Updated Guide to Writing a Literature Review in Nursing for 2024

Step by Step Guide to Writing a Literature Review in Nursing

What is a literature review? How is it important in nursing research?

A literature review is a comprehensive synthesis of evidence from the existing literature, including research papers and scholarly works, about a specific research phenomenon, problem or question. 

Literature review provides a critical evaluation of the current state of evidence or knowledge on the subject matter.

Literature review is a very important section or chapter of a nursing research or dissertation because of the following reasons:

  1. Facilitates identification of knowledge gaps – A detailed review of existing literature enables nursing students and researchers to identify key areas with limited knowledge or conflicting evidence.
  2. Informs development of a theoretical foundation – A critically and comprehensively conducted literature review allows nursing researchers to identify key theoretical frameworks, concepts and models from existing literature, and use such information to formulate research questions, hypotheses and study designs.
  3. Informs selection of appropriate methodology – A comprehensive literature review allows nursing students and researchers to gain insights into different research methods and study designs that had been utilized in the previous studies to inform their decisions about the most appropriate methodological approaches to adopt in their research.
  4. Identification of best practices – By conducting an in-depth and critical literature review, nursing student researchers are able to highlight evidence-based best practices, guidelines, and interventions that have been successful in addressing specific nursing issues. They can use this information to can inform the development of evidence-based nursing practices and policies.

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Literature reviews vs systematic reviews, what is the difference?

Here are the key differences between literature reviews and systematic reviews:

Literature ReviewSystematic Review
Provides a broad overview of existing literature on a topicAims to answer a specific, well-defined research question
Less structured and formal methodology for searching and selecting studiesFollows a highly structured and transparent methodology (e.g. PRISMA guidelines)
Study selection process can be subjective, based on the author’s judgmentComprehensive, predefined, and documented search strategy across multiple databases
Quality assessment of included studies may be less rigorous or not systematicStrict eligibility criteria for study selection, applied by multiple independent reviewers
Synthesis of findings is typically narrative and qualitative in natureCritical appraisal of study quality and risk of bias using standardized tools
Quantitative synthesis of findings through meta-analysis techniques when possible

What are the resources for writing a literature review?

Identifying most appropriate studies for evidence synthesis and critical analysis in the literature review is a major problem faced by most nursing researchers. These resources will help you locate appropriate literature on your topic and retrieve them for evidence synthesis.

The best place for these resources is always your school library. Information on how and where to finding these materials may be included in your research guides at university website.

Here is a list of key resources to use for selecting appropriate scholarly works for your literature review research project:

  1. Academic databases: Databases like CINAHL (Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature), PubMed, Medline, Cochrane Library, and ScienceDirect are essential for accessing peer-reviewed journal articles, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses related to nursing and healthcare. This is the most important place for finding useful articles or primary research papers.
  2. Books and textbooks: Relevant nursing textbooks, handbooks, and reference books can provide an overview of key concepts, theories, and methodologies relevant to the research topic.
  3. Professional organizations’ publications: Publications from nursing organizations, such as the American Nurses Association (ANA), International Council of Nurses (ICN), and specialty nursing organizations, can provide access to position statements, practice guidelines, and research reports.
  4. Government reports and guidelines: Publications from government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and World Health Organization (WHO), can offer valuable information on healthcare policies, best practices, and public health issues.
  5. Conference proceedings: Proceedings from nursing conferences and symposia can provide access to the latest research findings and emerging trends in the field.
  6. Citation tracking: Using citation tracking tools like Web of Science or Google Scholar can help identify articles that have cited a particular study or author, leading to the discovery of related research.
  7. Expert consultations: Consulting with subject matter experts, experienced researchers, or librarians can provide guidance on locating relevant and high-quality sources for the literature review.
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A 7-step guide for conducting a literature review in nursing

The process of writing the literature review for your nursing papers is made easy by following these 7 steps:

Literature Review for Nursing
Literature Review for Nursing
  1. Formulate the research question:
    • Clearly define the research question or topic, this forms the purpose of a literature review
    • Identify key concepts, variables, and synonyms
    • Determine the scope (e.g., time frame, populations, study designs, research problem). It is advisable to use PICO(T) framework to formulate your research question.
  2. Develop a literature search strategy:
    • Select relevant databases (e.g., CINAHL, PubMed, Cochrane Library) to use for searching the literature.
    • Your school library may give you access to these databases for the literature search
    • Create a search string using keywords, search terms, Boolean operators, truncation, and subject headings
    • Document the search strategy to ensure reproducibility for literature review in nursing research
  3. Set inclusion and exclusion criteria:
    • Define criteria for including/excluding studies (e.g., publication date, language, study design)
    • Your eligibility criteria must be consistent with the focused research question
    • Determine the process for screening and selecting studies
    • This step will help you identify and select relevant articles for your review
    • Make sure that your eligibility criteria allow selection of articles with up-to-date information relevant to your research
  4. Conduct the literature search:
    • Execute the search strategy across selected databases
    • Remove duplicate records
    • Screen and evaluate titles and abstracts for relevance
  5. Critically appraise and select studies:
    • Obtain full-text of potentially relevant studies to understand different authors’ views about the research problem.
    • This step helps in ensuring quality of the articles selected for a thorough literature process.
    • Assess the quality and risk of bias using appropriate tools (e.g., CASP, Cochrane risk of bias tools)
    • Apply inclusion and exclusion criteria to select final set of studies. These include full text research or academic papers.
    • Although peer-reviewed articles are recommended for review, it is a good practice to include information from grey literature such as government publications, professional organizations’ publications, and Conference proceedings
  6. Extract and synthesize data:
    • Create a standardized data extraction form
    • Extract relevant data from included studies (e.g., methods, results, conclusions). This information can be presented in a literature matrix table.
    • To ensure comprehensiveness of your review, it is good to include many articles to help you answer your research.
    • Organize and synthesize data according to themes or categories based on the information presented in the selected research articles.
    • Make sure that the extracted information is able to address your research question
  7. Write and structure the review:
    • Provide an introduction with background and research question
    • Describe the search strategy and study selection process
    • Present a synthesis of findings, organized by themes or categories
    • Critically analyze and interpret the evidence
    • Discuss strengths, limitations, and gaps in the literature
    • Conclude with implications for practice, policy, and future research
    • Format according to guidelines and cite references appropriately
    • Remember, the primary goal of literature review is to identify gaps in the research

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How to ensure criticality of a literature review in nursing

Apply these strategies to ensure criticality of your nursing literature review:

  1. Critically appraise study quality:
    • Use standardized tools (e.g., CASP, Cochrane risk of bias tools) to assess methodological rigor, validity, and potential biases.
    • Evaluate strengths and limitations of study designs, methods, and analyses.
    • Consider the level of evidence provided by different study types.
  2. Analyze findings objectively:
    • Synthesize and interpret findings collectively, rather than summarizing individual studies.
    • Identify patterns, consistencies, and inconsistencies across studies.
    • Explore potential reasons for conflicting or contradictory findings.
  3. Evaluate theoretical and conceptual foundations:
    • Critically examine the theoretical frameworks, models, or concepts used.
    • Assess the appropriateness and relevance of theoretical underpinnings for the nursing context.
    • Identify gaps or limitations in existing theoretical knowledge.
  4. Consider clinical and practical implications:
    • Analyze findings in the context of current nursing practice, policies, and guidelines.
    • Discuss potential implications and applications for nursing care, education, or research.
    • Highlight areas where evidence may challenge or support existing practices.
  5. Address methodological limitations and biases:
    • Critically discuss potential methodological limitations and biases of included studies.
    • Evaluate the impact of these limitations on validity and generalizability.
    • Suggest strategies to address or minimize limitations in future research.
  6. Identify gaps and future research directions:
    • Critically analyze gaps, contradictions, or unanswered questions in the literature.
    • Propose areas for future research to address gaps or resolve inconsistencies.
    • Recommend methodological improvements or alternative approaches.
  7. Engage in critical reflection:
    • Reflect on your own assumptions, biases, and perspectives throughout the review process.
    • Acknowledge the potential influence of personal and professional experiences on interpretation.
    • Consider alternative viewpoints or counterarguments to your conclusions.
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How to structure paragraphs in a literature review – how to write a literature review for capstone APA nursing

Although all the sentences in a particular subheading of a literature review should be related, each is expected to present a specific or distinct idea or evidence related to the research problem.

Every paragraph in a literature review should emphasize on outlining strengths and weaknesses of individual studies included in the review.

Each paragraph of a subheading in a literature review has 5 main sections or sentences:

Introductory/topic sentence for a Literature Review in Nursing

In your introductory or topic sentence of a literature review in nursing, you should aim to capture attention of the reader, provide context of the evidence synthesis to be conducted, and report the significance or purpose of the review.

The introductory sentence should be concise, clear, and engaging.

This sentence should not be cited as it is a presentation of the evidence or knowledge to be reported in a specific paragraph.

Here are some tips and examples to help you write an effective introductory sentence:

  • Identify the broad topic or area of focus: Example: “The management of chronic pain in older adults is a complex and multifaceted issue that has garnered significant attention in the nursing literature.”
  • Highlight a gap, problem, or need for research: Example: “Despite the growing prevalence of type 2 diabetes among adolescents, there is a paucity of research examining the effectiveness of nurse-led interventions in promoting self-management behaviors in this population.”
  • State the purpose or aim of the literature review: Example: “This literature review aims to synthesize the current evidence on the use of virtual reality therapy in the management of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among military veterans.”
  • Emphasize the importance or significance of the topic: Example: “Ensuring patient safety and preventing medical errors are critical priorities in healthcare settings, and a substantial body of literature has explored the role of nurses in achieving these goals.”
  • Introduce a relevant concept, theory, or framework: Example: “The concept of self-efficacy, as proposed by Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory, has been widely applied in nursing research to understand and promote health behavior change.”
  • Contextualize the topic within current events, trends, or practices: Example: “In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of effective infection control measures in long-term care facilities has become increasingly evident, prompting a need to examine the existing literature on this topic.”
  • Highlight a debate, controversy, or conflicting evidence: Example: “The use of complementary and alternative therapies in nursing practice has been the subject of ongoing debate, with some studies supporting their efficacy while others raise concerns about their safety and evidence base.”

2. Evidence sentences

An evidence sentence in a literature review paragraph should concisely and critically present the relevant details, findings, and insights from a specific study or set of studies, while also evaluating and contextualizing the evidence within the broader literature.

Here are some of the common phrases that you can use to report evidence from a specific study in your nursing literature review:

  • A study by Author (Year) examined/ assessed/ investigated/ explored the [insert the research aim] by using [give a brief description of the methodological approach adopted], and reported that/ findings demonstrated that [include findings reported in this study that is related to the topic sentence or introductory sentence.
  • With reference to the results from the analysis/research by Author (Year), it can be noted that [include overall conclusion reported in this specific study in relation to the topic sentence]
  • A key study in this context/area is the research by Author (Year) which examined/ assessed/ investigated/ explored the [insert the research aim] by using [give a brief description of the methodological approach adopted], and reported that/ findings demonstrated that [include findings reported in this study that is related to the topic sentence or introductory sentence]
  • Research conducted by Author (Year) revealed/demonstrated/established/shown that [report findings from this particular study]
  • According to Author (Year), [report general argument or findings from this particular study related to main idea in the topic sentence]
  • In a [specify the quantitative research design adopted] by Author (Year), the reported results showed a statistically significant difference/correlation/effect [describe the findings reported from the analysis]

3. Evidence sentence supporting the previous one

A key aim of any literature review is to compare and contrast evidence from different studies in order to identify key gaps in knowledge that your research will focus on addressing.

Therefore, the primary aim of this sentence is to support the previous evidence sentence to demonstrate high level of research that has been conducted in this specific area.

Here are some of the common phrases that you can use to report evidence to support results or findings reported by the previous study in a literature review:

  • These findings are consistent with those reported by Author (Year) [then report the specific findings from this particular study]
  • These results corroborate the evidence presented by Author (Year), who also found [then report the specific findings from this particular study]
  • In line with the study by Author (Year), evidence/results from the study by Author (Year) show that [then report the specific findings from this particular study]
  • Building upon the work of Author (Year), the study by Author (Year) further demonstrated that [then report the specific findings from this particular study]
  • Expanding on the findings of Author (Year), evidence reported in the study by Author (Year) indicates [then report the specific findings from this particular study]
  • These results lend additional support to the growing body of literature, including Author (Year), which suggests that [then report the specific findings from this particular study]
  • Similarly, Author (Year) reported comparable findings to those in the research by Author (Year) showing that [then report the specific findings from this particular study]
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4. Evidence sentence with opposing views

The primary goal of this sentence is to present evidence from other studies that contradicts findings or evidence reported in the previously reported studies in the same paragraph. This sentence should critique evidence reported in the previous ones.

When writing the evidence sentence with opposing views, be sure to provide a clear and objective explanation for the contradictory findings, addressing potential reasons for the discrepancies, such as differences in study design, sample characteristics, or methodological approaches. 

Additionally, it is important to acknowledge the limitations and findings of these studies, as well as the strengths of the contradictory studies, to maintain a balanced and critical perspective.

Here are some of the key phrases to use when presenting contradictory evidence or writing evidence sentence with opposing views in your nursing literature review:

  • In contrast to Author A (Year), Author B (Year) found that [then report the specific findings from this particular study]
  • While Author A (Year) reported [include results from Author A], Author B (Year) concluded that [present results from Author B’s study]
  • On the contrary, Author B (Year) contradicted the findings of Author A by reporting/establishing that [report findings from Author B’s study]
  • In disagreement with Author A (Year), Author B (Year) suggested that [ report findings from Author B’s study]
  • Conversely, Author B (Year) presented evidence that opposes the results of Author A (Year) by showing that [report results from Author B’s study]
  • However, Author B (Year) provided conflicting evidence to that of Author A (Year) by [present results from Author B’s study]
  • In contrast, Author B (Year) yielded results that challenge the findings of Author A (Year) by showing/demonstrating/establishing that [present results from Author B’s study]
  • On the other hand, Author B (Year) offered a different perspective from Author A (Year), suggesting that [present results from Author B’s study].

5. Conclusion sentence

Conclusion sentence is the last sentence in every paragraph of a literature review subtopic.

It summarizes the main points or arguments presented and provides a final thought or reflection on the topic.

It may also identify key gap in knowledge or literature which requires further research.

Similar to the introductory/topic sentence, the conclusion sentence should not be cited.

Here are some of the phrases to use when writing a conclusion sentence of your paragraph in the literature review:

  • In summary, the evidence presented in this paragraph suggests [include your summary of evidence reported in the paragraph]
  • Collectively, these studies highlight the importance of [include your summary of evidence reported in the paragraph]
  • Overall, the findings discussed here indicate that [include your summary of evidence reported in the paragraph]
  • These results underscore the need for further research into [report the identified gap in knowledge or literature]
  • However, there remains a lack of research exploring [report the identified gap in knowledge or literature]
  • Despite these findings, significant gaps persist in our understanding of [report the identified gap in knowledge or literature]
  • Nonetheless, the studies discussed have several limitations, including [report the identified gap in knowledge or literature]
  • Future studies should aim to address these limitations by [propose directions for future research in this area in relation to the identified gap]
  • Additional research is warranted to investigate the effects of [propose directions for future research in this area in relation to the identified gap]
  • Further exploration is needed to determine the generalizability of these findings across [propose directions for future research in this area in relation to the identified gap]

Examples of Literature Reviews in Nursing Capstone Papers

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  1. What is a literature review in nursing?A literature review in nursing is a comprehensive summary of existing research and scholarly articles relevant to a specific topic within the field of nursing. It aims to provide an overview of the current knowledge in the area of study.
  2. How do I write a literature review in nursing? To write a literature review in nursing, start by defining your research question and identifying relevant keywords. Use databases to search for relevant articles and evaluate their credibility. Then, synthesize the information to create an informative overview.
  3. What is the importance of conducting a literature review in nursing? A literature review in nursing serves multiple purposes, including identifying gaps in knowledge, supporting the rationale for research, providing context for a research study, and helping researchers stay informed about current developments in the field.
  4. How can I develop a search strategy for my literature review? – When developing a search strategy for your literature review in nursing, consider using tools like Google Scholar to locate scholarly articles, utilizing library guides for assistance, and structuring your search around relevant keywords related to your research.
  5. What is the process of synthesizing information in a literature review for nursing? Synthesizing information involves critically analyzing and organizing the findings from various research articles into a coherent narrative. This process requires comparing and contrasting different perspectives, identifying common themes, and forming a cohesive synthesis of the literature.
  6. How can I evaluate the quality of research articles for my literature review? When evaluating the quality of research articles for your literature review in nursing, consider factors such as the credibility of the authors, the appropriateness of the methodology used, the relevance of the study to your research topic, and the accuracy of citations provided.

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