Types of scholarly literature
You will encounter many types of articles and it is important to distinguish between these different categories of scholarly literature. Keep in mind the following definitions.
Peer-reviewed (or refereed): Refers to articles that have undergone a rigorous review process, often including revisions to the original manuscript, by peers in their discipline, before publication in a scholarly journal. This can include empirical studies, review articles, meta-analyses among others.
Empirical study (or primary article): An empirical study is one that aims to gain new knowledge on a topic through direct or indirect observation and research. These include quantitative or qualitative data and analysis. In science, an empirical article will often include the following sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion.
Review article: In the scientific literature, this is a type of article that provides a synthesis of existing research on a particular topic. These are useful when you want to get an idea of a body of research that you are not yet familiar with. It differs from a systematic review in that it does not aim to capture ALL of the research on a particular topic.
Systematic review: This is a methodical and thorough literature review focused on a particular research question. It's aim is to identify and synthesize all of the scholarly research on a particular topic in an unbiased, reproducible way to provide evidence for practice and policy-making. It may involve a meta-analysis (see below).
Meta-analysis: This is a type of research study that combines or contrasts data from different independent studies in a new analysis in order to strengthen the understanding of a particular topic. There are many methods, some complex, applied to performing this type of analysis.
Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research
Not all scientific studies are created equal! Study design can impact the strength and quality of evidence that a study holds. This 'Evidence Pyramid' depicts the levels of evidence provided by different types of studies and information. The wide base of the pyramid indicates that there are many editorials and expert opinions, but that they provide the weakest evidence to inform policy and decision-making. There are many fewer systematic reviews on a topic, but these represent the pinnacle of research evidence.
Sources for systematic reviews
Searching for existing systematic reviews on a topic related to your own research question can be a good place to start. These systematic reviews may provide a model for approaching your own review of the literature, including recommended search strategies and resources. The following are links to online libraries of systematic reviews and evidence documents for health and other areas of policy-making.