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Writing in the Health Sciences: Research and Lit Reviews

A Resource for Faculty and Students

What Is a Literature Review?

In simple terms, a literature review investigates the available information on a certain topic. It may be only a knowledge survey with an intentional focus. However, it is often a well-organized examination of the existing research which evaluates each resource in a systematic way. Often a lit review will involve a series of inclusion/exclusion criteria or an assessment rubric which examines the research in-depth. Below are some interesting sources to consider.

Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review - This PLoS One article itemizes the steps in the lit review process.

The Writing Center's Literature Reviews - UNC-Chapel Hill's writing center explains some of the key criteria involved in doing a literature review.

Literature Review vs. Systematic Review - This recent article details the difference between a literature review and a systematic review. Though the two share similar attributes, key differences are identified here.

Literature Review Steps

1. Identify a research question. For example: "Does the use of warfarin in elderly patients recovering from myocardial infarction help prevent stroke?"

2. Consider which databases might provide information for your topic. Often PubMed or CINAHL will cover a wide spectrum of biomedical issues. However, other databases and grey literature sources may specialize in certain disciplines. Embase is generally comprehensive but also specializes in pharmacological interventions.

3. Select the major subjects or ideas from your question. Focus in on the particular concepts involved in your research. Then brainstorm synonyms and related terminology for these topics.

4. Look for the preferred indexing terms for each concept in your question. This is especially important with databases such as PubMed, CINAHL, or Scopus where headings within the MeSH database or under the Emtree umbrella are present. For example, the above question's keywords such as "warfarin" or "myocardial infarction" can involve related terminology or subject headings such as "anti-coagulants" or "cardiovascular disease."

5. Build your search using boolean operators. Combine the synonyms in your database using boolean operators such as AND or OR. Sometimes it is necessary to research parts of a question rather than the whole. So you might link searches for things like the preventive effects of anti-coagulants with stroke or embolism, then AND these results with the therapy for patients with cardiovascular disease.

6. Filter and save your search results from the first database (do this for all databases). This may be a short list because of your topic's limitations, but it should be no longer than 15 articles for an initial search. Make sure your list is saved or archived and presents you with what's needed to access the full text.

7. Use the same process with the next databases on your list. But pay attention to how certain major headings may alter the terminology. "Stroke" may have a suggested term of "embolism" or even "cerebrovascular incident" depending on the database.

8. Read through the material for inclusion/exclusion. Based on your project's criteria and objective, consider which studies or reviews deserve to be included and which should be discarded. Make sure the information you have permits you to go forward. 

9. Write the literature review. Begin by summarizing why your research is important and explain why your approach will help fill gaps in current knowledge. Then incorporate how the information you've selected will help you to do this. You do not need to write about all of the included research you've chosen, only the most pertinent.

10. Select the most relevant literature for inclusion in the body of your report. Choose the articles and data sets that are most particularly relevant to your experimental approach. Consider how you might arrange these sources in the body of your draft. 

Library Books

Health Sciences Literature Review Made Easy: The Matrix Method by Judith Garrard

Call #: WZ 345 G192h 2011

ISBN #: 9780763771867

This book details a practical, step-by-step method for conducting a literature review in the health sciences. Aiming to synthesize the information while also analyzing it, the Matrix Indexing System enables users to establish a  structured process for tracking, organizing and integrating the knowledge within a collection.

Key Research Databases

PubMedThe premier medical database for review articles in medicine, nursing, healthcare, other related biomedical disciplines. PubMed contains over 20 million citations and can be navigated through multiple database capabilities and searching strategies.

CINAHL Ultimate - Offers comprehensive coverage of health science literature. CINAHL is particularly useful for those researching the allied disciplines of nursing, medicine, and pharmaceutical sciences.

Scopus - Database with over 12 million abstracts and citations which include peer-reviewed titles from international and Open Access journals. Also includes interactive bibliometrics and researcher profiling.

Embase - Elsevier's fully interoperable database of both Medline and Emtree-indexed articles. Embase also specializes in pharmacologic interventions.

Cochrane - Selected evidence-based medicine resources from the Cochrane Collaboration that includes peer-reviewed systematic reviews and randomized controlled trials. Access this database through OVID with TTUHSC Libraries.

DARE - Literally the Datatase of Abstracts of Reviews of Effectiveness, this collection of systematic reviews and other evidence-based research contains critical assessments from a wide variety of medical journals.

TRIP - This TRIP database is structured according to the level of evidence for its EBM content. It allows users to quickly and easily locate high-quality, accredited medical literature for clinical and research purposes.

Web of Science - Contains bibliographic articles and data from a wide variety of publications in the life sciences and other fields. Also, see this link for conducting a lit review exclusively within Web of Science.


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