How to write a rapid literature review

Over the years, I’ve developed a tried-and-true system for rapidly compiling, synthesising and summarising research literature across a wide range of topics. This has been honed over the past 12 months through a series of three rapid literature reviews for the same client; one on the benefits of physical activity and healthy eating; one on pre-school obesity interventions; and the other on the social and economic benefits of healthy lifestyles and wellbeing programmes.

So, here’s the system in a nutshell:

  1. Identify and compile research. There are two ways to do this, either through subscriptions to relevant academic journal databases or using a search engine such as Google Scholar. If the aim is to undertake an academically rigorous systematic literature review or meta-analysis, and you have access to the relevant databases, then I would recommend the former. However, if your aim is to achieve an ‘adequate’ review at low cost and minimum fuss, then Google Scholar is your better option. In either case it is important to think carefully about your choice of keywords, undertake a mix of keyword searches to cover more ground, and fully document your approach. As you find each paper, save it as a pdf or other format under a ‘files’ folder, and name each file according to its author/s and date. If there are lots of authors, just name the first and use et al (e.g. Smith et al 1999). As you go, compile your References section using a standard academic referencing style (e.g. APA or Harvard). Your written reference list will be used in both the next steps.
  2. Create a ‘transcripts’ report, with a separate section for each paper starting at A and ending in Z. Once all your files are saved, create a large reference report that can be ‘mined for information’. This is a very boring and time-consuming part of the process, but I have found through experience that it’s much better to have all the information in one easy-to-access document to allow you to word-search, copy-paste quotes, re-phrase key findings and otherwise interrogate your research review. The transcripts file should never become a public document, as it contains full or partial content of a range of research articles (i.e. blatant plagiarism). Rather, it is used only as a stepping-stone to the next stage. Use heading styles and a Contents page in your transcripts report to aid navigation. Once the transcripts file is complete (including screen captures of key tables and graphs), then the information is ‘in the can’ for the next step.
  3. Create full draft report. Identify and lay out key headings, sub-headings and other structural elements such as Executive Summary page and appendices. Leave the content of the Conclusions and Executive Summary sections to last. Begin by writing up the content of your Introduction including context and report structure. Then start working your way systematically through the transcripts report, from A through the Z, copy-pasting and synthesising key information into the relevant part of your draft report. Don’t worry too much about structure until you have finished, then go back through the draft report, from Introduction through to Conclusions, and re-write by more carefully structuring the draft information into a clearer narrative. As you step through this process, the nature of the final report begins to emerge. As this occurs, you will likely get more ideas and go back to the transcripts report – and even undertake further targeted literature searches – to fill in information gaps as they are identified. This process will also involve going back to original research papers in order to cite page numbers for quotes. Your draft report may also benefit from a summary table of the literature, perhaps as an appendix, outlining the date, authors, title, method and key findings. Finally, summarise the key findings into the Conclusion and Exec Summary, then review, edit and consider formatting aspects such as photos and summary diagrams.

Note that both the transcripts report and the full report may become large documents, potentially hundreds of pages. Read my November 2017 blog post for tips on working with large documents.

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