Desk Reviews, Literature Reviews, Systematic Reviews, Oh My!

There are many ways to bring together evidence, from conducting an informal desk review to inform a project proposal to conducting a systematic literature review with the goal of publication

At Databoom, we have lots of experience pulling together evidence to meet our clients’ needs.

For this resource, we’re defining a “literature review” as any project that requires finding and synthesizing peer-reviewed and grey literature on a particular topic. While this seems like a simple process, there are many ways to approach a literature review and many nuances to consider in determining how to approach the project. We’ve collected some of our favorite resources to help guide your literature review, organized by key questions.


What is a literature review and what can it do for you?

This handy guide from the UCLA library clarifies the different types of reviews and can help you determine what you’ll need to undertake to tackle your question. Does this sound a bit more in-depth than what you’re looking for? If so, check out this resource from the CDC. It provides a basic overview of desk reviews, when to use them, how to plan and conduct them, and their advantages and disadvantages.


How many different types of literature reviews are there?

According to the Guide from UCLA Library, there are 14 in all.


Where should you look for published literature and other resources?

PubMed: Most of Databoom’s clients work in health, so PubMed is usually our first stop. PubMed is free to use and has more than 30 million citations from biomedical journals. Do you need help designing an effective search? Check out PubMed’s guide on using search terms.

Harvard’s Countway Library provides a broad list of databases. For systematic literature reviews, you’ll want to search multiple databases to ensure that you come up with all relevant citations. At Databoom, we’ve used Embase and Web of Science.

Duke University’s Guide on Grey Literature: Do you want to go beyond peer-reviewed data? Make sure you understand grey literature, its use, and where to look for it. This guide contains handy tips and tricks for searching the grey literature as well as useful starting points for your search by type of resource.


How should you keep track of your references and bring them together at the end?

Zotero is the reference manager we use at Databoom. It’s open-source and has online group libraries that make it easy to collaborate with your team and share your findings more broadly. For a detailed overview of how to install, set up and take advantage of Zotero’s features, check out their documentation.


Now that you have all the literature, how do you bring it together and synthesize your findings?

The Compass for SBC has a template for organizing your findings. This resource provides an overview of what types of data to extract from your results and how to categorize findings.

The Cochrane Handbook contains a detailed chapter on how to bring together evidence. If you’re looking for a primer on how to approach synthesizing your evidence, refer to Section 9.2.


What should your write up look like?

If you’re looking to publish, your first stop should be your target journal’s guidelines. For general tips, however, this guide from the Broad Institute at MIT is a helpful resource. At Databoom, we absolutely agree with the advice to avoid jargon whenever possible – the more accessible your writing is, the broader an audience it can find!

Banner image credit: Alamy

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