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Research Methods: Scoping Reviews


A scoping review aims to map the key concepts in a research area AND the main sources and types of evidence. There isn't a research question to answer, rather you are mapping the concepts that make up the research area. 

According to Grant and Booth (2009): "...preliminary assessment of potential size and scope of available research literature.  Aims to identify nature and extent of research evidence (usually including ongoing research)." Scoping reviews are popular in the medical field, but have been used in other fields recently as well. Therefore, a lot of information about conducting a scoping review is centered around medical research. In summary: Investigates a broad area and what has been done in that area.

Why conduct a scoping review?

  • to summarize and disseminate research findings
  • to identify research gaps or general gaps in an area
  • make recommendations for the future research
  • map a body of literature with relevance to time, location (e.g. country or context), source (e.g. peer reviewed or grey literature), and origin (e.g. healthcare discipline or academic field) 

Colquhoun, 2016

Steps & Elements

  1. Identify research area to explore
  2. Find relevant studies through databases, reference lists, websites, conference proceedings, white papers, grey literature, etc.
    1. Keep track of all information sources you searched. Databases with dates of coverage, date searched, any limits or filters used (time, language, peer-reviewed, etc.)
    2. Keep track of the keywords you searched on.
    3. Your searches should be able to be repeated by others.
  3. Select studies related to the research area
    1. Keep track of inclusion / exclusion criteria.
  4. Chart the data on and from the research studies
    1. List and define all variables for which data you wanted
  5. Collate, summarize and report results
  6. (Optional) Consult stakeholders to get more information as they may provide insights on what the literature fails to highlight

Arksey & O'Malley, 2005


Keeping Track

One way to keep track of the information sources, keywords, and searches used for a scoping review is to use a spreadsheet with each worksheet / tab for one source (database, journal, web browser, etc.).

On a worksheet, columns would be keywords, number of results, and filters (and others if you like). Each row would be a different search strategy (you rarely get the results you want on the first go!). A very brief example of what this may look like is below.

Keywords / Search String Filters # of Results
"academic libraries" AND "information literacy" peer-reviewed, since January 2008 25,000
"academic libraries" AND "information literacy" AND "transfer students" peer-reviewed, since January 2012 2,200
"academic libraries" AND "information literacy" AND "transfer students" AND "community colleges" peer-reviewed, since January 2012 250

Additional Resources

What's the difference between a scoping review and a systematic review?

According to Arksey and O'Malley (2005): "...a systematic review might typically focus on a well- defined question where appropriate study designs can be identified in advance, whilst a scoping study tends to address broader topics where many different study designs might be applicable."


Comparison between systematic and scoping reviews

Systematic review  Scoping review 
  • Focused research question with narrow parameters 
  • Research question(s) often broad 
  • Inclusion/exclusion usually defined at outset 
  • Inclusion/exclusion can be developed post hoc 
  • Quality filters often applied 
  • Quality not an initial priority 
  • Detailed data extraction 
  • May or may not involve data extraction 
  • Quantitative synthesis often performed 
  • Synthesis more qualitative and typically not quantitative 
  • Formally assess the quality of studies and generates a conclusion relating to the focused research question 
  • Used to identify parameters and gaps in a body of literature 
Armstrong, Hall, Doyle, & Waters, 2011