Systematic Review vs Literature Review in Nursing Research: A Comprehensive Comparison

Nursing research is a dynamic field that constantly evolves to improve patient care and healthcare outcomes. As nursing students, you’ll find yourself delving into various types of research throughout your academic journey. Two fundamental research methodologies you’ll encounter are systematic reviews and literature reviews. Understanding the differences and purposes of these reviews is crucial for conducting evidence-based practice and contributing to advancing nursing knowledge. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore systematic review vs literature review in nursing research, shedding light on their unique characteristics, objectives, and methodologies. By the end of this article, you’ll clearly understand how these reviews differ and which one to employ for specific research questions.

Systematic Review

Definition and Purpose

A systematic review is a rigorous and methodical approach to synthesizing existing research on a specific healthcare topic. It involves a structured process of collecting, analyzing, and summarizing relevant studies to provide a comprehensive and unbiased overview of the current state of knowledge. The primary aim of a systematic review is to answer a specific research question or address a particular clinical issue, often involving healthcare interventions or treatments.



  • Formulating the Research Question: The first step in conducting a systematic review is defining a clear, focused research question. This question serves as the foundation for the entire review process.
  • Search Strategy: Systematic reviews require an exhaustive search of multiple databases, including PubMed, CINAHL, and Cochrane, to identify relevant studies. Keywords, inclusion criteria, and exclusion criteria are established to ensure that only the most pertinent research is included.
  • Study Selection: A systematic review employs a systematic and transparent process for selecting studies that meet the predefined inclusion criteria. This process minimizes bias and ensures that the chosen studies are of high quality.
  • Data Extraction and Synthesis: Data from selected studies are meticulously extracted and synthesized. Statistical methods such as meta-analysis may be used to combine and analyze quantitative data, while thematic analysis is often employed for qualitative data.
  • Assessment of Study Quality: Systematic reviews typically include an assessment of each study’s quality. Tools like the Cochrane Risk of Bias tool help reviewers evaluate the potential bias in study design and conduct.
  • Results Presentation: The findings of a systematic review are presented in a structured and transparent manner. Tables, graphs, and narrative summaries commonly convey the results.
  • Conclusion and Implications: A systematic review summarizes the key findings, highlights their clinical or research implications, and suggests areas for future research.


Applicability in Nursing

Systematic reviews are particularly valuable in nursing research when addressing questions related to the effectiveness of healthcare interventions, the safety of treatments, or the prevalence of healthcare issues. They provide nurses with evidence-based guidance to inform clinical practice and healthcare policy decisions.


Literature Review

Definition and Purpose

A literature review, on the other hand, is a broader exploration of existing literature on a specific topic without a strict systematic approach. While it also aims to summarize and synthesize relevant studies, its primary purpose is to provide a comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge, identify gaps in the literature, and suggest areas for further research. safety of treatments are often more flexible and less structured compared to systematic reviews.



  • Defining the Scope: A literature review begins by defining the scope of the topic or research question of interest. This scope may be broader and less specific than a systematic review.
  • Search Strategy: Literature reviews involve a comprehensive but less structured search of relevant literature. Databases, academic journals, books, and grey literature sources may be consulted to gather information.
  • Study Selection: While systematic reviews use stringent inclusion and exclusion criteria, literature reviews may include a wider range of sources, including opinion pieces, editorials, and case reports, to provide a holistic view of the topic.
  • Data Synthesis: Data synthesis in a literature review is often narrative and qualitative in nature. Themes and trends in the literature are discussed, and studies are compared and contrasted without using statistical methods like meta-analysis.
  • Critical Evaluation: Literature reviews typically include a critical evaluation of the quality and relevance of the included studies. However, this evaluation is less standardized and rigorous than in a systematic review.
  • Conclusion and Future Directions: The conclusion of a literature review summarizes the main findings, identifies gaps in the literature, and suggests areas for future research or practice improvement.


Applicability in Nursing

Literature reviews are valuable in nursing research when you want to explore a topic comprehensively, gain a historical perspective, or identify trends and patterns in the literature. They are also useful for generating research questions and hypotheses and can serve as a foundation for further systematic research.


Key Differences Between Systematic and Literature Reviews

Now that we’ve explored the definitions and methodologies of systematic and literature reviews let’s highlight the key differences between these two approaches:

  • Purpose- Systematic Review: Primarily aims to answer a specific research question, often related to the effectiveness of interventions. Literature Review: Provides a comprehensive overview of existing literature on a broader topic, identifying gaps and suggesting areas for future research.
  • Methodology- Systematic Review: Follows a structured and rigorous process, including systematic search, strict inclusion/exclusion criteria, and statistical data synthesis. Literature Review: Involves a less structured search, includes a broader range of sources, and relies on narrative synthesis.
  • Study Selection- Systematic Review: Select studies based on strict inclusion and exclusion criteria, aiming for high-quality evidence. Literature Review: Includes a wider range of sources, including non-peer-reviewed literature, to provide a comprehensive view.
  • Data Synthesis- Systematic Review: Utilizes statistical methods (e.g., meta-analysis) for data synthesis. Literature Review: Involves narrative data synthesis, focusing on themes and trends in the literature.
  • Quality Assessment- Systematic Review: Includes a rigorous assessment of study quality and risk of bias. Literature Review: Conducts a more subjective evaluation of study quality.


In nursing research, systematic and literature reviews have unique roles and applications. Systematic reviews are the gold standard when you need precise answers to specific research questions, especially when dealing with healthcare interventions or treatment outcomes. They provide high-quality evidence that can inform clinical practice and policy decisions. On the other hand, literature reviews offer a broader perspective on a topic, helping you comprehensively understand the existing body of knowledge. They are particularly useful when exploring a subject in-depth, identifying gaps, and generating research ideas.

As nursing students, it’s essential to recognize when to employ each review type to advance your research goals effectively. Your choice will depend on the nature of your research question and the depth of exploration required. In closing, nursing research is a field where staying informed and conducting thorough investigations are paramount. Whether you opt for a systematic or literature review, both methodologies improve nursing practice and patient care. If you struggle with nursing research or need assistance conducting systematic or literature reviews, our writing services are here to help. Our team of experienced researchers and writers specializes in nursing research.



Q1: What is the difference between a literature review and a systematic literature review?

A literature review provides a comprehensive overview of existing literature on a broad topic, identifying trends and gaps, while a systematic review is a structured and methodical approach to synthesizing existing research on a specific healthcare topic, aiming to answer a precise research question through rigorous analysis and inclusion criteria.


Q2: What is systematic review in nursing research?

In nursing research, a systematic review is a meticulous process of collecting, analyzing, and summarizing relevant studies to provide an unbiased and comprehensive overview of current knowledge on a specific healthcare topic, often involving treatments, interventions, or clinical outcomes.


Q3: Why is systematic review important in nursing?

Systematic reviews are vital in nursing because they provide high-quality evidence that informs evidence-based practice, clinical decision-making, and healthcare policy. They help nurses and healthcare professionals make informed choices about patient care and treatment strategies.


Q4: How to do a systematic literature review in nursing and healthcare?

To conduct a systematic literature review in nursing and healthcare:


  • Formulate a Clear Research Question: Define a specific and focused research question.
  • Develop a Comprehensive Search Strategy: Create a structured plan to search multiple databases for relevant studies.
  • Select Studies Methodically: Apply strict inclusion and exclusion criteria to select studies that meet your research question’s requirements.
  • Extract and Synthesize Data: Meticulously extract and synthesize data from the selected studies.
  • Assess Study Quality: Evaluate the quality of included studies, considering the risk of bias.
  • Present Results Clearly: Present findings in a structured and transparent manner, using tables, graphs, or narrative summaries.
  • Draw Conclusions and Suggest Implications: Summarize key findings and discuss their clinical or research implications.
  • Remember, seeking guidance from experienced researchers or utilizing specialized software can greatly facilitate the systematic review process in nursing and healthcare research.

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