10 reasons why you should do a systematic literature review – and how to conduct one!

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Dr Ester Ellen Trees Bolt is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at Leeds University Business School. Her research focuses on contemporary HRM issues, such as labour turnover and well-being in healthcare, and she studies these through a variety of theoretical perspectives and methods. Dr Md Shamirul Islam is a Lecturer at Sunway Business School, Sunway University, Malaysia. His research interests include strategic human resource management, human capital, and employee well-being.

Old books and journals in library

Academics, postgraduate researchers, Masters students, and, increasingly, research-active practitioners must often perform a literature review when they undertake research.

Such literature reviews are usually unstructured, meaning that a search on chosen keywords is performed in popular scholarly databases or internet search engines. Once satisfied with the ‘hits’, the researcher will start drafting a literature review based on a somewhat random selection of literature.

Often, chosen literature includes work that suits the researcher's underlying philosophical assumptions but can also be driven by what a database algorithm decides as relevant. This way of selecting literature is prone to subjectivity as the researcher had the freedom to select those that were aligned with his or her assumptions and ignore those that do not.

This can be problematic as this method can neglect other important work that does not fit the researcher’s ideals. Also, since algorithms drive databases, results can be skewed to interests. It can be argued that a systematic literature review, however, is a more objective and structured way of conducting a literature review.

A systematic literature review is a method of conducting a literature review to reduce the subjective selection of literature to be included in a review piece. In other words, when conducting a systematic literature review, a researcher conducts the review systematically, meaning that the research selection has been chosen based on specific criteria.

Also, all articles are read and possibly included in the review following a similar systematic process where the content of articles is coded systematically. The findings are driven by analysis of the coded articles, which will then lead to the identification of research gaps and recommendations for further research.

Why researchers should do a systematic literature review

A systematic literature review allows researchers to:

  1. Become highly immersed and familiar with the chosen body of knowledge
  2. Summarise and critically assess extant literature
  3. Reduce subjectivity in selecting research for inclusion in the literature review
  4. Use a systematic approach to reading and coding relevant literature
  5. Follow an objective review protocol reducing subjectivity
  6. Create something that other researchers can reproduce
  7. Maintain a structured database of included literature for future use
  8. Identify hidden research gaps based on objective numerical data
  9. Produce an academic systematic literature review research article
  10. Use the findings as teaching material.

The final review will allow researchers to identify a host of gaps in the literature and support these with numerical data out of their own systematic review – something not possible to do when undertaking a traditional narrative literature review. A systematic literature review is essentially research in itself.

Interested in conducting a systematic literature review? Let’s go through some the steps!

How to do a systematic literature review

There are numerous sources available to help those intending to undertake a systematic literature review. To conduct a systematic literature review, you will need:

  • An understanding of your research field or research topic
  • Knowledge and experience with searching academic databases thoroughly
  • Access to relevant academic databases
  • Proficiency in using and conducting analysis in Microsoft Excel (or similar software)
  • Lots of perseverance, critical thinking, and creativity.

Step 1: Have a contemporary topic in mind.

  • Check whether this topic has received sufficient attention, warranting a systematic literature review. A systematic literature review should include a substantial amount of research articles to derive meaningful conclusions.
  • Form a number of relevant research questions.
  • In case a systematic literature review has already been conducted on your topic of interest, you must ensure you differentiate your systematic review from others.
  • Timeliness is key when it comes to systematic literature reviews.

Step 2: Search for the literature.

  • Experiment with different keywords in different academic databases to assess database and keyword relevancy. As a minimum, at least two academic databases must be searched.
  • Download all hits from the databases.

Step 3: Establish inclusion and exclusion criteria.

  • Discuss with the research team the inclusion and exclusion criteria asking yourself the question: what research is relevant to our topic and research question, and what do we consider as irrelevant?
  • Keep a logbook of inclusion and exclusion criteria.

Step 4: Screen all hits from multiple databases.

  • Considering the inclusion and exclusion criteria set in the previous phase, screen all the hits.
  • Keep track of articles that you are excluding and including – and why.

Step 5: Read and code all papers – one by one.

  • Establish categories to code and subsequent coding protocol.
  • Some of the first-order categories included in systematic reviews may include authors, year of publication, journal, journal quality, methodology, and theory. Second-order categories included are quantitative versus qualitative research, specific quantitative or qualitative methods used, number of participants, occupation, and industry. For each research that meets one of these categories, a ‘1’ should be placed in the column, whereas a ‘0’ should be placed if the study does not meet this. Ideas for coding categories can also be found here.

Step 6: Analyse the codes and categories.

  • Once all papers are coded, you will have to analyse the findings. The type of analysis depends on the level of sophistication you intend to present. Many systematic literature reviews stick with descriptive statistics, such as percentages. While a systematic literature review allows for the computation of many different analyses, the researcher has to choose the most relevant to answer their research question.

Step 7: Produce the journal article.

Writing a journal article comprises many steps that fall beyond the scope of this blog, but there are further ideas here

There are some aspects you should keep track of in a logbook as you progress through the phases that will need mentioning in the journal article, including:

  • The systematic literature review method used, such as Bolt et al., (2022)
  • Justification of database selection and number of hits per database
  • The time period of the search and date searched
  • Any decisions made to include and exclude research
  • How the categories were formed, sources of categories, meaning of categories
  • Software versions used.

Last but not least: conducting a systematic review is a continuous, reiterative process – you will make changes to the coding categories and review process as you progress.


There are numerous ways to conduct a systematic literature review - the above overview represents our own experiences. We hope it encourages researchers to conduct their own systematic literature review. You are welcome to contact us through e-mail or LinkedIn if you have any questions about the above.

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