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- Synthesizing Sources | Examples & Synthesis Matrix
Synthesizing Sources | Examples & Synthesis Matrix
Published on July 4, 2022 by Eoghan Ryan . Revised on May 31, 2023.
Synthesizing sources involves combining the work of other scholars to provide new insights. It’s a way of integrating sources that helps situate your work in relation to existing research.
Synthesizing sources involves more than just summarizing . You must emphasize how each source contributes to current debates, highlighting points of (dis)agreement and putting the sources in conversation with each other.
You might synthesize sources in your literature review to give an overview of the field or throughout your research paper when you want to position your work in relation to existing research.
Table of contents
Example of synthesizing sources, how to synthesize sources, synthesis matrix, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about synthesizing sources.
Let’s take a look at an example where sources are not properly synthesized, and then see what can be done to improve it.
This paragraph provides no context for the information and does not explain the relationships between the sources described. It also doesn’t analyze the sources or consider gaps in existing research.
Research on the barriers to second language acquisition has primarily focused on age-related difficulties. Building on Lenneberg’s (1967) theory of a critical period of language acquisition, Johnson and Newport (1988) tested Lenneberg’s idea in the context of second language acquisition. Their research seemed to confirm that young learners acquire a second language more easily than older learners. Recent research has considered other potential barriers to language acquisition. Schepens, van Hout, and van der Slik (2022) have revealed that the difficulties of learning a second language at an older age are compounded by dissimilarity between a learner’s first language and the language they aim to acquire. Further research needs to be carried out to determine whether the difficulty faced by adult monoglot speakers is also faced by adults who acquired a second language during the “critical period.”
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To synthesize sources, group them around a specific theme or point of contention.
As you read sources, ask:
- What questions or ideas recur? Do the sources focus on the same points, or do they look at the issue from different angles?
- How does each source relate to others? Does it confirm or challenge the findings of past research?
- Where do the sources agree or disagree?
Once you have a clear idea of how each source positions itself, put them in conversation with each other. Analyze and interpret their points of agreement and disagreement. This displays the relationships among sources and creates a sense of coherence.
Consider both implicit and explicit (dis)agreements. Whether one source specifically refutes another or just happens to come to different conclusions without specifically engaging with it, you can mention it in your synthesis either way.
Synthesize your sources using:
- Topic sentences to introduce the relationship between the sources
- Signal phrases to attribute ideas to their authors
- Transition words and phrases to link together different ideas
To more easily determine the similarities and dissimilarities among your sources, you can create a visual representation of their main ideas with a synthesis matrix . This is a tool that you can use when researching and writing your paper, not a part of the final text.
In a synthesis matrix, each column represents one source, and each row represents a common theme or idea among the sources. In the relevant rows, fill in a short summary of how the source treats each theme or topic.
This helps you to clearly see the commonalities or points of divergence among your sources. You can then synthesize these sources in your work by explaining their relationship.
If you want to know more about ChatGPT, AI tools , citation , and plagiarism , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
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- Using ChatGPT for your studies
- What is ChatGPT?
- Chicago style
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- Common knowledge
Synthesizing sources means comparing and contrasting the work of other scholars to provide new insights.
It involves analyzing and interpreting the points of agreement and disagreement among sources.
You might synthesize sources in your literature review to give an overview of the field of research or throughout your paper when you want to contribute something new to existing research.
A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .
It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.
Topic sentences help keep your writing focused and guide the reader through your argument.
In an essay or paper , each paragraph should focus on a single idea. By stating the main idea in the topic sentence, you clarify what the paragraph is about for both yourself and your reader.
At college level, you must properly cite your sources in all essays , research papers , and other academic texts (except exams and in-class exercises).
Add a citation whenever you quote , paraphrase , or summarize information or ideas from a source. You should also give full source details in a bibliography or reference list at the end of your text.
The exact format of your citations depends on which citation style you are instructed to use. The most common styles are APA , MLA , and Chicago .
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How to Synthesize Written Information from Multiple Sources
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When you write a literature review or essay, you have to go beyond just summarizing the articles you’ve read – you need to synthesize the literature to show how it all fits together (and how your own research fits in).
Synthesizing simply means combining. Instead of summarizing the main points of each source in turn, you put together the ideas and findings of multiple sources in order to make an overall point.
At the most basic level, this involves looking for similarities and differences between your sources. Your synthesis should show the reader where the sources overlap and where they diverge.
Franz (2008) studied undergraduate online students. He looked at 17 females and 18 males and found that none of them liked APA. According to Franz, the evidence suggested that all students are reluctant to learn citations style. Perez (2010) also studies undergraduate students. She looked at 42 females and 50 males and found that males were significantly more inclined to use citation software ( p < .05). Findings suggest that females might graduate sooner. Goldstein (2012) looked at British undergraduates. Among a sample of 50, all females, all confident in their abilities to cite and were eager to write their dissertations.
Studies of undergraduate students reveal conflicting conclusions regarding relationships between advanced scholarly study and citation efficacy. Although Franz (2008) found that no participants enjoyed learning citation style, Goldstein (2012) determined in a larger study that all participants watched felt comfortable citing sources, suggesting that variables among participant and control group populations must be examined more closely. Although Perez (2010) expanded on Franz’s original study with a larger, more diverse sample…
Step 1: Organize your sources
After collecting the relevant literature, you’ve got a lot of information to work through, and no clear idea of how it all fits together.
Before you can start writing, you need to organize your notes in a way that allows you to see the relationships between sources.
One way to begin synthesizing the literature is to put your notes into a table. Depending on your topic and the type of literature you’re dealing with, there are a couple of different ways you can organize this.
A summary table collates the key points of each source under consistent headings. This is a good approach if your sources tend to have a similar structure – for instance, if they’re all empirical papers.
Each row in the table lists one source, and each column identifies a specific part of the source. You can decide which headings to include based on what’s most relevant to the literature you’re dealing with.
For example, you might include columns for things like aims, methods, variables, population, sample size, and conclusion.
For each study, you briefly summarize each of these aspects. You can also include columns for your own evaluation and analysis.
The summary table gives you a quick overview of the key points of each source. This allows you to group sources by relevant similarities, as well as noticing important differences or contradictions in their findings.
A synthesis matrix is useful when your sources are more varied in their purpose and structure – for example, when you’re dealing with books and essays making various different arguments about a topic.
Each column in the table lists one source. Each row is labeled with a specific concept, topic or theme that recurs across all or most of the sources.
Then, for each source, you summarize the main points or arguments related to the theme.
The purposes of the table is to identify the common points that connect the sources, as well as identifying points where they diverge or disagree.
Step 2: Outline your structure
Now you should have a clear overview of the main connections and differences between the sources you’ve read. Next, you need to decide how you’ll group them together and the order in which you’ll discuss them.
For shorter papers, your outline can just identify the focus of each paragraph; for longer papers, you might want to divide it into sections with headings.
There are a few different approaches you can take to help you structure your synthesis.
If your sources cover a broad time period, and you found patterns in how researchers approached the topic over time, you can organize your discussion chronologically .
That doesn’t mean you just summarize each paper in chronological order; instead, you should group articles into time periods and identify what they have in common, as well as signalling important turning points or developments in the literature.
If the literature covers various different topics, you can organize it thematically .
That means that each paragraph or section focuses on a specific theme and explains how that theme is approached in the literature.
Source Used with Permission: The Chicago School
If you’re drawing on literature from various different fields or they use a wide variety of research methods, you can organize your sources methodologically .
That means grouping together studies based on the type of research they did and discussing the findings that emerged from each method.
If your topic involves a debate between different schools of thought, you can organize it theoretically .
That means comparing the different theories that have been developed and grouping together papers based on the position or perspective they take on the topic, as well as evaluating which arguments are most convincing.
Step 3: Write paragraphs with topic sentences
What sets a synthesis apart from a summary is that it combines various sources. The easiest way to think about this is that each paragraph should discuss a few different sources, and you should be able to condense the overall point of the paragraph into one sentence.
This is called a topic sentence , and it usually appears at the start of the paragraph. The topic sentence signals what the whole paragraph is about; every sentence in the paragraph should be clearly related to it.
A topic sentence can be a simple summary of the paragraph’s content:
“Early research on [x] focused heavily on [y].”
For an effective synthesis, you can use topic sentences to link back to the previous paragraph, highlighting a point of debate or critique:
“Several scholars have pointed out the flaws in this approach.” “While recent research has attempted to address the problem, many of these studies have methodological flaws that limit their validity.”
By using topic sentences, you can ensure that your paragraphs are coherent and clearly show the connections between the articles you are discussing.
As you write your paragraphs, avoid quoting directly from sources: use your own words to explain the commonalities and differences that you found in the literature.
Don’t try to cover every single point from every single source – the key to synthesizing is to extract the most important and relevant information and combine it to give your reader an overall picture of the state of knowledge on your topic.
Step 4: Revise, edit and proofread
Like any other piece of academic writing, synthesizing literature doesn’t happen all in one go – it involves redrafting, revising, editing and proofreading your work.
Checklist for Synthesis
- Do I introduce the paragraph with a clear, focused topic sentence?
- Do I discuss more than one source in the paragraph?
- Do I mention only the most relevant findings, rather than describing every part of the studies?
- Do I discuss the similarities or differences between the sources, rather than summarizing each source in turn?
- Do I put the findings or arguments of the sources in my own words?
- Is the paragraph organized around a single idea?
- Is the paragraph directly relevant to my research question or topic?
- Is there a logical transition from this paragraph to the next one?
How to Synthesise: a Step-by-Step Approach
Help…I”ve Been Asked to Synthesize!
Learn how to Synthesise (combine information from sources)
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Summarizing and Synthesizing: What’s the Difference?
Summarizing and synthesizing are two important reading comprehension strategies. They’re also skills that students struggle with and often confuse despite the differences. In this article, we review the two skills, discuss the differences between them, and highlight activities that can be used to support students as they develop proficiency with them.
What does summarizing mean? Into the Book , a reading strategies web site for teachers and students, explains that when readers summarize, they “identify key elements and condense important information into their own words during and after reading to solidify meaning.” The site offers a simpler definition for students: “Tell what’s important.”
Why is summarizing difficult for students? For starters, it requires students to apply the skill of determining importance in text and then express the important ideas in their own words. Many times, as students learn to summarize, their first attempts are a collection of details, rather than the main ideas of the passage. Other student-produced summaries are too vague and do not include enough detail. Teachers need to devote time to explicit instruction and modeling on both determining importance and summarizing to help students become proficient with both strategies.
The following resources can be helpful for teaching students to summarize:
Summarizing This article provides an overview of summarizing as a reading comprehension strategy, and how it can be taught and assessed in an elementary classroom.
Into the Book: Summarizing This section of the Into the Book web site provides definitions of summarizing for teachers and students, learning objectives with videos, lessons, and a wealth of additional resources. The student area (which requires a key to access) has interactive activities for each of the featured comprehension strategies.
Guided Comprehension: Summarizing Using the QuIP Strategy This lesson plan, for grades 3-6 from ReadWriteThink, teaches students to summarize information by graphically organizing information in response to questions, then reorganizing their answers into paragraph form.
Lesson 8: Summarizing Information In this lesson, students practice summarizing by extracting the Five Ws (who, what, when, where, why) and the H (how) from feature stories in local newspapers. The lesson could be adapted for use with other texts as well.
Synthesizing takes the process of summarizing one step further. Instead of just restating the important points from text, synthesizing involves combining ideas and allowing an evolving understanding of text. Into the Book defines synthesizing as “[creating] original insights, perspectives, and understandings by reflecting on text(s) and merging elements from text and existing schema.” For students, the site provides the simpler “Put pieces together to see them in a new way.”
As with summarizing, this higher-order thinking skill needs explicit instruction and modeling. In her book Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading , Tanny McGregor provides examples of instructional sequences for synthesizing using common objects (nesting dolls), prompts or sentence starters, and a spiral-shaped graphic organizer inspired by the notes written and passed by her students. These activities provide the scaffolding needed to support students as they become familiar and then proficient with the skill and can be used with all types of text.
The following resources can be helpful for teaching students to synthesize:
Synthesizing This article provides an overview of synthesizing as a reading comprehension strategy and describes approaches for teaching and supporting students as they develop proficiency.
Into the Book: Synthesizing This section of the Into the Book web site provides definitions of synthesizing for teachers and students, learning objectives with videos, lessons, and a wealth of additional resources. The student area (which requires a key to access) has interactive activities for each of the featured comprehension strategies.
Classroom Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading Tanny McGregor’s book includes chapters devoted to six reading comprehension strategies: schema, inferring, questioning, determining importance, visualizing, and synthesizing. Heinemann’s page also includes links to web seminars about various strategies (click on Companion Resources).
This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle , Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.
Copyright June 2010 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license .
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Can you please include an example of synthesizing? Thanks.
This site made my teacher ‘slife for my first graders sooo easy . We had a fun time doing the actiivties together.
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Reading & Writing Purposes
Reading & writing to synthesize, synthesis defined.
The concept of a “coherent whole” is essential to synthesis. When you synthesize in writing, you examine different types of information (ideas, examples, statistics, etc., from different sources) and different themes (perspectives and concepts) from different sources with the purpose of blending them together to help explain one main idea. So you have to look for relationships 1) among the sources’ themes and 2) between these themes and your own ideas in order to blend all of the pieces to make a coherent whole.
The concept of a “coherent whole” is important in terms of language, too. Once you examine content and choose the parts to synthesize, you need to express those parts in your own language in order to create a coherent whole in terms of writing style.
Synthesis is like combining different ingredients to make a stew. If you choose and combine carefully, with the end result (supporting your main idea) in mind, the ingredients will be both separate and well-blended, with all ingredients contributing as they should to the final taste.
View the following video for a basic definition of, and introduction to, the concept of synthesis.
As stated in the video, synthesis means combining similar information to create something new. Reading and writing to synthesize means that you read information from many sources relating to a particular topic, question, insight, or assertion. You extract appropriate pieces of information from each source, information that relates to your insight in some way (supporting it, negating it, offering additional detail). You react to those pieces of information and relate them to your insight, to create something new–your own reasoned argument.
One standard example of reading and writing to synthesize is a research paper–a basic assignment in many college courses. Skills that you develop in researching and synthesizing information also transfer to writing a business report or proposal. When you research a topic, you find information from many different sources which informs your personal thoughts and assertion about that topic. However, reading and writing to synthesize involves more than just finding information and inserting it into an essay, report, or proposal. You use the information you find to help create and support your own, unique thoughts.
Example of Synthesis in an Academic Setting
A research paper is the classic example of synthesis in an academic setting. You may be assigned to write a research paper in a sociology course, for example. You may have read a number of selections dealing with different cultures, and the assignment asks you to synthesize information from these articles along with information from at least four other sources, to support your unique thesis. You start with a main idea in order to start the synthesis. You might create the following main idea: People within a culture have to both assimilate and adapt to their cultural and physical environments in order to thrive . You then might combine appropriate parts from different reading selections:
- definition and examples of assimilation from a chapter in a sociology textbook
- examples from researched articles on assimilation, cultural adaptation
- examples from interviews with people who have assimilated
Your research paper would blend themes from all of these sources to support your original insight and assertion (thesis) about assimilation and adaptation.
Example of Synthesis in a Business Setting
After receiving more than ten different requests for flex time over the last year, you’ve decided that it makes sense to institute flexible hours for the fifty workers you supervise in your department. You research a number of other businesses and examples of companies moving to flex time, quote or summarize those, and put them all into a document, which you send to your boss. Your request is denied, because while your boss understood that flex time worked in other companies, she could not relate your research to the actual situation in your department. If you had offered your own analysis of how different companies’ strategies would benefit your own department, the outcome might have been different and your proposal approved. It’s worth saying again: it’s important to blend the information you find with your own purpose, whether that is a proposal at work or an essay designed to offer your own, unique thoughts, supported by research.
Reading to Synthesize
Synthesis builds upon analysis. You need to be able to read and analyze the quality of a text in order to decide whether you want to bring that text into the conversation. However, reading to synthesize moves in almost an opposite direction from analysis. As you analyze, you break the text down into its parts in order to evaluate the text. Analysis is like taking a puzzle apart and examining each piece, or analyzing a cake to find out what the ingredients are and how they work together.
On the other hand, as you read with the purpose of synthesizing, you search for thoughts about the same focused topic, thoughts which can be similar or different, in order to get a picture of the whole ongoing conversation about that topic. Then you decide if you agree or disagree with those thoughts–you join the conversation or discourse. Synthesis is like examining puzzle pieces with the purpose of putting the whole picture together, or baking a cake with ingredients that complement each other.
The process of reading to synthesize, in itself, blends or synthesizes many reading skills, which may include the following:
- skimming texts
- preview questions and answers
- reading for main idea (which may involve annotating, note taking, and more)
- analyzing the quality of the texts
- applying chosen texts to your insight
- reacting to the ideas in the texts
The main thing to remember as you read with the purpose of synthesizing is that your task is to find relationships among ideas. Reading to synthesize does not merely consist of finding appropriate quotations and plugging them into an essay; instead, ideas from multiple texts need to be considered thoughtfully and linked with your own insights, reactions, and commentary.
Use an Idea Matrix to Synthesize Ideas
A idea matrix supports reading to synthesize, especially if you are reading multiple texts about a topic. An idea matrix is a table that helps you identify and organize ideas from those texts according to their themes. It allows you to compare and contrast different insights about those themes. An idea matrix is a useful graphic, since one source may include ideas about many different themes.
Here’s one example of an idea matrix which synthesizes information from multiple sources around a specific focus.
Focus of Reading: Lessons Learned from the 1918 flu pandemic
To create an idea matrix, identify a topic around which your texts converge and state it clearly above the matrix. When you identify this focus, make sure it’s not too broad (e.g., pandemics – you’d have thousands of texts to read) or too narrow (e.g., number of U.S. deaths from the 1918 flu – you’d just need to consult one valid text for that information). The focus should be something that is part of a conversation happening among a manageable number of texts (e.g., lessons learned from the 1918 flu ).
The text column lists each source’s exact name. It should also include the author, publication information for an eventual bibliography, url, and any other important identifying information.
The themes emerge from the sources you’ve read. You may choose to note them as paraphrases, summaries, and/or quotations.
Link to additional examples of idea matrices about different themes:
- Anxiety in Graduate Students from Ashford University’s Writing Center
- Thesis that makes an assertion about Democratic and Coaching Styles of Leadership
An idea matrix for reading can help you synthesize information from many texts, identify idea relationships within that information, and eventually help you formulate your own thoughts to add to the conversation.
Writing to Synthesize
Writing to synthesize involves taking those related ideas that you’ve extracted from multiple texts and incorporating them into a research paper, report, or proposal that’s structured around your own main insight, assertion, or thesis.
Don’t Do This:
In writing a document that synthesizes ideas from multiple texts, it’s the impulse of many students to summarize or paraphrase a paragraph or a whole article, insert the summary, and then move on to the next text and summary. That’s not good practice, since it doesn’t link ideas in terms of their themes, and doesn’t focus on how those themes relate to your own ideas.
Instead , Do This:
Work from the idea matrix you built as you read different texts. For a college research paper, turn your topic or focus statement at the top of the matrix into a thesis sentence , a sentence that makes an assertion or provides an insight offering your own informed views on the topic. Offering your own perspective is key. You’ll then structure the body of your essay using the groups of supporting ideas/themes you noted in the idea matrix, in whatever order you choose. Each group gets its own topic sentence and unit of support. And each group of supporting ideas includes your own thoughts, applications, and reactions to the texts included in that group. One general rule is that you always structure “writing to synthesize” around your own ideas, and that you always offer your own ideas about information from each text used – that’s your contribution to the conversation.
The following video offers a clear discussion and examples to reinforce the concept of writing to synthesize.
This video about writing to synthesize researched sources incorporates information about using an idea matrix:
They Say/I Say Approach to Synthesis
Another way to think of synthesis is as though you’re joining a conversation; you’re listening to (reading) different texts, and bringing your own insight and experience to that conversation. One good way of understanding synthesis in terms of reading and writing is to consider the “They Say/I Say” format created by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, which helps you synthesize your own ideas with the text’s. The following video, although somewhat lengthy, provides a summary of Graff’s and Birkenstein’s text.
The video below explains how to write a synthesis applying the They Say/I Say framework. There’s a useful extended example showing how a writer incorporated appropriate pieces of different texts into an essay. (Note – don’t get too caught up in the MLA/APA format details at this point – focus on the concept of synthesis and how to synthesize texts in an essay.)
Summary: Reading & Writing to Synthesize
- Synthesis means that you’re coordinating different pieces (themes, ideas, types of information) to create a coherent and new whole.
- All of the pieces you synthesize in a piece of writing for college need to focus around your own insight/assertion/ thesis.
- Often, a research essay assignment will expect that you synthesize information to address and offer your unique insight about a debatable issue.
- Synthesis itself involves blending many reading and thinking skills, such as skimming, annotating, summarizing, and analyzing, among others.
- There are different approaches to synthesis that may help you read and write about multiple texts. They Say/I Say helps you blend your own ideas with ideas in other texts. An Idea Matrix helps you organize ideas from multiple texts around the focus of your own main idea.
- Reading & Writing to Synthesize. Authored by : Susan Oaks. Project : Introduction to College Reading & Writing. License : CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial
- video Synthesizing Information. Provided by : GCFLearnFree.org. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dEGoJdb6O0 . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
- video They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Authored by : jilljitsu81. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2s8SWS-SZDw . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
- image of man's face on a puzzle, with one piece askew. Authored by : Richard Reid. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : https://pixabay.com/photos/puzzle-jigsaw-jigsaw-puzzle-1487340/ . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
- video Strategies for Synthesis. Authored by : Mary Lourdes Silva. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7HtCHtQ9w0 . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
- video Synthesis: Definition and Examples. Provided by : WUWritingCenter. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLhkalJe7Zc . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
- video Research Synthesis. Provided by : USU Libraries - Utah State University. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObK6J7vGnw8 . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
- image of woman with laptop and pie chart showing relationship of parts to whole. Authored by : Tumisu. Provided by : p. Located at : https://pixabay.com/photos/analytics-charts-business-woman-3265840/ . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
A Guide to Evidence Synthesis: What is Evidence Synthesis?
- Meet Our Team
- Our Published Reviews and Protocols
- What is Evidence Synthesis?
- Types of Evidence Synthesis
- Evidence Synthesis Across Disciplines
- Finding and Appraising Existing Systematic Reviews
- 0. Develop a Protocol
- 1. Draft your Research Question
- 2. Select Databases
- 3. Select Grey Literature Sources
- 4. Write a Search Strategy
- 5. Register a Protocol
- 6. Translate Search Strategies
- 7. Citation Management
- 8. Article Screening
- 9. Risk of Bias Assessment
- 10. Data Extraction
- 11. Synthesize, Map, or Describe the Results
- Evidence Synthesis Institute for Librarians
- Open Access Evidence Synthesis Resources
What are Evidence Syntheses?
What are evidence syntheses.
According to the Royal Society, 'evidence synthesis' refers to the process of bringing together information from a range of sources and disciplines to inform debates and decisions on specific issues. They generally include a methodical and comprehensive literature synthesis focused on a well-formulated research question. Their aim is to identify and synthesize all of the scholarly research on a particular topic, including both published and unpublished studies. Evidence syntheses are conducted in an unbiased, reproducible way to provide evidence for practice and policy-making, as well as to identify gaps in the research. Evidence syntheses may also include a meta-analysis, a more quantitative process of synthesizing and visualizing data retrieved from various studies.
Evidence syntheses are much more time-intensive than traditional literature reviews and require a multi-person research team. See this PredicTER tool to get a sense of a systematic review timeline (one type of evidence synthesis). Before embarking on an evidence synthesis, it's important to clearly identify your reasons for conducting one. For a list of types of evidence synthesis projects, see the next tab.
How Does a Traditional Literature Review Differ From an Evidence Synthesis?
How does a systematic review differ from a traditional literature review.
One commonly used form of evidence synthesis is a systematic review. This table compares a traditional literature review with a systematic review.
Video: Reproducibility and transparent methods (Video 3:25)
There are some reporting standards for evidence syntheses. These can serve as guidelines for protocol and manuscript preparation and journals may require that these standards are followed for the review type that is being employed (e.g. systematic review, scoping review, etc).
- PRISMA checklist Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) is an evidence-based minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
- PRISMA-P Standards An updated version of the original PRISMA standards for protocol development.
- PRISMA - ScR Reporting guidelines for scoping reviews and evidence maps
- PRISMA-IPD Standards Extension of the original PRISMA standards for systematic reviews and meta-analyses of individual participant data.
- EQUATOR Network The EQUATOR (Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of health Research) Network is an international initiative that seeks to improve the reliability and value of published health research literature by promoting transparent and accurate reporting and wider use of robust reporting guidelines. They provide a list of various standards for reporting in systematic reviews.
Video: Guidelines and reporting standards
PRISMA Flow Diagram
The PRISMA flow diagram depicts the flow of information through the different phases of an evidence synthesis. It maps the search (number of records identified), screening (number of records included and excluded), and selection (reasons for exclusion). Many evidence syntheses include a PRISMA flow diagram in the published manuscript.
See below for resources to help you generate your own PRISMA flow diagram.
- PRISMA Flow Diagram Tool
- PRISMA Flow Diagram Word Template
- << Previous: Our Published Reviews and Protocols
- Next: Types of Evidence Synthesis >>
- Last Updated: Nov 2, 2023 11:42 AM
- URL: https://guides.library.cornell.edu/evidence-synthesis
Literature Review How To
- Things To Consider
- Synthesizing Sources
- Video Tutorials
- Books On Literature Reviews
What is Synthesis
What is Synthesis? Synthesis writing is a form of analysis related to comparison and contrast, classification and division. On a basic level, synthesis requires the writer to pull together two or more summaries, looking for themes in each text. In synthesis, you search for the links between various materials in order to make your point. Most advanced academic writing, including literature reviews, relies heavily on synthesis. (Temple University Writing Center)
How To Synthesize Sources in a Literature Review
Literature reviews synthesize large amounts of information and present it in a coherent, organized fashion. In a literature review you will be combining material from several texts to create a new text – your literature review.
You will use common points among the sources you have gathered to help you synthesize the material. This will help ensure that your literature review is organized by subtopic, not by source. This means various authors' names can appear and reappear throughout the literature review, and each paragraph will mention several different authors.
When you shift from writing summaries of the content of a source to synthesizing content from sources, there is a number things you must keep in mind:
- Look for specific connections and or links between your sources and how those relate to your thesis or question.
- When writing and organizing your literature review be aware that your readers need to understand how and why the information from the different sources overlap.
- Organize your literature review by the themes you find within your sources or themes you have identified.
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How to Write a Literature Review
- 6. Synthesize
- Literature Reviews: A Recap
- Reading Journal Articles
- Does it Describe a Literature Review?
- 1. Identify the Question
- 2. Review Discipline Styles
- Searching Article Databases
- Finding Full-Text of an Article
- Citation Chaining
- When to Stop Searching
- 4. Manage Your References
- 5. Critically Analyze and Evaluate
Synthesis matrix example.
- 7. Write a Literature Review
- Synthesis Worksheet
Approaches to synthesis.
You can sort the literature in various ways, for example:
How to Begin?
Read your sources carefully and find the main idea(s) of each source
Look for similarities in your sources – which sources are talking about the same main ideas? (for example, sources that discuss the historical background on your topic)
Use the worksheet (above) or synthesis matrix (below) to get organized
This work can be messy. Don't worry if you have to go through a few iterations of the worksheet or matrix as you work on your lit review!
Four Examples of Student Writing
In the four examples below, only ONE shows a good example of synthesis: the fourth column, or Student D . For a web accessible version, click the link below the image.
Long description of "Four Examples of Student Writing" for web accessibility
- Download a copy of the "Four Examples of Student Writing" chart
Click on the example to view the pdf.
From Jennifer Lim
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What is synthesis?
Synthesizing information is the opposite of analyzing information. When you read an article or book, you have to pull out specific concepts from the larger document in order to understand it. This is analyzing.
When you synthesize information, you take specific concepts and consider them together to understand how they compare/contrast and how they relate to one another. Synthesis involves combining multiple elements to create a whole.
In regard to course assignments, the elements refer to the outside sources you've gathered to support the ideas you want to present. The whole then becomes your conclusion(s) about those sources.
How do I synthesize information?
Note: These steps offer a guideline, but do what works for you best.
- This is where you really decide if you want to read specific materials
- If you have gathered a substantial amount of literature and reading all of it would prove overwhelming, read the abstracts to get a better idea of the content, then select the materials that would best support your assignment
- Describe and analyze the findings and/or the author's main ideas
- What's the author's message?
- What evidence do they use to support their message?
- What does the author want a reader to understand?
- What is the larger impact of the author's message?
- Compare and contrast the main ideas and other pertinent information you found in each source
- Evaluate the quality and significance of these main ideas
- Interpret the main ideas in the context of your research question or assignment topic
- This is the step where your synthesis of the information will lead to logical conclusions about that information
- These conclusions should speak directly to your research question (i.e. your question should have an answer)
Visit the link below for helpful resources on note-taking:
- Other Helpful Tips: Note-Taking & Proofreading
This video from GCFLearnFree.org explains synthesis from the perspective of how we synthesize information in our daily lives.
This video from USU Libraries explains synthesis from the perspective of synthesizing information in a research project.
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What Synthesis Methodology Should I Use? A Review and Analysis of Approaches to Research Synthesis
1 Faculty of Nursing, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada
2 School of Nursing, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada
3 College of Nursing, Camosun College, Victoria, BC, Canada
4 Student Services, University Health Services, Victoria, BC, Canada
Associated data, additional file 1.
When we began this process, we were doctoral students and a faculty member in a research methods course. As students, we were facing a review of the literature for our dissertations. We encountered several different ways of conducting a review but were unable to locate any resources that synthesized all of the various synthesis methodologies. Our purpose is to present a comprehensive overview and assessment of the main approaches to research synthesis. We use ‘research synthesis’ as a broad overarching term to describe various approaches to combining, integrating, and synthesizing research findings.
We conducted an integrative review of the literature to explore the historical, contextual, and evolving nature of research synthesis. We searched five databases, reviewed websites of key organizations, hand-searched several journals, and examined relevant texts from the reference lists of the documents we had already obtained.
We identified four broad categories of research synthesis methodology including conventional, quantitative, qualitative, and emerging syntheses. Each of the broad categories was compared to the others on the following: key characteristics, purpose, method, product, context, underlying assumptions, unit of analysis, strengths and limitations, and when to use each approach.
The current state of research synthesis reflects significant advancements in emerging synthesis studies that integrate diverse data types and sources. New approaches to research synthesis provide a much broader range of review alternatives available to health and social science students and researchers.
Since the turn of the century, public health emergencies have been identified worldwide, particularly related to infectious diseases. For example, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in Canada in 2002-2003, the recent Ebola epidemic in Africa, and the ongoing HIV/AIDs pandemic are global health concerns. There have also been dramatic increases in the prevalence of chronic diseases around the world  –  . These epidemiological challenges have raised concerns about the ability of health systems worldwide to address these crises. As a result, public health systems reform has been initiated in a number of countries. In Canada, as in other countries, the role of evidence to support public health reform and improve population health has been given high priority. Yet, there continues to be a significant gap between the production of evidence through research and its application in practice  –  . One strategy to address this gap has been the development of new research synthesis methodologies to deal with the time-sensitive and wide ranging evidence needs of policy makers and practitioners in all areas of health care, including public health.
As doctoral nursing students facing a review of the literature for our dissertations, and as a faculty member teaching a research methods course, we encountered several ways of conducting a research synthesis but found no comprehensive resources that discussed, compared, and contrasted various synthesis methodologies on their purposes, processes, strengths and limitations. To complicate matters, writers use terms interchangeably or use different terms to mean the same thing, and the literature is often contradictory about various approaches. Some texts  ,  –  did provide a preliminary understanding about how research synthesis had been taken up in nursing, but these did not meet our requirements. Thus, in this article we address the need for a comprehensive overview of research synthesis methodologies to guide public health, health care, and social science researchers and practitioners.
Research synthesis is relatively new in public health but has a long history in other fields dating back to the late 1800s. Research synthesis, a research process in its own right  , has become more prominent in the wake of the evidence-based movement of the 1990s. Research syntheses have found their advocates and detractors in all disciplines, with challenges to the processes of systematic review and meta-analysis, in particular, being raised by critics of evidence-based healthcare  –  .
Our purpose was to conduct an integrative review of the literature to explore the historical, contextual, and evolving nature of research synthesis  –  . We synthesize and critique the main approaches to research synthesis that are relevant for public health, health care, and social scientists. Research synthesis is the overarching term we use to describe approaches to combining, aggregating, integrating, and synthesizing primary research findings. Each synthesis methodology draws on different types of findings depending on the purpose and product of the chosen synthesis (see Additional File 1 ).
3. Method of Review
Based on our current knowledge of the literature, we identified these approaches to include in our review: systematic review, meta-analysis, qualitative meta-synthesis, meta-narrative synthesis, scoping review, rapid review, realist synthesis, concept analysis, literature review, and integrative review. Our first step was to divide the synthesis types among the research team. Each member did a preliminary search to identify key texts. The team then met to develop search terms and a framework to guide the review.
Over the period of 2008 to 2012 we extensively searched the literature, updating our search at several time points, not restricting our search by date. The dates of texts reviewed range from 1967 to 2015. We used the terms above combined with the term “method* (e.g., “realist synthesis” and “method*) in the database Health Source: Academic Edition (includes Medline and CINAHL). This search yielded very few texts on some methodologies and many on others. We realized that many documents on research synthesis had not been picked up in the search. Therefore, we also searched Google Scholar, PubMed, ERIC, and Social Science Index, as well as the websites of key organizations such as the Joanna Briggs Institute, the University of York Centre for Evidence-Based Nursing, and the Cochrane Collaboration database. We hand searched several nursing, social science, public health and health policy journals. Finally, we traced relevant documents from the references in obtained texts.
We included works that met the following inclusion criteria: (1) published in English; (2) discussed the history of research synthesis; (3) explicitly described the approach and specific methods; or (4) identified issues, challenges, strengths and limitations of the particular methodology. We excluded research reports that resulted from the use of particular synthesis methodologies unless they also included criteria 2, 3, or 4 above.
Based on our search, we identified additional types of research synthesis (e.g., meta-interpretation, best evidence synthesis, critical interpretive synthesis, meta-summary, grounded formal theory). Still, we missed some important developments in meta-analysis, for example, identified by the journal's reviewers that have now been discussed briefly in the paper. The final set of 197 texts included in our review comprised theoretical, empirical, and conceptual papers, books, editorials and commentaries, and policy documents.
In our preliminary review of key texts, the team inductively developed a framework of the important elements of each method for comparison. In the next phase, each text was read carefully, and data for these elements were extracted into a table for comparison on the points of: key characteristics, purpose, methods, and product; see Additional File 1 ). Once the data were grouped and extracted, we synthesized across categories based on the following additional points of comparison: complexity of the process, degree of systematization, consideration of context, underlying assumptions, unit of analysis, and when to use each approach. In our results, we discuss our comparison of the various synthesis approaches on the elements above. Drawing only on documents for the review, ethics approval was not required.
We identified four broad categories of research synthesis methodology: Conventional, quantitative, qualitative, and emerging syntheses. From our dataset of 197 texts, we had 14 texts on conventional synthesis, 64 on quantitative synthesis, 78 on qualitative synthesis, and 41 on emerging syntheses. Table 1 provides an overview of the four types of research synthesis, definitions, types of data used, products, and examples of the methodology.
Although we group these types of synthesis into four broad categories on the basis of similarities, each type within a category has unique characteristics, which may differ from the overall group similarities. Each could be explored in greater depth to tease out their unique characteristics, but detailed comparison is beyond the scope of this article.
Additional File 1 presents one or more selected types of synthesis that represent the broad category but is not an exhaustive presentation of all types within each category. It provides more depth for specific examples from each category of synthesis on the characteristics, purpose, methods, and products than is found in Table 1 .
4.1. Key Characteristics
4.1.1. what is it.
Here we draw on two types of categorization. First, we utilize Dixon Woods et al.'s  classification of research syntheses as being either integrative or interpretive . (Please note that integrative syntheses are not the same as an integrative review as defined in Additional File 1 .) Second, we use Popay's  enhancement and epistemological models .
The defining characteristics of integrative syntheses are that they involve summarizing the data achieved by pooling data  . Integrative syntheses include systematic reviews, meta-analyses, as well as scoping and rapid reviews because each of these focus on summarizing data. They also define concepts from the outset (although this may not always be true in scoping or rapid reviews) and deal with a well-specified phenomenon of interest.
Interpretive syntheses are primarily concerned with the development of concepts and theories that integrate concepts  . The analysis in interpretive synthesis is conceptual both in process and outcome, and “the product is not aggregations of data, but theory”  , [p.12]. Interpretive syntheses involve induction and interpretation, and are primarily conceptual in process and outcome. Examples include integrative reviews, some systematic reviews, all of the qualitative syntheses, meta-narrative, realist and critical interpretive syntheses. Of note, both quantitative and qualitative studies can be either integrative or interpretive
The second categorization, enhancement versus epistemological , applies to those approaches that use multiple data types and sources  . Popay's  classification reflects the ways that qualitative data are valued in relation to quantitative data.
In the enhancement model , qualitative data adds something to quantitative analysis. The enhancement model is reflected in systematic reviews and meta-analyses that use some qualitative data to enhance interpretation and explanation. It may also be reflected in some rapid reviews that draw on quantitative data but use some qualitative data.
The epistemological model assumes that quantitative and qualitative data are equal and each has something unique to contribute. All of the other review approaches, except pure quantitative or qualitative syntheses, reflect the epistemological model because they value all data types equally but see them as contributing different understandings.
4.1.2. Data type
By and large, the quantitative approaches (quantitative systematic review and meta-analysis) have typically used purely quantitative data (i.e., expressed in numeric form). More recently, both Cochrane  and Campbell  collaborations are grappling with the need to, and the process of, integrating qualitative research into a systematic review. The qualitative approaches use qualitative data (i.e., expressed in words). All of the emerging synthesis types, as well as the conventional integrative review, incorporate qualitative and quantitative study designs and data.
4.1.3. Research question
Four types of research questions direct inquiry across the different types of syntheses. The first is a well-developed research question that gives direction to the synthesis (e.g., meta-analysis, systematic review, meta-study, concept analysis, rapid review, realist synthesis). The second begins as a broad general question that evolves and becomes more refined over the course of the synthesis (e.g., meta-ethnography, scoping review, meta-narrative, critical interpretive synthesis). In the third type, the synthesis begins with a phenomenon of interest and the question emerges in the analytic process (e.g., grounded formal theory). Lastly, there is no clear question, but rather a general review purpose (e.g., integrative review). Thus, the requirement for a well-defined question cuts across at least three of the synthesis types (e.g., quantitative, qualitative, and emerging).
4.1.4. Quality appraisal
This is a contested issue within and between the four synthesis categories. There are strong proponents of quality appraisal in the quantitative traditions of systematic review and meta-analysis based on the need for strong studies that will not jeopardize validity of the overall findings. Nonetheless, there is no consensus on pre-defined criteria; many scales exist that vary dramatically in composition. This has methodological implications for the credibility of findings  .
Specific methodologies from the conventional, qualitative, and emerging categories support quality appraisal but do so with caveats. In conventional integrative reviews appraisal is recommended, but depends on the sampling frame used in the study  . In meta-study, appraisal criteria are explicit but quality criteria are used in different ways depending on the specific requirements of the inquiry  . Among the emerging syntheses, meta-narrative review developers support appraisal of a study based on criteria from the research tradition of the primary study  ,  –  . Realist synthesis similarly supports the use of high quality evidence, but appraisal checklists are viewed with scepticism and evidence is judged based on relevance to the research question and whether a credible inference may be drawn  . Like realist, critical interpretive syntheses do not judge quality using standardized appraisal instruments. They will exclude fatally flawed studies, but there is no consensus on what ‘fatally flawed’ means  ,  . Appraisal is based on relevance to the inquiry, not rigor of the study.
There is no agreement on quality appraisal among qualitative meta-ethnographers with some supporting and others refuting the need for appraisal.  ,  . Opponents of quality appraisal are found among authors of qualitative (grounded formal theory and concept analysis) and emerging syntheses (scoping and rapid reviews) because quality is not deemed relevant to the intention of the synthesis; the studies being reviewed are not effectiveness studies where quality is extremely important. These qualitative synthesis are often reviews of theoretical developments where the concept itself is what is important, or reviews that provide quotations from the raw data so readers can make their own judgements about the relevance and utility of the data. For example, in formal grounded theory, the purpose of theory generation and authenticity of data used to generate the theory is not as important as the conceptual category. Inaccuracies may be corrected in other ways, such as using the constant comparative method, which facilitates development of theoretical concepts that are repeatedly found in the data  –  . For pragmatic reasons, evidence is not assessed in rapid and scoping reviews, in part to produce a timely product. The issue of quality appraisal is unresolved across the terrain of research synthesis and we consider this further in our discussion.
All research syntheses share a common purpose -- to summarize, synthesize, or integrate research findings from diverse studies. This helps readers stay abreast of the burgeoning literature in a field. Our discussion here is at the level of the four categories of synthesis. Beginning with conventional literature syntheses, the overall purpose is to attend to mature topics for the purpose of re-conceptualization or to new topics requiring preliminary conceptualization  . Such syntheses may be helpful to consider contradictory evidence, map shifting trends in the study of a phenomenon, and describe the emergence of research in diverse fields  . The purpose here is to set the stage for a study by identifying what has been done, gaps in the literature, important research questions, or to develop a conceptual framework to guide data collection and analysis.
The purpose of quantitative systematic reviews is to combine, aggregate, or integrate empirical research to be able to generalize from a group of studies and determine the limits of generalization  . The focus of quantitative systematic reviews has been primarily on aggregating the results of studies evaluating the effectiveness of interventions using experimental, quasi-experimental, and more recently, observational designs. Systematic reviews can be done with or without quantitative meta-analysis but a meta-analysis always takes place within the context of a systematic review. Researchers must consider the review's purpose and the nature of their data in undertaking a quantitative synthesis; this will assist in determining the approach.
The purpose of qualitative syntheses is broadly to synthesize complex health experiences, practices, or concepts arising in healthcare environments. There may be various purposes depending on the qualitative methodology. For example, in hermeneutic studies the aim may be holistic explanation or understanding of a phenomenon  , which is deepened by integrating the findings from multiple studies. In grounded formal theory, the aim is to produce a conceptual framework or theory expected to be applicable beyond the original study. Although not able to generalize from qualitative research in the statistical sense  , qualitative researchers usually do want to say something about the applicability of their synthesis to other settings or phenomena. This notion of ‘theoretical generalization’ has been referred to as ‘transferability’  –  and is an important criterion of rigour in qualitative research. It applies equally to the products of a qualitative synthesis in which the synthesis of multiple studies on the same phenomenon strengthens the ability to draw transferable conclusions.
The overarching purpose of emerging syntheses is challenging the more traditional types of syntheses, in part by using data from both quantitative and qualitative studies with diverse designs for analysis. Beyond this, however, each emerging synthesis methodology has a unique purpose. In meta-narrative review, the purpose is to identify different research traditions in the area, synthesize a complex and diverse body of research. Critical interpretive synthesis shares this characteristic. Although a distinctive approach, critical interpretive synthesis utilizes a modification of the analytic strategies of meta-ethnography  (e.g., reciprocal translational analysis, refutational synthesis, and lines of argument synthesis) but goes beyond the use of these to bring a critical perspective to bear in challenging the normative or epistemological assumptions in the primary literature  –  . The unique purpose of a realist synthesis is to amalgamate complex empirical evidence and theoretical understandings within a diverse body of literature to uncover the operative mechanisms and contexts that affect the outcomes of social interventions. In a scoping review, the intention is to find key concepts, examine the range of research in an area, and identify gaps in the literature. The purpose of a rapid review is comparable to that of a scoping review, but done quickly to meet the time-sensitive information needs of policy makers.
4.3.1. degree of systematization.
There are varying degrees of systematization across the categories of research synthesis. The most systematized are quantitative systematic reviews and meta-analyses. There are clear processes in each with judgments to be made at each step, although there are no agreed upon guidelines for this. The process is inherently subjective despite attempts to develop objective and systematic processes  –  . Mullen and Ramirez  suggest that there is often a false sense of rigour implied by the terms ‘systematic review’ and ‘meta-analysis’ because of their clearly defined procedures.
In comparison with some types of qualitative synthesis, concept analysis is quite procedural. Qualitative meta-synthesis also has defined procedures and is systematic, yet perhaps less so than concept analysis. Qualitative meta-synthesis starts in an unsystematic way but becomes more systematic as it unfolds. Procedures and frameworks exist for some of the emerging types of synthesis [e.g.,  ,  ,  ,  ] but are not linear, have considerable flexibility, and are often messy with emergent processes  . Conventional literature reviews tend not to be as systematic as the other three types. In fact, the lack of systematization in conventional literature synthesis was the reason for the development of more systematic quantitative  ,  and qualitative  –  ,  approaches. Some authors in the field  have clarified processes for integrative reviews making them more systematic and rigorous, but most conventional syntheses remain relatively unsystematic in comparison with other types.
4.3.2. Complexity of the process
Some synthesis processes are considerably more complex than others. Methodologies with clearly defined steps are arguably less complex than the more flexible and emergent ones. We know that any study encounters challenges and it is rare that a pre-determined research protocol can be followed exactly as intended. Not even the rigorous methods associated with Cochrane  systematic reviews and meta-analyses are always implemented exactly as intended. Even when dealing with numbers rather than words, interpretation is always part of the process. Our collective experience suggests that new methodologies (e.g., meta-narrative synthesis and realist synthesis) that integrate different data types and methods are more complex than conventional reviews or the rapid and scoping reviews.
The products of research syntheses usually take three distinct formats (see Table 1 and Additional File 1 for further details). The first representation is in tables, charts, graphical displays, diagrams and maps as seen in integrative, scoping and rapid reviews, meta-analyses, and critical interpretive syntheses. The second type of synthesis product is the use of mathematical scores. Summary statements of effectiveness are mathematically displayed in meta-analyses (as an effect size), systematic reviews, and rapid reviews (statistical significance).
The third synthesis product may be a theory or theoretical framework. A mid-range theory can be produced from formal grounded theory, meta-study, meta-ethnography, and realist synthesis. Theoretical/conceptual frameworks or conceptual maps may be created in meta-narrative and critical interpretive syntheses, and integrative reviews. Concepts for use within theories are produced in concept analysis. While these three product types span the categories of research synthesis, narrative description and summary is used to present the products resulting from all methodologies.
4.5. Consideration of context
There are diverse ways that context is considered in the four broad categories of synthesis. Context may be considered to the extent that it features within primary studies for the purpose of the review. Context may also be understood as an integral aspect of both the phenomenon under study and the synthesis methodology (e.g., realist synthesis). Quantitative systematic reviews and meta-analyses have typically been conducted on studies using experimental and quasi-experimental designs and more recently observational studies, which control for contextual features to allow for understanding of the ‘true’ effect of the intervention  .
More recently, systematic reviews have included covariates or mediating variables (i.e., contextual factors) to help explain variability in the results across studies  . Context, however, is usually handled in the narrative discussion of findings rather than in the synthesis itself. This lack of attention to context has been one criticism leveled against systematic reviews and meta-analyses, which restrict the types of research designs that are considered [e.g.,  ].
When conventional literature reviews incorporate studies that deal with context, there is a place for considering contextual influences on the intervention or phenomenon. Reviews of quantitative experimental studies tend to be devoid of contextual considerations since the original studies are similarly devoid, but context might figure prominently in a literature review that incorporates both quantitative and qualitative studies.
Qualitative syntheses have been conducted on the contextual features of a particular phenomenon  . Paterson et al.  advise researchers to attend to how context may have influenced the findings of particular primary studies. In qualitative analysis, contextual features may form categories by which the data can be compared and contrasted to facilitate interpretation. Because qualitative research is often conducted to understand a phenomenon as a whole, context may be a focus, although this varies with the qualitative methodology. At the same time, the findings in a qualitative synthesis are abstracted from the original reports and taken to a higher level of conceptualization, thus removing them from the original context.
Meta-narrative synthesis  ,  , because it draws on diverse research traditions and methodologies, may incorporate context into the analysis and findings. There is not, however, an explicit step in the process that directs the analyst to consider context. Generally, the research question guiding the synthesis is an important factor in whether context will be a focus.
More recent iterations of concept analysis  ,  –  explicitly consider context reflecting the assumption that a concept's meaning is determined by its context. Morse  points out, however, that Wilson's  approach to concept analysis, and those based on Wilson [e.g.,  ], identify attributes that are devoid of context, while Rodgers'  ,  evolutionary method considers context (e.g., antecedents, consequences, and relationships to other concepts) in concept development.
Realist synthesis  considers context as integral to the study. It draws on a critical realist logic of inquiry grounded in the work of Bhaskar  , who argues that empirical co-occurrence of events is insufficient for inferring causation. One must identify generative mechanisms whose properties are causal and, depending on the situation, may nor may not be activated  . Context interacts with program/intervention elements and thus cannot be differentiated from the phenomenon  . This approach synthesizes evidence on generative mechanisms and analyzes contextual features that activate them; the result feeds back into the context. The focus is on what works, for whom, under what conditions, why and how  .
4.6. Underlying Philosophical and Theoretical Assumptions
When we began our review, we ‘assumed’ that the assumptions underlying synthesis methodologies would be a distinguishing characteristic of synthesis types, and that we could compare the various types on their assumptions, explicit or implicit. We found, however, that many authors did not explicate the underlying assumptions of their methodologies, and it was difficult to infer them. Kirkevold  has argued that integrative reviews need to be carried out from an explicit philosophical or theoretical perspective. We argue this should be true for all types of synthesis.
Authors of some emerging synthesis approaches have been very explicit about their assumptions and philosophical underpinnings. An implicit assumption of most emerging synthesis methodologies is that quantitative systematic reviews and meta-analyses have limited utility in some fields [e.g., in public health –  ,  ] and for some kinds of review questions like those about feasibility and appropriateness versus effectiveness  –  . They also assume that ontologically and epistemologically, both kinds of data can be combined. This is a significant debate in the literature because it is about the commensurability of overarching paradigms  but this is beyond the scope of this review.
Realist synthesis is philosophically grounded in critical realism or, as noted above, a realist logic of inquiry  ,  ,  –  . Key assumptions regarding the nature of interventions that inform critical realism have been described above in the section on context. See Pawson et al.  for more information on critical realism, the philosophical basis of realist synthesis.
Meta-narrative synthesis is explicitly rooted in a constructivist philosophy of science  in which knowledge is socially constructed rather than discovered, and what we take to be ‘truth’ is a matter of perspective. Reality has a pluralistic and plastic character, and there is no pre-existing ‘real world’ independent of human construction and language  . See Greenhalgh et al.  ,  and Greenhalgh & Wong  for more discussion of the constructivist basis of meta-narrative synthesis.
In the case of purely quantitative or qualitative syntheses, it may be an easier matter to uncover unstated assumptions because they are likely to be shared with those of the primary studies in the genre. For example, grounded formal theory shares the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of grounded theory, rooted in the theoretical perspective of symbolic interactionism  –  and the philosophy of pragmatism  ,  –  .
As with meta-narrative synthesis, meta-study developers identify constructivism as their interpretive philosophical foundation  ,  . Epistemologically, constructivism focuses on how people construct and re-construct knowledge about a specific phenomenon, and has three main assumptions: (1) reality is seen as multiple, at times even incompatible with the phenomenon under consideration; (2) just as primary researchers construct interpretations from participants' data, meta-study researchers also construct understandings about the primary researchers' original findings. Thus, meta-synthesis is a construction of a construction, or a meta-construction; and (3) all constructions are shaped by the historical, social and ideological context in which they originated  . The key message here is that reports of any synthesis would benefit from an explicit identification of the underlying philosophical perspectives to facilitate a better understanding of the results, how they were derived, and how they are being interpreted.
4.7. Unit of Analysis
The unit of analysis for each category of review is generally distinct. For the emerging synthesis approaches, the unit of analysis is specific to the intention. In meta-narrative synthesis it is the storyline in diverse research traditions; in rapid review or scoping review, it depends on the focus but could be a concept; and in realist synthesis, it is the theories rather than programs that are the units of analysis. The elements of theory that are important in the analysis are mechanisms of action, the context, and the outcome  .
For qualitative synthesis, the units of analysis are generally themes, concepts or theories, although in meta-study, the units of analysis can be research findings (“meta-data-analysis”), research methods (“meta-method”) or philosophical/theoretical perspectives (“meta-theory”)  . In quantitative synthesis, the units of analysis range from specific statistics for systematic reviews to effect size of the intervention for meta-analysis. More recently, some systematic reviews focus on theories  –  , therefore it depends on the research question. Similarly, within conventional literature synthesis the units of analysis also depend on the research purpose, focus and question as well as on the type of research methods incorporated into the review. What is important in all research syntheses, however, is that the unit of analysis needs to be made explicit. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
4.8. Strengths and Limitations
In this section, we discuss the overarching strengths and limitations of synthesis methodologies as a whole and then highlight strengths and weaknesses across each of our four categories of synthesis.
4.8.1. Strengths of Research Syntheses in General
With the vast proliferation of research reports and the increased ease of retrieval, research synthesis has become more accessible providing a way of looking broadly at the current state of research. The availability of syntheses helps researchers, practitioners, and policy makers keep up with the burgeoning literature in their fields without which evidence-informed policy or practice would be difficult. Syntheses explain variation and difference in the data helping us identify the relevance for our own situations; they identify gaps in the literature leading to new research questions and study designs. They help us to know when to replicate a study and when to avoid excessively duplicating research. Syntheses can inform policy and practice in a way that well-designed single studies cannot; they provide building blocks for theory that helps us to understand and explain our phenomena of interest.
4.8.2. Limitations of Research Syntheses in General
The process of selecting, combining, integrating, and synthesizing across diverse study designs and data types can be complex and potentially rife with bias, even with those methodologies that have clearly defined steps. Just because a rigorous and standardized approach has been used does not mean that implicit judgements will not influence the interpretations and choices made at different stages.
In all types of synthesis, the quantity of data can be considerable, requiring difficult decisions about scope, which may affect relevance. The quantity of available data also has implications for the size of the research team. Few reviews these days can be done independently, in particular because decisions about inclusion and exclusion may require the involvement of more than one person to ensure reliability.
For all types of synthesis, it is likely that in areas with large, amorphous, and diverse bodies of literature, even the most sophisticated search strategies will not turn up all the relevant and important texts. This may be more important in some synthesis methodologies than in others, but the omission of key documents can influence the results of all syntheses. This issue can be addressed, at least in part, by including a library scientist on the research team as required by some funding agencies. Even then, it is possible to miss key texts. In this review, for example, because none of us are trained in or conduct meta-analyses, we were not even aware that we had missed some new developments in this field such as meta-regression  –  , network meta-analysis  –  , and the use of individual patient data in meta-analyses  –  .
One limitation of systematic reviews and meta-analyses is that they rapidly go out of date. We thought this might be true for all types of synthesis, although we wondered if those that produce theory might not be somewhat more enduring. We have not answered this question but it is open for debate. For all types of synthesis, the analytic skills and the time required are considerable so it is clear that training is important before embarking on a review, and some types of review may not be appropriate for students or busy practitioners.
Finally, the quality of reporting in primary studies of all genres is variable so it is sometimes difficult to identify aspects of the study essential for the synthesis, or to determine whether the study meets quality criteria. There may be flaws in the original study, or journal page limitations may necessitate omitting important details. Reporting standards have been developed for some types of reviews (e.g., systematic review, meta-analysis, meta-narrative synthesis, realist synthesis); but there are no agreed upon standards for qualitative reviews. This is an important area for development in advancing the science of research synthesis.
4.8.3. Strengths and Limitations of the Four Synthesis Types
The conventional literature review and now the increasingly common integrative review remain important and accessible approaches for students, practitioners, and experienced researchers who want to summarize literature in an area but do not have the expertise to use one of the more complex methodologies. Carefully executed, such reviews are very useful for synthesizing literature in preparation for research grants and practice projects. They can determine the state of knowledge in an area and identify important gaps in the literature to provide a clear rationale or theoretical framework for a study  ,  . There is a demand, however, for more rigour, with more attention to developing comprehensive search strategies and more systematic approaches to combining, integrating, and synthesizing the findings.
Generally, conventional reviews include diverse study designs and data types that facilitate comprehensiveness, which may be a strength on the one hand, but can also present challenges on the other. The complexity inherent in combining results from studies with diverse methodologies can result in bias and inaccuracies. The absence of clear guidelines about how to synthesize across diverse study types and data  has been a challenge for novice reviewers.
Quantitative systematic reviews and meta-analyses have been important in launching the field of evidence-based healthcare. They provide a systematic, orderly and auditable process for conducting a review and drawing conclusions  . They are arguably the most powerful approaches to understanding the effectiveness of healthcare interventions, especially when intervention studies on the same topic show very different results. When areas of research are dogged by controversy  or when study results go against strongly held beliefs, such approaches can reduce the uncertainty and bring strong evidence to bear on the controversy.
Despite their strengths, they also have limitations. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses do not provide a way of including complex literature comprising various types of evidence including qualitative studies, theoretical work, and epidemiological studies. Only certain types of design are considered and qualitative data are used in a limited way. This exclusion limits what can be learned in a topic area.
Meta-analyses are often not possible because of wide variability in study design, population, and interventions so they may have a narrow range of utility. New developments in meta-analysis, however, can be used to address some of these limitations. Network meta-analysis is used to explore relative efficacy of multiple interventions, even those that have never been compared in more conventional pairwise meta-analyses  , allowing for improved clinical decision making  . The limitation is that network meta-analysis has only been used in medical/clinical applications  and not in public health. It has not yet been widely accepted and many methodological challenges remain  –  . Meta-regression is another development that combines meta-analytic and linear regression principles to address the fact that heterogeneity of results may compromise a meta-analysis  –  . The disadvantage is that many clinicians are unfamiliar with it and may incorrectly interpret results  .
Some have accused meta-analysis of combining apples and oranges  raising questions in the field about their meaningfulness  ,  . More recently, the use of individual rather than aggregate data has been useful in facilitating greater comparability among studies  . In fact, Tomas et al.  argue that meta-analysis using individual data is now the gold standard although access to the raw data from other studies may be a challenge to obtain.
The usefulness of systematic reviews in synthesizing complex health and social interventions has also been challenged  . It is often difficult to synthesize their findings because such studies are “epistemologically diverse and methodologically complex” [  , p.21]. Rigid inclusion/exclusion criteria may allow only experimental or quasi-experimental designs into consideration resulting in lost information that may well be useful to policy makers for tailoring an intervention to the context or understanding its acceptance by recipients.
Qualitative syntheses may be the type of review most fraught with controversy and challenge, while also bringing distinct strengths to the enterprise. Although these methodologies provide a comprehensive and systematic review approach, they do not generally provide definitive statements about intervention effectiveness. They do, however, address important questions about the development of theoretical concepts, patient experiences, acceptability of interventions, and an understanding about why interventions might work.
Most qualitative syntheses aim to produce a theoretically generalizable mid-range theory that explains variation across studies. This makes them more useful than single primary studies, which may not be applicable beyond the immediate setting or population. All provide a contextual richness that enhances relevance and understanding. Another benefit of some types of qualitative synthesis (e.g., grounded formal theory) is that the concept of saturation provides a sound rationale for limiting the number of texts to be included thus making reviews potentially more manageable. This contrasts with the requirements of systematic reviews and meta-analyses that require an exhaustive search.
Qualitative researchers debate about whether the findings of ontologically and epistemological diverse qualitative studies can actually be combined or synthesized  because methodological diversity raises many challenges for synthesizing findings. The products of different types of qualitative syntheses range from theory and conceptual frameworks, to themes and rich descriptive narratives. Can one combine the findings from a phenomenological study with the theory produced in a grounded theory study? Many argue yes, but many also argue no.
Emerging synthesis methodologies were developed to address some limitations inherent in other types of synthesis but also have their own issues. Because each type is so unique, it is difficult to identify overarching strengths of the entire category. An important strength, however, is that these newer forms of synthesis provide a systematic and rigorous approach to synthesizing a diverse literature base in a topic area that includes a range of data types such as: both quantitative and qualitative studies, theoretical work, case studies, evaluations, epidemiological studies, trials, and policy documents. More than conventional literature reviews and systematic reviews, these approaches provide explicit guidance on analytic methods for integrating different types of data. The assumption is that all forms of data have something to contribute to knowledge and theory in a topic area. All have a defined but flexible process in recognition that the methods may need to shift as knowledge develops through the process.
Many emerging synthesis types are helpful to policy makers and practitioners because they are usually involved as team members in the process to define the research questions, and interpret and disseminate the findings. In fact, engagement of stakeholders is built into the procedures of the methods. This is true for rapid reviews, meta-narrative syntheses, and realist syntheses. It is less likely to be the case for critical interpretive syntheses.
Another strength of some approaches (realist and meta-narrative syntheses) is that quality and publication standards have been developed to guide researchers, reviewers, and funders in judging the quality of the products  ,  –  . Training materials and online communities of practice have also been developed to guide users of realist and meta-narrative review methods  ,  . A unique strength of critical interpretive synthesis is that it takes a critical perspective on the process that may help reconceptualize the data in a way not considered by the primary researchers  .
There are also challenges of these new approaches. The methods are new and there may be few published applications by researchers other than the developers of the methods, so new users often struggle with the application. The newness of the approaches means that there may not be mentors available to guide those unfamiliar with the methods. This is changing, however, and the number of applications in the literature is growing with publications by new users helping to develop the science of synthesis [e.g.,  ]. However, the evolving nature of the approaches and their developmental stage present challenges for novice researchers.
4.9. When to Use Each Approach
Choosing an appropriate approach to synthesis will depend on the question you are asking, the purpose of the review, and the outcome or product you want to achieve. In Additional File 1 , we discuss each of these to provide guidance to readers on making a choice about review type. If researchers want to know whether a particular type of intervention is effective in achieving its intended outcomes, then they might choose a quantitative systemic review with or without meta-analysis, possibly buttressed with qualitative studies to provide depth and explanation of the results. Alternately, if the concern is about whether an intervention is effective with different populations under diverse conditions in varying contexts, then a realist synthesis might be the most appropriate.
If researchers' concern is to develop theory, they might consider qualitative syntheses or some of the emerging syntheses that produce theory (e.g., critical interpretive synthesis, realist review, grounded formal theory, qualitative meta-synthesis). If the aim is to track the development and evolution of concepts, theories or ideas, or to determine how an issue or question is addressed across diverse research traditions, then meta-narrative synthesis would be most appropriate.
When the purpose is to review the literature in advance of undertaking a new project, particularly by graduate students, then perhaps an integrative review would be appropriate. Such efforts contribute towards the expansion of theory, identify gaps in the research, establish the rationale for studying particular phenomena, and provide a framework for interpreting results in ways that might be useful for influencing policy and practice.
For researchers keen to bring new insights, interpretations, and critical re-conceptualizations to a body of research, then qualitative or critical interpretive syntheses will provide an inductive product that may offer new understandings or challenges to the status quo. These can inform future theory development, or provide guidance for policy and practice.
What is the current state of science regarding research synthesis? Public health, health care, and social science researchers or clinicians have previously used all four categories of research synthesis, and all offer a suitable array of approaches for inquiries. New developments in systematic reviews and meta-analysis are providing ways of addressing methodological challenges  –  . There has also been significant advancement in emerging synthesis methodologies and they are quickly gaining popularity. Qualitative meta-synthesis is still evolving, particularly given how new it is within the terrain of research synthesis. In the midst of this evolution, outstanding issues persist such as grappling with: the quantity of data, quality appraisal, and integration with knowledge translation. These topics have not been thoroughly addressed and need further debate.
5.1. Quantity of Data
We raise the question of whether it is possible or desirable to find all available studies for a synthesis that has this requirement (e.g., meta-analysis, systematic review, scoping, meta-narrative synthesis  ,  ,  ,  ,  –  ). Is the synthesis of all available studies a realistic goal in light of the burgeoning literature? And how can this be sustained in the future, particularly as the emerging methodologies continue to develop and as the internet facilitates endless access? There has been surprisingly little discussion on this topic and the answers will have far-reaching implications for searching, sampling, and team formation.
Researchers and graduate students can no longer rely on their own independent literature search. They will likely need to ask librarians for assistance as they navigate multiple sources of literature and learn new search strategies. Although teams now collaborate with library scientists, syntheses are limited in that researchers must make decisions on the boundaries of the review, in turn influencing the study's significance. The size of a team may also be pragmatically determined to manage the search, extraction, and synthesis of the burgeoning data. There is no single answer to our question about the possibility or necessity of finding all available articles for a review. Multiple strategies that are situation specific are likely to be needed.
5.2. Quality Appraisal
While the issue of quality appraisal has received much attention in the synthesis literature, scholars are far from resolution. There may be no agreement about appraisal criteria in a given tradition. For example, the debate rages over the appropriateness of quality appraisal in qualitative synthesis where there are over 100 different sets of criteria and many do not overlap  . These differences may reflect disciplinary and methodological orientations, but diverse quality appraisal criteria may privilege particular types of research  . The decision to appraise is often grounded in ontological and epistemological assumptions. Nonetheless, diversity within and between categories of synthesis is likely to continue unless debate on the topic of quality appraisal continues and evolves toward consensus.
5.3. Integration with Knowledge Translation
If research syntheses are to make a difference to practice and ultimately to improve health outcomes, then we need to do a better job of knowledge translation. In the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) definition of knowledge translation (KT), research or knowledge synthesis is an integral component  . Yet, with few exceptions  –  , very little of the research synthesis literature even mentions the relationship of synthesis to KT nor does it discuss strategies to facilitate the integration of synthesis findings into policy and practice. The exception is in the emerging synthesis methodologies, some of which (e.g., realist and meta-narrative syntheses, scoping reviews) explicitly involve stakeholders or knowledge users. The argument is that engaging them in this way increases the likelihood that the knowledge generated will be translated into policy and practice. We suggest that a more explicit engagement with knowledge users in all types of synthesis would benefit the uptake of the research findings.
Research synthesis neither makes research more applicable to practice nor ensures implementation. Focus must now turn seriously towards translation of synthesis findings into knowledge products that are useful for health care practitioners in multiple areas of practice and develop appropriate strategies to facilitate their use. The burgeoning field of knowledge translation has, to some extent, taken up this challenge; however, the research-practice gap continues to plague us  –  . It is a particular problem for qualitative syntheses  . Although such syntheses have an important place in evidence-informed practice, little effort has gone into the challenge of translating the findings into useful products to guide practice  .
Our study took longer than would normally be expected for an integrative review. Each of us were primarily involved in our own dissertations or teaching/research positions, and so this study was conducted ‘off the sides of our desks.’ A limitation was that we searched the literature over the course of 4 years (from 2008–2012), necessitating multiple search updates. Further, we did not do a comprehensive search of the literature after 2012, thus the more recent synthesis literature was not systematically explored. We did, however, perform limited database searches from 2012–2015 to keep abreast of the latest methodological developments. Although we missed some new approaches to meta-analysis in our search, we did not find any new features of the synthesis methodologies covered in our review that would change the analysis or findings of this article. Lastly, we struggled with the labels used for the broad categories of research synthesis methodology because of our hesitancy to reinforce the divide between quantitative and qualitative approaches. However, it was very difficult to find alternative language that represented the types of data used in these methodologies. Despite our hesitancy in creating such an obvious divide, we were left with the challenge of trying to find a way of characterizing these broad types of syntheses.
Our findings offer methodological clarity for those wishing to learn about the broad terrain of research synthesis. We believe that our review makes transparent the issues and considerations in choosing from among the four broad categories of research synthesis. In summary, research synthesis has taken its place as a form of research in its own right. The methodological terrain has deep historical roots reaching back over the past 200 years, yet research synthesis remains relatively new to public health, health care, and social sciences in general. This is rapidly changing. New developments in systematic reviews and meta-analysis, and the emergence of new synthesis methodologies provide a vast array of options to review the literature for diverse purposes. New approaches to research synthesis and new analytic methods within existing approaches provide a much broader range of review alternatives for public health, health care, and social science students and researchers.
KSM is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta. Her work on this article was largely conducted as a Postdoctoral Fellow, funded by KRESCENT (Kidney Research Scientist Core Education and National Training Program, reference #KRES110011R1) and the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta.
MM's work on this study over the period of 2008-2014 was supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Applied Public Health Research Chair Award (grant #92365).
We thank Rachel Spanier who provided support with reference formatting.
List of Abbreviations (in Additional File 1 )
Conflict of interest: The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest in this article.
Authors' contributions: KSM co-designed the study, collected data, analyzed the data, drafted/revised the manuscript, and managed the project.
MP contributed to searching the literature, developing the analytic framework, and extracting data for the Additional File.
JB contributed to searching the literature, developing the analytic framework, and extracting data for the Additional File.
WN contributed to searching the literature, developing the analytic framework, and extracting data for the Additional File.
All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Additional Files: Additional File 1 – Selected Types of Research Synthesis
This Additional File is our dataset created to organize, analyze and critique the literature that we synthesized in our integrative review. Our results were created based on analysis of this Additional File.
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Chapter 7: Synthesizing Sources
At the conclusion of this chapter, you will be able to:
- synthesize key sources connecting them with the research question and topic area.
7.1 Overview of synthesizing
7.1.1 putting the pieces together.
Combining separate elements into a whole is the dictionary definition of synthesis. It is a way to make connections among and between numerous and varied source materials. A literature review is not an annotated bibliography, organized by title, author, or date of publication. Rather, it is grouped by topic to create a whole view of the literature relevant to your research question.
Your synthesis must demonstrate a critical analysis of the papers you collected as well as your ability to integrate the results of your analysis into your own literature review. Each paper collected should be critically evaluated and weighed for “adequacy, appropriateness, and thoroughness” ( Garrard, 2017 ) before inclusion in your own review. Papers that do not meet this criteria likely should not be included in your literature review.
Begin the synthesis process by creating a grid, table, or an outline where you will summarize, using common themes you have identified and the sources you have found. The summary grid or outline will help you compare and contrast the themes so you can see the relationships among them as well as areas where you may need to do more searching. Whichever method you choose, this type of organization will help you to both understand the information you find and structure the writing of your review. Remember, although “the means of summarizing can vary, the key at this point is to make sure you understand what you’ve found and how it relates to your topic and research question” ( Bennard et al., 2014 ).
As you read through the material you gather, look for common themes as they may provide the structure for your literature review. And, remember, research is an iterative process: it is not unusual to go back and search information sources for more material.
At one extreme, if you are claiming, ‘There are no prior publications on this topic,’ it is more likely that you have not found them yet and may need to broaden your search. At another extreme, writing a complete literature review can be difficult with a well-trod topic. Do not cite it all; instead cite what is most relevant. If that still leaves too much to include, be sure to reference influential sources…as well as high-quality work that clearly connects to the points you make. ( Klingner, Scanlon, & Pressley, 2005 ).
7.2 Creating a summary table
Literature reviews can be organized sequentially or by topic, theme, method, results, theory, or argument. It’s important to develop categories that are meaningful and relevant to your research question. Take detailed notes on each article and use a consistent format for capturing all the information each article provides. These notes and the summary table can be done manually, using note cards. However, given the amount of information you will be recording, an electronic file created in a word processing or spreadsheet is more manageable. Examples of fields you may want to capture in your notes include:
- Authors’ names
- Article title
- Publication year
- Main purpose of the article
- Methodology or research design
Other fields that will be useful when you begin to synthesize the sum total of your research:
- Specific details of the article or research that are especially relevant to your study
- Key terms and definitions
- Strengths or weaknesses in research design
- Relationships to other studies
- Possible gaps in the research or literature (for example, many research articles conclude with the statement “more research is needed in this area”)
- Finally, note how closely each article relates to your topic. You may want to rank these as high, medium, or low relevance. For papers that you decide not to include, you may want to note your reasoning for exclusion, such as ‘small sample size’, ‘local case study,’ or ‘lacks evidence to support assertion.’
This short video demonstrates how a nursing researcher might create a summary table.
7.2.1 Creating a Summary Table
Summary tables can be organized by author or by theme, for example:
For a summary table template, see http://blogs.monm.edu/writingatmc/files/2013/04/Synthesis-Matrix-Template.pdf
7.3 Creating a summary outline
An alternate way to organize your articles for synthesis it to create an outline. After you have collected the articles you intend to use (and have put aside the ones you won’t be using), it’s time to identify the conclusions that can be drawn from the articles as a group.
Based on your review of the collected articles, group them by categories. You may wish to further organize them by topic and then chronologically or alphabetically by author. For each topic or subtopic you identified during your critical analysis of the paper, determine what those papers have in common. Likewise, determine which ones in the group differ. If there are contradictory findings, you may be able to identify methodological or theoretical differences that could account for the contradiction (for example, differences in population demographics). Determine what general conclusions you can report about the topic or subtopic as the entire group of studies relate to it. For example, you may have several studies that agree on outcome, such as ‘hands on learning is best for science in elementary school’ or that ‘continuing education is the best method for updating nursing certification.’ In that case, you may want to organize by methodology used in the studies rather than by outcome.
Organize your outline in a logical order and prepare to write the first draft of your literature review. That order might be from broad to more specific, or it may be sequential or chronological, going from foundational literature to more current. Remember, “an effective literature review need not denote the entire historical record, but rather establish the raison d’etre for the current study and in doing so cite that literature distinctly pertinent for theoretical, methodological, or empirical reasons.” ( Milardo, 2015, p. 22 ).
As you organize the summarized documents into a logical structure, you are also appraising and synthesizing complex information from multiple sources. Your literature review is the result of your research that synthesizes new and old information and creates new knowledge.
7.4 Additional resources:
Literature Reviews: Using a Matrix to Organize Research / Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota
Literature Review: Synthesizing Multiple Sources / Indiana University
Writing a Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix / Florida International University
Sample Literature Reviews Grid / Complied by Lindsay Roberts
Select three or four articles on a single topic of interest to you. Then enter them into an outline or table in the categories you feel are important to a research question. Try both the grid and the outline if you can to see which suits you better. The attached grid contains the fields suggested in the video .
Literature Review Table
- Select two articles from your own summary table or outline and write a paragraph explaining how and why the sources relate to each other and your review of the literature.
- In your literature review, under what topic or subtopic will you place the paragraph you just wrote?
Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students Copyright © by Linda Frederiksen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
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A literature review surveys prior research published in books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by so doing, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works in relation to the research problem being investigated. Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have used in researching a particular topic and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits within existing scholarship about the topic.
Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . Fourth edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2014.
Importance of a Good Literature Review
A literature review may consist of simply a summary of key sources, but in the social sciences, a literature review usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories . A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information in a way that informs how you are planning to investigate a research problem. The analytical features of a literature review might:
- Give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations,
- Trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates,
- Depending on the situation, evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant research, or
- Usually in the conclusion of a literature review, identify where gaps exist in how a problem has been researched to date.
Given this, the purpose of a literature review is to:
- Place each work in the context of its contribution to understanding the research problem being studied.
- Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration.
- Identify new ways to interpret prior research.
- Reveal any gaps that exist in the literature.
- Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.
- Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
- Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research.
- Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important].
Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2011; Knopf, Jeffrey W. "Doing a Literature Review." PS: Political Science and Politics 39 (January 2006): 127-132; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012.
Types of Literature Reviews
It is important to think of knowledge in a given field as consisting of three layers. First, there are the primary studies that researchers conduct and publish. Second are the reviews of those studies that summarize and offer new interpretations built from and often extending beyond the primary studies. Third, there are the perceptions, conclusions, opinion, and interpretations that are shared informally among scholars that become part of the body of epistemological traditions within the field.
In composing a literature review, it is important to note that it is often this third layer of knowledge that is cited as "true" even though it often has only a loose relationship to the primary studies and secondary literature reviews. Given this, while literature reviews are designed to provide an overview and synthesis of pertinent sources you have explored, there are a number of approaches you could adopt depending upon the type of analysis underpinning your study.
Argumentative Review This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply embedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature. The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint. Given the value-laden nature of some social science research [e.g., educational reform; immigration control], argumentative approaches to analyzing the literature can be a legitimate and important form of discourse. However, note that they can also introduce problems of bias when they are used to make summary claims of the sort found in systematic reviews [see below].
Integrative Review Considered a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated. The body of literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses or research problems. A well-done integrative review meets the same standards as primary research in regard to clarity, rigor, and replication. This is the most common form of review in the social sciences.
Historical Review Few things rest in isolation from historical precedent. Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and to identify the likely directions for future research.
Methodological Review A review does not always focus on what someone said [findings], but how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis]. Reviewing methods of analysis provides a framework of understanding at different levels [i.e. those of theory, substantive fields, research approaches, and data collection and analysis techniques], how researchers draw upon a wide variety of knowledge ranging from the conceptual level to practical documents for use in fieldwork in the areas of ontological and epistemological consideration, quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection, and data analysis. This approach helps highlight ethical issues which you should be aware of and consider as you go through your own study.
Systematic Review This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review. The goal is to deliberately document, critically evaluate, and summarize scientifically all of the research about a clearly defined research problem . Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?" This type of literature review is primarily applied to examining prior research studies in clinical medicine and allied health fields, but it is increasingly being used in the social sciences.
Theoretical Review The purpose of this form is to examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review helps to establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.
NOTE : Most often the literature review will incorporate some combination of types. For example, a review that examines literature supporting or refuting an argument, assumption, or philosophical problem related to the research problem will also need to include writing supported by sources that establish the history of these arguments in the literature.
Baumeister, Roy F. and Mark R. Leary. "Writing Narrative Literature Reviews." Review of General Psychology 1 (September 1997): 311-320; Mark R. Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Kennedy, Mary M. "Defining a Literature." Educational Researcher 36 (April 2007): 139-147; Petticrew, Mark and Helen Roberts. Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide . Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006; Torracro, Richard. "Writing Integrative Literature Reviews: Guidelines and Examples." Human Resource Development Review 4 (September 2005): 356-367; Rocco, Tonette S. and Maria S. Plakhotnik. "Literature Reviews, Conceptual Frameworks, and Theoretical Frameworks: Terms, Functions, and Distinctions." Human Ressource Development Review 8 (March 2008): 120-130; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.
Structure and Writing Style
I. Thinking About Your Literature Review
The structure of a literature review should include the following in support of understanding the research problem :
- An overview of the subject, issue, or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review,
- Division of works under review into themes or categories [e.g. works that support a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative approaches entirely],
- An explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others,
- Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research.
The critical evaluation of each work should consider :
- Provenance -- what are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence [e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings]?
- Methodology -- were the techniques used to identify, gather, and analyze the data appropriate to addressing the research problem? Was the sample size appropriate? Were the results effectively interpreted and reported?
- Objectivity -- is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
- Persuasiveness -- which of the author's theses are most convincing or least convincing?
- Validity -- are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?
II. Development of the Literature Review
Four Basic Stages of Writing 1. Problem formulation -- which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues? 2. Literature search -- finding materials relevant to the subject being explored. 3. Data evaluation -- determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic. 4. Analysis and interpretation -- discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature.
Consider the following issues before writing the literature review: Clarify If your assignment is not specific about what form your literature review should take, seek clarification from your professor by asking these questions: 1. Roughly how many sources would be appropriate to include? 2. What types of sources should I review (books, journal articles, websites; scholarly versus popular sources)? 3. Should I summarize, synthesize, or critique sources by discussing a common theme or issue? 4. Should I evaluate the sources in any way beyond evaluating how they relate to understanding the research problem? 5. Should I provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history? Find Models Use the exercise of reviewing the literature to examine how authors in your discipline or area of interest have composed their literature review sections. Read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or to identify ways to organize your final review. The bibliography or reference section of sources you've already read, such as required readings in the course syllabus, are also excellent entry points into your own research. Narrow the Topic The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to obtain a good survey of relevant resources. Your professor will probably not expect you to read everything that's available about the topic, but you'll make the act of reviewing easier if you first limit scope of the research problem. A good strategy is to begin by searching the USC Libraries Catalog for recent books about the topic and review the table of contents for chapters that focuses on specific issues. You can also review the indexes of books to find references to specific issues that can serve as the focus of your research. For example, a book surveying the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may include a chapter on the role Egypt has played in mediating the conflict, or look in the index for the pages where Egypt is mentioned in the text. Consider Whether Your Sources are Current Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. This is particularly true in disciplines in medicine and the sciences where research conducted becomes obsolete very quickly as new discoveries are made. However, when writing a review in the social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be required. In other words, a complete understanding the research problem requires you to deliberately examine how knowledge and perspectives have changed over time. Sort through other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to explore what is considered by scholars to be a "hot topic" and what is not.
III. Ways to Organize Your Literature Review
Chronology of Events If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development. For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union. By Publication Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on environmental studies of brown fields if the progression revealed, for example, a change in the soil collection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies. Thematic [“conceptual categories”] A thematic literature review is the most common approach to summarizing prior research in the social and behavioral sciences. Thematic reviews are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time, although the progression of time may still be incorporated into a thematic review. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it would still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The difference in this example between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: themes related to the role of the Internet in presidential politics. Note that more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point being made. Methodological A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. For the Internet in American presidential politics project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of American presidents on American, British, and French websites. Or the review might focus on the fundraising impact of the Internet on a particular political party. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.
Other Sections of Your Literature Review Once you've decided on the organizational method for your literature review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out because they arise from your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period; a thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue. However, sometimes you may need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. However, only include what is necessary for the reader to locate your study within the larger scholarship about the research problem.
Here are examples of other sections, usually in the form of a single paragraph, you may need to include depending on the type of review you write:
- Current Situation : Information necessary to understand the current topic or focus of the literature review.
- Sources Used : Describes the methods and resources [e.g., databases] you used to identify the literature you reviewed.
- History : The chronological progression of the field, the research literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
- Selection Methods : Criteria you used to select (and perhaps exclude) sources in your literature review. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed [i.e., scholarly] sources.
- Standards : Description of the way in which you present your information.
- Questions for Further Research : What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?
IV. Writing Your Literature Review
Once you've settled on how to organize your literature review, you're ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep in mind these issues.
Use Evidence A literature review section is, in this sense, just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence [citations] that demonstrates that what you are saying is valid. Be Selective Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the research problem, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological. Related items that provide additional information, but that are not key to understanding the research problem, can be included in a list of further readings . Use Quotes Sparingly Some short quotes are appropriate if you want to emphasize a point, or if what an author stated cannot be easily paraphrased. Sometimes you may need to quote certain terminology that was coined by the author, is not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. Do not use extensive quotes as a substitute for using your own words in reviewing the literature. Summarize and Synthesize Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each thematic paragraph as well as throughout the review. Recapitulate important features of a research study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to your own work and the work of others. Keep Your Own Voice While the literature review presents others' ideas, your voice [the writer's] should remain front and center. For example, weave references to other sources into what you are writing but maintain your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas and wording. Use Caution When Paraphrasing When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author's information or opinions accurately and in your own words. Even when paraphrasing an author’s work, you still must provide a citation to that work.
V. Common Mistakes to Avoid
These are the most common mistakes made in reviewing social science research literature.
- Sources in your literature review do not clearly relate to the research problem;
- You do not take sufficient time to define and identify the most relevant sources to use in the literature review related to the research problem;
- Relies exclusively on secondary analytical sources rather than including relevant primary research studies or data;
- Uncritically accepts another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis;
- Does not describe the search procedures that were used in identifying the literature to review;
- Reports isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them in chi-squared or meta-analytic methods; and,
- Only includes research that validates assumptions and does not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations found in the literature.
Cook, Kathleen E. and Elise Murowchick. “Do Literature Review Skills Transfer from One Course to Another?” Psychology Learning and Teaching 13 (March 2014): 3-11; Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . London: SAGE, 2011; Literature Review Handout. Online Writing Center. Liberty University; Literature Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2016; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012; Randolph, Justus J. “A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review." Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation. vol. 14, June 2009; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016; Taylor, Dena. The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing a Literature Review. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra.
Break Out of Your Disciplinary Box!
Thinking interdisciplinarily about a research problem can be a rewarding exercise in applying new ideas, theories, or concepts to an old problem. For example, what might cultural anthropologists say about the continuing conflict in the Middle East? In what ways might geographers view the need for better distribution of social service agencies in large cities than how social workers might study the issue? You don’t want to substitute a thorough review of core research literature in your discipline for studies conducted in other fields of study. However, particularly in the social sciences, thinking about research problems from multiple vectors is a key strategy for finding new solutions to a problem or gaining a new perspective. Consult with a librarian about identifying research databases in other disciplines; almost every field of study has at least one comprehensive database devoted to indexing its research literature.
Frodeman, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity . New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Another Writing Tip
Don't Just Review for Content!
While conducting a review of the literature, maximize the time you devote to writing this part of your paper by thinking broadly about what you should be looking for and evaluating. Review not just what scholars are saying, but how are they saying it. Some questions to ask:
- How are they organizing their ideas?
- What methods have they used to study the problem?
- What theories have been used to explain, predict, or understand their research problem?
- What sources have they cited to support their conclusions?
- How have they used non-textual elements [e.g., charts, graphs, figures, etc.] to illustrate key points?
When you begin to write your literature review section, you'll be glad you dug deeper into how the research was designed and constructed because it establishes a means for developing more substantial analysis and interpretation of the research problem.
Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1 998.
Yet Another Writing Tip
When Do I Know I Can Stop Looking and Move On?
Here are several strategies you can utilize to assess whether you've thoroughly reviewed the literature:
- Look for repeating patterns in the research findings . If the same thing is being said, just by different people, then this likely demonstrates that the research problem has hit a conceptual dead end. At this point consider: Does your study extend current research? Does it forge a new path? Or, does is merely add more of the same thing being said?
- Look at sources the authors cite to in their work . If you begin to see the same researchers cited again and again, then this is often an indication that no new ideas have been generated to address the research problem.
- Search Google Scholar to identify who has subsequently cited leading scholars already identified in your literature review [see next sub-tab]. This is called citation tracking and there are a number of sources that can help you identify who has cited whom, particularly scholars from outside of your discipline. Here again, if the same authors are being cited again and again, this may indicate no new literature has been written on the topic.
Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2016; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.
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