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Table of Contents
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 22  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 75-79

Designing the literature review: Historical, narrative, theoretical, integrative, and scoping reviews

Professor, College of Nursing, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India

Date of Submission13-Jun-2021
Date of Decision15-Jun-2021
Date of Acceptance16-Jun-2021
Date of Web Publication07-Jul-2021

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Sheela Durai
College of Nursing, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijcn.ijcn_51_21

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The design of a literature review can be considered as the blueprint of the review which can determine the quality of the review. The need for bringing together different pieces of information and research results together in one place gave rise to the concept of literature review. Over the years, different designs of literature review developed based on various factors. These factors which determine the design of review are the goal of the review, the comprehensiveness required and the rigor involved in the review. This article describes five of the reviews, namely historical, narrative, theoretical, integrative and scoping reviews. An attempt is made to summarise the purposes, the steps in the process of reviewing, the limitations as well as methods, if any, to overcome those limitations. It is hoped that an understanding regarding these designs will enable the nursing scholar to choose the design best suited to the aim of the literature review.

Keywords: Historical review, integrative review theoretical review, literature review, narrative review, scoping review

How to cite this article:
Durai S. Designing the literature review: Historical, narrative, theoretical, integrative, and scoping reviews. Indian J Cont Nsg Edn 2021;22:75-9

How to cite this URL:
Durai S. Designing the literature review: Historical, narrative, theoretical, integrative, and scoping reviews. Indian J Cont Nsg Edn [serial online] 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 1];22:75-9. Available from: https://www.ijcne.org/text.asp?2021/22/1/75/320833

  Introduction Top

If the stage of searching the literature is considered the cornerstone of a good review, the stage of designing the review is deemed to be the frontage or blueprint of the literature review. The right understanding of literature review helps in developing a good blueprint and this, in turn, leads to a good review.

A literature review is not just a list of summaries, but a piece of discursive prose meaningfully constructed and presented.[1] Snyder defines literature review as a systematic method of collecting and synthesising previous research.[2] The most comprehensive form of a literature review is the quantitative synthesis of findings of quantitative studies and qualitative synthesis of findings of qualitative studies. Synthesis of both quantitative and qualitative findings within the same review renders it a mixed method. When a systematic literature review is part of any study, it can be considered as a research embedded within another research.[3],[4] Literature review is thus said to be a methodology as it involves specific processes and systematic steps such as identifying, understanding, meaning-making, recording and transmitting information and is considered a science on its own. This science is nothing but a cumulative endeavour of generating new knowledge through systematic organisation of existing knowledge on a particular topic.

The systematic process of review of literature qualifies it to be a science, but the unique experience and perception of the reviewer which shapes the review makes it an art.[4] Over the years, the process of literature review has originated, evolved and branched out, as the purpose of conducting a review and the rigor required kept changing. This divergence to a range of review designs with varying levels of systematisation gives us the luxury of choosing a process of reviewing that best caters to the problem at hand.

  Design – The Blueprint of a Literature Review Top

It would be wise on the part of a traveller to be sure of the roadmap before embarking on a journey. Just as an architect designs and finalises the blueprint before the building is constructed, the reviewer ought to choose the design of the literature review before preparing the review. The 'literature review design' can be defined as a unique, systematic, explicit and reproducible way of identifying, evaluating and interpreting all of the research findings and scholarly work available on a topic.[5] The different designs of literature review that have developed so far include scoping review, integrative review, narrative review, rapid review, umbrella review and systematic reviews including Cochrane reviews, Campbell Collaboration reviews, meta-analyses and meta-synthesis.[4] Whatever the design of the literature review, each has its own unique approach, analysis and purpose.[6]

Historically, literature review has been part of a research study. In quantitative research, review of literature takes on an important role as it directs the path the researcher needs to pursue. It is through the review of literature that the researcher justifies the purpose of his study, establishes a conceptual framework, finds the gaps in literature, identifies the aspects to be studied, adopts methodology from and also obtains evidence that supports or contradicts the findings of the study.

In qualitative research, each methodology involves a different kind of review. A review of literature is done after data collection in phenomenology. There is a limited review in grounded theory. Early review is followed in ethnography and historical research is all about only review of literature.

  Factors Determining the Design of Review Top

Goal of review

The review design is based on the goal or aim of the review. The goals of literature review may vary from knowledge creation or generation to synthesis of existing knowledge or theory construction or testing of theories.[7]

In research, the literature review is used to demonstrate the background knowledge in the area of investigation. There is a need to showcase how the research will build on existing knowledge or previously published material as well as explain how proposed research will contribute or fill the gap related to knowledge.[8]


When the scope of the review covers literature in its entirety, it may be said to be comprehensive and starkly different from a review confined to a small set of articles.[7] Most researchers look for literature which presents the existing state of scholarship in the area of investigation and then assess their contribution to the advancement of knowledge in that area.[8]


Rigor is the systematic conduct and explicit documentation of the search process. It is of great importance when the literature review pursued concerns human life or matters pertaining to life.[7] Healthcare decisions pertaining to treatment of patients need accurate pointers from data fulfilling specific criteria.[9]

When a large body of research is to be condensed comprehensively, a quantitative or qualitative meta-analysis review is done.

  Narrative Literature Review Top

Narrative review provides a summary of the body of literature on a topic. They are helpful in obtaining a broad perspective on a topic and are like chapters in a textbook covering one topic.[10] The chapter on review of literature in a thesis or dissertation is typically a narrative review. The steps in writing a narrative review are depicted in [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Steps in writing narrative review

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The strengths of narrative reviews are that they achieve the purposes of critiquing, drawing conclusions and identifying gaps and inconsistencies in a body of literature.[11] The requisite is a sufficiently focused research question.[11] Although it starts with a clear question, it often involves a general discussion of a subject with no stated hypothesis or objective. The search here is for pivotal papers and no attempt is made to locate all relevant literature.[10] It is usually a qualitative summary and meta-ethnographic techniques may be used.

The limitations of narrative reviews are aplenty considering the fact that objectivity was never the aim when people started writing narrative reviews. Some of the noteworthy limitations are as follows:

Lack of content code

The major contender against narrative review is the fact that the much-needed content code is missing. As this is much needed to gauge methodological quality and theoretical importance, the accuracy of the review in terms of characteristics of studies and quality of methods becomes questionable.

Lack of rigor

In terms of rigor, narrative reviews would be at the opposite end compared to systematic reviews as lack of content coding and documentation automatically decreases the rigor of the review.

Lack of replication

The second contender is that narrative reviews are difficult to replicate because the review is mostly the style of the individual reviewer or group of reviewers without a specific methodology associated with it.[12]

Dearth of comprehension

The third contender is the lack of comprehensiveness as the authors do not set out to find all the available literature and analyse that to include in a narrative review.[12]


If the literature available to the reviewer mostly depicts one side of the story or leaves out other contradictory findings, the review may be mostly skewed in nature and as a result, would end up in bias.[12]

An attempt was made to assess the quality of narrative reviews by developing the Scale for the Assessment of Narrative Review Articles by experienced editors of a medical journal. The items on the scale include justification of article's importance for the readership, statement of concrete aims or formulation of questions, description of the literature search, referencing, scientific reasoning and appropriate presentation of data.[13]

  Historical Review Top

This review focuses on examining research throughout a period of time. It often starts with an issue, concept or theory which emerged in literature and then traces its evolution. Reviewers use the sources of information like raw materials and then fashion them into evidence to assemble a historical argument.[14] In general, historical reviews are chronological in nature, but the reviewer can present it innovatively in thematic arrangement.

Steps in writing a historical review are mentioned in [Figure 2].
Figure 2: Steps in writing a historical review

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The limitations of a historical review are no less than other reviews.


Historical review can be daunting and overwhelming due to the sheer volume of content that needs to be analysed to provide historically accurate data.


No scholar can experience the past or recreate it. Hence, reviewers must rely solely on the fragmentary records that are available regarding the concept over time.[14]

Lack of assurance related to accuracy

History is difficult to establish and reviewers must go by the information at hand and assume that it is reliable and accurate.


The reviewer has to decide what to include, what to exclude and how to project the information. This renders historical review highly subjective as the unique style and perception of the reviewer is put forward in the review.[14]

Restraint of time and space

An exhaustive body of evidence cannot be marshalled.

  Scoping Review Top

The nature, volume and features of an existing field of knowledge are grouped and described in scoping reviews. Scoping review is usually done at the beginning of a study to highlight the gaps in literature and also justify the reason for the study. It includes explanation regarding the various reasons for conducting a study.[9] It includes a comprehensive search strategy, but unlike systematic reviews, it does not synthesise the evidence. It is mostly used to map the literature in a broader context.[12] The major characteristic of scoping review is that the purpose is to provide an overview of the available research evidence without producing a summary answer to a research question.[15]

The purposes of a scoping review include identifying gaps in literature, labelling a body of knowledge with relevance to location, time, source and origin, as well as clarifying working definitions and conceptual boundaries of a topic.

Steps in a scoping review were developed by Arksey and O'Malley, and modified by Joanna Briggs Institute [Figure 3].
Figure 3: Steps in a scoping review

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The limitations of scoping reviews are as follows:

Lack of definition

There is no single-standard agreed-upon definition for scoping reviews. The purposes, details and methodology continue to be debated and developed.[16]

Lack of formal evaluation

There is no formal evaluation of the quality of evidence sources used for the scoping review.[15]

Range of variance

A wide range of study designs and methods are used, and thus, the sources for scoping review may be huge in number.[15]

Lack of synthesis

Evidence is not synthesised in a scoping review and that may be a drawback when it comes to important results aiding decision-making pertaining to life.[17] There is no answer provided to a specific question or a synthesised result announced.[15]


Selection bias may occur if the review does not address all available date on a topic. The account of the information available may also not be possible.

Time consuming

A substantial amount of time is required to complete the coverage of search as the sources are plenty and of a wide range.[15]

Attempts to overcome the drawbacks were made by suggesting a consultation exercise which would make scoping reviews useful to service providers, practitioners and policymakers.[17] Another attempt at improving the quality is a structured approach to the analysis and reporting of scoping reviews using the Patterns, Advances, Gaps, Evidence for practice and Research recommendations framework.[18]

  Theoretical Literature Review Top

Theory development is the most ambitious goal of literature review. Any phenomenon or concept which has established theories related to it can be a focus of theoretical literature review.[19] Tracing the life cycle of a theory, differentiating between formal and informal theories as well as mapping them are considered crucial in theoretical reviews.[20] Such reviews give an understanding regarding existing theories, the relationships between the concepts and issues associated with all related theories. It also helps in understanding the degree to which existing theories have been analysed and shows the way for testing of new hypotheses.[11] The purpose of the theoretical review is to understand, analyse and design ways to investigate relationships within systems.

Steps in writing a theoretical review are listed in [Figure 3].[21]

Lack of methodological quality is a major drawback of theoretical reviews. To overcome the limitations, a few strategies such as 'realist review' and 'pragmatic review' are being developed.

  Integrative Literature Review Top

The broadest type of review design that allows for simultaneous inclusion of experimental and non-experimental to full understand a phenomenon of concern is known as integrative review.[22] Need for new frameworks and perspectives drives integrative reviews where critiques, reviews and synthesis of secondary data are integrated. Using integrative reviews will be the only option when primary data collection and analysis are not involved.[11]

The purpose of integrative review is to build science, informing policy, research and practice through critical analysis of empirical, methodological or theoretical literature. It may be similar to a systematic review and uses a systematic process to identify, appraise, analyse and synthesise all selected sources but does not include statistical analysis.[23]

[Figure 4] reveals the steps in writing integrative reviews.
Figure 4: Steps in integrative reviews

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Lack of methodology is a major limitation of integrative design. The evidence base on how best to conduct integrative reviews are unavailable, leading to differences in the methodology of integrative reviews.

The steps recommended above are said to be effective in overcoming the limitations.

  Conclusion Top

This article has attempted to put into perspective few designs of literature review such as the narrative, the historical, the scoping, the theoretical and the integrative. Each of the reviews varies in terms of their purposes, steps, limitations and methods to overcome those limitations. Before embarking on a review, the most pertinent thing to do is to determine the purpose of the review and then fashion the review according to the purpose.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

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