Becoming a Critical Reader: Questions to Ask About Literature Reviews
A literature review is one person’s attempt to summarize what the literature says about any given topic. Many pieces of original research will have a mini-literature review as a part of the study to help place that study in context, but many times you will come across a literature review published on its own. These literature reviews are not the same as a systemic review or meta-analysis (more on those coming in a future article) and are less rigorous, but can still yield valuable information. Some good questions to ask:
1. Was the topic well identified? Each literature review should contain a clearly defined statement of what the author is trying to learn more about.
2. Was search thorough? The article should detail exactly how they conducted a search for relevant articles, and how articles were included or excluded. For example, it is very common for authors to limit their review to studies published in English or in the last 5 years, etc.
3. Were the included studies reviewed well? The author of the literature review should point out any important strengths or weaknesses found in the studies reviewed.
4. Was any important study (that should have been included) left out? At first, this will be a hard question to answer, unless you do your own searching. But as you read, read, read and become more familiar with the research on a topic, you may know of studies or authors who commonly write on your topic of interest and you’ll be able to spot things left out.
5. Were conclusions consistent with the information presented? You want to watch out for authors making big leaps or ignoring problems. Try to be fair and balanced as you determine if the author was fair and balanced.
6. And finally, what does this mean for me? That will vary widely based on your personal situation. As a reader, you may be a nurse, midwife, childbirth educator, doula, doctor, or parent. You may have more than one role. Carefully think about how this may – or may not – apply to you in your various roles. (Notice this is always the last question on my lists? There’s a reason!)
Literature reviews are close cousins to the next type of summarizing papers we will look at: meta-analyses and systemic reviews. Watch for those articles coming soon!