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On being ‘systematic’ in literature reviews in IS

Abstract

General guidelines for conducting literature reviews often do not address the question of literature searches and dealing with a potentially large number of identified sources. These issues are specifically addressed by so-called systematic literature reviews (SLRs) that propose a strict protocol for the search and appraisal of literature. Moreover, SLRs are claimed to be a ‘standardized method’ for literature reviews that is replicable, transparent, objective, unbiased and rigorous, and thus superior to other approaches for conducting literature reviews. These are significant and consequential claims that – despite increasing adoption of SLRs – remained largely unnoticed in the information systems (IS) literature. The objective of this debate is to draw attention of the IS community to SLR’s claims, to question their justification and reveal potential risks of their adoption. This is achieved by first examining the origins of SLR and the prescribed SLR process and then by critically assessing their claims and implications. In this debate, we show that SLRs are applicable and useful for a very specific kind of literature review, a meta study that identifies and summarizes evidence from earlier research. We also demonstrate that the claims that SLRs provide superior quality are not justified. More importantly, we argue that SLR as a general approach to conducting literature reviews is highly questionable, concealing significant perils. The paper cautions that SLR could undermine critical engagement with literature and what it means to be scholarly in academic work.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    On 22 February 2014 we searched for the phrases ‘SLR’ and ‘SR’ in the AIS eLibrary and in Scopus. Our search specifically included all search fields and no limitation regarding publication date. However, in Scopus we limited our search to articles published in the AIS basket of eight journals: European Journal of Information Systems, Information Systems Journal, Information Systems Research, Journal of Information Technology, Journal of Management Systems, Journal of Strategic Management Systems, Journal of the AIS, and MIS Quarterly. Our search returned 498 results from the AIS eLibrary and 42 from Scopus, with only 3 publications overlapping.

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Boell, S., Cecez-Kecmanovic, D. On being ‘systematic’ in literature reviews in IS. J Inf Technol 30, 161–173 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/jit.2014.26

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Keywords

  • systematic literature review (SLR)
  • systematic review
  • conducting literature reviews
  • literature review
  • narrative literature review
  • database searches
  • literature search