Formulating good literature review questions – part 1

As with any research, the primary decision in preparing a literature review is to establish its focus. This is done most effectively by asking clearly framed questions. By clearly formulating the question, criteria for primary study inclusion in the review become clear.

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The question(s) also defines the scope of the review. Finding an appropriate balance is key: a review that focuses on a specific question is likely to exclude much of the available evidence. Whereas making your question(s) broader is likely to take up more resources.

In the first instance, the review question may be a free form question, written in natural language. For example, how can I effectively lead a project team? The free-form question can then be structured into a focused and answerable question.

By clearly formulating the question, criteria for primary study inclusion in the review become clear. The question(s) defines the scope of the review. Finding an appropriate balance is key: a review that focuses on a specific context or intervention is likely to exclude much of the available evidence. Whereas making your question(s) broader is likely to take up more resources.“A good systematic review is based on a well-formulated, answerable question. The question guides the review by defining which studies will be included, what the search strategy to identify the relevant primary studies should be, and which data need to be extracted from each study. Ask a poor question and you will get a poor review.” (Counsell, 1997, p.381).

In reviewing these questions it must be acknowledge that there are multiple perspectives with regard to the meaning of key constructs. For example (adapted from Briner and Denyer, 2010):

  • What is meant by ‘team’? And what is not included as a ‘team’?
  • What kind of teams?
  • In which particular contexts or settings?
  • What is ‘leadership style’? And what is not ‘leadership style’?
  • What does ‘performance’ mean?
  • ‘Perform’ compared to any other team intervention? No intervention?
  • What outcomes are relevant?
  • What are the mechanisms, processes and theory which might account for possible effects of leadership style on team performance?
  • What time periods are relevant?

Team performance, may be measured in terms of project outcomes such as time, cost and quality. However, from team members’ perspective performance may be interpreted in terms of internal dynamics and their experience of being a team member. It is therefore essential to define key terms during the question formulation phase. Since definitions and concepts are value laden, different perspectives and beliefs need to be made transparent. Although the review questions are specified a priori a certain flexibility and modification of questions may be necessary as the reviewer gains a fuller understanding of the problem.

See: How to formulate effective literature review questions – part 2

Counsell, C. (1997). Formulating questions and locating primary studies for inclusion in systematic reviews. Annals of Internal Medicine, 127, 380-387.

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