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Physician Assistant: Literature Review

A guide to physician assistant library resources and research

What is a Literature Review

The literature review summarizes the arguments and ideas of others, and compares existing knowledge on a topic

  • survey of scholarly articles, books, grey literature relevant to an area of research or interest
  • describes, summarizes and critically evaluates each source for its strengths and weaknesses
  • identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic
  • identifies critical gaps or controversies in the literature
  • identifies further research questions that logically come out of the previous studies

The literature review

  • provides the historical background for your research
  • describes theories, debates, issues, concepts and related research in the field
  • will help you narrow your focus to a specific topic or research problem
  • shows how your research will address a gap or extend what is already know

The process

  • select a topic; state it as a well-defined, focused question; write down terms related to your topic; these will come in handy later
  • discuss your topic with your professor if the opportunity arises
  • decide on the scope of your review: how many studies do you need to look at? How many years should it cover? How many sources does the assignment require? How comprehensive should it be? Should you evaluate your sources?
  • search the literature: suggested databases such as PubMed, CINAHL Complete, Web of Science are listed in the Physician Assistant Research Guide.
  • consider what themes or issues connect your sources together; do they present one or different solutions?
  • include Grey Literature sources-: material that is not published commercially, such as reports written by government organizations, theses and dissertations (Dissertations & Theses Global), conference proceedings, annual reviews (collection of chapters written by experts on a specific topic)
  • you don't have to read everything on the topic; cite only the most important, relevant sources


  • the introduction section of your literature review will have background information; may also include history or current situation of the topic
  • the body of the review contains your discussion of sources; organize chronologically by when studies were published or thematically, or by method of the researcher or writer
  • the conclusions/recommendations section: discuss what conclusions you have come to from reviewing the literature so far; where might a researcher go from here?
  • cite the most important and most relevant sources (use Web of Science for "times cited" information)
  • include what was not addressed in previous studies
  • develop the argument: decide how to organize and present your case; explain why you are undertaking your study
  • synthesize and analyze the evidence to create a logical and defensible conclusion
  • critique the literature; your critique interprets the research and explains how/if current knowledge answers the question you're researching
  • use a citation management tool to keep track of your citations, such as RefWorks, EndNote, Zotero, Mendeley.

Important!  going from a research problem to the literature search is not a straightforward process. You may have to try several search terms and strategies before you're satisfied with your topic.