5 Common Challenges of Systematic Literature Review in PhD Theses

PhD Theses, Research

5th July 2024

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Conducting a systematic literature review is a crucial component of a PhD thesis. It involves comprehensively searching for, appraising, and synthesising research evidence to answer a specific research question. A systematic literature review can provide a solid foundation for your research, but it comes with its challenges. This article explores the common challenges faced during this process and offers insights into overcoming them.

Understanding Literature Review Types

Before delving into the challenges, it’s essential to understand the different literature review types:

  • Narrative Review of Literature: A narrative review summarises and interprets previous research on a topic. It is less structured and focuses on a broad overview rather than a comprehensive synthesis.
  • Systematic Review: A systematic review is a methodical and rigorous approach to reviewing literature. It aims to minimise bias by following a predefined protocol, including specific criteria for selecting studies and methods for data extraction and synthesis.
  • Meta-Analysis: A type of systematic review that uses statistical techniques to combine results from multiple studies to identify patterns, differences, and overall effects.

Challenge 1: Defining a Clear Research Question

A common issue in writing a literature review is defining a precise and clear research question. This step is fundamental because it guides the entire review process, including the search strategy and inclusion criteria.

Solution: To overcome this challenge, spend sufficient time refining your research question. Use the PICO (Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome) framework if applicable. Ensure your question is specific, manageable, and relevant to your field of study.

Challenge 2: Comprehensive Search Strategy

A systematic review example demonstrates the necessity of a comprehensive search strategy. Identifying all relevant studies requires searching multiple databases, grey literature, and other sources. Missing important studies can lead to biased results and incomplete conclusions.

Solution: Develop a detailed search strategy that includes:

  • Selecting appropriate databases and sources.
  • Using a combination of keywords and Boolean operators.
  • Documenting your search process meticulously to ensure reproducibility.

Challenge 3: Screening and Selection of Studies

Screening and selecting studies for inclusion in your review is time-consuming and prone to bias. Ensuring that only relevant and high-quality studies are included can be challenging, particularly when dealing with a large volume of literature.


  • Define Clear Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria: Establish criteria based on your research question and objectives.
  • Use a Systematic Approach: Apply the criteria consistently and document your decisions.
  • Dual Screening: Involve at least one other researcher in the screening process to reduce bias and increase reliability.

Challenge 4: Data Extraction and Management

Extracting data from selected studies accurately and systematically is crucial but can be difficult due to variations in study designs, reporting standards, and outcomes measured. This challenge is particularly pronounced in systematic reviews due to the need for precise and consistent data extraction.


  • Develop a Data Extraction Form: Create a standardised form to ensure consistency and completeness.
  • Pilot the Form: Test the form on a few studies to identify and address any issues.
  • Use Software Tools: Use tools like Excel, NVivo, or specialised systematic review software to manage and organise data efficiently.

Challenge 5: Synthesis and Interpretation of Results

Synthesising and interpreting results from multiple studies can be challenging, especially when dealing with heterogeneous data. The synthesis should provide a clear and coherent narrative that answers the research question and highlights gaps and inconsistencies in the literature.


  • Choose an Appropriate Synthesis Method: Depending on the nature of your data, you might use narrative synthesis, meta-analysis, or another suitable method.
  • Be Transparent: Clearly describe your synthesis methods and justify your choices.
  • Highlight Patterns and Themes: Focus on identifying overarching patterns, themes, and relationships in the data.

Overcoming Challenges in Writing Literature Review

In addition to the specific challenges of a systematic literature review, PhD students commonly face general obstacles in writing a literature review. These include managing a large volume of information, maintaining a critical perspective, and ensuring coherence and structure in the review.

To address these challenges, it is essential to organise your literature effectively. Utilising reference management tools like EndNote or Zotero can help keep your references well-organised. Additionally, creating summaries and notes for each study allows you to track key points and themes efficiently.

Evaluating the quality and relevance of each study is another crucial step. Consider factors such as study design, sample size, and potential biases when assessing the literature. Being critical of the evidence and acknowledging any limitations in the existing research will strengthen your review.

Creating a detailed outline before writing your review is also vital. Group studies by themes or subtopics to ensure a logical flow in your review. Using headings and subheadings can guide the reader and maintain clarity throughout your writing. By following these strategies, you can overcome common obstacles and produce a coherent and structured literature review.

Practical Tips for Success

Here are some additional practical tips to help you navigate the challenges of a systematic literature review:

  1. Stay Organised: Keep detailed records of your search strategies, screening decisions, and data extraction. This organisation will save you time and frustration later in the process.
  2. Seek Feedback: Regularly consult with your supervisor or colleagues to get feedback on your progress and approach.
  3. Be Patient and Persistent: Systematic reviews are labour-intensive and time-consuming. Stay patient and persistent, and don’t be discouraged by setbacks.
  4. Use Support Resources: Resources like workshops, online courses, and software tutorials can improve your skills and knowledge in systematic review methodologies.

Let Us Help You With your Literature Review

Conducting a systematic literature review for your PhD thesis presents several challenges, including defining a clear research question, developing a comprehensive search strategy, screening and selecting studies, extracting and managing data, and synthesising results. By understanding these challenges and implementing the strategies outlined in this article, you can overcome these obstacles and produce a rigorous and insightful literature review. 

If you’re at the beginning of your PhD journey and struggling with the literature review section of your thesis, we’re here to assist. Our academic experts understand what it takes to craft a comprehensive literature review or a systematic literature review, and they can support you no matter your field of study. Get in touch to learn more.