Framing challenges

Synthetic literature reviews: An introduction

By and 26/05/2020

Whether you are writing a funding proposal or an academic paper, you will most likely be required to start with a literature review of some kind. Despite (or because of) the work involved, a literature review is a great opportunity to showcase your knowledge on a topic. In this post, we’re going to take it one step further. We’re going to tell you a very practical approach to conducting literature reviews that allows you to show that you are advancing scientific knowledge before your project even begins. Also – and this is no small bonus – this approach lets you show how your literature review will lead to a more successful project.

Literature review – start with the basics

A literature review helps you shape effective solutions to the problems you (and your organisation) are facing. A literature review also helps you demonstrate the value of your activities. You can show how much you add to the process before you spend any money collecting new data. Finally, your literature review helps you avoid reinventing the wheel by showing you what relevant research already exists, so that you can target your new research more efficiently and more effectively.

We all want to conduct good research and have a meaningful impact on people’s lives. To do this, a literature review is a critical step. For funders, a literature review is especially important because it shows how much useful knowledge the writer already has.

Past methods of literature reviews tend to be focused on ‘muscle power’, that is spending more time and more effort to review more papers and adhering more closely to accepted standards. Examples of standards for conducting literature reviews include the PRISMA Statement for Reporting Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses of Studies That Evaluate Health Care Interventions and the guidelines for assessing the quality and applicability of systematic reviews developed by the Task Force on Systematic Review and Guidelines. Given the untold millions of papers in many disciplines, even a large literature review that adheres to the best guidelines does little to move us toward integrated knowledge in and across disciplines.

In short, we need we need to work smarter, not harder!

Synthetic literature reviews

One approach that can provide more benefit is the synthetic literature review. Synthetic meaning synthesised or integrated, not artificial. Rather than explaining and reflecting on the results of previous studies (as is typically done in literature reviews), a synthetic literature review strives to create a new and more useful theoretical perspective by rigorously integrating the results of previous studies.

Many people find the process of synthesis difficult, elusive, or mysterious. When presenting their views and making recommendations for research, they tend to fall back on intuition (which is neither harder nor smarter).

After defining your research topic (‘poverty’ for example), the next step is to search the literature for existing theories or models of poverty that have been developed from research. You can use Google Scholar or your institutional database, or the assistance of a research librarian. A broad topic such as ‘poverty’, however, will lead you to millions of articles. You’ll narrow that field by focusing more closely on your topic and adding search terms. For example, you might be more interested in poverty among Latino communities in central California. You might also focus your search according to the date of the study (often, but not always, more recent results are preferred), or by geographic location. Continue refining and focusing your search until you have a workable number of papers (depending on your available time and resources). You might also take this time to throw out the papers that seem to be less relevant.

Skim those papers to be sure that they are really relevant to your topic. Once you have chosen a workable number of relevant papers, it is time to start integrating them.

Next, sort them according to the quality of their data.

Next, read the theory presented in each paper and create a diagram of the theory. The theory may be found in a section called ‘theory’ or sometimes in the ‘introduction’. For research papers, that presented theory may have changed during the research process, so you should look for the theory in the ‘findings’, ‘results’, or ‘discussion’ sections.

That diagram should include all relevant concepts from the theory and show the causal connections between the concepts that have been supported by research (some papers will present two theories, one before and one after the research – use the second one – only the hypotheses that have been supported by the research).

For a couple of brief and partial example from a recent interdisciplinary research paper, one theory of poverty might say ‘Having more education will help people to stay out of poverty’, while another might say ‘The more that the economy develops, the less poverty there will be’.

We then use those statements to create a diagram as we have in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Two (simple, partial) theories of poverty. (We like to use dashed lines to indicate ’causes less’, and solid lines to indicate ’causes more’)

When you have completed a diagram for each theory, the next step is to synthesise (integrate) them where the concepts are the same (or substantively similar) between two or more theories. With causal diagrams such as these, the process of synthesis becomes pretty direct. We simply combine the two (or more) theories to create a synthesised theory, such as in Figure 2.


Figure 2. Two theories synthesised where they overlap (in this case theories of poverty)

Much like a road map, a causal diagram of a theory with more concepts and more connecting arrows is more useful for navigation. You can show that your literature review is better than previous reviews by showing that you have taken a number of fragmented theories (as in Figure 1) and synthesised them to create a more coherent theory (as in Figure 2).

To go a step further, you may use Integrative Propositional Analysis (IPA) to quantify the extent to which your research has improved the structure and potential usefulness of your knowledge through the synthesis. Another source is our new book from Practical Mapping for Applied Research and Program Evaluation (see especially Chapter 5). (For the basics, you can look at Chapter One for free on the publisher’s site by clicking on the ‘Preview’ tab here.)

Once you become comfortable with the process, you will certainly be working ‘smarter’ and showcasing your knowledge to funders!

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