Literature reviews play a critical role in scholarship because science remains, first and foremost, a cumulative endeavour (vom Brocke et al., 2009). As in any academic discipline, rigorous knowledge syntheses are becoming indispensable in keeping up with an exponentially growing eHealth literature, assisting practitioners, academics, and graduate students in finding, evaluating, and synthesizing the contents of many empirical and conceptual papers. Among other methods, literature reviews are essential for: (a) identifying what has been written on a subject or topic; (b) determining the extent to which a specific research area reveals any interpretable trends or patterns; (c) aggregating empirical findings related to a narrow research question to support evidence-based practice; (d) generating new frameworks and theories; and (e) identifying topics or questions requiring more investigation (Paré, Trudel, Jaana, & Kitsiou, 2015).
Literature reviews can take two major forms. The most prevalent one is the “literature review” or “background” section within a journal paper or a chapter in a graduate thesis. This section synthesizes the extant literature and usually identifies the gaps in knowledge that the empirical study addresses (Sylvester, Tate, & Johnstone, 2013). It may also provide a theoretical foundation for the proposed study, substantiate the presence of the research problem, justify the research as one that contributes something new to the cumulated knowledge, or validate the methods and approaches for the proposed study (Hart, 1998; Levy & Ellis, 2006).
The second form of literature review, which is the focus of this chapter, constitutes an original and valuable work of research in and of itself (Paré et al., 2015). Rather than providing a base for a researcher’s own work, it creates a solid starting point for all members of the community interested in a particular area or topic (Mulrow, 1987). The so-called “review article” is a journal-length paper which has an overarching purpose to synthesize the literature in a field, without collecting or analyzing any primary data (Green, Johnson, & Adams, 2006).
When appropriately conducted, review articles represent powerful information sources for practitioners looking for state-of-the art evidence to guide their decision-making and work practices (Paré et al., 2015). Further, high-quality reviews become frequently cited pieces of work which researchers seek out as a first clear outline of the literature when undertaking empirical studies (Cooper, 1988; Rowe, 2014). Scholars who track and gauge the impact of articles have found that review papers are cited and downloaded more often than any other type of published article (Cronin, Ryan, & Coughlan, 2008; Montori, Wilczynski, Morgan, Haynes, & Hedges, 2003; Patsopoulos, Analatos, & Ioannidis, 2005). The reason for their popularity may be the fact that reading the review enables one to have an overview, if not a detailed knowledge of the area in question, as well as references to the most useful primary sources (Cronin et al., 2008). Although they are not easy to conduct, the commitment to complete a review article provides a tremendous service to one’s academic community (Paré et al., 2015; Petticrew & Roberts, 2006). Most, if not all, peer-reviewed journals in the fields of medical informatics publish review articles of some type.
The main objectives of this chapter are fourfold: (a) to provide an overview of the major steps and activities involved in conducting a stand-alone literature review; (b) to describe and contrast the different types of review articles that can contribute to the eHealth knowledge base; (c) to illustrate each review type with one or two examples from the eHealth literature; and (d) to provide a series of recommendations for prospective authors of review articles in this domain.