous, at worst). Results from a systematic review can sometimes be pooled quantitatively (e.g., in a meta-analysis) to provide numeric estimates of treatment effects, for example.
5. Utility of results Due to the rigor and transparency applied to a systematic review, it is not surprising that the results are usually of higher quality and at lower risk of bias than results from other types of literature review. Literature reviews can be useful to inform background sections of papers and reports and to give the reader an overview of a topic. Systematic reviews are used by professional associations and government agencies to issue guidelines and recommendations; such important activities are rarely based on a non-systematic review. Clinicians may also rely on high quality systematic reviews to make evidence-based decisions about patient care.
Each type of review has a place in the scientific literature. For narrow, specific research questions, a systematic review can provide a thorough summary and assessment of all of the available evidence. For broader research questions, other types of literature review can summarize the best available evidence using targeted search strategies. Ultimately, the choice of methodology depends on the research question and the goal of the review.
 Moher D, Liberati A, Tetzlaff J, Altman DG, The PRISMA Group (2009). Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyse s: The PRISMA Statement. PLoS Med 6(7): e1000097. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed1000097.
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Systematic review vs. literature review: Some essential differences
Most budding researchers are confused between systematic review vs. literature review. As a PhD student or early career researcher, you must by now be well versed with the fact that literature review is the most important aspect of any scientific research, without which a study cannot be commenced. However, literature review is in itself an ‘umbrella term’, and there are several types of reviews, such as systematic literature reviews , that you may need to perform during your academic publishing journey, based upon their specific relevance to each study.
Your research goal, approach, and design will finally influence your choice of systematic review vs literature review . Apart from systematic literature review , some other common types of literature review are 1 :
- Narrative literature review – used to identify gaps in the existing knowledge base
- Scoping literature review – used to identify the scope of a particular study
- Integrative literature review – used to generate secondary data that upon integration can be used to define new frameworks and perspectives
- Theoretical literature review – used to pool all kinds of theories associated with a particular concept
The most commonly used form of review, however, is the systematic literature review . Compared to the other types of literature reviews described above, this one requires a more rigorous and well-defined approach. The systematic literature review can be divided into two main categories: meta-analysis and meta-synthesis. Meta-analysis is related to identifying patterns and relationships within the data, by using statistical procedures. Meta-synthesis on the other hand, is concerned with integrating findings of multiple qualitative research studies, not necessarily needing statistical procedures.
Table of Contents
Difference between systematic review and literature review
In spite of having this basic understanding, however, there might still be a lot of confusion when it comes to finalizing between a systematic review vs literature review of any other kind. Since these two types of reviews serve a similar purpose, they are often used interchangeably and the difference between systematic review and literature review is overlooked. In order to ease this confusion and smoothen the process of decision-making it is essential to have a closer look at a systematic review vs. literature review and the differences between them 2.3 :
Tips to keep in mind when performing a literature review
While the above illustrated similarities and differences between systematic review and literature review might be helpful as an overview, here are some additional pointers that you can keep in mind while performing a review for your research study 4 :
- Check the authenticity of the source thoroughly while using an article in your review.
- Regardless of the type of review that you intend to perform, i t is important to ensure that the landmark literature, the one that first spoke about your topic of interest, is given prominence in your review. These can be identified with a simple Google Scholar search and checking the most cited articles.
- Make sure to include all the latest literature that focuses on your research question.
- Avoid including irrelevant data by revisiting your aims, objectives, and research questions as often as possible during the review process.
- If you intend to submit your review in any peer-reviewed journal, make sure to have a defined structure based upon your selected type of review .
- If it is a systematic literature review , make sure that the research question is clear and cri sp and framed in a manner that is subjected to quantitative analysis.
- If it is a literature review of any other kind, make sure that you include enough checkpoints to minimize biases in your conclusions . You can use an integrative approach to show how different data points fit together, however, it is also essential to mention and describe data that doesn’t fit together in order to produce a balanced review. This can also help identify gaps and pave the way for designing future studies on the topic.
We hope that the above article was helpful for you in understanding the basics of literature review and to know the use of systemic review vs. literature review.
Q: When to do a systematic review?
A systematic review is conducted to synthesize and analyze existing research on a specific question. It’s valuable when a comprehensive assessment of available evidence is required to answer a well-defined research question. Systematic reviews follow a predefined protocol, rigorous methodology, and aim to minimize bias. They’re especially useful for informing evidence-based decisions in healthcare and policy-making.
Q: When to do a literature review?
A literature review surveys existing literature on a topic, providing an overview of key concepts and findings. It’s conducted when exploring a subject, identifying gaps, and contextualizing research. Literature reviews are valuable at the beginning of a study to establish the research landscape and justify the need for new research.
Q: What is the difference between a literature review and a scoping review?
A literature review summarizes existing research on a topic, while a scoping review maps the literature to identify research gaps and areas for further investigation. While both assess existing literature, a scoping review tends to have broader inclusion criteria and aims to provide an overview of the available research, helping researchers understand the breadth of a topic before narrowing down a research question.
Q: What’ is the difference between systematic Literature Review and Meta Analysis?
A systematic literature review aims to comprehensively identify, select, and analyze all relevant studies on a specific research question using a rigorous methodology. It summarizes findings qualitatively. On the other hand, a meta-analysis is a statistical technique applied within a systematic review. It involves pooling and analyzing quantitative data from multiple studies to provide a more precise estimate of an effect size. In essence, a meta-analysis is a quantitative synthesis that goes beyond the qualitative summary of a systematic literature review.
- Types of Literature Review – Business Research Methodology. https://research-methodology.net/research-methodology/types-literature-review/
- Mellor, L. The difference between a systematic review and a literature review. Covidence. https://www.covidence.org/blog/the-difference-between-a-systematic-review-and-a-literature-review \
- Basu, G. SJSU Research Guides – Literature Review vs Systematic Review. https://libguides.sjsu.edu/LitRevVSSysRev/definitions
- Jansen, D., Phair, D. Writing A Literature Review: 7 Common (And Costly) Mistakes To Avoid. Grad Coach, June 2021. https://gradcoach.com/literature-review-mistakes/
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About Systematic Reviews
Understanding the Differences Between a Systematic Review vs Literature Review
Automate every stage of your literature review to produce evidence-based research faster and more accurately.
Let’s look at these differences in further detail.
Goal of the Review
The objective of a literature review is to provide context or background information about a topic of interest. Hence the methodology is less comprehensive and not exhaustive. The aim is to provide an overview of a subject as an introduction to a paper or report. This overview is obtained firstly through evaluation of existing research, theories, and evidence, and secondly through individual critical evaluation and discussion of this content.
A systematic review attempts to answer specific clinical questions (for example, the effectiveness of a drug in treating an illness). Answering such questions comes with a responsibility to be comprehensive and accurate. Failure to do so could have life-threatening consequences. The need to be precise then calls for a systematic approach. The aim of a systematic review is to establish authoritative findings from an account of existing evidence using objective, thorough, reliable, and reproducible research approaches, and frameworks.
Level of Planning Required
The methodology involved in a literature review is less complicated and requires a lower degree of planning. For a systematic review, the planning is extensive and requires defining robust pre-specified protocols. It first starts with formulating the research question and scope of the research. The PICO’s approach (population, intervention, comparison, and outcomes) is used in designing the research question. Planning also involves establishing strict eligibility criteria for inclusion and exclusion of the primary resources to be included in the study. Every stage of the systematic review methodology is pre-specified to the last detail, even before starting the review process. It is recommended to register the protocol of your systematic review to avoid duplication. Journal publishers now look for registration in order to ensure the reviews meet predefined criteria for conducting a systematic review .
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Quality Assessment of the Collected Resources
A rigorous appraisal of collected resources for the quality and relevance of the data they provide is a crucial part of the systematic review methodology. A systematic review usually employs a dual independent review process, which involves two reviewers evaluating the collected resources based on pre-defined inclusion and exclusion criteria. The idea is to limit bias in selecting the primary studies. Such a strict review system is generally not a part of a literature review.
Presentation of Results
Most literature reviews present their findings in narrative or discussion form. These are textual summaries of the results used to critique or analyze a body of literature about a topic serving as an introduction. Due to this reason, literature reviews are sometimes also called narrative reviews. To know more about the differences between narrative reviews and systematic reviews , click here.
A systematic review requires a higher level of rigor, transparency, and often peer-review. The results of a systematic review can be interpreted as numeric effect estimates using statistical methods or as a textual summary of all the evidence collected. Meta-analysis is employed to provide the necessary statistical support to evidence outcomes. They are usually conducted to examine the evidence present on a condition and treatment. The aims of a meta-analysis are to determine whether an effect exists, whether the effect is positive or negative, and establish a conclusive estimate of the effect .
Using statistical methods in generating the review results increases confidence in the review. Results of a systematic review are then used by clinicians to prescribe treatment or for pharmacovigilance purposes. The results of the review can also be presented as a qualitative assessment when the end goal is issuing recommendations or guidelines.
Risk of Bias
Literature reviews are mostly used by authors to provide background information with the intended purpose of introducing their own research later. Since the search for included primary resources is also less exhaustive, it is more prone to bias.
One of the main objectives for conducting a systematic review is to reduce bias in the evidence outcome. Extensive planning, strict eligibility criteria for inclusion and exclusion, and a statistical approach for computing the result reduce the risk of bias.
Intervention studies consider risk of bias as the “likelihood of inaccuracy in the estimate of causal effect in that study.” In systematic reviews, assessing the risk of bias is critical in providing accurate assessments of overall intervention effect .
With numerous review methods available for analyzing, synthesizing, and presenting existing scientific evidence, it is important for researchers to understand the differences between the review methods. Choosing the right method for a review is crucial in achieving the objectives of the research.
 “Systematic Review Protocols and Protocol Registries | NIH Library,” www.nihlibrary.nih.gov . https://www.nihlibrary.nih.gov/services/systematic-review-service/systematic-review-protocols-and-protocol-registries
 A. B. Haidich, “Meta-analysis in medical research,” Hippokratia , vol. 14, no. Suppl 1, pp. 29–37, Dec. 2010, [Online]. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3049418/#:~:text=Meta%2Danalyses%20are%20conducted%20to
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Q. What is the difference between a systematic review and a systematic literature review?
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‘Systematic’ describes the review’s methods. It means that they are transparent, reproducible and defined before the search gets underway. That’s important because it helps to minimise the bias that would result from cherry-picking studies in a non-systematic way.
Literature reviews don’t usually apply the same rigour in their methods. That’s because, unlike systematic reviews, they don’t aim to produce an answer to a clinical question. Literature reviews can provide context or background information for a new piece of research. They can also stand alone as a general guide to what is already known about a particular topic.
Summary adapted from: Mellor, L. (2022) ‘The difference between a systematic review and a literature review’, https://www.covidence.org/ , no date. Available at: https://www.covidence.org/blog/the-difference-between-a-systematic-review-and-a-literature-review/ (Accessed: 23 May 2022).
Your supervisor may ask you to do a systematic review, when what they actually want you to do is a systematic review of the literature. There are a few key differences:
Summary adapted from: Kysh, L. (2013) ‘What's in a name? The difference between a systematic review and a literature review and why it matters’, https://figshare.com/ , 8 August. Available at: https://figshare.com/articles/Difference_between_a_systematic_review_and_a_literature_review/766364
(Accessed: 23 May 2022).
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Literature Review vs Systematic Review
- Literature Review vs. Systematic Review
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It’s common to confuse systematic and literature reviews because both are used to provide a summary of the existent literature or research on a specific topic. Regardless of this commonality, both types of review vary significantly. The following table provides a detailed explanation as well as the differences between systematic and literature reviews.
Kysh, Lynn (2013): Difference between a systematic review and a literature review. [figshare]. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.766364
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What is a Systematic Review?
'In basic terms, a systematic review is a protocol-driven, comprehensive literature review, usually designed to answer a specific clinical question' ( Mayo Clinic Libraries )
For a more detailed definition see Clarifying differences between review designs and methods by David Gough, James Thomas & Sandy Oliver
Also see our Systematic Reviews page and the Systematic Review Guide by Curtin University Library.
Do I want to undertake a Systematic Review?
Before beginning a Systematic Review ask yourself:
- Do I have a clearly defined clinical question with estabalished inclusion and exclusion criteria?
- Do I have a team of at least 3 people?
- Do I have time to go through as many search results as we might find?
- Do I have resources to get foreign-language articles appropriately translated?
- Do I have the statistical resources to analyse the pool data?
If you answered No to any of the first 4 questions, a traditional literature review will be more appropriate. If you answered No to the last question, a meta-analysis will not be an appropriate methodolgy for your review. For a quick alternative to a systematic review see information about TRIP Rapid Reviews .
How does a Systematic Review differ from a Literature Review?
(from Curtin University Library's Systematic Review guide )
Systematic Review Standards - Include a Librarian on your team!
- Standards for Systematic Reviews 2010
The Institute of Medicine issued Standards for Systematic Review Teams in 2010, including a set of standards specifically about conducting searches. The first standard for searching (3.1.1) states that systematic review teams should work with a librarian to plan the search strategy .
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- Last Updated: Aug 11, 2023 3:52 PM
- URL: https://kemh.libguides.com/research
Literature Review: Know the Difference! Systematic Review vs. Literature Review
- Literature Review
- Purpose of a Literature Review
- Work in Progress
- Compiling & Writing
- Books, Articles, & Web Pages
- Types of Literature Reviews
- Departmental Differences
- Citation Styles & Plagiarism
- Know the Difference! Systematic Review vs. Literature Review
Systemic Review & Literature Review
- What's in a name? The difference between a Systematic Review and a Literature Review, and why it matters.
The evidence pyramid (image above) visually depicts the evidential strength of different research designs. Studies with the highest internal validity, characterized by a high degree of quantitative analysis, review, analysis, and stringent scientific methodology, are at the top of the pyramid. Observational research and expert opinion reside at the bottom of the pyramid. In evidence-based practice the systematic review is considered the highest level of information and is at the top of the pyramid. ( The pyramid was produced by HLWIKI Canada and is CC).
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- Last Updated: Oct 19, 2023 12:07 PM
- URL: https://uscupstate.libguides.com/Literature_Review