Scoping Review, Systematic Review or Review of the Literature what is the difference?

Clare Tope is a lecturer in Education Studies (primary) at the Open University.

When, preparing to write a literature review I came across three articles:

I wondered how I should appraise evidence presented in these three different kinds of reviews.  For clarity I refer to the third article as a ‘traditional review of literature’.

The first, possibly somewhat obvious, point is that all three kinds of review can either be a stand-alone published piece of work or part of a research project.  The second is that all three reviews cite evidence which indicates what is already known about a theme or concept. A further similarity is that none of the three reviews aimed to present new knowledge; it could however be argued that all include secondary analysis of knowledge.

When looking at the scoping and systematic reviews it seemed that both included an articulation and justification of the approach taken to the search for literature, such as inclusion and exclusion criteria, databases searched and key words. In each case this was then followed by a review of literature that was systematic.  Both reviews provided the reader with a transparent and objective process to researching literature.  One key difference between these two particular kinds of review and a ‘traditional’ literature reviews became immediately apparent; the ‘traditional review’ did not include an articulation or justification of a methodology.

Further reading was needed to identify the difference between a scoping review and a systematic review (Joanna Briggs InstituteCritical Appraisal Skills Programme). One difference seemed to lay in the purpose of the two kinds of review.  It appears that it is generally accepted that the aim of a systematic review is to identify and retrieve evidence that is relevant to a particular question or questions. A scoping review is more likely to provide an overview or map of the available evidence; it might even act as a precursor to a systematic review.  There also seems to be a difference in the range of sources that are explored. A systematic review will typically focus on providing a critically appraised and synthesised account and so may draw on a relatively narrow range of quality assessed studies. A scoping study is likely to draw on a broader range of studies but less likely to assess quality of the studies. This has the advantage of giving equal value to different traditions rather than privileging particular design, but the disadvantage is that scoping studies may provide a narrative or descriptive account of available research. Finally, the inclusion of implications for practice is recommended in reporting guidelines for systematics reviews. Typically, an assessment of the methodological limitations or risk of bias is not included within a scoping review, this means that the potential to provide concrete guidance for policy or practice is limited.

What advice would you give me about how I should appraise literature from these three different kinds of review?

Clare Tope  joined the Open University in July 2019. Clare specialises in primary mathematics.  She has just finished a project exploring what students notice in primary mathematics textbooks ( ‘Noticing’ examples presented in primary mathematics textbooks).

She is currently in her second year of the Professional Doctorate Programme where she is focusing on teacher responses to research about the teaching and learning of mathematical reasoning in the primary phase.


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