A Resources and Structure for Writing a Systematic Review
Systematic literature reviews occupy an important cornerstone in scientific advancement by summarizing, synthesizing, and critiquing a representative set of literature on a focused topic in an integrated way to produce new frameworks, perspectives, and directions. There are a variety approaches to literature review, including meta-analysis, bibliographic, narrative, critical, or tutorial. Regardless the approach, the purpose of a literature review is to objectively report the current knowledge on a topic and base this summary on previously published research. A useful review serves as a foundation for advancing knowledge, facilitating theory development, closing mature research areas, and uncovering novel research topics.
When crafting a literature review it is important to summarize findings into theoretical implications or propositions rather than produce a descriptive, annotated bibliography of loosely connected facts. This means you must impose some conceptual structure on how the review is conducted which entails several steps. First, there must be a goal or purpose to advance understanding of a specific issue. Is this an update of new knowledge for a topic or a temporal review of all findings over several decades? Is the purpose to synthesize, critique, or reconceptualize the topic? Is there a specific question (generalizability, antecedents, time span, growing popularity, convergence of ideas) to be addressed? Is there confusion regarding meaning, value, or application which requires clarification and order? Will the review compare major competing approaches, definitions, and tools? The goal should help establish the need, significance, or value of the review and provide boundaries around what the review attempts to accomplish.
Second, it must be systematic in that the review process should be transparent and reproducible. What databases where used? How does it expand pat reviews? What keywords used to identify? Criteria used for study inclusion or exclusion (e.g., language, method, article type)? The student should outline their search strategy for identifying relevant literature in a systematic way so others could replicate the process. Building on the method, students must also choose the right balance between breadth and depth when identifying and describing past research. The review should be comprehensive enough to include all relevant studies but also focused enough to highlight important or prototypical studies in detail to promote understanding. It is one thing to say you will review everything about work attitudes and another to specifically review the moderators, mediators, and outcomes of procedural justice in the public sector. The scope of the review dictates what will be covered and often depends on the focus and field’s maturity level with long-standing topics requiring that the student synthesize a large body of literature, in comparison to a review on a more novel field where only few studies exist. When very broad, the student can make use of tables and concepts to illustrate findings in an efficient manner.
Three, students should focus on concepts rather than individual studies in analysis and synthesis. This might include historical development, themes, or methodological variations. Careful identification and evaluation of the underlying ideas, constructs, propositions, or hypotheses linking research promotes deeper understanding of the review’s purpose which then guide the analysis conducted. This is done by extracting relevant results or theories, critically analyzing literature to identify ongoing issues or concepts, and synthesizing findings in a way to identify meaningful cross-study patterns. This can (but need not) lead to a new conceptual framework with propositions. Either way, focusing on concepts instead of studies helps identify controversies and commonalities which builds towards a more coherent and integrative manuscript.
Finally, a literature review should derive conclusions and tell the reader where to go. This reiterates the point a systematic review must go beyond a descriptive summary of prior literature. While it is important to describe studies included, it is essential go one step further by evaluating the evidence and recent trends to develop priorities for future research. This is done by deriving meaningful conclusions which answers the questions: What do we learn from this summary and what comes next? This includes carefully evaluating and deriving implications; pointing out gaps, omissions, discrepancies, or conflicts in the literature; and outlining directions for future research.
Following the steps above provides a coherent review structure which is useful for developing or evaluating a theory, method, or practice. The introduction motivates the topic and describes the contributions of the literature review. The next section describes the systematic review process and the key concepts used. After that, the crucial part is the synthesis and interpretation of the literature review’s findings. This section can but need not lead to the derivation of propositions or a conceptual. The final section of a literature review provides a conclusion and discussion with the boundaries of the review and the future research areas. The order of the sections is not static and can vary depending on the student’s topic. For example, one can also put suggestions for future research directly into the body of the article where the main findings from the literature review are described and/or discussed. However, a coherent structure is an absolute necessity for a systematic literature review.
A.1 Articles, Editorials, and Example Reviews
Below is a bibliography of journals, articles, editorials, and specialized methods used to conduct systematic reviews. We recommend the Torraco (2016), Baumeister (2013), Siddaway et al. (2019), and Cronin & George (2020) pieces to get a general overview for the process, considerations, and checklists ranging from basic to abstract considerations (e.g., search terms to thematic integration). We also recommend supplementing this by reading 3-6 major reviews on a variety of topics to gain familiarity with the structure, scope, and stylistics various authors use in crafting and producing their review. Example journals and reviews are provided to showcase a diversity of approaches, aims, and organizing structures for developing an impactful review paper.
A.1.1 General Advice on Writing a Systematic Review
A.1.2 Additional or Older Sources for Writing Literature Reviews
A.1.3 Meta Analysis, Systematic, and Narrative Review
A.2 Example Journals and Literature Reviews
Journals and Special Editions. The table contains a list of journals which regularly publish review articles, special edition (often biannual) review issues, or broad-based meta-analyses which serve to integrate findings and offer future directions for a given topic. Sample a variety of reviews from these outlets to see the format, scope, and structure which makes for an impactful literature review.
|Psychological Bulletin||Psychological Science in the Public Interest||Academy of Management Review||Journal of Applied Psychology – 100 Year Centennial Review|
|Psychological Review||Current Directions in Psychological Science||Journal of Business and Psychology – Tutorials Editions||Human Resource Management Review|
|American Psychologist||Organizational Psychology Review||Journal of Organizational Behavior – Annual Review||Special Edition Leadership Quarterly – Reviews and Meta-analyses||
|Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior||Journal of Management – Annual Review||Special Edition Organizational Research Methods | Human||Human Resource Development Review|
|Academy of Management Annals||International Journal of Management Reviews|
Review Types. Reviews can take many forms, including a focused overview of a construct, a general exposition on what is known and unknown about a particular topic or process, a highly contextualized focus of a particular issue (e.g., creativity in technical fields such as science and engineering), or a temporal review of a topic over the past several decades. Some reviews are purely meta-analytic, some narrative, and some blend both. The best reviews often provide new ideas, conceptual models, or insights to topics which may have gone stale or are widely ambiguous. Several examples of different types of reviews are provided below. Note this list is not exhaustive.
A.2.1 Nomological Network of a Construct
A.2.3 Specific Topic or Context
A.2.4 Descriptive: Temporal, Types, or Themes
A.2.6 Methods and Tutorials
A.2.9 Blended Theory and Meta-Analysis
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Aguinis, H., Gottfredson, R. K., & Joo, H. (2013). Best-practice recommendations for defining, identifying, and handling outliers. Organizational Research Methods, 16(2), 270–301.
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Aguinis, H., Ramani, R. S., & Villamor, I. (2019). The first 20 years of Organizational Research Methods: Trajectory, impact, and predictions for the future. Organizational Research Methods, 22(2), 463–489.
Aguinis, H., Villamor, I., & Ramani, R. S. (2020). MTurk Research: Review and Recommendations. SAGE Publications Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA.
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Baumeister, R. F. (2013). Writing a literature review. In The Portable Mentor (pp. 119–132). Springer.
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Hodgkinson, G. P., & Ford, J. K. (2014). Narrative, meta-analytic, and systematic reviews: What are the differences and why do they matter? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(S1), S1–S5.
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Keiser, N. L., & Arthur Jr, W. (2020). A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of the after-action review (or debrief) and factors that influence its effectiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology.
Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254.
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