A Systems Approach to Conduct an Effective Literature Review in Support of Information Systems Research

By Levy, Yair; Ellis, Timothy J. | Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

A Systems Approach to Conduct an Effective Literature Review in Support of Information Systems Research


Levy, Yair, Ellis, Timothy J., Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline


Introduction

A methodological review of past literature is a crucial endeavor for any academic research (Webster & Watson, 2002, pp. 48-49). The need to uncover what is already known in the body of knowledge prior to initiating any research study should not be underestimated (Hart, 1998). Some fields of studies, such as engineering, have chronically suffered from a lack of proper literature reviews, which has hindered theoretical and conceptual progress (D. Shaw, 1995). Webster and Watson (2002) also criticized the Information Systems (IS) field for having very few theories and outlets for quality literature review. Moreover, they noted that the IS field may greatly benefit from effective methodological literature reviews that are " ... strengthening IS as a field of study" (Webster & Watson, 2002, p. 14). In light of these considerations, the central aim of this study is to address the issue of developing an effective literature review by proposing a systematic approach that will guide the researcher on such a daunting task.

This paper is divided into four main sections. The rest of this introductory section will address what a literature review is and why a literature review is crucial for research. The following three sections will review the three steps of the proposed systematic approach for literature review. Section two will address the literature review inputs including: ways to find applicable literature, qualifying the literature, ways to read research literature, and how to know that one is done with the literature search. The third section will review the proposed process for analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating the literature. The final section addresses the output step of this systematic process by proposing an approach to writing the actual literature review following the theory of argument.

What is a Literature Review?

Novice researchers tend to approach the literature review as nothing more than a collection of summaries of papers or an elaborated annotated bibliography of multiple research manuscripts (Webster & Watson, 2002). A meaningful literature review is much more. Hart (1998) defined the literature review as "the use of ideas in the literature to justify the particular approach to the topic, the selection of methods, and demonstration that this research contributes something new" (p. 1). He also noted that for the literature review, "quality means appropriate breadth and depth, rigor and consistency, clarity and brevity, and effective analysis and synthesis" (Hart, 1998, p. 1). J. Shaw (1995) noted that the process of the review should "explain how one piece of research builds on another" (p. 326). Webster and Watson (2002) defined an effective literature review as one that "creates a firm foundation for advancing knowledge. It facilitates theory development, closes areas where a plethora of research exists, and uncovers areas where research is needed" (p. 13). From these definitions it is clear that an effective literature review should include the following characteristics: a) methodologically analyze and synthesize quality literature, b) provide a firm foundation to a research topic, c) provide a firm foundation to the selection of research methodology, and d) demonstrate that the proposed research contributes something new to the overall body of knowledge or advances the research field's knowledge-base.

Stages of the literature review process

This paper presents the literature review process in a systematic way following the "input-processing-output" approach. "Process" is defined in the context of this work as sequential steps of activities (Sethi & King, 1998). Thus, following the description of what constitutes an effective literature review combined with the definition of process proposed here, this study defines literature review process as: sequential steps to collect, know, comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate quality literature in order to provide a firm foundation to a topic and research method.

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