How to do a rigorous, evidence-focused literature review in international development

This guidance note from Jessica Hagen-Zanker and Richard Mallett of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) outlines an eight-stage approach to writing a literature review that complies with the principles of a systematic review while still also allowing for innovation and reflexivity. 


"We discuss all stages of the review process, but pay particular attention to the retrieval phase, which, we argue, should consist of three interrelated tracks – important for navigating difficult 'information architecture'. We end by clarifying what it is in particular that sets this approach apart from fuller systematic reviews, as well as with some broader thoughts on the nature of ‘the literature review’ within international development and the social sciences more generally. The paper should thus be seen as sitting somewhere between a practical toolkit for those wishing to undertake a rigorous, evidence-focused review and a series of reflections on the role, purpose and application of literature reviews in policy research." (Hagen-Zanker and Mallett, 2013)


  • Literature reviews in international development: from orthodox to systematic 3
    • Shortcomings of orthodox literature reviews 3
    • Systematic reviews in development studies 4
  • What the process looks like and how it works 6
    • Stage 1: Setting the research question 7
    • Stage 2: Writing a protocol 8
    • Stage 3: Setting the inclusion/exclusion criteria 8
    • Stage 4: Writing the search strings 9
    • Stage 5: Retrieval 9
    • Stage 6: Screening 12
    • Stage 7: Evidence assessment 12
    • Stage 8: Analysis 15


Hagen-Zanker, J., and Mallett, R., (2013). How to do a rigorous, evidence-focused literature review in international development, Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Retrieved from: