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Literature Review and Theoretical Framework: Understanding the Differences

Sumalatha G

Table of Contents

A literature review and a theoretical framework are both important components of academic research. However, they serve different purposes and have distinct characteristics. In this article, we will examine the concepts of literature review and theoretical framework, explore their significance, and highlight the key differences between the two.

Defining the Concepts: Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

Before we dive into the details, let's clarify what a literature review and a theoretical framework actually mean.

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a critical analysis and synthesis of existing research and scholarly articles on a specific topic. It involves reviewing and summarizing the current knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. By examining previous studies, the scholar can identify knowledge gaps, assess the strengths and weaknesses of existing research, and present a comprehensive overview of the topic.

When conducting a literature review, the scholar delves into a vast array of sources, including academic journals, books, conference proceedings, and reputable online databases. This extensive exploration allows them to gather relevant information, theories, and methodologies related to their research topic.

Furthermore, a literature review provides a solid foundation for the research by establishing the context and significance of the study. It helps researchers identify the key concepts, theories, and variables that are relevant to their research objectives. By critically analyzing the existing literature, scholars can identify research gaps and propose new avenues for scientific investigation.

Moreover, a literature review is not merely a summary of previous studies. It requires a critical evaluation of the methodologies used, the quality of the data collected, and the validity of the conclusions drawn.

Researchers must assess the credibility and reliability of the sources they include in their review to ensure the accuracy and robustness of their analysis.

What is a Theoretical Framework?

A theoretical framework provides a conceptual explanation for the research problem or question being investigated. It serves as a foundation that guides the formulation of hypotheses and research objectives. A theoretical framework helps researchers to analyze and interpret their findings by establishing a set of assumptions, concepts, and relationships that underpin their study. It provides a structured framework for organizing and presenting research outcomes.

When developing a theoretical framework, researchers draw upon existing theories and concepts from relevant disciplines to create a conceptual framework that aligns with their research objectives. This framework helps researchers to define the variables they will study, establish the relationships between these variables, and propose hypotheses that can be tested through empirical research.

Furthermore, a theoretical framework provides a roadmap for researchers to navigate through the complexities of their study. It helps them to identify the key constructs and variables that need to be measured and analyzed. By providing a clear structure, the theoretical framework ensures that researchers stay focused on their research objectives and avoid getting lost in a sea of information.

Moreover, a theoretical framework allows researchers to make connections between their study and existing theories or models. By building upon established knowledge, researchers can contribute to the advancement of their field and provide new insights and perspectives. The theoretical framework also helps researchers interpret their findings in a meaningful way and draw conclusions that have theoretical and practical implications.

In summary, both a literature review and a theoretical framework play crucial roles in the research process. While a literature review provides a comprehensive overview of existing knowledge and identifies research gaps, a theoretical framework establishes the conceptual foundation for the study and guides the formulation of research objectives and hypotheses. Together, these two elements contribute to the development of a robust and well-grounded research study.

The Purpose and Importance of Literature Reviews

Now that we have a clear understanding of what a literature review is, let's explore its purpose and significance.

A literature review plays a crucial role in academic research. It serves several purposes, including:

  • Providing a comprehensive understanding of the existing literature in a particular field.
  • Identifying the gaps, controversies, or inconsistencies in the current knowledge.
  • Helping researchers to refine their research questions and objectives.
  • Ensuring that the research being conducted is novel and contributes to the existing body of knowledge.

The Benefits of Conducting a Literature Review

There are numerous benefits to conducting a literature review, such as:

  • Enhancing the researcher's knowledge and understanding of the subject area.
  • Providing a framework for developing research hypotheses and objectives.
  • Identifying potential research methodologies and approaches.
  • Informing the selection of appropriate data collection and analysis methods.
  • Guiding the interpretation and discussion of research findings.

The Purpose and Importance of Theoretical Frameworks

Moving on to theoretical frameworks, let us discuss their purpose and importance.

When conducting research, theoretical frameworks play a crucial role in providing a solid foundation for the study. They serve as a guiding tool for researchers, helping them navigate through the complexities of their research and providing a framework for understanding and interpreting their findings.

The Function of Theoretical Frameworks in Research

Theoretical frameworks serve multiple functions in research:

  • Providing a conceptual framework enables researchers to clearly define the scope and direction of their study.
  • Acting as a roadmap, guiding researchers in formulating their research objectives and hypotheses. It helps them identify the key variables and relationships they want to explore, providing a solid foundation for their research.
  • Helping researchers identify and select appropriate research methods and techniques. When it comes to selecting research methods and techniques, theoretical frameworks are invaluable. They provide researchers with a lens through which they can evaluate different methods and techniques, ensuring that they choose the most appropriate ones for their study. By aligning their methods with the theoretical framework, researchers can enhance the validity and reliability of their research.
  • Supporting the interpretation and explanation of research findings. Once the data has been collected, theoretical frameworks help researchers make sense of their findings. They provide a framework for interpreting and explaining the results, allowing researchers to draw meaningful conclusions. By grounding their analysis in a theoretical framework, researchers can provide a solid foundation for their findings and contribute to the existing body of knowledge.
  • Facilitating the integration of new knowledge with existing theories and concepts. Theoretical frameworks also play a crucial role in the advancement of knowledge. By integrating new findings with existing theories and concepts, researchers can contribute to the development of their field.

The Advantages of Developing a Theoretical Framework

Developing a theoretical framework offers several advantages:

  • Enhancing the researcher's understanding of the research problem. By developing a theoretical framework, researchers gain a deeper understanding of the research problem they are investigating.  This enhanced understanding allows researchers to approach their study with clarity and purpose.
  • Facilitating the selection of an appropriate research design. Choosing the right research design is crucial for the success of a study. A well-developed theoretical framework helps researchers select the most appropriate research design by providing a clear direction and focus. It ensures that the research design aligns with the research objectives and hypotheses, maximizing the chances of obtaining valid and reliable results.
  • Helping researchers organize their thoughts and ideas systematically. This organization helps researchers stay focused and ensures that all aspects of the research problem are considered. By structuring their thoughts, researchers can effectively communicate their ideas and findings to others.
  • Guiding the analysis and interpretation of research findings. When it comes to analyzing and interpreting research findings, a theoretical framework provides researchers with a framework to guide their process. It helps researchers identify patterns, relationships, and themes within the data, allowing for a more comprehensive analysis.

Developing a theoretical framework is essential for ensuring the validity and reliability of a study. By aligning the research with established theories and concepts, researchers can enhance the credibility of their study. A well-developed theoretical framework provides a solid foundation for the research, increasing the chances of obtaining accurate and meaningful results.

Differences Between Literature Reviews and Theoretical Frameworks

Now, let's explore the key differences between literature reviews and theoretical frameworks.

Key Differences:

  • Focus: A literature review focuses on summarizing existing research, while a theoretical framework focuses on providing a conceptual foundation for the study.
  • Scope: A literature review covers a broad range of related research, while a theoretical framework is more specific to the research problem at hand.
  • Timing: A literature review is typically conducted early in the research process, while a theoretical framework is often developed alongside the research design.
  • Purpose: A literature review aims to inform the research and establish its context, while a theoretical framework aims to guide the interpretation and analysis of findings.

In conclusion

Understanding the distinction between a literature review and a theoretical framework is crucial for conducting effective and meaningful academic research. While a literature review provides an overview of existing research, a theoretical framework guides the formulation, analysis, and interpretation of research. Both components are essential for building a strong foundation of knowledge in any field. By comprehending their purpose, significance, and key differences, researchers can enhance the quality and rigor of their research endeavors.

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  • v.21(3); Fall 2022

Literature Reviews, Theoretical Frameworks, and Conceptual Frameworks: An Introduction for New Biology Education Researchers

Julie a. luft.

† Department of Mathematics, Social Studies, and Science Education, Mary Frances Early College of Education, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-7124

Sophia Jeong

‡ Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education & Human Ecology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210

Robert Idsardi

§ Department of Biology, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA 99004

Grant Gardner

∥ Department of Biology, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN 37132

Associated Data

To frame their work, biology education researchers need to consider the role of literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks as critical elements of the research and writing process. However, these elements can be confusing for scholars new to education research. This Research Methods article is designed to provide an overview of each of these elements and delineate the purpose of each in the educational research process. We describe what biology education researchers should consider as they conduct literature reviews, identify theoretical frameworks, and construct conceptual frameworks. Clarifying these different components of educational research studies can be helpful to new biology education researchers and the biology education research community at large in situating their work in the broader scholarly literature.


Discipline-based education research (DBER) involves the purposeful and situated study of teaching and learning in specific disciplinary areas ( Singer et al. , 2012 ). Studies in DBER are guided by research questions that reflect disciplines’ priorities and worldviews. Researchers can use quantitative data, qualitative data, or both to answer these research questions through a variety of methodological traditions. Across all methodologies, there are different methods associated with planning and conducting educational research studies that include the use of surveys, interviews, observations, artifacts, or instruments. Ensuring the coherence of these elements to the discipline’s perspective also involves situating the work in the broader scholarly literature. The tools for doing this include literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks. However, the purpose and function of each of these elements is often confusing to new education researchers. The goal of this article is to introduce new biology education researchers to these three important elements important in DBER scholarship and the broader educational literature.

The first element we discuss is a review of research (literature reviews), which highlights the need for a specific research question, study problem, or topic of investigation. Literature reviews situate the relevance of the study within a topic and a field. The process may seem familiar to science researchers entering DBER fields, but new researchers may still struggle in conducting the review. Booth et al. (2016b) highlight some of the challenges novice education researchers face when conducting a review of literature. They point out that novice researchers struggle in deciding how to focus the review, determining the scope of articles needed in the review, and knowing how to be critical of the articles in the review. Overcoming these challenges (and others) can help novice researchers construct a sound literature review that can inform the design of the study and help ensure the work makes a contribution to the field.

The second and third highlighted elements are theoretical and conceptual frameworks. These guide biology education research (BER) studies, and may be less familiar to science researchers. These elements are important in shaping the construction of new knowledge. Theoretical frameworks offer a way to explain and interpret the studied phenomenon, while conceptual frameworks clarify assumptions about the studied phenomenon. Despite the importance of these constructs in educational research, biology educational researchers have noted the limited use of theoretical or conceptual frameworks in published work ( DeHaan, 2011 ; Dirks, 2011 ; Lo et al. , 2019 ). In reviewing articles published in CBE—Life Sciences Education ( LSE ) between 2015 and 2019, we found that fewer than 25% of the research articles had a theoretical or conceptual framework (see the Supplemental Information), and at times there was an inconsistent use of theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Clearly, these frameworks are challenging for published biology education researchers, which suggests the importance of providing some initial guidance to new biology education researchers.

Fortunately, educational researchers have increased their explicit use of these frameworks over time, and this is influencing educational research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. For instance, a quick search for theoretical or conceptual frameworks in the abstracts of articles in Educational Research Complete (a common database for educational research) in STEM fields demonstrates a dramatic change over the last 20 years: from only 778 articles published between 2000 and 2010 to 5703 articles published between 2010 and 2020, a more than sevenfold increase. Greater recognition of the importance of these frameworks is contributing to DBER authors being more explicit about such frameworks in their studies.

Collectively, literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks work to guide methodological decisions and the elucidation of important findings. Each offers a different perspective on the problem of study and is an essential element in all forms of educational research. As new researchers seek to learn about these elements, they will find different resources, a variety of perspectives, and many suggestions about the construction and use of these elements. The wide range of available information can overwhelm the new researcher who just wants to learn the distinction between these elements or how to craft them adequately.

Our goal in writing this paper is not to offer specific advice about how to write these sections in scholarly work. Instead, we wanted to introduce these elements to those who are new to BER and who are interested in better distinguishing one from the other. In this paper, we share the purpose of each element in BER scholarship, along with important points on its construction. We also provide references for additional resources that may be beneficial to better understanding each element. Table 1 summarizes the key distinctions among these elements.

Comparison of literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual reviews

Literature reviewsTheoretical frameworksConceptual frameworks
PurposeTo point out the need for the study in BER and connection to the field.To state the assumptions and orientations of the researcher regarding the topic of studyTo describe the researcher’s understanding of the main concepts under investigation
AimsA literature review examines current and relevant research associated with the study question. It is comprehensive, critical, and purposeful.A theoretical framework illuminates the phenomenon of study and the corresponding assumptions adopted by the researcher. Frameworks can take on different orientations.The conceptual framework is created by the researcher(s), includes the presumed relationships among concepts, and addresses needed areas of study discovered in literature reviews.
Connection to the manuscriptA literature review should connect to the study question, guide the study methodology, and be central in the discussion by indicating how the analyzed data advances what is known in the field.  A theoretical framework drives the question, guides the types of methods for data collection and analysis, informs the discussion of the findings, and reveals the subjectivities of the researcher.The conceptual framework is informed by literature reviews, experiences, or experiments. It may include emergent ideas that are not yet grounded in the literature. It should be coherent with the paper’s theoretical framing.
Additional pointsA literature review may reach beyond BER and include other education research fields.A theoretical framework does not rationalize the need for the study, and a theoretical framework can come from different fields.A conceptual framework articulates the phenomenon under study through written descriptions and/or visual representations.

This article is written for the new biology education researcher who is just learning about these different elements or for scientists looking to become more involved in BER. It is a result of our own work as science education and biology education researchers, whether as graduate students and postdoctoral scholars or newly hired and established faculty members. This is the article we wish had been available as we started to learn about these elements or discussed them with new educational researchers in biology.


Purpose of a literature review.

A literature review is foundational to any research study in education or science. In education, a well-conceptualized and well-executed review provides a summary of the research that has already been done on a specific topic and identifies questions that remain to be answered, thus illustrating the current research project’s potential contribution to the field and the reasoning behind the methodological approach selected for the study ( Maxwell, 2012 ). BER is an evolving disciplinary area that is redefining areas of conceptual emphasis as well as orientations toward teaching and learning (e.g., Labov et al. , 2010 ; American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2011 ; Nehm, 2019 ). As a result, building comprehensive, critical, purposeful, and concise literature reviews can be a challenge for new biology education researchers.

Building Literature Reviews

There are different ways to approach and construct a literature review. Booth et al. (2016a) provide an overview that includes, for example, scoping reviews, which are focused only on notable studies and use a basic method of analysis, and integrative reviews, which are the result of exhaustive literature searches across different genres. Underlying each of these different review processes are attention to the s earch process, a ppraisa l of articles, s ynthesis of the literature, and a nalysis: SALSA ( Booth et al. , 2016a ). This useful acronym can help the researcher focus on the process while building a specific type of review.

However, new educational researchers often have questions about literature reviews that are foundational to SALSA or other approaches. Common questions concern determining which literature pertains to the topic of study or the role of the literature review in the design of the study. This section addresses such questions broadly while providing general guidance for writing a narrative literature review that evaluates the most pertinent studies.

The literature review process should begin before the research is conducted. As Boote and Beile (2005 , p. 3) suggested, researchers should be “scholars before researchers.” They point out that having a good working knowledge of the proposed topic helps illuminate avenues of study. Some subject areas have a deep body of work to read and reflect upon, providing a strong foundation for developing the research question(s). For instance, the teaching and learning of evolution is an area of long-standing interest in the BER community, generating many studies (e.g., Perry et al. , 2008 ; Barnes and Brownell, 2016 ) and reviews of research (e.g., Sickel and Friedrichsen, 2013 ; Ziadie and Andrews, 2018 ). Emerging areas of BER include the affective domain, issues of transfer, and metacognition ( Singer et al. , 2012 ). Many studies in these areas are transdisciplinary and not always specific to biology education (e.g., Rodrigo-Peiris et al. , 2018 ; Kolpikova et al. , 2019 ). These newer areas may require reading outside BER; fortunately, summaries of some of these topics can be found in the Current Insights section of the LSE website.

In focusing on a specific problem within a broader research strand, a new researcher will likely need to examine research outside BER. Depending upon the area of study, the expanded reading list might involve a mix of BER, DBER, and educational research studies. Determining the scope of the reading is not always straightforward. A simple way to focus one’s reading is to create a “summary phrase” or “research nugget,” which is a very brief descriptive statement about the study. It should focus on the essence of the study, for example, “first-year nonmajor students’ understanding of evolution,” “metacognitive prompts to enhance learning during biochemistry,” or “instructors’ inquiry-based instructional practices after professional development programming.” This type of phrase should help a new researcher identify two or more areas to review that pertain to the study. Focusing on recent research in the last 5 years is a good first step. Additional studies can be identified by reading relevant works referenced in those articles. It is also important to read seminal studies that are more than 5 years old. Reading a range of studies should give the researcher the necessary command of the subject in order to suggest a research question.

Given that the research question(s) arise from the literature review, the review should also substantiate the selected methodological approach. The review and research question(s) guide the researcher in determining how to collect and analyze data. Often the methodological approach used in a study is selected to contribute knowledge that expands upon what has been published previously about the topic (see Institute of Education Sciences and National Science Foundation, 2013 ). An emerging topic of study may need an exploratory approach that allows for a description of the phenomenon and development of a potential theory. This could, but not necessarily, require a methodological approach that uses interviews, observations, surveys, or other instruments. An extensively studied topic may call for the additional understanding of specific factors or variables; this type of study would be well suited to a verification or a causal research design. These could entail a methodological approach that uses valid and reliable instruments, observations, or interviews to determine an effect in the studied event. In either of these examples, the researcher(s) may use a qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods methodological approach.

Even with a good research question, there is still more reading to be done. The complexity and focus of the research question dictates the depth and breadth of the literature to be examined. Questions that connect multiple topics can require broad literature reviews. For instance, a study that explores the impact of a biology faculty learning community on the inquiry instruction of faculty could have the following review areas: learning communities among biology faculty, inquiry instruction among biology faculty, and inquiry instruction among biology faculty as a result of professional learning. Biology education researchers need to consider whether their literature review requires studies from different disciplines within or outside DBER. For the example given, it would be fruitful to look at research focused on learning communities with faculty in STEM fields or in general education fields that result in instructional change. It is important not to be too narrow or too broad when reading. When the conclusions of articles start to sound similar or no new insights are gained, the researcher likely has a good foundation for a literature review. This level of reading should allow the researcher to demonstrate a mastery in understanding the researched topic, explain the suitability of the proposed research approach, and point to the need for the refined research question(s).

The literature review should include the researcher’s evaluation and critique of the selected studies. A researcher may have a large collection of studies, but not all of the studies will follow standards important in the reporting of empirical work in the social sciences. The American Educational Research Association ( Duran et al. , 2006 ), for example, offers a general discussion about standards for such work: an adequate review of research informing the study, the existence of sound and appropriate data collection and analysis methods, and appropriate conclusions that do not overstep or underexplore the analyzed data. The Institute of Education Sciences and National Science Foundation (2013) also offer Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development that can be used to evaluate collected studies.

Because not all journals adhere to such standards, it is important that a researcher review each study to determine the quality of published research, per the guidelines suggested earlier. In some instances, the research may be fatally flawed. Examples of such flaws include data that do not pertain to the question, a lack of discussion about the data collection, poorly constructed instruments, or an inadequate analysis. These types of errors result in studies that are incomplete, error-laden, or inaccurate and should be excluded from the review. Most studies have limitations, and the author(s) often make them explicit. For instance, there may be an instructor effect, recognized bias in the analysis, or issues with the sample population. Limitations are usually addressed by the research team in some way to ensure a sound and acceptable research process. Occasionally, the limitations associated with the study can be significant and not addressed adequately, which leaves a consequential decision in the hands of the researcher. Providing critiques of studies in the literature review process gives the reader confidence that the researcher has carefully examined relevant work in preparation for the study and, ultimately, the manuscript.

A solid literature review clearly anchors the proposed study in the field and connects the research question(s), the methodological approach, and the discussion. Reviewing extant research leads to research questions that will contribute to what is known in the field. By summarizing what is known, the literature review points to what needs to be known, which in turn guides decisions about methodology. Finally, notable findings of the new study are discussed in reference to those described in the literature review.

Within published BER studies, literature reviews can be placed in different locations in an article. When included in the introductory section of the study, the first few paragraphs of the manuscript set the stage, with the literature review following the opening paragraphs. Cooper et al. (2019) illustrate this approach in their study of course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). An introduction discussing the potential of CURES is followed by an analysis of the existing literature relevant to the design of CUREs that allows for novel student discoveries. Within this review, the authors point out contradictory findings among research on novel student discoveries. This clarifies the need for their study, which is described and highlighted through specific research aims.

A literature reviews can also make up a separate section in a paper. For example, the introduction to Todd et al. (2019) illustrates the need for their research topic by highlighting the potential of learning progressions (LPs) and suggesting that LPs may help mitigate learning loss in genetics. At the end of the introduction, the authors state their specific research questions. The review of literature following this opening section comprises two subsections. One focuses on learning loss in general and examines a variety of studies and meta-analyses from the disciplines of medical education, mathematics, and reading. The second section focuses specifically on LPs in genetics and highlights student learning in the midst of LPs. These separate reviews provide insights into the stated research question.

Suggestions and Advice

A well-conceptualized, comprehensive, and critical literature review reveals the understanding of the topic that the researcher brings to the study. Literature reviews should not be so big that there is no clear area of focus; nor should they be so narrow that no real research question arises. The task for a researcher is to craft an efficient literature review that offers a critical analysis of published work, articulates the need for the study, guides the methodological approach to the topic of study, and provides an adequate foundation for the discussion of the findings.

In our own writing of literature reviews, there are often many drafts. An early draft may seem well suited to the study because the need for and approach to the study are well described. However, as the results of the study are analyzed and findings begin to emerge, the existing literature review may be inadequate and need revision. The need for an expanded discussion about the research area can result in the inclusion of new studies that support the explanation of a potential finding. The literature review may also prove to be too broad. Refocusing on a specific area allows for more contemplation of a finding.

It should be noted that there are different types of literature reviews, and many books and articles have been written about the different ways to embark on these types of reviews. Among these different resources, the following may be helpful in considering how to refine the review process for scholarly journals:

  • Booth, A., Sutton, A., & Papaioannou, D. (2016a). Systemic approaches to a successful literature review (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. This book addresses different types of literature reviews and offers important suggestions pertaining to defining the scope of the literature review and assessing extant studies.
  • Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., Williams, J. M., Bizup, J., & Fitzgerald, W. T. (2016b). The craft of research (4th ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This book can help the novice consider how to make the case for an area of study. While this book is not specifically about literature reviews, it offers suggestions about making the case for your study.
  • Galvan, J. L., & Galvan, M. C. (2017). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences (7th ed.). Routledge. This book offers guidance on writing different types of literature reviews. For the novice researcher, there are useful suggestions for creating coherent literature reviews.


Purpose of theoretical frameworks.

As new education researchers may be less familiar with theoretical frameworks than with literature reviews, this discussion begins with an analogy. Envision a biologist, chemist, and physicist examining together the dramatic effect of a fog tsunami over the ocean. A biologist gazing at this phenomenon may be concerned with the effect of fog on various species. A chemist may be interested in the chemical composition of the fog as water vapor condenses around bits of salt. A physicist may be focused on the refraction of light to make fog appear to be “sitting” above the ocean. While observing the same “objective event,” the scientists are operating under different theoretical frameworks that provide a particular perspective or “lens” for the interpretation of the phenomenon. Each of these scientists brings specialized knowledge, experiences, and values to this phenomenon, and these influence the interpretation of the phenomenon. The scientists’ theoretical frameworks influence how they design and carry out their studies and interpret their data.

Within an educational study, a theoretical framework helps to explain a phenomenon through a particular lens and challenges and extends existing knowledge within the limitations of that lens. Theoretical frameworks are explicitly stated by an educational researcher in the paper’s framework, theory, or relevant literature section. The framework shapes the types of questions asked, guides the method by which data are collected and analyzed, and informs the discussion of the results of the study. It also reveals the researcher’s subjectivities, for example, values, social experience, and viewpoint ( Allen, 2017 ). It is essential that a novice researcher learn to explicitly state a theoretical framework, because all research questions are being asked from the researcher’s implicit or explicit assumptions of a phenomenon of interest ( Schwandt, 2000 ).

Selecting Theoretical Frameworks

Theoretical frameworks are one of the most contemplated elements in our work in educational research. In this section, we share three important considerations for new scholars selecting a theoretical framework.

The first step in identifying a theoretical framework involves reflecting on the phenomenon within the study and the assumptions aligned with the phenomenon. The phenomenon involves the studied event. There are many possibilities, for example, student learning, instructional approach, or group organization. A researcher holds assumptions about how the phenomenon will be effected, influenced, changed, or portrayed. It is ultimately the researcher’s assumption(s) about the phenomenon that aligns with a theoretical framework. An example can help illustrate how a researcher’s reflection on the phenomenon and acknowledgment of assumptions can result in the identification of a theoretical framework.

In our example, a biology education researcher may be interested in exploring how students’ learning of difficult biological concepts can be supported by the interactions of group members. The phenomenon of interest is the interactions among the peers, and the researcher assumes that more knowledgeable students are important in supporting the learning of the group. As a result, the researcher may draw on Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory of learning and development that is focused on the phenomenon of student learning in a social setting. This theory posits the critical nature of interactions among students and between students and teachers in the process of building knowledge. A researcher drawing upon this framework holds the assumption that learning is a dynamic social process involving questions and explanations among students in the classroom and that more knowledgeable peers play an important part in the process of building conceptual knowledge.

It is important to state at this point that there are many different theoretical frameworks. Some frameworks focus on learning and knowing, while other theoretical frameworks focus on equity, empowerment, or discourse. Some frameworks are well articulated, and others are still being refined. For a new researcher, it can be challenging to find a theoretical framework. Two of the best ways to look for theoretical frameworks is through published works that highlight different frameworks.

When a theoretical framework is selected, it should clearly connect to all parts of the study. The framework should augment the study by adding a perspective that provides greater insights into the phenomenon. It should clearly align with the studies described in the literature review. For instance, a framework focused on learning would correspond to research that reported different learning outcomes for similar studies. The methods for data collection and analysis should also correspond to the framework. For instance, a study about instructional interventions could use a theoretical framework concerned with learning and could collect data about the effect of the intervention on what is learned. When the data are analyzed, the theoretical framework should provide added meaning to the findings, and the findings should align with the theoretical framework.

A study by Jensen and Lawson (2011) provides an example of how a theoretical framework connects different parts of the study. They compared undergraduate biology students in heterogeneous and homogeneous groups over the course of a semester. Jensen and Lawson (2011) assumed that learning involved collaboration and more knowledgeable peers, which made Vygotsky’s (1978) theory a good fit for their study. They predicted that students in heterogeneous groups would experience greater improvement in their reasoning abilities and science achievements with much of the learning guided by the more knowledgeable peers.

In the enactment of the study, they collected data about the instruction in traditional and inquiry-oriented classes, while the students worked in homogeneous or heterogeneous groups. To determine the effect of working in groups, the authors also measured students’ reasoning abilities and achievement. Each data-collection and analysis decision connected to understanding the influence of collaborative work.

Their findings highlighted aspects of Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of learning. One finding, for instance, posited that inquiry instruction, as a whole, resulted in reasoning and achievement gains. This links to Vygotsky (1978) , because inquiry instruction involves interactions among group members. A more nuanced finding was that group composition had a conditional effect. Heterogeneous groups performed better with more traditional and didactic instruction, regardless of the reasoning ability of the group members. Homogeneous groups worked better during interaction-rich activities for students with low reasoning ability. The authors attributed the variation to the different types of helping behaviors of students. High-performing students provided the answers, while students with low reasoning ability had to work collectively through the material. In terms of Vygotsky (1978) , this finding provided new insights into the learning context in which productive interactions can occur for students.

Another consideration in the selection and use of a theoretical framework pertains to its orientation to the study. This can result in the theoretical framework prioritizing individuals, institutions, and/or policies ( Anfara and Mertz, 2014 ). Frameworks that connect to individuals, for instance, could contribute to understanding their actions, learning, or knowledge. Institutional frameworks, on the other hand, offer insights into how institutions, organizations, or groups can influence individuals or materials. Policy theories provide ways to understand how national or local policies can dictate an emphasis on outcomes or instructional design. These different types of frameworks highlight different aspects in an educational setting, which influences the design of the study and the collection of data. In addition, these different frameworks offer a way to make sense of the data. Aligning the data collection and analysis with the framework ensures that a study is coherent and can contribute to the field.

New understandings emerge when different theoretical frameworks are used. For instance, Ebert-May et al. (2015) prioritized the individual level within conceptual change theory (see Posner et al. , 1982 ). In this theory, an individual’s knowledge changes when it no longer fits the phenomenon. Ebert-May et al. (2015) designed a professional development program challenging biology postdoctoral scholars’ existing conceptions of teaching. The authors reported that the biology postdoctoral scholars’ teaching practices became more student-centered as they were challenged to explain their instructional decision making. According to the theory, the biology postdoctoral scholars’ dissatisfaction in their descriptions of teaching and learning initiated change in their knowledge and instruction. These results reveal how conceptual change theory can explain the learning of participants and guide the design of professional development programming.

The communities of practice (CoP) theoretical framework ( Lave, 1988 ; Wenger, 1998 ) prioritizes the institutional level , suggesting that learning occurs when individuals learn from and contribute to the communities in which they reside. Grounded in the assumption of community learning, the literature on CoP suggests that, as individuals interact regularly with the other members of their group, they learn about the rules, roles, and goals of the community ( Allee, 2000 ). A study conducted by Gehrke and Kezar (2017) used the CoP framework to understand organizational change by examining the involvement of individual faculty engaged in a cross-institutional CoP focused on changing the instructional practice of faculty at each institution. In the CoP, faculty members were involved in enhancing instructional materials within their department, which aligned with an overarching goal of instituting instruction that embraced active learning. Not surprisingly, Gehrke and Kezar (2017) revealed that faculty who perceived the community culture as important in their work cultivated institutional change. Furthermore, they found that institutional change was sustained when key leaders served as mentors and provided support for faculty, and as faculty themselves developed into leaders. This study reveals the complexity of individual roles in a COP in order to support institutional instructional change.

It is important to explicitly state the theoretical framework used in a study, but elucidating a theoretical framework can be challenging for a new educational researcher. The literature review can help to identify an applicable theoretical framework. Focal areas of the review or central terms often connect to assumptions and assertions associated with the framework that pertain to the phenomenon of interest. Another way to identify a theoretical framework is self-reflection by the researcher on personal beliefs and understandings about the nature of knowledge the researcher brings to the study ( Lysaght, 2011 ). In stating one’s beliefs and understandings related to the study (e.g., students construct their knowledge, instructional materials support learning), an orientation becomes evident that will suggest a particular theoretical framework. Theoretical frameworks are not arbitrary , but purposefully selected.

With experience, a researcher may find expanded roles for theoretical frameworks. Researchers may revise an existing framework that has limited explanatory power, or they may decide there is a need to develop a new theoretical framework. These frameworks can emerge from a current study or the need to explain a phenomenon in a new way. Researchers may also find that multiple theoretical frameworks are necessary to frame and explore a problem, as different frameworks can provide different insights into a problem.

Finally, it is important to recognize that choosing “x” theoretical framework does not necessarily mean a researcher chooses “y” methodology and so on, nor is there a clear-cut, linear process in selecting a theoretical framework for one’s study. In part, the nonlinear process of identifying a theoretical framework is what makes understanding and using theoretical frameworks challenging. For the novice scholar, contemplating and understanding theoretical frameworks is essential. Fortunately, there are articles and books that can help:

  • Creswell, J. W. (2018). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (5th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. This book provides an overview of theoretical frameworks in general educational research.
  • Ding, L. (2019). Theoretical perspectives of quantitative physics education research. Physical Review Physics Education Research , 15 (2), 020101-1–020101-13. This paper illustrates how a DBER field can use theoretical frameworks.
  • Nehm, R. (2019). Biology education research: Building integrative frameworks for teaching and learning about living systems. Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Science Education Research , 1 , ar15. https://doi.org/10.1186/s43031-019-0017-6 . This paper articulates the need for studies in BER to explicitly state theoretical frameworks and provides examples of potential studies.
  • Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research & evaluation methods: Integrating theory and practice . Sage. This book also provides an overview of theoretical frameworks, but for both research and evaluation.


Purpose of a conceptual framework.

A conceptual framework is a description of the way a researcher understands the factors and/or variables that are involved in the study and their relationships to one another. The purpose of a conceptual framework is to articulate the concepts under study using relevant literature ( Rocco and Plakhotnik, 2009 ) and to clarify the presumed relationships among those concepts ( Rocco and Plakhotnik, 2009 ; Anfara and Mertz, 2014 ). Conceptual frameworks are different from theoretical frameworks in both their breadth and grounding in established findings. Whereas a theoretical framework articulates the lens through which a researcher views the work, the conceptual framework is often more mechanistic and malleable.

Conceptual frameworks are broader, encompassing both established theories (i.e., theoretical frameworks) and the researchers’ own emergent ideas. Emergent ideas, for example, may be rooted in informal and/or unpublished observations from experience. These emergent ideas would not be considered a “theory” if they are not yet tested, supported by systematically collected evidence, and peer reviewed. However, they do still play an important role in the way researchers approach their studies. The conceptual framework allows authors to clearly describe their emergent ideas so that connections among ideas in the study and the significance of the study are apparent to readers.

Constructing Conceptual Frameworks

Including a conceptual framework in a research study is important, but researchers often opt to include either a conceptual or a theoretical framework. Either may be adequate, but both provide greater insight into the research approach. For instance, a research team plans to test a novel component of an existing theory. In their study, they describe the existing theoretical framework that informs their work and then present their own conceptual framework. Within this conceptual framework, specific topics portray emergent ideas that are related to the theory. Describing both frameworks allows readers to better understand the researchers’ assumptions, orientations, and understanding of concepts being investigated. For example, Connolly et al. (2018) included a conceptual framework that described how they applied a theoretical framework of social cognitive career theory (SCCT) to their study on teaching programs for doctoral students. In their conceptual framework, the authors described SCCT, explained how it applied to the investigation, and drew upon results from previous studies to justify the proposed connections between the theory and their emergent ideas.

In some cases, authors may be able to sufficiently describe their conceptualization of the phenomenon under study in an introduction alone, without a separate conceptual framework section. However, incomplete descriptions of how the researchers conceptualize the components of the study may limit the significance of the study by making the research less intelligible to readers. This is especially problematic when studying topics in which researchers use the same terms for different constructs or different terms for similar and overlapping constructs (e.g., inquiry, teacher beliefs, pedagogical content knowledge, or active learning). Authors must describe their conceptualization of a construct if the research is to be understandable and useful.

There are some key areas to consider regarding the inclusion of a conceptual framework in a study. To begin with, it is important to recognize that conceptual frameworks are constructed by the researchers conducting the study ( Rocco and Plakhotnik, 2009 ; Maxwell, 2012 ). This is different from theoretical frameworks that are often taken from established literature. Researchers should bring together ideas from the literature, but they may be influenced by their own experiences as a student and/or instructor, the shared experiences of others, or thought experiments as they construct a description, model, or representation of their understanding of the phenomenon under study. This is an exercise in intellectual organization and clarity that often considers what is learned, known, and experienced. The conceptual framework makes these constructs explicitly visible to readers, who may have different understandings of the phenomenon based on their prior knowledge and experience. There is no single method to go about this intellectual work.

Reeves et al. (2016) is an example of an article that proposed a conceptual framework about graduate teaching assistant professional development evaluation and research. The authors used existing literature to create a novel framework that filled a gap in current research and practice related to the training of graduate teaching assistants. This conceptual framework can guide the systematic collection of data by other researchers because the framework describes the relationships among various factors that influence teaching and learning. The Reeves et al. (2016) conceptual framework may be modified as additional data are collected and analyzed by other researchers. This is not uncommon, as conceptual frameworks can serve as catalysts for concerted research efforts that systematically explore a phenomenon (e.g., Reynolds et al. , 2012 ; Brownell and Kloser, 2015 ).

Sabel et al. (2017) used a conceptual framework in their exploration of how scaffolds, an external factor, interact with internal factors to support student learning. Their conceptual framework integrated principles from two theoretical frameworks, self-regulated learning and metacognition, to illustrate how the research team conceptualized students’ use of scaffolds in their learning ( Figure 1 ). Sabel et al. (2017) created this model using their interpretations of these two frameworks in the context of their teaching.

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Conceptual framework from Sabel et al. (2017) .

A conceptual framework should describe the relationship among components of the investigation ( Anfara and Mertz, 2014 ). These relationships should guide the researcher’s methods of approaching the study ( Miles et al. , 2014 ) and inform both the data to be collected and how those data should be analyzed. Explicitly describing the connections among the ideas allows the researcher to justify the importance of the study and the rigor of the research design. Just as importantly, these frameworks help readers understand why certain components of a system were not explored in the study. This is a challenge in education research, which is rooted in complex environments with many variables that are difficult to control.

For example, Sabel et al. (2017) stated: “Scaffolds, such as enhanced answer keys and reflection questions, can help students and instructors bridge the external and internal factors and support learning” (p. 3). They connected the scaffolds in the study to the three dimensions of metacognition and the eventual transformation of existing ideas into new or revised ideas. Their framework provides a rationale for focusing on how students use two different scaffolds, and not on other factors that may influence a student’s success (self-efficacy, use of active learning, exam format, etc.).

In constructing conceptual frameworks, researchers should address needed areas of study and/or contradictions discovered in literature reviews. By attending to these areas, researchers can strengthen their arguments for the importance of a study. For instance, conceptual frameworks can address how the current study will fill gaps in the research, resolve contradictions in existing literature, or suggest a new area of study. While a literature review describes what is known and not known about the phenomenon, the conceptual framework leverages these gaps in describing the current study ( Maxwell, 2012 ). In the example of Sabel et al. (2017) , the authors indicated there was a gap in the literature regarding how scaffolds engage students in metacognition to promote learning in large classes. Their study helps fill that gap by describing how scaffolds can support students in the three dimensions of metacognition: intelligibility, plausibility, and wide applicability. In another example, Lane (2016) integrated research from science identity, the ethic of care, the sense of belonging, and an expertise model of student success to form a conceptual framework that addressed the critiques of other frameworks. In a more recent example, Sbeglia et al. (2021) illustrated how a conceptual framework influences the methodological choices and inferences in studies by educational researchers.

Sometimes researchers draw upon the conceptual frameworks of other researchers. When a researcher’s conceptual framework closely aligns with an existing framework, the discussion may be brief. For example, Ghee et al. (2016) referred to portions of SCCT as their conceptual framework to explain the significance of their work on students’ self-efficacy and career interests. Because the authors’ conceptualization of this phenomenon aligned with a previously described framework, they briefly mentioned the conceptual framework and provided additional citations that provided more detail for the readers.

Within both the BER and the broader DBER communities, conceptual frameworks have been used to describe different constructs. For example, some researchers have used the term “conceptual framework” to describe students’ conceptual understandings of a biological phenomenon. This is distinct from a researcher’s conceptual framework of the educational phenomenon under investigation, which may also need to be explicitly described in the article. Other studies have presented a research logic model or flowchart of the research design as a conceptual framework. These constructions can be quite valuable in helping readers understand the data-collection and analysis process. However, a model depicting the study design does not serve the same role as a conceptual framework. Researchers need to avoid conflating these constructs by differentiating the researchers’ conceptual framework that guides the study from the research design, when applicable.

Explicitly describing conceptual frameworks is essential in depicting the focus of the study. We have found that being explicit in a conceptual framework means using accepted terminology, referencing prior work, and clearly noting connections between terms. This description can also highlight gaps in the literature or suggest potential contributions to the field of study. A well-elucidated conceptual framework can suggest additional studies that may be warranted. This can also spur other researchers to consider how they would approach the examination of a phenomenon and could result in a revised conceptual framework.

It can be challenging to create conceptual frameworks, but they are important. Below are two resources that could be helpful in constructing and presenting conceptual frameworks in educational research:

  • Maxwell, J. A. (2012). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. Chapter 3 in this book describes how to construct conceptual frameworks.
  • Ravitch, S. M., & Riggan, M. (2016). Reason & rigor: How conceptual frameworks guide research . Los Angeles, CA: Sage. This book explains how conceptual frameworks guide the research questions, data collection, data analyses, and interpretation of results.


Literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks are all important in DBER and BER. Robust literature reviews reinforce the importance of a study. Theoretical frameworks connect the study to the base of knowledge in educational theory and specify the researcher’s assumptions. Conceptual frameworks allow researchers to explicitly describe their conceptualization of the relationships among the components of the phenomenon under study. Table 1 provides a general overview of these components in order to assist biology education researchers in thinking about these elements.

It is important to emphasize that these different elements are intertwined. When these elements are aligned and complement one another, the study is coherent, and the study findings contribute to knowledge in the field. When literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks are disconnected from one another, the study suffers. The point of the study is lost, suggested findings are unsupported, or important conclusions are invisible to the researcher. In addition, this misalignment may be costly in terms of time and money.

Conducting a literature review, selecting a theoretical framework, and building a conceptual framework are some of the most difficult elements of a research study. It takes time to understand the relevant research, identify a theoretical framework that provides important insights into the study, and formulate a conceptual framework that organizes the finding. In the research process, there is often a constant back and forth among these elements as the study evolves. With an ongoing refinement of the review of literature, clarification of the theoretical framework, and articulation of a conceptual framework, a sound study can emerge that makes a contribution to the field. This is the goal of BER and education research.

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Home » Education » What is the Difference Between Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

What is the Difference Between Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

The main difference between literature review and theoretical framework is their function. The literature review explores what has already been written about the topic under study in order to highlight a gap, whereas the theoretical framework is the conceptual and analytical approach the researcher is going to take to fill that gap.

Literature review and theoretical framework are two indispensable components of research . Both are equally important for the foundation of a research study.

Key Areas Covered

1.  What is Literature Review       – Definition, Features 2.  What is Theoretical Framework      – Definition, Features 3.  Difference Between Literature Review and Theoretical Framework      – Comparison of Key Differences

Difference Between Literature Review and Theoretical Framework - Comparison Summary

What is a Literature Review

A literature review is a vital component of a research study. A literature review is a discussion on the already existing material in the subject area. Thus, this will require a collection of published (in print or online) work concerning the selected research area. In other words, a literature review is a review of the literature in the related subject area. A literature review makes a case for the research study. It analyzes the existing literature in order to identify and highlight a gap in the literature.

Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

Moreover, a good literature review is a critical discussion, displaying the writer’s knowledge of relevant theories and approaches and awareness of contrasting arguments. A literature review should have the following features (Caulley, 1992)

  • Compare and contrast different researchers’ views
  • Identify areas in which researchers are in disagreement
  • Group researchers who have similar conclusions
  • Criticize the  methodology
  • Highlight exemplary studies
  • Highlight gaps in research
  • Indicate the connection between your study and previous studies
  • Indicate how your study will contribute to the literature in general
  • Conclude by summarizing what the literature indicates

Furthermore, the structure of a literature review is similar to that of an article or essay . Overall, literature reviews help researchers to evaluate the existing literature, identify a gap in the research area, place their study in the existing research and identify future research.

What is a Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework is the research component that introduces and describes the theory that explains why the research problem under study exists. It is also the conceptual and analytical approach the researcher is going to take to fill the research gap identified by the literature review. Moreover, it is the structure that holds the structure of the research theory.

The researcher may not easily find the theoretical framework within the literature. Therefore, he or she may have to go through many research studies and course readings for theories and models relevant to the research problem under investigation. In addition, the theory must be selected based on its relevance, ease of application, and explanatory power.

Difference Between Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

A literature review is a critical evaluation of the existing published work in a selected research area, while a theoretical framework is a component in research that introduces and describes the theory behind the research problem.

Moreover, the literature review explores what has already been written about the topic under investigation in order to highlight a gap, whereas the theoretical framework is the conceptual and analytical approach the researcher is going to take to fill that gap. Therefore, a literature review is backwards-looking while theory framework is forward-looking.

In conclusion, the main difference between literature review and theoretical framework is their function. The literature review explores what has already been written about the topic under study in order to highlight a gap, whereas the theoretical framework is the conceptual and analytical approach the researcher is going to take to fill that gap.

1. Caulley, D. N. “Writing a critical review of the literature.” La Trobe University: Bundoora (1992). 2. “ Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Theoretical Framework .” Research Guide.

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theoretical framework

What is a Theoretical Framework? How to Write It (with Examples) 

What is a Theoretical Framework? How to Write It (with Examples)

Theoretical framework 1,2 is the structure that supports and describes a theory. A theory is a set of interrelated concepts and definitions that present a systematic view of phenomena by describing the relationship among the variables for explaining these phenomena. A theory is developed after a long research process and explains the existence of a research problem in a study. A theoretical framework guides the research process like a roadmap for the research study and helps researchers clearly interpret their findings by providing a structure for organizing data and developing conclusions.   

A theoretical framework in research is an important part of a manuscript and should be presented in the first section. It shows an understanding of the theories and concepts relevant to the research and helps limit the scope of the research.  

Table of Contents

What is a theoretical framework ?  

A theoretical framework in research can be defined as a set of concepts, theories, ideas, and assumptions that help you understand a specific phenomenon or problem. It can be considered a blueprint that is borrowed by researchers to develop their own research inquiry. A theoretical framework in research helps researchers design and conduct their research and analyze and interpret their findings. It explains the relationship between variables, identifies gaps in existing knowledge, and guides the development of research questions, hypotheses, and methodologies to address that gap.  

distinguish between theoretical framework and literature review

Now that you know the answer to ‘ What is a theoretical framework? ’, check the following table that lists the different types of theoretical frameworks in research: 3

Conceptual  Defines key concepts and relationships 
Deductive  Starts with a general hypothesis and then uses data to test it; used in quantitative research 
Inductive  Starts with data and then develops a hypothesis; used in qualitative research 
Empirical  Focuses on the collection and analysis of empirical data; used in scientific research 
Normative  Defines a set of norms that guide behavior; used in ethics and social sciences 
Explanatory  Explains causes of particular behavior; used in psychology and social sciences 

Developing a theoretical framework in research can help in the following situations: 4

  • When conducting research on complex phenomena because a theoretical framework helps organize the research questions, hypotheses, and findings  
  • When the research problem requires a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts  
  • When conducting research that seeks to address a specific gap in knowledge  
  • When conducting research that involves the analysis of existing theories  

Summarizing existing literature for theoretical frameworks is easy. Get our Research Ideation pack  

Importance of a theoretical framework  

The purpose of theoretical framework s is to support you in the following ways during the research process: 2  

  • Provide a structure for the complete research process  
  • Assist researchers in incorporating formal theories into their study as a guide  
  • Provide a broad guideline to maintain the research focus  
  • Guide the selection of research methods, data collection, and data analysis  
  • Help understand the relationships between different concepts and develop hypotheses and research questions  
  • Address gaps in existing literature  
  • Analyze the data collected and draw meaningful conclusions and make the findings more generalizable  

Theoretical vs. Conceptual framework  

While a theoretical framework covers the theoretical aspect of your study, that is, the various theories that can guide your research, a conceptual framework defines the variables for your study and presents how they relate to each other. The conceptual framework is developed before collecting the data. However, both frameworks help in understanding the research problem and guide the development, collection, and analysis of the research.  

The following table lists some differences between conceptual and theoretical frameworks . 5

Based on existing theories that have been tested and validated by others  Based on concepts that are the main variables in the study 
Used to create a foundation of the theory on which your study will be developed  Visualizes the relationships between the concepts and variables based on the existing literature 
Used to test theories, to predict and control the situations within the context of a research inquiry  Helps the development of a theory that would be useful to practitioners 
Provides a general set of ideas within which a study belongs  Refers to specific ideas that researchers utilize in their study 
Offers a focal point for approaching unknown research in a specific field of inquiry  Shows logically how the research inquiry should be undertaken 
Works deductively  Works inductively 
Used in quantitative studies  Used in qualitative studies 

distinguish between theoretical framework and literature review

How to write a theoretical framework  

The following general steps can help those wondering how to write a theoretical framework: 2

  • Identify and define the key concepts clearly and organize them into a suitable structure.  
  • Use appropriate terminology and define all key terms to ensure consistency.  
  • Identify the relationships between concepts and provide a logical and coherent structure.  
  • Develop hypotheses that can be tested through data collection and analysis.  
  • Keep it concise and focused with clear and specific aims.  

Write a theoretical framework 2x faster. Get our Manuscript Writing pack  

Examples of a theoretical framework  

Here are two examples of a theoretical framework. 6,7

Example 1 .   

An insurance company is facing a challenge cross-selling its products. The sales department indicates that most customers have just one policy, although the company offers over 10 unique policies. The company would want its customers to purchase more than one policy since most customers are purchasing policies from other companies.  

Objective : To sell more insurance products to existing customers.  

Problem : Many customers are purchasing additional policies from other companies.  

Research question : How can customer product awareness be improved to increase cross-selling of insurance products?  

Sub-questions: What is the relationship between product awareness and sales? Which factors determine product awareness?  

Since “product awareness” is the main focus in this study, the theoretical framework should analyze this concept and study previous literature on this subject and propose theories that discuss the relationship between product awareness and its improvement in sales of other products.  

Example 2 .

A company is facing a continued decline in its sales and profitability. The main reason for the decline in the profitability is poor services, which have resulted in a high level of dissatisfaction among customers and consequently a decline in customer loyalty. The management is planning to concentrate on clients’ satisfaction and customer loyalty.  

Objective: To provide better service to customers and increase customer loyalty and satisfaction.  

Problem: Continued decrease in sales and profitability.  

Research question: How can customer satisfaction help in increasing sales and profitability?  

Sub-questions: What is the relationship between customer loyalty and sales? Which factors influence the level of satisfaction gained by customers?  

Since customer satisfaction, loyalty, profitability, and sales are the important topics in this example, the theoretical framework should focus on these concepts.  

Benefits of a theoretical framework  

There are several benefits of a theoretical framework in research: 2  

  • Provides a structured approach allowing researchers to organize their thoughts in a coherent way.  
  • Helps to identify gaps in knowledge highlighting areas where further research is needed.  
  • Increases research efficiency by providing a clear direction for research and focusing efforts on relevant data.  
  • Improves the quality of research by providing a rigorous and systematic approach to research, which can increase the likelihood of producing valid and reliable results.  
  • Provides a basis for comparison by providing a common language and conceptual framework for researchers to compare their findings with other research in the field, facilitating the exchange of ideas and the development of new knowledge.  

distinguish between theoretical framework and literature review

Frequently Asked Questions 

Q1. How do I develop a theoretical framework ? 7

A1. The following steps can be used for developing a theoretical framework :  

  • Identify the research problem and research questions by clearly defining the problem that the research aims to address and identifying the specific questions that the research aims to answer.
  • Review the existing literature to identify the key concepts that have been studied previously. These concepts should be clearly defined and organized into a structure.
  • Develop propositions that describe the relationships between the concepts. These propositions should be based on the existing literature and should be testable.
  • Develop hypotheses that can be tested through data collection and analysis.
  • Test the theoretical framework through data collection and analysis to determine whether the framework is valid and reliable.

Q2. How do I know if I have developed a good theoretical framework or not? 8

A2. The following checklist could help you answer this question:  

  • Is my theoretical framework clearly seen as emerging from my literature review?  
  • Is it the result of my analysis of the main theories previously studied in my same research field?  
  • Does it represent or is it relevant to the most current state of theoretical knowledge on my topic?  
  • Does the theoretical framework in research present a logical, coherent, and analytical structure that will support my data analysis?  
  • Do the different parts of the theory help analyze the relationships among the variables in my research?  
  • Does the theoretical framework target how I will answer my research questions or test the hypotheses?  
  • Have I documented every source I have used in developing this theoretical framework ?  
  • Is my theoretical framework a model, a table, a figure, or a description?  
  • Have I explained why this is the appropriate theoretical framework for my data analysis?  

Q3. Can I use multiple theoretical frameworks in a single study?  

A3. Using multiple theoretical frameworks in a single study is acceptable as long as each theory is clearly defined and related to the study. Each theory should also be discussed individually. This approach may, however, be tedious and effort intensive. Therefore, multiple theoretical frameworks should be used only if absolutely necessary for the study.  

Q4. Is it necessary to include a theoretical framework in every research study?  

A4. The theoretical framework connects researchers to existing knowledge. So, including a theoretical framework would help researchers get a clear idea about the research process and help structure their study effectively by clearly defining an objective, a research problem, and a research question.  

Q5. Can a theoretical framework be developed for qualitative research?  

A5. Yes, a theoretical framework can be developed for qualitative research. However, qualitative research methods may or may not involve a theory developed beforehand. In these studies, a theoretical framework can guide the study and help develop a theory during the data analysis phase. This resulting framework uses inductive reasoning. The outcome of this inductive approach can be referred to as an emergent theoretical framework . This method helps researchers develop a theory inductively, which explains a phenomenon without a guiding framework at the outset.  

distinguish between theoretical framework and literature review

Q6. What is the main difference between a literature review and a theoretical framework ?  

A6. A literature review explores already existing studies about a specific topic in order to highlight a gap, which becomes the focus of the current research study. A theoretical framework can be considered the next step in the process, in which the researcher plans a specific conceptual and analytical approach to address the identified gap in the research.  

Theoretical frameworks are thus important components of the research process and researchers should therefore devote ample amount of time to develop a solid theoretical framework so that it can effectively guide their research in a suitable direction. We hope this article has provided a good insight into the concept of theoretical frameworks in research and their benefits.  


  • Organizing academic research papers: Theoretical framework. Sacred Heart University library. Accessed August 4, 2023. https://library.sacredheart.edu/c.php?g=29803&p=185919#:~:text=The%20theoretical%20framework%20is%20the,research%20problem%20under%20study%20exists .  
  • Salomao A. Understanding what is theoretical framework. Mind the Graph website. Accessed August 5, 2023. https://mindthegraph.com/blog/what-is-theoretical-framework/  
  • Theoretical framework—Types, examples, and writing guide. Research Method website. Accessed August 6, 2023. https://researchmethod.net/theoretical-framework/  
  • Grant C., Osanloo A. Understanding, selecting, and integrating a theoretical framework in dissertation research: Creating the blueprint for your “house.” Administrative Issues Journal : Connecting Education, Practice, and Research; 4(2):12-26. 2014. Accessed August 7, 2023. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1058505.pdf  
  • Difference between conceptual framework and theoretical framework. MIM Learnovate website. Accessed August 7, 2023. https://mimlearnovate.com/difference-between-conceptual-framework-and-theoretical-framework/  
  • Example of a theoretical framework—Thesis & dissertation. BacherlorPrint website. Accessed August 6, 2023. https://www.bachelorprint.com/dissertation/example-of-a-theoretical-framework/  
  • Sample theoretical framework in dissertation and thesis—Overview and example. Students assignment help website. Accessed August 6, 2023. https://www.studentsassignmenthelp.co.uk/blogs/sample-dissertation-theoretical-framework/#Example_of_the_theoretical_framework  
  • Kivunja C. Distinguishing between theory, theoretical framework, and conceptual framework: A systematic review of lessons from the field. Accessed August 8, 2023. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1198682.pdf  

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  • How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
  • Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods?
  • Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).


The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.


If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources


A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility


  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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The PhD Proofreaders

What is the difference between a PhD thesis literature review and theory framework?

Sep 15, 2020


If you ’ re anything like the PhD students we interact with on a day to day basis, you probably struggle to wrap your head around and write either your theory framework and lit review chapters. You may even struggle with both.

You ’ re not alone. Around 80% of the students we coach need guidance on one or both of these topics.

But don ’ t despair – there isn ’ t anything wrong with you. It ’ s particularly hard to understand how the two chapters differ from one another, principally because they share a number of similarities.

In this guide we ’ ll explain the differences between a theoretical framework and a literature review in your PhD. Elsewhere I ’ ve explained the purpose of both the lit review chapter and theory framework chapter , so I won ’ t go into too much detail here. Rather, I will focus on the things that differentiate them so you can better understand what goes where and avoid repeating yourself and putting the wrong things in the wrong places.

You ’ ll see that broadly speaking, the literature review is backward-looking and the theory framework is forward-looking. That is, the lit review looks at what ’ s already been written about your topic in order to highlight a gap that you ’ re going to fill, whereas the theoretical framework is the conceptual and analytical approach you are going to take to fill that gap.

Simple, right?

The difference between a theory framework and a lit review chapter

It’s not quite so simple. There ’ s a bit more to it than that.

Let ’ s elaborate on the forward-backward analogy a little more:

Your literature review is there to make the case for your research. It ’ s there to problematise the existing literature in order to highlight a gap in that literature that your research will then aim to fill, driven by your research questions and research aims and objectives.

In that chapter, your job is to tell the reader what ’ s wrong with the existing understanding of your topic. It may be that there are methodological flaws, or that there are gaps in our empirical understanding. Or, it may be that the particular perspective or approach taken is somehow problematic. Whatever it is, your job in the chapter is to articulate that problem, and then situate your research question as your path to fixing that problem.

I often use the analogy of a company looking to develop a new type of mobile phone. In order to be able to do so, they need to have a good understanding of how old mobile phones are made, principally to understand what problems there are with those existing designs and to see where things can be improved. Your PhD is the same. To be able to make an original contribution to knowledge to your field – that ’ s the goal of a PhD, after all – you need to know what it is that your field is discussing and, crucially, what problems there are with those discussions.

Literature review: backward-looking – what came before your research and what is wrong with it? Theory framework: forward-looking – what theoretical approach can you use to answer your research questions?

So how does that compare to the theory framework?

Well, once you ’ ve made the case for your research and situated it in response to a problem, you start to look forward and tell the reader how you will go about fixing that problem. Your theory framework (and your methods) chapters are where you do that. It ’ s your job here to explain the perspective you’ve used to gather and make sense of your data.

Literature review: backward-looking – what came before your research and what is wrong with it?

Theory framework: forward-looking – what theoretical approach can you use to answer your research questions.

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Why is this so confusing?

Part of the confusion lies in how similar the two chapters can be. For example, you will likely be discussing theory and concepts in your lit review, and you will likely be reviewing some literature in your theory framework chapter.

But it ’ s important to bear in mind the underlying purpose of each chapter. Even though you might be talking about theory in your lit review chapter, you are doing so in order to articulate the problem with that literature. And in order to develop your theory framework, it ’ s inevitable that you ’ ll have to review the literature that uses and discusses the theory and its underlying concepts.

Wrapping up

So next time you ’ re struggling to work out whether something belongs in your literature review or theory framework chapter, ask yourself a simple question: are I seeking to make the case for my research (in which case, it goes in the lit review), or is it outlining the conceptual approach I will take to answer the questions and collecting or analysing that data (in which case, it goes in the theory framework).

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How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)

A workingmumscholar's journey through her phd and beyond, literature review or ‘contextual framework’.

Literature reviews are the one section of a PhD thesis, article or undergraduate assignment that strike fear into the hearts of even the most confident of students. Why are we so terrified of them? Reams of writing, many blogs and online advice pages, and hours of anxiety are devoted to literature reviews – the writing, reading, summarising, connecting, re-writing and re-reading that seem overwhelming at times. I am supervising a PhD student who is currently writing her literature review, and reading her 4th draft this week, a thought occurred to me: she isn’t writing a ‘review’ of the relevant literature; she is building, using the selected literature she has read as bricks and mortar, a contextual framework for her study. It seems to me that dropping the whole notion of a literature review  and replacing it with a notion of creating a contextual framework, or rationale and foundation, for your study would offer you a few helpful insights into what you are actually trying to achieve with this part of your writing.

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The first is organisation : to write a PhD thesis, a book, or even a very well researched journal article, you need to do a large amount of reading. You will read many books and papers that are useful and clearly connected to your research, and you will read others that are less useful and may need to be left out of the writing. If you are writing a literature review, the temptation is often to use this part of the thesis or paper almost as proof of how much work you have done, and therefore how credible you are as a scholar. It is tempting to find a way to bring in every study you have read, and every paper and book, laboriously summarising for the reader every argument, valid point and connection with other similar or different texts. What may well happen then is a sense, for your reader, of a lack of organisation. Rather than selecting and situating relevant texts you have read in relation to one another and your study , you are simply showing them how much reading you have done and what all of the reading says about all the topics that may be relevant to your research. So it is a kind of literature review, but not one that will help your reader find their way into the specific context for your study.

The second thing thinking about a contextual framework, rather than a literature review, could offer you is focus . Start with your specific study, and your research questions: what is this study about, in a couple of sentences? What main research question are you trying to answer? The research question will be refined as your study progresses, but you need to have a good sense of it earlier on to ensure that you keep your reading on track  and relevant. What is the context you need to create for your readers, so that they understand a) what this research is about, b) why this research is so necessary or significant, and c) where or how what you propose to research will make a contribution to scholarship in your field of study (the gap you aim to fill)? By focusing on, and adapting for your study, these questions, you can better choose firstly to do the relevant or useful reading, and secondly choose the most relevant reading you have done to include in the framework, organising it to tell a more logical story about the research you are doing, how the questions emerged for you, and how what you are writing about will tie into or contribute to your field.


By thinking of this section of your study rather as a contextual framework, a structure that will provide a foundation for what will come next in terms of the conceptual/theoretical and methodological frameworks or sections, and the data analysis, findings and conclusions later on, you could avoid this literature review pitfall. This section of any thesis or paper will never be easy, I don’t think. For PhD students especially, working out what you actually think in relation to so many published voices who seem to have so much more authority and right to speak that you do can be scary, and overwhelming.

Often, I think, literature reviews that read as turgid lists of everything the student has read come from that place of being scared that they haven’t done enough, or read enough, and they so badly want to appear and be credible and authoritative. Part of becoming a doctor is learning to manage that fear, and find a way to focus your writing and research on what will make the clearest, most sensible and accessible argument for your readers. Thinking of creating a contextual framework – a holding structure for your thesis that will connect into your conceptual/theoretical and methodological frameworks to create a very clear foundation, set of tools and action plan for your thesis or paper, might be a way of doing just that. I’d love to hear from you if you feel this helps, or if you have found other ways to make literature review writing less scary and challenging.

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I love ‘contextual framework’! It makes so much more sense than literature review.

Me too! Thanks for the comment 🙂

When I worked in what was then called the Environmental Education Unit here at Rhodes I was intrigued that the assignment required of Masters students BEFORE coming to the first of a number of week-long sessions, was a reflective piece on their ‘context of practice’. The first major assignment, after the first session, was a detailed contextual profile of their practice (and therefore study). I followed this process when doing my PhD – and for all the reasons you state above – it seemed to be a really useful way to help frame thinking. Great blog!

Thanks, Karen :). Part of the inspiration was also seeing the number of undergraduate students that are being required to write literature reviews as stand-alone assignments with no research project context, which then are summary and synthesis exercises. I think that those who do become postgrads carry this way of reviewing literature through with them, and then really battle to move beyond it to a different, more authoritative and context-driven kind of writing about the literature that frames and founds their study.

I am on your side Sherran! I have never liked the idea of a ‘literature review’ as such. For me it is a process rather than a product. It is what we need to do – to review the literature in order to situate our study, but we also need to review the literature to frame our work theoretically and to inform it methodologically. We do it to inform every part of our research. So yes! Call it the ‘Contextual framework’ or any other appropriate title that blows your hair back – but I agree NOT the Literature Review!!

Thanks Sue! What other terms or metaphors would be useful?

[…] review): gap filling. Here, what I did was work put very carefully exactly what the gap in my contextual framework was, and what I needed by way of literature to fill it. I needed a few tight, clear paragraphs on […]

[…] the literature review I will be doing far more than copying and pasting from my summaries: I will be drawing out key […]

[…] Contextual frameworks ( https://phdinahundredsteps.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/literature-review-or-contextual-framework/ ) […]

[…] have written here and here and here about literature reviews, and Pat Thomson and Inger Mewburn have some useful […]

[…] what is known in relation to what you want to find out, and creating different kinds of necessary frameworks for your own research, is a significant, and vital, part of research. And there is so much to read […]

The contextual framework involves literature-based claims on how problems are addressed by referring to various countries, cultural backgrounds, beliefs, moral values and organisational structures.

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Literature Review, Theoretical Review or Conceptual Review?

I was researching and refreshing what I learned about literature reviews and research methodology in the 6625 ESLTECH class and came across this post in ResearchGate:

While  I was interested in finding out how to conduct a lit review,  and what methodologies fit with my “Begin With the End in mind” framework, I remembered that I was actually conducting a conceptual analysis of the Hackathon through two instruments:  the opportunistic interviews and my observations.  Applying Backward Design as research methodology has been used in the biological sciences.  It is called Backward Design for Education Research (BDER) and basically it instructs how to apply teaching-as-research (based on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning(SoTL) model) to see what works in “providing evidence-based pedagogy and a deeper understanding of causal mechanisms for the broader education community.” (Jenkins, Bailey, Kummer & Weber, 2017). My approach was  more like “Backward Market Research,”  which consists of eight steps that ultimately resemble Wiggins and McTighe’s Backward Design for curriculum development. The key to backward market research lies in identifying the desired outcome (i.e., what data would answer the question you are asking) before embarking on the project …” (Jenkins, Bailey, Kummer & Weber, 2017). My question is broad  – what insights come out of the Hackathon – and the results are formative – data reports generate more questions and identify the need to code certain responses,  or to add a new question next year (as with the multitude of comments about Judging from 2017) – but a body or knowledge is being formed.

What's the difference between a theoretical framework and a conceptual framework?

What’s the difference between a theoretical framework and a conceptual framework?

A theoretical framework is based on existing theories that relate to your research topic. It offers a lens through which you can view and analyze your study, providing a broad explanation that guides your research.

A conceptual framework, on the other hand, is more specific to your particular study. It outlines the key concepts and variables you’ll be investigating and how you believe they are related.

In essence, a theoretical framework provides a general perspective grounded in established theories, while a conceptual framework is a roadmap of your study, tailored to illustrate how you plan to explore your specific research question.

distinguish between theoretical framework and literature review

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Measuring the impacts of university-industry R&D collaborations: a systematic literature review

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  • Published: 29 June 2024

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distinguish between theoretical framework and literature review

  • Maria Cohen   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-4625-5258 1 ,
  • Gabriela Fernandes   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-2715-9826 2 &
  • Pedro Godinho   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-2247-7101 1  

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Measuring the impacts of collaborative projects between industry and academia raises significant challenges. It involves stakeholders with different outlooks and impact expectations. Moreover, the multidimensional nature of the impacts themselves means they are tangible and intangible, short- and long-term, direct and indirect, positive and negative, making their measurement process very complex. To gain a deeper understanding of how university-industry R&D collaborations (UICs) impact society, this study conducts a systematic review, using thematic analysis of 92 selected articles published between 2000 and 2022. The paper identifies and categorizes the impacts resulting from UICs, examines the challenges associated with measuring these impacts, and explores the strategies that can be employed to overcome such challenges. Finally, the paper integrates all such findings into a comprehensive framework. This study contributes to the theoretical advancement of impact measurement within the field of UICs, providing a foundation for the development of methodologies aimed at assessing impacts. Furthermore, it highlights important avenues for future research.

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1 Introduction

The measurement of the impact of research on society is an extremely relevant matter (Bornmann, 2013 ). When research is conducted with public funding, the measurement of these impacts is closely related to the need to demonstrate its value to funding entities, the opportunity to leverage funding for future research, and the ability to identify more efficient ways to generate greater impact (Penfield et al., 2014 ; Walsh et al., 2018 ). However, in the context of university-industry R&D collaborations (UICs), measuring impact is a complex task due to the heterogeneity of the institutions involved, the diversity of objectives and expected benefits, and different perspectives of each stakeholder since high-value impact for one group may not be the same for another (Fini et al., 2018 ).

Although a considerable body of scientific literature has addressed the socio-economic impacts of UICs in the past decade (Lima et al., 2021 ), comprehensive assessments of the broader impacts of collaborative research, known as ‘societal’ impacts, have remained limited (Bornmann, 2013 ; Galan-Muros & Davey, 2019 ; Siemieniako et al., 2021 ; Skute et al., 2019 ; Tijssen, 2012 ). These societal impacts are characterized by their macro-level nature, namely encompassing social aspects, as indicated by Siemieniako et al. ( 2021 ). The complexity of these impacts is exacerbated by a diffuse boundary that makes it challenging to clearly identify their relation to quality of life, health, or the environment, resulting in ambiguity when determining whether an impact is social, economic, or of another sort (Bornmann, 2013 ).

The challenge of conceptualizing the impacts of research is not new. In 2011, for example, the Health Economics Research Group organized an international workshop to gather academic and professional views on new pathways for assessing the social impact of research. Most participants agreed on the difficulty of finding a clear concept of social impact that could facilitate such evaluation (Donovan, 2011 ), an issue that continues to be mentioned in current studies on the impact of research in organizational contexts (Siemieniako et al., 2021 ).

In addition to the conceptual challenges associated with analyzing impacts, Galan-Muros and Davey ( 2019 ) characterized the field of UICs as fragmented, due to the limited linkages between its thematic domains. However, they have endeavored to integrate its elements into a conceptual framework, where UIC impacts are regarded as a central element within the UIC. In the same way, Skute et al. ( 2019 ) conducted a bibliometric study to map the research field of UIC and acknowledge the importance of analyzing the economic and social impacts generated by these collaborations at regional and national levels.

In the general context of UICs, the impact is defined as the outcome indirectly experienced by individuals, institutions, and society (Galan-Muros & Davey, 2019 ), or as the direct or indirect result that influences stakeholders, including society (Albats et al., 2018 ). In this study, impact is defined as a positive or negative change originated in the UIC context that can directly or indirectly affect individuals, organizations, communities and society in general (Siemieniako et al., 2021 ). The impacts caused by UICs can produce economic, environmental, health, cultural, political effects at the macro level and on the quality of life, stemming from the creation of new or improved products and services based on scientific knowledge (Fini et al., 2018 ).

UICs require support mechanisms, i.e. management (Fan et al., 2019 ), political, structural, operational, and strategic mechanisms to ensure that research is relevant to society (Galán-Muros et al., 2017 ), and is capable of creating monetary and non-monetary impacts that converge towards the boundaries collectively (Audretsch et al., 2019 ).

In fact, there are several key factors that may constrain or drive the impacts of UICs. The absence of shared objectives among universities, science, and businesses is a significant limiting factor (Issabekov et al., 2022 ), demanding sustainable strategies to maintain common interests over time (de Freitas et al., 2014 ). Factors such as company size, sector, commitment to digitization (Marra et al., 2022 ) and level of trust emerge as crucial drivers of innovation and future collaborative projects (Vega-González et al., 2012 ). Information asymmetry within the UIC is pointed out as a critical factor hindering the commercialization of university patents (Xiaojuan & Hongda, 2021 ).

The impacts of UICs are also influenced by the absorptive capacity of companies: companies with high absorptive capacity have a unique competitive advantage, adapting to changes in the environment and fostering innovation (Tian et al., 2021 ). In fact, when funding collaborative projects, governments tend to favor companies with high absorptive capacity, underscoring the relevance of this factor for the success of UICs (Cui et al., 2022 ). The synchrony between regional innovation and economic development fosters the correlation between basic research and market demand, leading to higher UIC impact (Cui & Li, 2022 ). Finally, institutional factors and structural conditions, such as economic cycles, impact UIC scientific production. For example, in a crisis, there may be an interest in signaling potential scientific areas that promote UICs and co-publication production (Azagra-Caro et al., 2018 ).

The present study identifies a gap in understanding how UICs impact society (Di Maria et al., 2019 ; Jones & Corral de Zubielqui, 2017 ; Nugent et al., 2022 ). To address this gap, a systematic literature review was conducted, by thematically analysing 92 studies published between 2000 and 2022. The current paper seeks chiefly to identify and categorize the types of impacts of UICs from the perspectives of universities, industry, and society. Additionally, it examines the challenges of measuring these impacts and identifies the strategies employed to overcome such challenges.

The literature review helped us identify a set of 25 impacts of UICs, which are subsequently classified into six categories. Some of the challenges in measuring these impacts are related to their intangible or transient nature, that is, their ability to appear, disappear, or transform from positive to negative across the collaborative lifecycle (Perkmann et al., 2011 ), as well as the complexity of dealing with the various causes that can explain their origin (Fini et al., 2018 ). Such intrinsic characteristics of impact make them hard to measure, the perspectives of the agents involved in the collaboration thus being a crucial element in the measurement process (Penfield et al., 2014 ). Finally, some strategies are presented to overcome the challenges of measuring impacts of UICs. Many of these strategies are utilized in empirical studies, while others are theoretical guidelines that can be implemented in future studies.

The main contribution of this article is to consolidate insights from the past two decades regarding the impacts of UICs, subsequently presenting key elements of the process in a single framework that can serve as a basis for the development of future impact measurement methodologies. Additionally, it provides thoughts on the need to advance in measuring more comprehensive impacts, considering not only the academic or industrial community but also other social groups that may be affected by the collaboration. It also encourages a deeper analysis of key factors that may restrict the realization of impacts.

The rest of this paper is structured as follows. Next, the context of UICs and their impact on society is presented. Then the research methodology employed is detailed. Subsequently, it delves into the findings, an unfolds in a comprehensive discussion, concluding with insights into potential future research directions.

2 Background

The literature defines UIC in general terms as a type of alliance that benefits innovation performance significantly (Wirsich et al., 2016 ), resulting in a positive impact on R&D participation and learning opportunities for the company involved (Scandura, 2016 ). UIC is also described as an interactive relationship that aims to enhance competitive advantages through trust, commitment, and access to each partner's resources, aimed at producing a social impact (Galan-Muros & Davey, 2019 ), which can be formal in nature when delivered by explicit contracts, or informal when focused on personal interactions using trust as a prerequisite for collaboration (Apa et al., 2021 ).

More specifically, UICs are defined as agreements between the university and the industry with the purpose of conducting joint research. Some of the R&D activities included in this type of collaboration are contract research projects, joint publications by industry and university or R&D consulting (Pinto & Fernandes, 2021 ). A good management system with appropriate mechanisms is thus a critical tool to influence the expected impacts and control the uncertainty underpinning this type of collaboration (Morandi, 2013 ).

The aforementioned definitions imply that UICs are aligned with the concept of 'Mode 2 of production.' This approach represents a different and interdisciplinary way of generating knowledge between the scientific community and other stakeholders, with the aim of impacting industry, government and society. In this context, knowledge production takes place through a continuous negotiation of interests among the various actors involved (Gibbons et al., 1994 ). In contrast to 'Mode 1' of production, which focuses on the interests of the academic community and aims to generate high-impact research, 'Mode 2' is considered more suitable for generating socially useful research, albeit with a lower impact factor (Nightingale & Scott, 2007 ).

Similarly, the literature related to UICs has long considered that the lack of complementarity between industry and academic activities undermines scientific production (Perkmann & Walsh, 2009 ) or produced low impact factor publications (Abramo et al., 2009 ). However, recent studies have shown that UICs built upon expected complementarities, such as resources (Zhang et al., 2022 ), skills, availability of equipment, and task distribution among academic and industry scientists, can increase scientific production and enhance the business activity in the industry (Bikard et al., 2019 ). Nevertheless, there is a need to understand the impacts of UICs on society (Di Maria et al., 2019 ; Jones & Corral de Zubielqui, 2017 ; Nugent et al., 2022 ).

On the one hand, academics' interest in translating the results of their research into broader benefits for society (Nugent et al., 2022 ) is justified by funding institutions’ focus on the real contribution of their investments (Penfield et al., 2014 ). On the other hand, the strong pressures experienced by companies and universities due to the speed of technological change, the quest for more advanced knowledge, the growing cost of research, and the need to address social and economic problems stimulate the creation of UICs worldwide and demand proof of their impact capacity (Ankrah & AL-Tabbaa, 2015 ).

2.2 UIC impacts

Literature published in the last two decades has chiefly focused its analysis on the industry perspective and generally agrees that business innovation is an important positive impact of UICs (e.g., Apa et al., 2021 ; Eom & Lee, 2010 ; Giannopoulou et al., 2019 ). Political agendas have evolved with the inclusion of science-based technological innovation. However, the absence of reliable quality indicators at the business and technological levels hinders effective guidance for policymakers, limiting broader impacts on society (Tijssen, 2012 ).

From the perspective of universities, there is a consensus regarding UICs affecting academic productivity, but there are different points of view as regards this effect and its positive or negative nature (Banal-Estañol et al., 2015 ; Bikard et al., 2019 ; Perkmann & Walsh, 2009 ). This lack of consensus has encouraged Garcia et al. ( 2020 ) to analyze the impact of UICs on the productivity of academic research in the long-term, due to the ease of managing contract rules between universities, companies and funding agencies. The results confirm that the long-term impact is positive; however, this occurs at decreasing rates, suggesting that the positive effects of UIC on scientific productivity may be constrained over time.

Faced with the complex task of identifying and developing a classification for the different types of impacts, the theoretical field of interorganizational relations offers interesting prospects for the analysis of the impact of research, categorizing it into three levels: micro, mezzo and macro (Siemieniako et al., 2021 ). The micro level is related to individual aspects in the organization, the mezzo level pertains to aspects that affect specific groups acting within the organization, and the macro level encompasses groups or communities outside of the organization, transcending interorganizational relationships (Siemieniako et al., 2021 ).

We believe that the interorganizational approach can be applied to the field of UICs, allowing for the evaluation of impact from both an internal and external perspective. At the micro level, it would be possible to consider the impacts experienced directly or indirectly by academics, researchers, students, entrepreneurs, or any other individual involved in the collaborative environment. At the mezzo level, impacts are experienced by research teams, industrial associations, and communities within the collaborative context. Finally, at the macro level, impacts would extend to external communities that are directly or indirectly affected by the collaboration. These communities can encompass various domains such as industry, academia, region or any other group in society (Galan-Muros & Davey, 2019 ).

Another relevant discussion in the literature addresses the pathways for UICs to generate greater impact on society. One perspective, as proposed by Bornmann ( 2013 ), argues that knowledge commercialization is a way to create broader impacts. In other words, when research outcomes are transformed into marketable products, such as consumer goods, medicines, devices, or services, broader impacts are achieved. For example, the Argus II device, an artificial retina resulting from a collaboration between academia, industry, and the government, materialized in socially important innovations (Walsh et al., 2018 ). However, it is important to mention that UICs generally pursue research objectives through joint R&D activities, and their results usually become intellectual property assets, such as patents, licenses, and sales, which are subsequently traded (Pinto & Fernandes, 2021 ).

Fini et al. ( 2018 ) argue that there is a lack of understanding of how research can impact through commercialization. In this regard, the authors suggest moving away from the emphasis on direct outcomes of commercialization (such as patents and licenses) and understanding commercialization as the process of turning knowledge into useful products or services available on the market. This new approach involves creating direct links between users and performers of R&D activities, which would give rise to collaborative projects targeting user needs and generating higher societal impact (Fini et al., 2018 ).

2.3 Previous reviews and research gap

Extant literature reviews have widely emphasized the analysis of crucial factors for technology transfer (Da Silva Florencio & De Oliveira, 2022 ) and collaborative innovation (Sjoo & Hellstrom, 2019 ). Reviews grounded in case studies have also explored aspects often overlooked in such relationships, such as the choice of partners and the management of stakeholder interactions (Marinho et al., 2020 ). These review studies frequently consider the analysis of each of these factors at different levels, spanning from the individual to the institutional and academic level (Puerta Sierra et al., 2017 ).

Other reviews highlight the challenges and motivations faced by universities at both individual and institutional levels, as outlined by Harryson et al. ( 2007 ) and Nsanzumuhire and Groot ( 2020 ). These aspects assume particular relevance as the academic community interested in collaborating with industry grapples with the challenge of legitimizing their activities within the academic sphere while balancing their responsibilities of teaching, research, and participation in industrial initiatives (Miller et al., 2018 ).

The relationship between academic engagement and commercialization has also undergone thorough analysis. As discussed by Perkmann et al. ( 2013 ) academic engagement is interpreted as a multi-level phenomenon influenced by both individual characteristics and the organizational and institutional context. It serves as a mechanism for resource acquisition by high-performing academics in institutions with limited resources (Perkmann et al., 2013 ).

Although the aforementioned studies do not specifically focus on analyzing UIC impacts, they recognize the need to address this theme in future research. In contrast, some authors have explored less extensively the impacts arising from knowledge-sharing collaboration (Mascarenhas et al., 2018 ), as well as the effects of the trilateral relationship between university, industry, and government in regional innovation systems (Lew & Park, 2021 ).

The systematic review conducted by Lima et al. ( 2021 ) leads to a conceptual model classifying the UIC impacts into three categories: economic, social, and financial. This study underscores the social impact of UICs as an emerging field characterized by predominantly exploratory and qualitative research, encompassing various theoretical approaches, albeit still lacking a more robust foundation (Lima et al., 2021 ). Similarly, qualitative analysis techniques have been employed in literature reviews to identify the economic, institutional, and social benefits of UICs (Ankrah & AL-Tabbaa, 2015 ), as well as the proposition of impact assessments of public–private partnerships, notably in the biomedical and pharmaceutical sectors (de Vrueh & Crommelin, 2017 ).

It is worth mentioning that a considerable number of studies have employed quantitative methods with a particular emphasis on the use of econometric models (Apa et al., 2021 ; Di Maria et al., 2019 ; Vega-Jurado et al., 2020 ), structural equations combined with narratives (De Silva et al., 2021 ) and case studies (Azagra-Caro et al., 2017 ) to measure the impact of UICs. This trend in the combined use of methods confirms that the type of methodological approach employed in measuring the impacts of research (Bornmann, 2013 ) remains relevant in the field of UIC. However, the current paper does not intend to delve into the specific methods used to measure the impacts of UICs, which would otherwise extend the length of the paper significantly.

Given that the literature review revealed a gap in measuring the impacts of UICs (Galan-Muros & Davey, 2019 ), and motivated by studies emphasizing the importance of broadening the scope of UIC impact analysis (Mascarenhas et al., 2018 ; Miller et al., 2018 ; Skute et al., 2019 ) and influenced by the remarkable proliferation of literature related to the emerging impacts of the UIC in recent years, we conduct a systematic literature review that identifies and categorizes the types of UIC impacts. Furthermore, we identify the challenges in measuring these impacts and the strategies that have been employed to address such challenges. We observe that these aspects have not been addressed simultaneously and comprehensively in previous reviews. Therefore, bringing this information into a single framework will serve as a foundation for future empirical research aimed at developing systematic methodologies for measuring the impact of UICs.

The UIC measurement impact framework here proposed aims to provide a structured approach to better understanding the categories, challenges, and strategies related to the measurement of impact across the UIC lifecycle. With the help of this framework, researchers will be able to be more rigorous, careful, and strategic in analyzing the impact in real contexts. Ultimately, our goal is to advance the knowledge and understanding of the impact of UICs on society at large.

3 Research methodology

To understand the process of measuring the impacts of UICs, we have identified (a) types of UIC impacts, (b) categorization of impacts, (c) challenges of measuring UIC impacts, and (d) strategies to overcome these challenges. Following the systematic review process presented by Tranfield et al. ( 2003 ), we have divided this process into three phases: phase I, review planning; phase II, identification, and selection of studies; phase III, evaluation of study quality, data extraction (thematic analysis) and presentation of results (Fig.  1 ).

figure 1

Systematic literature review phases

Each phase was preceded by periodic meetings held by three authors to discuss issues related to the application and follow-up of the protocol. After a cycle of preliminary readings, the keywords selected for the search in Scopus and Web of Science were as follows: ("UIC*" OR "university-industry" OR "industry-university" OR "UBC*" OR "university-business cooperation" OR “public–private” OR “private–public”); ("university*" OR "academic*" OR "higher education"); (“ industry *” OR “enterprise *” OR “company*” OR “firm*”); ("impact*" OR "benefit*"); (“R&D” OR “Innovation”). The expressions were searched in the title, abstract, and keywords of the articles.

The initial process resulted in 1.593 documents which four filters were applied to (type of document, language, year of publication, and fully completed articles). That is, only articles in English published between 2000 and 2022 were searched, considering that from 2000 onwards there were more studies focusing on measuring the impacts of UICs. However, interest in this thematic area began to grow in the last five years, as also evidenced by Lima et al. ( 2021 ). Therefore, the danger of omitting relevant studies can be minimized by analyzing recent articles that use previous studies as a basis (Ankrah & AL-Tabbaa, 2015 ). This filtering procedure eliminated 620 documents, leaving a total of 973 articles. After eliminating duplicates, 665 articles passed the selection and evaluation phase.

Later in the process, two inclusion criteria were applied to the aforementioned 665 articles, incorporating in the analysis those articles that, based on their abstract, provided a positive response to at least one of the following questions: 1) Does the study address the impacts of UIC? 2) Does the study address useful mechanisms or criteria for measuring the impacts of UIC? In some cases, it was necessary to go beyond the abstract to answer these questions. This process resulted in 172 articles being selected for further analysis.

Finally, as our interest was centered on studies that addressed the types of impacts, concepts, ways of measuring them, or key theoretical elements to consider in a measurement process, a detailed reading of each article allowed us to eliminate those whose contribution did not offer the degree of depth necessary for this research, resulting in a final set of 77 articles for the data extraction process. The snowballing strategy was employed in the literature review. The examination of the 77 key articles allowed for the identification of significant theoretical contributions, which guided the review of the relevant references. This process facilitated the inclusion of 15 additional articles, resulting in a more comprehensive understanding of the topic across a total of 92 analyzed articles.

The data analysis process for identifying and categorizing UIC impacts was carried out following two main steps. Firstly, the selected articles were carefully scanned to extract key data, which was organized in a matrix. This information encompassed the author and publication date of the article, the identified impacts, the impacted 'agent' (whether it was the university, society, or industry), and the impacted area (social, economic, technological, environmental, intellectual, or strategic). It is worth noting that most of the literature indicated, either explicitly or implicitly, whether an impact fell into the economic, environmental, technological, social, or intellectual categories. However, for impacts such as reputation, competitiveness, and new collaborations, it was less evident to classify them into a specific category. Nevertheless, given their direct association with an organization's image, they were found 'strategic.' Throughout this data analysis process, in-depth and comprehensive readings of the selected texts were conducted. This immersion in literature was crucial for extracting key data and thoroughly understanding the various impacts identified in the studies selected.

Secondly, we merged some impacts, due to terminological variations when referring to similar impacts. Therefore, a regrouping process was undertaken, resulting in a total of 25 identified UIC impacts. Categorization was carried out by linking the impact's meaning with the corresponding, most affected area, according to the authors' views. To ensure accuracy and consistency in the impact categorization process, researchers met several times to engage in meaningful discussions and achieve a consensus in the categorization of each impact.

The challenges of measuring the impact of UICs and the strategies to overcome such challenges were not explicit in most of the selected articles. We strategically applied a methodological approach of reflexive thematic analysis, which allows for the use of the researcher’s subjectivity in the data analysis process, and for being flexible and recursive, without having to follow a linear process (Braun et al., 2019 ). Our thematic analysis started with “focused familiarization”, i.e. the documents were analyzed by focusing on two central ideas, "impact measurement challenges" and "strategies to overcome impact measurement challenges". The first phase identified a set of topics connected to each predefined core idea, leading to a second phase that consisted of analyzing and discussing the relationships and interpreting the coherence of each topic. Finally, a third phase fostered a discussion tying up all topics in a comprehensive framework.

4.1 Identification and categorization of UIC impacts

Most of the studies looking into the impact of UICs from an industry perspective focused on how UICs affect business innovation performance (Al-Ashaab et al., 2011 ; Apa et al., 2021 ; Fan et al., 2019 ; Jones & Corral de Zubielqui, 2017 ). Even though the majority found a positive impact on innovation (Fan et al., 2019 ; Zhang et al., 2019 ), when the unit of analysis is small and medium-sized enterprises, empirical evidence showed that formal UICs do not necessarily induce positive innovation performance without the presence of informal relationships (Apa et al., 2021 ). Similarly, UICs, when consisting of companies with low absorption capacity, do not have a significant impact on innovation (Vega-Jurado et al., 2020 ). This heterogeneity in results is generally related to the type of company, type of relationship, partner, and absorptive capacity. Therefore, each of these factors should be considered with caution in the impact measurement process (Acebo et al., 2021 ).

Result heterogeneity is also evident in the measurement of the academic perspective. The literature reveals some concern about how commercialization objectives in the industry undermine scientific production (Perkmann & Walsh, 2009 ). A recent explanation relates this effect to the attention theory of firms, i.e., high levels of collaboration generate many ideas and low publication rates (Banal-Estañol et al., 2015 ). Other studies consider that academic institutions can indeed experience intellectual benefits (De Fuentes & Dutrenit, 2012 ), but with diminishing returns as the time spent in the industry increases (Banal-Estañol et al., 2015 ), or when an academic is involved in several collaborative projects (Di Maria et al., 2019 ).

In contrast to the previous argument, Bikard et al. ( 2019 ) state that the low scientific productivity is explained by the fact that the universities decide to collaborate in projects more oriented to commercial results than to scientific outputs, or UIC participants do not otherwise apply the advantages of specialization, i.e., delegating responsibilities according to the specialty of each participant. Thus, if the commercial activity is carried out by industry members and the scientific production by academics, the results would benefit all stakeholders (Bikard et al., 2019 ).

Although only a fraction of collaborative research results in co-authorship, sectors such as electronics, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology tend to produce more scientific production(Tijssen, 2012 ). There will always be a risk that some academics may shift the focus of their concern, i.e., they will be more concerned with the commercial outcome of their product than with the content of their scientific output (Bornmann, 2017 ).

In any case, the trade-off between participating in collaborative projects with industry and the decrease in academic productivity with a high impact factor implies an opportunity cost that is worth thinking about when significant socioeconomic impacts are generated (Di Maria et al., 2019 ). Certain scholars emphasize the important role of incentives to engage academics in collaborative efforts with the industry (Puerta-Sierra et al., 2021 ; Skute et al., 2019 ). Other authors acknowledge the importance of delving deeper into the understanding of the factors that encourage academics to engage with the industry, aiming to enhance the effectiveness of policies promoting such collaborations (Abramo & D’Angelo, 2022 ).

Once it is acknowledged that long-term collaborations with industry has limitations due to diminishing returns in scientific production (Garcia et al., 2020 ), several studies have proposed measures, such as the institutionalization of interdisciplinary UIC. For instance, creating incentives distinct from common requirements for scientific production by adopting criteria related to social, human, and financial spheres (Galán-Muros et al., 2017 ). Accordingly, there are proposals to reformulate the assessment of scientific activity in a more equitable manner and realign certain policies, often conflicting due to their encouragement of high-impact scientific production and simultaneous encouragement of academic engagement in public–private collaborations (Abramo & D’Angelo, 2022 ).

From a social perspective, UICs have been widely recognized as a significant source of skills and specialized knowledge, playing a crucial role as intellectual capital that drives job creation and wealth generation (Guerrero et al., 2021 ). Moreover, when social needs are met through responsible innovation generated by UICs, regional economies grow and education systems improve (Acebo et al., 2021 ; Audretsch et al., 2019 ). Recent studies state that society imposes certain demands on universities, which are related to social aspects such as poverty relief, inequality reduction, and an enhanced quality of life for individuals. Thus, UICs, as innovation systems, provide a viable means to address each of these challenges (Puerta-Sierra et al., 2021 ).

One aspect worth mentioning is the relationship between societal impact and the type of country where the UIC is based. The literature points out that in developed countries UICs are driven by commercial, economic and reputational factors, while in developing countries UICs result from the very needs and challenges these countries face, which may explain why collaborations in developing countries generate higher societal impact (Roncancio-Marin et al., 2022 ).

After summarizing the analysis of the 92 selected articles, 25 UIC impacts were pointed out. Table 1 introduces the impacts and their descriptions. Additionally, we have proposed five impact categories: 'type', 'agent', 'time', 'incidence' and 'nature'. The 'type' category is directly related to the affected area. Consequently, the 25 impacts identified have been classified into six types: intellectual, economic, technological, environmental, social and strategic, as evidenced in Table  1 . The different types of impacts can be defined as follows:

Intellectual : Impacts that directly affect the academic and the industrial communities. These are closely linked to scientific production, the resolution of industrial issues, and opportunities to enhance the capabilities and experience of human capital (De Fuentes & Dutrenit, 2012 ), alongside the improvement of the educational system and learning processes (Zavale & Schneijderberg, 2021 );

Economic : Impacts related to the financial outcomes that arise from the development of new ventures, the commercialization of innovative products, and the optimization of resources. This type of impact can emerge after a series of interactions over time between the university and businesses (Azagra-Caro et al., 2017 ) and is often linked to the increase in anticipated capital and wealth generation (Audretsch et al., 2019 ). Economic impacts in the field of UIC have been extensively analyzed in the literature (Puerta-Sierra et al., 2021 ; Roncancio-Marin et al., 2022 ; Yeo, 2018 ) and from the university perspective, the economic impact becomes evident as the presence of financial resources allocated to research increases (De Fuentes & Dutrenit, 2012 );

Technological : Impacts that arise from the implementation of new technologies or innovative concepts in collaborative projects between academic institutions and industry. These innovations can lead to both positive and negative consequences in various spheres, such as productivity, quality of life, job creation, and the environment, among others. Consequently, the degree of efficiency with which these new ideas are transformed into marketable products and services becomes a crucial element in fostering the creation of new innovation mechanisms (Audretsch et al., 2019 ).

Environmental : Impacts related to the outcomes, whether positive or negative, arising from the activities conducted within the collaborative project that directly or indirectly influence the environment (Zhang et al., 2022 ). Among the environmental impacts documented in the analyzed literature, noteworthy examples include the mitigation of pollutants (Al-Ashaab et al., 2011 ; Albats et al., 2018 ) and the advancement of practices that promote the use of recyclable materials (Al-Ashaab et al., 2011 ).

Social: Impacts across several groups of society, encompassing crucial domains such as employment generation (Apa et al., 2021 ; Wong & Singh, 2013 ), quality of life enhancement (Zavale & Schneijderberg, 2021 ), and entrepreneurial endeavors aimed at meeting community demands (Acebo et al., 2021 ; Audretsch et al., 2019 ; Roncancio-Marin et al., 2022 ).

Strategic : Impacts that directly affect the image of an organization in its environment, particularly their reputation (Crespo & Dridi, 2007 ; De Fuentes & Dutrenit, 2012 ; Galan-Muros & Davey, 2019 ). Namely, strategic competitiveness (Acebo et al., 2021 ; Galan-Muros & Davey, 2019 ), and the organization’s ability to foster future collaborations (Al-Ashaab et al., 2011 ; De Silva et al., 2021 ; Zavale & Schneijderberg, 2021 ).

The second category, known as ‘agent’, represents the community directly or indirectly affected (Table  2 ). In literature, it is possible to observe that an impact can affect more than one agent, thus demonstrating that the knowledge generated within the UIC can have broader impacts on many areas, namely, industries, universities and society (Galán-Muros et al., 2017 ).

As for the third category, 'time', both the short- and long-term are considered. In this regard, the literature agrees that impacts on the collaborative lifecycle can occur in both timeframes (Maietta, 2015 ; Siemieniako et al., 2021 ; Yeo,  2018 ).

The fourth category, 'incidence', relates to the nature of the impact, whether direct or indirect (Maietta, 2015 ). In this research, we define direct impacts as those generated from the activities carried out within the collaborative lifecycle. These impacts are observable in the short-term and primarily affect the communities directly involved in the project. Conversely, indirect impacts are those that were not foreseen and can be considered an extension of the effects produced by the activities carried out under the collaborative lifecycle. These impacts occur in the medium and long term, affecting not only stakeholders, but also other social groups.

The fifth category, 'nature', is related to the tangible or intangible features of the impact (Bellini et al., 2019 ; Fernandes & O’Sullivan, 2021 ; Perkmann & Walsh, 2009 ). In this document, we establish a relationship between the concepts of tangibility and intangibility and the level of complexity associated with measuring their impact.

In other words, when there is an exact measure of the impact, it is considered measurable. Conversely, if the nature of the impact is intangible, it does not imply that it is impossible to measure; rather, it requires more sophisticated assessment approaches and tools. Figure  2 organizes the 25 UIC impacts under five impact categories.

figure 2

UIC impact categories

Finally, Fig.  3 illustrates the evolution over time of the six types of impact in literature. To achieve this, we have divided our period of analysis (2000–2022) into four specific periods (2000–2004, 2005–2009, 2010–2014, and 2015–2022) and counted the number of articles that address each impact type, thus providing a visual representation of how the analysis of each impact has evolved over time in the context of UICs.

figure 3

Temporal Evolution of the Six Types of Impact

Figure  3 shows a consistent and growing interest by economic impacts since the period 2000–2004. Similarly, intellectual impacts gained in prominence in the literature from the second period onward, alongside the economic impacts. This initial trend substantiates our findings regarding how academic and industrial perspectives have been scrutinized in the literature on UICs. Consequently, it underscores the need to analyze more comprehensive impacts that transcend both academic and industrial realms.

The significantly deeper analysis of social impacts in the last period analyzed suggests that the literature is responding to the call to address social needs. A plausible explanation for this trend could be linked to the fact that social impact is a great concern of policymakers and professionals involved in the commercialization of science (Fini et al., 2018 ).

Concerning the strategic and technological impacts, although not growing in the number of articles at the same pace as the others, these impacts still catch the interest of literature.

Regarding the environmental impacts resulting from UICs, few studies have delved into this subject. This result emphasizes the historical lack of additional research on environmental indicators, as indicated by Karatzoglou ( 2013 ) in his literature review on the university's role in sustainable development. After looking into 123 articles, Karatzoglou identified only three which focused exclusively on measurement systems, highlighting the urgent need for more in-depth studies in this field.

4.2 Challenges in measuring UIC impacts

The reflexive thematic analysis allowed us to identify four recurring methodological challenges in measuring the impact of UICs. The first challenge concerns the 'multidimensional nature of the impact', whether tangible or intangible (Bellini et al., 2019 ; Soh & Subramanian, 2014 ), due to the uncertainty of the impact appearing in the long-term or short-term (Maietta, 2015 ; Yeo, 2018 ), to its direct or indirect impact (Perkmann & Walsh, 2009 ) or to its positive or negative effect in a given area (Fini et al., 2018 ). All of these aspects increase the complexity of measuring any impact that takes time to materialize (Perkmann & Walsh, 2009 ).

The second challenge identified was 'causal attribution of effect'. A clear example thereof is the difficulty in establishing whether an increase in sales is the result of the UIC, since there may be other factors that influence its performance (Perkmann et al., 2011 ). Although some studies suggest that UICs positively influence the sales of innovative products (Arvanitis et al., 2008 ), or improve a company's market value (Crespo & Dridi, 2007 ), there is no clear understanding of the results derived from collaboration (Galan-Muros & Davey, 2019 ). So there is the risk of alternative causes explaining such effects (Fini et al., 2018 ). Therefore, knowing to what extent the collaboration was useful for achieving innovative results, or even knowing what would have happened if the collaboration had not taken place are still counterfactual issues to be considered (Lööf & Broström, 2008 ).

Formal collaboration in R&D encompasses a wide range of cooperative research and knowledge transfer activities, involving continuous interactions between stakeholders (Wong & Singh, 2013 ). When these continuous interactions are of high professional value, they tend to ensure the existence of societal impacts (Bornmann, 2017 ) However, there is a challenge related to the 'identification of impacts', both perceived and expected. Identifying perceived impacts requires addressing significant differences in individual and institutional perceptions that are subjectively correlated with affective evaluations. The perceived benefits, particularly those related to future collaborations, are thus positive (De Silva et al., 2021 ). Moreover, identifying expected impacts is a challenging exercise due to the risks and uncertainties inherent to UICs (Fernandes & O’Sullivan, 2021 ).

To measure the impact of research on society, it is often more convenient to compile data at the institutional level than at the individual level, since institutional data are more easily identified (Bornmann, 2017 ). However, more than identifying data, another frequent difficulty in measuring the impacts of UICs is having sufficient and appropriate information, especially when it comes to micro-level data (Yeo, 2018 ). Thus, we have identified a fourth challenge, which we have called 'data limitations', explained by some authors as the absence of a culture of periodic recording of information by organizations (Penfield et al., 2014 ).

The literature related to UICs showed that 'data limitations' can occur for different reasons, such as low stakeholder participation in surveys, as evidenced by a low response rate or a significant number of contradictory answers (Arvanitis et al., 2008 ). 'Data limitations' can also occur because of the short period in which the information remains available or because the available data do not reveal the specific realities of the context under analysis (Zavale & Schneijderberg, 2021 ). Particularly, in the context of co-financed R&D projects, data limitations are influenced by geographical, economic, scientific and cultural factors that often constrain the integrity and validity of the data (Tijssen, 2012 ). Whatever the reason, this problem may limit the scope of the study by having to exclude part of a sample, for example small companies, from a study (Maietta, 2015 ). In contrast, when data are recorded extensively in organizations, such impact is more likely to reveal itself (Yeo, 2018 ), which facilitates the study of longitudinal phenomena (Arvanitis et al., 2008 ).

4.3 Strategies used to measure UIC impacts

Our literature review allowed us to identify some strategies for UIC impact measurement. Given the 'multidimensional nature of impact' challenge and the tendency of traditional measurement methods to focus on the last stage of the collaboration lifecycle, i.e. the output phase of patents, licenses and joint publications, some authors have proposed the implementation of 'continuous monitoring throughout the UIC lifecycle', i.e., inputs, activities in process, outputs, and impacts (Albats et al., 2018 ). 'Continuous monitoring throughout the UIC lifecycle', accompanied by the 'interactive participation of stakeholders', is expected to foster the evaluation and balanced selection of the most appropriate indicators to measure impact, and to point out the appropriate direction for future collaborations (Albats et al., 2018 ).

A second strategy used to measure UIC impacts is the 'combination of data collection tools', namely by the use of primary data collection tools, such as case studies, interviews and narratives (Al-Ashaab et al., 2011 ; Borah et al., 2021 ; Morandi, 2013 ; Perkmann & Walsh, 2009 ) and the use of secondary databases (Scandura, 2016 ; Vega-Jurado et al., 2020 ; Wong & Singh, 2013 ; Zhang et al., 2019 ). We believe that the combined use of these data collection tools (e.g., Soh & Subramanian, 2014 ; Wirsich et al., 2016 ; Wong & Singh, 2013 ) can contribute to a more complete picture of the UIC context and capture the different views of academic, industry and society stakeholders (Albats et al., 2018 ), becoming an important strategy for dealing with 'data limitations' and facilitating the 'identification of impacts', both perceived and expected.

The literature also suggests the implementation of 'benefit management systems' that allow for a more precise identification of expected benefits and the allocation of responsibilities among participants in the UIC (Fernandes & O’Sullivan, 2021 ). A 'benefit management system' involves a set of interactive activities among UIC members, aimed at identifying, reviewing, executing and projecting future actions (Fernandes & O’Sullivan, 2021 ). Considering that benefits have a positive connotation, while the definition of impact used in this paper implies positive and negative effects derived from the UICs, henceforth we will use the term 'Impact Management System'. Thus, the implementation of this system could contribute to building an ideal context involving interactions between academics and entrepreneurs, which are fundamental in the creation of common benefits (Galan-Muros & Davey, 2019 ). However, it is an exogenous strategy, beyond the scope of the UIC impact evaluator, and its implementation depends on the UIC organizations involved.

Fini et al. ( 2018 ) guide impact evaluators to go beyond traditional measures and use 'digital and technological tools' to build more efficient databases. For instance, web-based metrics (altmetrics) can help map the broader impact of research by connecting interactions on social networks between scientific production and various groups, such as public policymakers (Bornmann, 2017 ). Furthermore, the 'use of multidisciplinary approaches' that consider ethical and moral issues is also considered relevant when the commercialization of innovation generates positive and negative impacts simultaneously. For example, important technological innovation may generate negative environmental impacts related to moral and ethical issues that must factored into impact measurement (Fini et al., 2018 ).

Impact causality in the field of UIC has been addressed with 'parametric/non-parametric and qualitative methods', such as estimators (e.g. instrumental variables) and nonparametric estimators (e.g. matching estimators) (Lööf & Broström, 2008 ). The latter impose a condition of independence to determine whether the impacts would be possible in the absence of collaboration (Scandura, 2016 ), and empirically addressed counter factuality, using regression models and propensity score matching for comparative analyses between groups of companies participating in the collaboration and a non-collaborative control group, aimed at estimating the impact of the UIC. Another strategy identified was qualitative approaches using questionnaires to obtain participants' views on what would have happened in the absence of the collaboration (Wooding et al., 2007 ).

5 Discussion

This research builds on knowledge of UICs by delivering a macro-level perspective on measuring broader impacts of UICs for which there is limited understanding (Bornmann, 2013 ; Di Maria et al., 2019 ; Jones & Corral de Zubielqui, 2017 ; Nugent et al., 2022 ). More specifically, the contribution of this paper is twofold. Firstly, we propose a framework that outlines the process of measuring the impacts of UICs, integrating impact categories, the challenges associated with their measurement and strategies to overcome them.

The framework introduces the UICs as a cyclical process through which useful knowledge of high social impact can be produced. This cycle is basically divided into four phases, inputs , in-process activities , outputs and outcomes (Galan-Muros & Davey, 2019 ; Perkmann & Walsh, 2009 ). In each of these phases there is a degree of interactivity among the participants and with it the probability of generating direct or indirect impacts at the individual or community level (Bornmann, 2017 ). These impacted groups or communities may belong to industry, academia, and other social groups, such as funding institutions or those responsible for public policies, etc. Consequently, the identification of impact and the diverse groups affected requires caution and a comprehensive understanding of the multidimensional nature of impact to avoid unidirectional effects or underestimation of the existence of bidirectional knowledge flows (Verre et al., 2021 ).

The framework proposes a categorization of the impacts identified in the literature. Six types of impacts related to intellectual, economic, technological, environmental, social, and strategic areas (see Table  2 and Fig.  2 ) are identified. It is worth mentioning that the impacts belonging to the strategic category, such as reputation, competitiveness, and future collaborations are clearly mentioned and recognized in the literature. However, they are not commonly included in empirical studies of UIC impact measurement. Therefore, since there is a broad consensus on the existence of these impacts, strategies must be devised for their inclusion in future impact measurement methodologies.

The framework also shows four types of challenges related to impact measurement, namely, 'multidimensional nature of impact', 'causal attribution of effect', 'identification of impact' and 'data limitations'. These challenges explain the scarcity of systematic studies attempting to measure the impacts of UICs, complementing the findings in the literature on conceptual issues in impact types (Bornmann, 2013 ; Donovan, 2011 ).

Secondly, this research contributes to drawing clear connections between the challenges of impact measurement and the strategies to overcome these challenges. We contend that identifying these challenges not only enhances the likelihood of advancing the measurement of UIC impacts but also contributes partially to strengthening the connection among the thematic elements comprising the UIC ecosystem (Galan-Muros & Davey, 2019 ). In Fig.  4 , we use the colors green, lilac and yellow to visualize these connections.

figure 4

UIC impact measurement framework

Thus, the challenge of the 'multidimensional nature of impact' can be addressed through continuous monitoring across the lifecycle of the collaboration and interactive participation of project stakeholders. The challenge of ‘causal attribution of effect’ has been addressed in the literature mainly through qualitative methods that need to be combined with quantitative tools to build more robust methods of measurement (Bornmann, 2013 ). However, theory points to new paths in future research, namely by using 'multidisciplinary approaches', 'parametric/non-parametric and qualitative methods' and 'Digital and technological tools' for collecting and managing information, and to the connection of different areas of knowledge to allow for a broader analysis of the impact (Fini et al., 2018 ). Nevertheless, no empirical evidence applying these strategies was found in the analyzed articles.

The literature also shows that challenges related to 'data limitations' and 'impact identification' can be addressed through the 'combination of data collection tools', which was a common strategy among the analyzed studies (e.g., Soh & Subramanian, 2014 ; Wirsich et al., 2016 ; Wong & Singh, 2013 ). Many of them went beyond a particular source and used various tools to gather information, such as narratives, interviews, focus groups, and existing secondary databases.

Another strategy mentioned in the literature was the implementation of an 'Impact management system' (Fernandes & O’Sullivan, 2021 ), which helps to identify the expected impacts. We emphasize this last strategy, because it is an external mechanism that falls outside the control of the impact evaluator. We believe that UICs that manage to adopt this type of system could develop the capacity to provide more complete information on the changes experienced during the project, which would benefit future empirical studies that seek to analyze its impacts.

The set of seven strategies discussed, shown in the last layer of Fig.  4 , contributes partially to each of the four identified challenges of measuring UIC impacts. While all these strategies converge towards a common goal, which is the continuous monitoring of impact through information captured from many sources, the identified challenges can be intricate and require multiple and complementary strategies. Nevertheless, the linkages between strategies and challenges discussed in this paper, while not unique, can serve as a basis for the process of measuring impact in the UIC context.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the potential 25 impacts resulting from UICs can significantly vary in terms of their impact degree. For example, (I.7) New business opportunities (e.g., creation of spin-offs and start-ups), (I.9) New and improved products and services, (I.14) Development of new technologies, (I.19) Promotion of regional economic and social development, and (I.20) creation of jobs, may have a significant potential. However, attaining a significant degree of these impacts requires achieving a deep change, capable of expansion at local, regional, national, and international levels, and showing long-term sustainability (Scoble et al., 2010 ).

The challenge of attaining a more significant level of impact may be linked to various inhibiting factors, including the lack of shared objectives among universities, science, and businesses (Issabekov et al., 2022 ). The absence of these common objectives can significantly affect the level of commitment from the involved parties, which is a key factor in driving the innovative performance of companies collaborating with universities (Marra et al., 2022 ). Additionally, as highlighted in the literature, information asymmetry increases uncertainty levels between the university and industry (Xiaojuan & Hongda, 2021 ). These inhibiting factors require sustainable strategies to maintain common interests over time (de Freitas et al., 2014 ), and facilitate the occurrence of more comprehensive impacts.

6 Conclusions and future avenues of research

University-industry collaboration in R&D projects (UICs) are characterized by their ability to impact individuals or groups in a society. However, measuring and demonstrating such impacts is a complex task that requires thorough analysis. Resorting to systematic literature review, this study identifies different types of impacts in the context of UICs, as well as the challenges of measuring such impacts and the strategies that can be used to overcome them (see Fig.  4 ). We propose a categorization of the impacts of UICs based on the 'type' (intellectual, economic, technological, environmental, social and strategic), the ‘agent' (industry, academy and society), the 'time' the impacts take place (short- or long-term), the 'incidence' (direct or indirect) and the 'nature' (tangible or intangible).

The categorization of impacts by 'agent' emphasizes the need to conduct empirical studies that consider the viewpoint of each stakeholder, as their interactive participation facilitates the identification of the impact, the specific group and area that may be affected by the activities carried out at the UIC. In this regard, it is crucial to acknowledge that, apart from the university and industry, society itself plays a pivotal role, represented by various academics, industrials, regions and other communities that are part of society.

We believe that the remaining three UIC impact categories (i.e., 'time', 'incidence' and 'nature') reflect the 'multidimensional nature of impact', which represents an challenge inherent in its measurement process. Likewise, the literature review allowed us to identify additional challenges related to 'causal attribution of the effect', 'data limitations' and 'impact identification'. These challenges further muddle the measurement of impact and explain the scarcity of studies that have attempted to analyze the former.

Various methodological strategies were identified in the literature to address the aforementioned challenges. However, some of these strategies, such as 'continuous monitoring throughout the UIC lifecycle', the use of 'multidisciplinary approaches', or of 'digital and technological tools' were not empirically applied in the studies analyzed. Nevertheless, there are exceptions worthy of note, such as the ‘combination of data collection methods', i.e. quantitative and qualitative methods, as well as the integration of databases, which have been frequently used in impact measurement studies, in view of obtaining a more comprehensive understanding of organizational-level impacts (Al-Ashaab et al., 2011 ; Borah et al., 2021 ; Morandi, 2013 ; Perkmann & Walsh, 2009 ).

This research represents a significant theoretical advancement in our understanding of UICs by skillfully integrating diverse strategies aimed at tackling the intricate challenges associated with measuring their impacts. By summarizing these strategies, we are aiming at the development of forthcoming methodologies capable of effectively encompassing the various impacts mentioned in literature, which are currently not suitably addressed in measurement processes due to their intangible and complex nature.

The current study’s findings have some limitations. Although a systematic review process was employed, as pointed out by Xia et al. ( 2018 ), literature reviews are never exhaustive. Therefore, in this process some articles may have been left out of the analysis. Possible exclusions may be the result of various factors, such as the choice of keywords, the string used, the scope of the search, or methodological gaps that could potentially be identified by other researchers. These issues present opportunities for future research or extensions of the current study. Besides, in the literature analysis process, specifically in qualitative and reflexive thematic analysis, cognitive bias cannot be entirely eliminated. Thus, while the results obtained offer suggestions for the measurement of UIC impacts, they are not confined to the framework proposed herein.

For future investigations is critical to focus on the perspectives of all parties involved in the collaboration to comprehend the perceived and anticipated impacts of these UICs. This involves employing diverse methods of information gathering to ensure that socially recognized impacts theoretically acknowledged are adequately included in the measurement process.

Future empirical research is also needed to delve into the knowledge of new strategies that can be implemented to overcome the challenges of measuring the broader impacts of UICs. For instance, field studies addressing the perspective and experience of the actors directly involved in collaborative project management can deliver valuable inputs. Additionally, promoting the use of multidisciplinary approaches, the application of digital and technological tools, and the combination of quantitative and qualitative methods can enrich the assessment of impacts and provide a more comprehensive understanding of the effects generated.

Future research could also further explore the inhibiting factors influencing the impacts stemming from UICs and the strategies that can be implemented to attain a more comprehensive level of impact. We recognize that there are impacts with high potential, such as: new business opportunities (e.g., creation of spin-offs and start-ups), new and improved products and services, development of new technologies, promotion of regional economic and social development, and creation of jobs.

However, strategies must be implemented to overcome inhibiting factors of these impacts. For instance, instituting regular innovation meetings on-site, involving multidisciplinary teams within the company and university, can serve as an effective approach to overcome such inhibiting factors, providing a platform to explore and assess the impacts resulting from the collaborations (Penfield et al., 2014 ). Such meetings have the potential to stimulate the development of new products, processes, and technologies that promote regional economic development, as well as to increase the level of trust and the likelihood of future collaborations (Fernandes & O’Sullivan, 2021 ).

Furthermore, not all economic development contributes to regional innovation (Cui & Li, 2022 ). Therefore, there is a need for policies that facilitate and incentivize greater exploration of collaboration results within the region itself. This strategy can play a significant role in promoting sustainable economic and social development while also fostering the creation of new businesses and increasing local employment.

Finally, the majority of the impacts of UICs recognized and identified in the literature are positive in nature. While few studies acknowledge the existence of negative impacts stemming from UICs, these are not explicitly identified, except the impact related to potential reduced scientific productivity among academics. Therefore, additional empirical studies are needed to explore other specific negative impacts that may arise from collaborations with industry. Additionally, it will be worthy to analyze potential political or organizational hindrances to accessing information related to the negative impacts that could result from co-funded collaborations between industry and university.

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This research is sponsored by FEDER funds through the program COMPETE – Programa Operacional Factores de Competitividade – by the Fundo Social Europeu (FSE), and the MCTES/República Portuguesa – Programa Pro-Centro, and through FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, under the projects UIDB/05037/2020 and UIDP/05037/2020. Maria Cohen is funded by the Fundo Social Europeu (FSE), and the MCTES/República Portuguesa – Programa Pro-Centro, and through FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, under scholarship UI/BD/152793/2022.

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Cohen, M., Fernandes, G. & Godinho, P. Measuring the impacts of university-industry R&D collaborations: a systematic literature review. J Technol Transf (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10961-024-10114-5

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  • Published: 04 July 2024

A meta-ethnography of the factors that shape link workers’ experiences of social prescribing

  • Amadea Turk 1 ,
  • Stephanie Tierney 1 ,
  • Bernie Hogan 2 ,
  • Kamal R. Mahtani 1 &
  • Catherine Pope 1  

BMC Medicine volume  22 , Article number:  280 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

Metrics details

Social prescribing is gaining traction internationally. It is an approach which seeks to address non-medical and health-related social needs through taking a holistic person-centred and community-based approach. This involves connecting people with and supporting them to access groups and organisations within their local communities. It is hoped that social prescribing might improve health inequities and reduce reliance on healthcare services. In the UK, social prescribing link workers have become core parts of primary care teams. Despite growing literature on the implementation of social prescribing, to date there has been no synthesis that develops a theoretical understanding of the factors that shape link workers’ experiences of their role.

We undertook a meta-ethnographic evidence synthesis of qualitative literature to develop a novel conceptual framework that explains how link workers experience their roles. We identified studies using a systematic search of key databases, Google alerts, and through scanning reference lists of included studies. We followed the eMERGe guidance when conducting and reporting this meta-ethnography.

Our synthesis included 21 studies and developed a “line of argument” or overarching conceptual framework which highlighted inherent and interacting tensions present at each of the levels that social prescribing operates. These tensions may arise from a mismatch between the policy logic of social prescribing and the material and structural reality, shaped by social, political, and economic forces, into which it is being implemented.


The tensions highlighted in our review shape link workers’ experiences of their role. They may call into question the sustainability of social prescribing and the link worker role as currently implemented, as well as their ability to deliver desired outcomes such as reducing health inequities or healthcare service utilisation. Greater consideration should be given to how the link worker role is defined, deployed, and trained. Furthermore, thought should be given to ensuring that the infrastructure into which social prescribing is being implemented is sufficient to meet needs. Should social prescribing seek to improve outcomes for those experiencing social and economic disadvantage, it may be necessary for social prescribing models to allow for more intensive and longer-term modes of support.

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Social prescribing is an approach to health and wellbeing that seeks to acknowledge and address some of the effects of the social determinants of health [ 1 ]. While various definitions, models, and implementation approaches exist internationally, a recent consensus study defines social prescribing as “a means for trusted individuals in clinical and community settings to identify that a person has non-medical, health-related social needs and to subsequently connect them to non-clinical supports and services within the community by co-producing a social prescription—a non-medical prescription, to improve health and well-being and to strengthen community connections” [ 2 ] (p.9). In practice it entails working with service users (patients) to provide them with personalised support by co-producing an action plan that assesses their needs, strengths, and interests, and empowering them to take greater control of their health and wellbeing. Service users are then supported to access community resources [ 2 ]. Examples may include referrals to gyms and other lifestyle support groups and services, arts, and cultural activities [ 3 ], green spaces [ 4 ], as well as services that can offer support with housing, finances, and welfare advice [ 5 ]. Social prescribing is gaining traction internationally, with at least 25 countries around the world introducing it as of 2023 [ 1 ].

Social prescribing is frequently framed as a way of addressing health inequities by responding to the social determinants of health [ 6 ], with policy makers stating that it is “effective at targeting the causes of health inequalities” [ 7 ]. Social prescribing is presented as a “community-centred” approach to health and wellbeing, which “seeks to draw on and strengthen community capacity to take collective action that will in turn lead to changes in health or the social determinants of health” [ 8 ] (p.19) . It has also been described as an “asset-based” approach, which aims to recognise and focus on a community’s strengths (rather than its deficits) as a foundation for creating social change [ 8 ].

In England, social prescribing is now a key part of the National Health Service Long-Term (NHS) Plan and Personalised Care Agenda [ 9 ], with hopes that it will reduce the reliance on NHS primary care services [ 10 ] as well as reduce clinician workload [ 5 ]. Its delivery is supported through the introduction of social prescribing link workers, who have been brought on as new non-clinical members of the NHS primary care workforce [ 11 ]. Link workers support service users in identifying issues affecting their health and wellbeing, and to access community-based support. A key aspect of the link worker role is to undertake activities aligned with an “asset-based” approach. This involves working collaboratively with partners from across the health and care system to both identify and fill gaps in community services provision and encourage community mobilisation [ 5 , 12 ].

The ways in which link workers operate locally can vary considerably [ 13 ], with some providing intensive open-ended support, while others operate within clearly defined boundaries providing “light touch” [ 14 ] support which may be limited to signposting [ 6 ]. Currently, in England, link workers can be employed directly through funds made available to Primary Care Networks (PCNs) or contracted through third-sector organisations [ 13 ]. The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, which lays out a cost-effective approach to meeting current and future healthcare demands, commits to increasing the number of link workers employed from 3000 in September 2022 to 9000 by 2036/37 [ 15 ].

The literature on social prescribing and link workers is growing rapidly, both across the UK and internationally. Many of these studies are qualitative explorations of the experiences, implementation, and effects of social prescribing in different settings. A consistent theme from current research has been the need to develop a refined theoretical understanding of processes that shape the ways in which link workers undertake their role [ 16 , 17 ]. However, to date there has been no synthesis that attempts to develop a theoretical understanding of the factors that shape link workers’ experiences of their role.

Aim and rationale

The aim of this review was to synthesise existing qualitative research on factors shaping link workers’ experiences of their role and the ways in which the role is being implemented. Our synthesis sought to develop a novel conceptual framework which explains how social prescribing is being enacted and experienced by frontline social prescribing staff. The review aimed to answer the following research questions:

What factors shape experiences and perceptions of link workers carrying out social prescribing?

What factors influence the ways in which link workers work with service users?

Study design

As the aim of this review was to develop a novel theoretical understanding of the factors that shape link workers’ experiences of social prescribing, we employed a meta-ethnographic approach to evidence synthesis to integrate qualitative literature on the link worker role. Meta-ethnography [ 18 ] is a theory-generating and interpretive methodology for the synthesis of qualitative evidence [ 19 ]. The approach is interpretive, rather than aggregative, and involves systematically comparing and translating data from qualitative studies such as participant quotes (first-order constructs) and concepts/themes developed by authors of a primary study (second-order constructs) [ 19 ]. This process then enables the identification and development of new overarching theories and conceptual models (sometimes referred to as third-order constructs) [ 19 , 20 ] through reinterpretation (re-analysis) of published findings [ 21 ]. Conducting a meta-ethnography involves seven stages: getting started, deciding what is relevant to the initial interest, reading the studies, determining how the studies are related, translating the studies into one another, synthesising the translations, and expressing the synthesis. The protocol for the review was registered on PROSPERO [CRD42021264595]. We followed the eMERGe guidance when conducting and reporting this meta-ethnography [ 19 ].

Identification of studies: deciding what is relevant

We conducted a systematic search of key electronic databases covering a mixture of health and social science literature to identify published qualitative studies containing data about factors that shape link workers’ experiences of their role in social prescribing and its implementation. We searched nine databases in August 2021 with the help of an information specialist (NR). The databases searched were Medline (OvidSP) [1946–present], Embase (OvidSP) [1974–present], CINAHL (EBSCOHost) [1982–present], PsycINFO (OvidSP) [1806–present], Health Management Information Consortium (HMIC) (OvidSP) [1979–July 2021], Social Science Citation Index (Web of Science Core Collection) [1900–present], and Sociology Collection—Applied Social Sciences Index & Abstracts, Sociological Abstracts and Sociology Database (Proquest) [1952–present].

The search strategy consisted of title/abstract keywords and subject headings describing the link worker role, primary care, and qualitative research. The search terms recognised the fact that link workers are sometimes referred to by other titles such as social prescriber or community connector [ 13 ]. No date, language, or publication type limits were applied to the search. Full search strategies are available in Additional File 1. In addition, we searched OpenGrey for grey literature such as policy reports. As the literature on social prescribing is growing rapidly, we set up a Google Scholar alert with the term “social prescribing” to keep abreast of newly published papers. This continued until the point of finalising our analysis in November 2023. We also scanned the reference lists of included papers to identify other potentially eligible studies that may have been missed by our searches. The inclusion criteria for studies in our review focused on link worker models of social prescribing and can be found in Table  1 .

The first author (AT) conducted the initial screening of the retrieved references by title and abstract to exclude irrelevant studies, and a sample (20%) was screened by a second reviewer to ensure that inclusion criteria were being applied consistently. Disagreements were resolved through discussion. Remaining texts were read in full and assessed for their relevance. All screening was managed using Rayyan, a systematic review management platform. The reference list of each included paper was scanned to identify further eligible papers. The same process and criteria were also applied to studies identified by the Google Scholar alerts.

Quality appraisal

There is considerable debate on whether qualitative research should be subject to critical appraisal. Some argue that doing so stifles the interpretive and creative aspects of qualitative research, reducing it to a list of overly prescriptive technical procedures [ 22 ], or that the checklists do not appreciate the heterogeneity of approaches to qualitative research [ 23 ]. Noblit and Hare [ 18 ] did not advocate for formal appraisal of studies as part of meta-ethnography, as they argued that study quality would become apparent by how much it contributed to the synthesis [ 18 , 24 ]. However, critical appraisal has been performed in meta-ethnographies to examine the overall quality of included papers and to identify gaps in the reporting [ 25 , 26 ]. With this in mind, we undertook a critical appraisal of studies included in the review using the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) Qualitative Studies Checklist [ 27 ], but did not exclude studies based on their scoring.

Each stage of our synthesis was an iterative process during which the research team met regularly to discuss emerging ideas. These were also discussed with a patient and public involvement group and a stakeholder group which included social prescribing link workers, policy makers, and social prescribing managers (staff responsible for the delivery and oversight of social prescribing programmes).

Reading the studies

All included publications were read and re-read by the lead author (AT) to identify and become familiar with their key concepts and to determine how studies related to one another by comparing their aims, focus, characteristics, theoretical approach, and findings. We extracted themes from each of the papers (second-order constructs) using a table in which these were noted along with illustrative data (first-order constructs). We also noted additional ideas that arose while reading the papers to help inform the development of third-order constructs.

Determining how the studies are related

During this stage, we considered the relationships between the key concepts (second-order constructs) we extracted from the papers. This involved looking across the studies for similar or recurring concepts. We grouped them into initial categories, which we labelled using terminology that adequately described all the relevant concepts they contained. These were then juxtaposed and compared against each other to explore the potential relationships between the key concepts from the original studies. We drew initial “conceptual maps” (see Additional File 2) to aid the exploration of how these initial categories might relate to each other.

Translating studies into one another

“Translating” is central to meta-ethnography. It describes the idea that each author is using their own “interpretive language” and therefore a comparison of conceptual terms across studies is needed. This comparison involves reading and understanding the meaning of the original authors’ interpretations, but no further conceptual development [ 26 ]. Second-order constructs from the included studies were compared systematically to identify the range of concepts and whether their meanings were similar or contradictory. This involved noting and summarising each second-order construct and its definition in an Excel table and mapping the presence of each construct across each of the included studies. During this process, we re-examined the initial categories developed in the previous stage and reorganised them based on the emerging translations.

Synthesising translations

We undertook a reciprocal synthesis where the different studies included were viewed as a whole and from which we were then able to build a line of argument or overarching model [ 28 ], which explains the new emerging storyline of the synthesis [ 29 ]. We revisited the categories developed in previous stages through further discussion. This facilitated additional interpretation and allowed us to develop key overarching concepts (third-order constructs)—see Table  3 . These final third-order constructs were then linked through additional discussion and analysis to develop a “line-of-argument synthesis”, which provides a further interpretation that puts any similarities and differences across studies into a new interpretive context [ 19 ]. This allowed us to produce an overarching conceptual framework of the experiences of link workers carrying out social prescribing.

The searches of online databases yielded 2545 records. We screened each record’s title and abstract for relevance, after which we read 75 records at full text level. From the database search, 15 papers were included in the review, 5 additional papers were identified through the Google Scholar alerts, and a further paper was identified through reviewing the reference lists of included papers (see Fig.  1 ). In total, we included 21 studies published between 2017 and 2023, reporting the results of 17 different studies (5 publications report the findings from one larger project) (Table  2 ).

figure 1

Flow diagram showing study selection

Study characteristics

The 21 studies included in the meta-ethnography (Table  2 ) were published between 2017 and 2023. They included over 531 participants and a range of social prescribing initiatives. Sample sizes varied between 8 and to more than 31 participants; in one of the studies, it was unclear exactly how many participants took part [ 31 ]. Seven studies included perspectives exclusively from link workers or social prescribing managers; seven included the perspectives of link workers in addition to other staff (e.g. GPs or voluntary and community sector staff); two included the perspectives of link workers and patients; two included a mixture of perspectives from link workers, other staff, and patients; two discussed service user perspectives only; and one study included perspectives from members of the public.

Seventeen of the studies were based in England, and the remaining four in Scotland. While our inclusion criteria did allow for studies outside of the UK, none of the international publications met the criteria. Eight studies explicitly stated that they were based in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas.

Most of the studies employed interview techniques (either in person or online), some used focus groups, while others used a mixture of techniques such as interviews, focus groups, participant observation, and ethnographic fieldwork. None of the grey literature identified through the searches provided enough detail on data collection or analysis to be included in the review.

Critical appraisal

Following the CASP Checklist [ 50 ], most of the studies included clear and relevant research aims, used appropriate methodologies and research designs, and clearly stated their findings (see Additional File 3). However, some did not explicitly discuss reflexivity, or ethical considerations beyond indicating that the studies had received approval from research ethics committees.

Through the synthesis we developed a “line of argument”, whereby a narrative is produced based on third-order constructs [ 18 ]. Our analysis highlights inherent tensions present at each of the levels that social prescribing operates at, arising from a mismatch between the policy logic of the intervention and the material and structural reality into which social prescribing is being implemented. These tensions shape link workers’ experiences of their role and could jeopardise social prescribing’s sustainability.

The narrative is presented in the proceeding sections, with the third-order constructs organised under four headings that represent each of the levels at which social prescribing operates—the link worker level, the organisational level, the wider system level, and the patient level. Tensions present at each level are outlined.

Throughout the next section, authors’ interpretations (from included papers) are identified using quotation marks, while direct quotations from study participants in the included studies are presented in italics with quotation marks. Table 3 presents the third-order constructs and how they fit into our overall line of argument and indicates which papers made contributions to each third-order construct.

The link worker level

Our analysis revealed tensions relating to the ways in which the link worker role itself has been implemented into the health and care system. These tensions relate to role definition, professional identity, relational working, and the reliance on individual link worker characteristics as drivers of success. Each of these tensions has implications for link workers’ workloads, and the ways in which their roles are understood and accepted by others working in healthcare. These factors may act as stressors on the link worker role, threatening retention and in turn risking the ability for social prescribing to deliver desired outcomes.

Role definition as a double-edged sword

Link workers have been introduced into the health and care system as a new role, often with a flexible remit and without a clear job description [ 33 , 34 , 45 ]. On the one hand, this flexibility could allow link workers to tailor the way they worked to fit with the population and area they serve, ultimately helping them to provide person-centred care [ 36 , 42 ]. However, this same lack of clear role definition could cause role stress through workload overload and complexity. It could also lead to confusion/ambivalence among other members of staff about what social prescribing is and what the link worker role could offer, in turn contributing to inappropriate referrals.

The flexible nature of the link worker role meant it had been operationalised in different ways across different organisations [ 33 ], with “their job scope and remit being poorly defined from the outset” and their role being “not well understood by external referrers” [ 45 ] (p.3). This could lead to unrealistic expectations or confusion around what is achievable through social prescribing [ 47 ] and to the referral of patients with complex needs that exceeded the remit of the link worker role [ 33 , 36 , 37 ].

Link workers were sometimes used to “fill gaps”, which is an identified risk of having unclear professional identities in newer professions [ 42 ]. In the studies, parameters of the link worker role were frequently exceeded due to concerns that nobody would support patients otherwise, because “no other professions would deviate from their role boundaries” [ 42 ] (p.5). Furthermore, a lack of understanding of referral criteria could lead to link workers feeling that social prescribing was being “used as a dumping ground for difficult patients” [ 34 ] (p.6) . The filling of gaps was particularly pertinent in the context of overstretched and underfunded statutory and mental health services. In these contexts, link workers often ended up taking on more clinical risk [ 38 , 42 ] or providing more specialist support such as acting as unqualified social or advocacy workers [ 38 ], due to long waiting lists or lack of availability for more specialised services. Not having onward referral options may also limit link workers’ ability to set boundaries with service users [ 16 , 48 ].

The quasi-professional status of the link worker role

Link workers have been introduced into the health and care system as a new “professional” role, but without the formal training and registration that would afford them professional status [ 33 ] and identity to give them the confidence needed to deal with complex cases they encounter in their work [ 42 , 45 ]. Coupled with the lack of understanding or ambivalence about the role from other primary care professionals, link workers sometimes felt that they were “treated as outsiders going apparently unrecognised by practice staff” [ 44 ] and sometimes found it difficult to become integrated and visible in primary care due to “entrenched professional hierarchies” [ 35 ].

Formal training is considered essential for the building of professional identity and status [ 42 ]; however, across the studies there was variation in the training link workers received. While formal training could increase link worker confidence in performing their role [ 48 ], some link workers reported that it was often minimal, inconsistent and non-standardised [ 42 ]. Some needed to draw on skills and training they received in previous roles [ 42 ] and those taking on more senior responsibilities felt like they did not have enough training for this [ 30 ]. In other contexts link workers reflected that the training they had received was overly theoretical and lacked practical elements to prepare them for dealing with the range, severity and complexity of issues they encountered [ 45 , 48 ]; or for dealing with specific health conditions [ 46 ]. Furthermore, opportunities for career progression within the role were often limited, which could affect role retention [ 30 , 33 ]. However, it was acknowledged that formal training available to link workers was improving and that this may suggest social prescribing is moving towards integration into mainstream practice [ 42 ].

The absence of a shared and commonly understood role and professional identity and pathway could threaten professional resilience and fulfilment [ 42 ] and the retention of link workers [ 30 , 42 ]. However, it was noted that professionalising the role, by bringing in formal qualifications and registration, may have consequences that hinder the successful delivery of social prescribing [ 42 ]. On the one hand, formal professionalisation and registration may increase the legitimacy of the role, as well as improve equitable access to social prescribing and consistency for patients through greater standardisation [ 42 ]. Yet it was noted that making the link worker role a registered profession may make it more restricted and remove individuality and the flexibility currently available in social prescribing, which may be key to delivering to person-centred care [ 36 , 42 ]. It may also present a barrier to connecting with service users who may find it easier to relate to someone who is not a “professional” and “more like them” [ 42 ] . Finally, creating a “barrier to entry” through requiring registration and specific training may impact recruitment to the role which was already difficult [ 42 ].

Balancing tensions in the relational nature of link working

Social prescribing hinges on link workers establishing and nurturing relationships between individuals and organisations in a way that builds trust and fosters collaboration [ 33 , 34 , 35 , 36 , 41 , 43 , 47 , 48 , 49 ]. Relationships with link workers were sometimes likened to friendships by patients, and contrasted to interactions they were used to having with healthcare professionals—often depicted as rushed and impersonal [ 49 ]. Link workers were described as a “companion” with whom patients could share their stories; these close relationships were necessary for the success of social prescribing [ 49 ]. This relational nature of social prescribing work was described as being “a bit of a balancing act” between being a “friend but not a friend” [ 48 ] (p.996), where it was also vital to maintain boundaries in a way that did not foster patient dependency [ 36 ] and protected link workers’ time and headspace [ 47 ]. A key strategy for setting boundaries with service users involved referrals into other agencies, although as described later, local community infrastructure may not always be readily available to permit this to happen [ 48 ].

Being able to get to know patients, to explore and understand their individual contexts, and “empowering” [ 34 ](p.6) them to make decisions for their health and wellbeing could be a “particularly satisfying” aspect of the link worker role [ 34 ] (p.6). A link worker in the study by Beardmore noted that “I just love working with people. It’s quite a privilege to be part of someone’s journey” [ 30 ] (p.44). The author noted that despite the potentially negative impact of the lower salary associated with the link worker role, link workers found satisfaction in the relational nature of their work and in supporting people [ 30 ]. However, in the study by Moore et al., link workers felt that they were not being remunerated enough for the workload and risk they often found themselves taking on [ 42 ].

Link workers’ ability to form relationships with other healthcare professionals and community organisations was another key factor to the success of social prescribing services [ 16 , 31 , 34 , 36 , 48 ]. They were uniquely placed to act as a bridge between different stakeholders due to their understanding of both primary care and the voluntary and community sector [ 16 ]. This networking aspect of the role required the link worker and social prescribing service to be fully embedded into the practice and that when it was, it could lead to the whole practice developing links with community organisations [ 31 ]. However, in other cases it could be challenging to transition from individual relationships between staff to more enduring collaborations with organisations, irrespective of the individuals involved [ 16 ]. Staff continuity is a concern for the longevity of these collaborative relationships, which can be compromised if link workers leave their role due to poor job satisfaction.

A reliance on individual characteristics as drivers of success

As described above, we identified no singular, clear definition or remit of the link worker role, or specific previous experience or training required to undertake it. However, it was apparent that the skills, experience and personal characteristics that link workers possessed were often the driving force behind social prescribing programmes, meaning the role should not be undertaken by “just anyone” [ 39 ] (p.4).

Previous professional backgrounds often influenced how link workers approached their role and the amount of confidence they had in its execution [ 38 ]. For example, link workers who previously worked in mental health professions or had mental health training felt more confident and able to make decisions [ 37 ].

Empathy, being non-judgemental and supportive, compassionate, having listening skills, and being able to put people at ease were all considered essential traits for link workers [ 16 , 32 , 34 , 39 , 48 ], and necessary for building the trust required to encourage behaviour change and non-directive goal-setting [ 48 ]. Knowledge of the local area was considered key for promoting collaborative working between primary care and community organisations [ 16 , 33 ]. Furthermore, being proactive and tailoring the service to the needs of the local community were also regarded as essential to the success of social prescribing [ 38 ].

A reliance on the characteristics of individual link workers as drivers for success may pose a threat to the sustainability of social prescribing schemes given the role stresses described above which may threaten the retention of link workers in their role.

The organisational level

The organisational realities into which link workers and social prescribing were implemented shaped experiences of the role. The extent to which primary care organisations bought into social prescribing, were able to provide support and space for link workers, as well as funding models and targets could influence the experience of link workers in social prescribing programmes.

Organisational buy-in to social prescribing

Across studies, the extent to which organisations within which link workers were based bought into or understood the service could have a considerable impact on how link workers experienced their role. “Social prescribing champions”, staff with an in-depth understanding of the remit of the role and who worked to embed social prescribing into practices, could facilitate link worker access to practice meetings, training sessions, and increase visibility of the social prescribing service in the practice [ 37 , 44 ]. Strong collective leadership—where responsibility for social prescribing was shared between general practitioners (GPs, link workers and practice managers)—worked to integrate social prescribing into the practice and enabled link workers to be proactive and strategic with the community networking aspect of their role [ 31 ]. In cases where practices were not as engaged or did not fully understand what the service could offer, link workers had to take a more active role promoting the service, leaving less time to provide focused and holistic person-centred care [ 44 , 48 ]. Co-locating link workers in primary care, providing space for them in practices, was noted to help referrers to understand and remember the link worker role [ 47 ], as well as making the service seem trustworthy and credible to patients/service users [ 33 ].

The pressure of targets

Organisational targets and service funding models that rewarded high referral volume and the completion of wellbeing assessments, could influence link workers’ approaches to patient care. These targets may cause a drift towards social prescribing approaches that prioritised the completion of assessment instruments at the expense of more holistic person-centred care [ 35 , 44 , 48 ]. Furthermore, the pressure to generate a high number of referrals could mean link workers accepted clients not necessarily ready to engage with social prescribing, or those with complex needs [ 48 ].

Support for link workers

To cope with high workloads, complex cases, and emotional burden, studies highlighted organisational support which could have a positive impact on link workers’ experiences of their role. The support available to link workers varied across the different contexts described in the studies. It was noted that link workers in larger organisations, with clear organisational structures, were more likely to be part of teams where workload could be shared and had better access to support and training [ 30 ]. Those working in teams with other link workers could draw on them for emotional support and reflection [ 45 ], and this could help promote a sense of success in the role [ 35 ]. Well-embedded workforce support and clinical supervision were key to being able to deal with the complex cases [ 37 ]. Where organisational support for link workers was not in place, some could find themselves isolated which could lead to feelings of anxiety and decreased capacity to cope [ 30 , 37 , 45 ].

The system level

A key part of the link worker role is to facilitate service users’ social prescribing journeys from primary care to community groups and organisations. Social prescribing programmes depend on a “thriving” local community sector [ 32 ] that provides referral options for link workers to meet patient needs [ 38 ]. A number of the studies we reviewed drew attention to the fact that the wider health and social care system, as well as the voluntary and community sectors, were overstretched and underfunded [ 16 , 32 , 33 , 35 , 37 , 38 , 44 , 48 ]. Several papers highlighted the impact of austerity, both on the availability of community and statutory services, and on the demand for them; describing it as a “perfect storm” [ 16 ] (p. e493) and a “threat to the future sustainability” [ 38 ] (p. 1541) of social prescribing.

A struggling wider health and social care system

Link workers sometimes felt like social prescribing was being used as a way to “boost up a crippled mental health service” [ 30 ] or as a “holding pen” [ 36 ], when other services that were over capacity, with long waiting lists, referred into social prescribing [ 37 ]. Fixsen et al. [ 33 ] talked about “changing demands”; they described how the pressure from closure of various local statutory and non-statutory services was compounded by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and limited onward referral options for link workers. This meant that link workers needed to provide support for people with complex and/or severe mental health concerns, as well as support for those experiencing food poverty, unemployment, or needing benefits advice [ 37 ].

Local variation and structural poverty

Studies highlighted that the availability of services could vary across localities. Affluent areas were sometimes described as having an “abundance of community activities” [ 38 ], while those working in areas with high levels of socioeconomic disadvantage noted that this context limited their scope for onward referral [ 35 ]. Link workers made references to “structural poverty”, identifying the lack of investment in the local area [ 35 ]. Area level differences in service provision have implications for accessibility to services, in terms of requiring access to transport [ 35 , 37 , 38 , 48 ] and being able to tailor support to patient needs [ 46 ], as well as with service users’ ability to engage with social prescribing due to complex life circumstances [ 44 , 49 ].

Link workers as an additional resource

In the context of a system struggling from the effects of austerity, link workers were “welcomed as an extra resource” to tackle workload [ 16 ] (p. e491) or to deal with “the social” [ 40 ]. However, as described in earlier sections, link workers’ poorly defined role made them vulnerable to “filling gaps” [ 42 ].

The lack of onward referral options or other appropriate sources of support may mean that link workers end up taking a more involved approach to patient care than originally anticipated [ 38 ]. This may include taking on more risk than they have training for, due to having to deal with complex cases when there is no other support available [ 42 ]. There may also be a risk that patients develop “dependency” on their link worker in the absence of other support [ 47 ]. Having appropriate onward referral options was highlighted as key to helping to avoid patient dependency on the link worker [ 47 ], and to improving link workers’ ability to cope with high numbers of social prescribing referrals [ 48 ]. Providing longer-term and more intensive support may be counter to the original logic of social prescribing which seeks to signpost people away from primary care to appropriate community or statutory services [ 5 ].

The service-user level

Social prescribing and the personalised care agenda [ 9 ] emphasise providing service users with “choice and control” and assume that they will be motivated and empowered to make changes that will benefit their health and wellbeing. However, across the reviewed studies, there was evidence to suggest that those experiencing precarious life circumstances may not be able to engage with social prescribing to the same extent as service users from more affluent backgrounds, highlighting that those in the most disadvantaged positions may be least likely to benefit. This calls into question social prescribing’s goal to help improve health equity. While more intensive and involved approaches to social prescribing may benefit disadvantaged groups, they require additional time, training, and support for link workers, and may not immediately deliver on social prescribing’s goal to reduce patient attendance in primary care.

Challenges to the dominant social prescribing discourses

Griffith et al. [ 35 ] observed how link workers’ narratives about their role were often ideological and conflicted, and drew on different and multiple social prescribing discourses. They discuss Mol’s work [ 51 ] and highlight the logics of “choice” and “care” dominant in social prescribing discourses among link workers, as well as in the policy logic of social prescribing. The “logic of choice” gives prominence to individual choice and control over services and support received. In the context of social prescribing, this means that service users have a range of options, and they are encouraged to take an active role in deciding which services and activities they would like to participate in. The onus is on individual service users to become “empowered”, through support provided by the link worker, to take control of their health, health behaviours, and personal situation. The “logic of care”, on the other hand, emphasises relational and holistic support, and focuses on building strong relationships with service users and tailoring support accordingly.

A dominant narrative among primary care staff in the reviewed papers was that poor health is caused by poor individual lifestyle choices, and that the role of social prescribing is to build the confidence of service users to empower them to make better decisions in relation to their health and wellbeing [ 40 , 42 ], and to encourage “self-accountability” [ 36 ]. In some cases, it was suggested that service users needed to be able to self-refer to social prescribing as it signalled empowerment and autonomy. It was also argued that practitioner-led referral risked cultivating dependency [ 47 ] which could be considered a “threat to success” for social prescribing [ 36 ].

However, a number of studies drew attention to the various material and social circumstances that shaped the lives of service users and their ability to engage with social prescribing. The focus on empowerment and motivation may mean that service users from more affluent backgrounds are able to engage with the intervention and invest in their long-term health [ 44 ]. Social determinants of health shape the parameters within which individuals might be able to exercise choice and autonomy, as illustrated in this quotation from a participant in the study by Mackenzie et al. [ 40 ]: “life’s not great, they’ve got very little in the way of money now and they’re being squeezed and sanctioned ‘til they’re blue in the face. They haven’t got a job, they probably have to go and get a job, if they do … it’ll be like a zero-hour contract below the living wage … and so, to try and do that little bit extra about trying to live a more healthy lifestyle can just seem a bit pointless.” Furthermore, the local variation and lack of local investment and structural poverty described in the previous section may limit the “choice” of onward referrals for service users, further problematising the notions of choice and empowerment which are at the heart of some social prescribing discourses.

Temporal and material requirements for person-centred care

Despite the discourses emphasising personal empowerment, link workers do engage in approaches which can be interpreted as more aligned with the “logic of care”. Link workers often support service users with basic needs such as housing, homelessness, unemployment, and financial support [ 16 , 38 , 43 , 44 , 48 ]. They may also take on more intensive approaches by offering longer-term support [ 49 ], conducting home visits [ 41 , 49 ], accompanying service users to activities or groups in the community [ 35 , 44 , 49 ], helping users from socioeconomically disadvantaged areas to navigate and access community services [ 48 ], and providing advocacy [ 35 ]. These more involved and longer-term approaches to social prescribing could be key in supporting individuals with multiple long-term conditions and experiences of socioeconomic deprivation [ 48 ].

However, these more involved approaches may require additional time and training for link workers, and may cause high levels of stress and emotional burden. Furthermore, as described in previous sections, the material and structural reality into which social prescribing has been placed may not be best suited to supporting such approaches to social prescribing. Such approaches may also not immediately deliver on social prescribing’s goal to reduce patient attendance in primary care as patients may require multiple visits over longer periods of time before feeling “empowered”.

Line of argument

Our analysis has highlighted inherent tensions present at each of the levels that social prescribing operates, which may arise from a mismatch between the policy logic around this initiative and the material and structural reality into which social prescribing is being implemented. These tensions may shape link workers’ experiences of their role and call into question the sustainability of social prescribing and the link worker role as currently implemented. A visual summary of the key components of our line of argument can be seen in Fig.  2 .

figure 2

Visual summary of key components in the line of argument developed through this synthesis of qualitative literature. It depicts the different tensions at each of the levels at which social prescribing operates, which in turn shape link workers’ experiences of carrying out their role

At the link worker level, the way in which the role itself has been delineated and implemented may threaten the ability of social prescribing to deliver its intended outcomes. Link workers have been introduced into the health and care system as if they were a “professional” role, but without the formal training and registration that would afford them professional status. In its current form, the link worker role lacks strict definitions or boundaries. This flexibility in the role may allow link workers to tailor the way they work to fit with the population and area they serve, ultimately helping them to provide person-centred care. Conversely, it can cause role stress through workload overload and complexity, as well as confusion/ambivalence among other members of staff about what social prescribing is and what the link worker role can offer, in turn contributing to inappropriate referrals. In the context of an overstretched system, link workers may end up filling gaps and “holding” [ 52 ] service users they cannot move on into other more appropriate services. Enjoyment and fulfilment in the role appear to come from the fact that connecting with services users and supporting them on their journeys feels rewarding. The role stress that link workers may experience, coupled with low wages, may pose a threat to link worker retention. Given that much of the success of social prescribing seems to rely on individual link worker characteristics (such as being well-connected, knowledgeable about the local area, and having the skills needed to connect and build trusting relationships with service users), the role stress link workers experience, and associated implications for retention, may have implications for the success of social prescribing programmes.

The organisational contexts into which link workers and social prescribing are being implemented into can vary, influencing link workers’ experiences and the ways in which social prescribing is embedded into practice. Organisational buy-in, including support from leadership and champions who advocate for link workers and help to integrate them and the service into practices, appears to be essential. Furthermore, co-locating link workers in primary care settings may enhance their visibility and credibility. Organisational targets and funding models can shape a link worker’s role, sometimes leading to a focus on quantity of referrals rather than person-centred approaches. Support from organisations, including clear structures, teamwork, and access to training and supervision, are essential for link workers to manage their workload and address the emotional aspects of their roles effectively.

Social prescribing and the link worker role are about moving service users out of primary care, and into other sources of support which may be more appropriate [ 5 ]. The logic of the intervention relies on the presence and accessibility of onward referral options—community organisations and services, health and social care services, and statutory services. Yet, as discussed in several studies in this synthesis, decades of austerity have had an impact on both the availability of community and statutory services, as well as the demands for them through the impact it has had on individual livelihoods.

Social prescribing and the personalised care agenda [ 9 ] emphasise providing service users with “choice and control”, and assume that they will be motivated and empowered to make changes that will benefit their health and wellbeing. However, across the studies we reviewed, there was evidence to suggest that those experiencing precarious life circumstances may not be able to engage with the intervention to the same extent as service users from more affluent backgrounds. The pervasiveness of the discourses of choice and control may shift link workers away from more intensive person-centred approaches which may be more likely to benefit those experiencing difficult life circumstances and health inequities.

The aim of this meta-ethnographic synthesis was to develop a novel conceptual framework to understand the factors that shape link workers’ experiences and ways in which their role is being implemented. Our synthesis of 21 qualitative studies reveals that the lived reality of being a link worker appears to be shaped by tensions present at each of the levels at which social prescribing operates.

One of the dominant discourses, or policy logics, promotes social prescribing as a means of tackling health inequities through overcoming the social determinants of health and addressing failures of the health system to do so [ 6 ]. A number of the studies included in the synthesis discuss the impact that the long lasting effects of austerity have had both on the system-level infrastructure into which social prescribing and link workers have been introduced as well as on people’s livelihoods [ 16 , 35 , 40 , 44 , 49 ]. The “structural antecedents” [ 5 ] required for social prescribing to succeed have been shaped by political and economic forces which have seen cuts and disinvestment in voluntary and community as well as statutory organisations [ 53 ]. These cuts have disproportionately affected disadvantaged areas, where the need for services is typically greater [ 53 , 54 ], and have worked to widen health inequalities [ 53 ]. The idea that social prescribing might mitigate the impact of austerity on healthcare by linking service users with community resources and encouraging collaborative working between organisations may therefore be questioned. The lived experience of link workers, as depicted in papers included in this review, highlights how the state of the wider health and care system both impacts their workloads and their role stress due to the fact that they may find themselves “holding” [ 52 ] service users who they cannot connect onwards due to relevant services or support either not being present or having limited capacity [ 35 , 55 ]. Furthermore, facility-related pressures within GP surgeries [ 56 ] may mean that they are not able to provide link workers with physical space in practices [ 47 ]. The cuts in funding to public services may also have an impact on an organisation’s ability to adopt new healthcare innovations, such as social prescribing [ 57 ].

Other authors have highlighted the pervasiveness of neoliberal rhetoric present within social prescribing discourses [ 40 , 58 ]. Neoliberalism is a political and economic ideology that emphasises market-based values such as individual choice, competition, economic liberalisation, privatisation, and profit maximisation. It is said to lead to policies that promote individual choice and responsibility, and commodification, which can have negative impacts on health and health equity [ 59 ]. Austerity measures, such as cutting social spending, align with neoliberal principles of minimising government involvement and reducing public services in order to promote economic growth. This can result in policies that prioritise budgetary constraints over social welfare [ 59 ]. The focus on individuality and empowerment places the onus on maintaining health on individuals and communities [ 35 ].

Social prescribing policies emphasise community-centred ways of working and asset-based community development [ 60 ]. These approaches focus on leveraging the strengths, skills and resources within a community, rather than focusing on its deficits, empowering communities to work collaboratively to address social issues in a way that fosters sustainable and positive change [ 61 ]. However, critics argue that these approaches can shift responsibility and resourcing away from the state and onto communities and may inadvertently contribute to inequality and justify cuts to social programmes [ 61 ].

In terms of factors that influence the ways in which link workers work with service users, the focus on individual choice and empowerment in social prescribing has been called “fantastical” [ 40 ], individualising health inequalities and targeting individual behaviours as the main solution, rather than addressing the fundamental causes of inequalities and ignoring the socio-political determinants of health [ 62 ]. As demonstrated in this review, the material and social circumstances of people’s lives can influence their ability to engage in social prescribing. In the context of austerity, where community services and infrastructure may be limited, “choice” and “control” can become misnomers. While those experiencing disadvantage may benefit from social prescribing, this may require a more involved and long-term approach from link workers that supersedes the 6–12 sessions over a 3-month period typically expected for social prescribing [ 63 ]. Evaluative work by the authors has identified that a lack of cohesion between what is expected in terms of patient turnover and what is needed to support people with challenging life circumstances can become a considerable source of tension for link workers, affecting their job satisfaction and retention [ 64 ].

Our review highlighted the role stress link workers experience through lack of a clear role definition and professional status. Role stress can occur when individuals face conflicting or incompatible expectations within a role they occupy, or when roles are unclear or poorly understood [ 65 ]. This strain arises from the challenges of balancing multiple and sometimes contradictory demands and expectations associated with the role. While reviewed papers suggested that role flexibility appeared to be a requirement for the delivery of person-centred and responsive care, the struggling infrastructure into which the link worker role has been established means it is at risk of being used to fill gaps. While a significant policy rationale for social prescribing is its potential to meet unmet needs and contribute to service development in local communities [ 5 ], gap-filling may expose link workers to more risk and complexity than they are prepared, trained, or compensated for, risking link worker retention [ 42 ]. In other contexts, it has been cautioned that “gap-filling” may undermine a profession’s attempt at establishing itself and being understood by others [ 66 ]. This may also make it difficult to feel valued or respected by colleagues due to the lack of appreciation of the role’s unique contribution to healthcare [ 66 ].

While the infrastructure that social prescribing and link workers have been implemented into may pose a number of challenges that threaten the sustainability of social prescribing, it is important to recognise that there are examples of social prescribing schemes that have thrived [ 67 , 68 ] and that it can have positive outcomes in people’s lives [ 49 ]. Future research could explore the ways in which link workers navigate the challenges of structural and material realities they work in to deliver positive outcomes for service users.

Strengths, limitations and reflexivity

This review is the first to synthesise published qualitative data of social prescribing link workers’ experiences of carrying out their social prescribing role in a way that develops a novel theoretical understanding. A key strength of this review lies in its meta-ethnographic approach. This led to the development of a “line of argument synthesis” which allowed us to move beyond the findings of individual studies to create a theory that is more than the sum of the parts included in the synthesis [ 69 ].

As with other qualitative syntheses, our review relied on the interpretations of the original study authors as well as their selection and presentation of study participant quotes [ 25 ]. We include participant quotes throughout our synthesis to help ensure it was grounded in participant experiences. Meta-ethnography was originally developed for synthesising meaning across ethnographies, which traditionally provide thick descriptions of the phenomena they are studying in order to contribute to a broader theoretical understanding. This thick description and focus on meaning, supports the development of third-order interpretations within a meta-ethnographic synthesis. As Atkins et al. [ 25 ] also found, qualitative research in health service research and public health is often more descriptive and applied and focused on providing evaluations and recommendations for policy and practice [ 70 ]. This meant that third-order interpretations may be more dependent on themes identified in studies than interpretations [ 25 ].

Social prescribing and the link worker role both have numerous definitions and operationalisations internationally [ 13 ]. Our search strategy attempted to account for differences in terminology internationally and tried to locate studies on interventions that met the operational definition of social prescribing, but which may not have referred to it as such. However, it is important to acknowledge that our review focused on link worker models of social prescribing which therefore may have limited included papers to those from United Kingdom (UK) settings where this model is now well-established [ 71 ].

The review team comprised a range of multidisciplinary expertise from social science, clinical practice, and health service, policy, and social prescribing research. This different expertise was helpful in developing the focus of the synthesis, and in the analysis process of translating and interpreting meaning across the different studies. The lead author (AT) has research interests in health inequities, the social determinants of health, and the social, economic, and political forces that drive them, which may have had an impact on how study findings were read and interpreted. However, emerging findings were discussed with a lay patient and public involvement group, as well as with a range of key social prescribing stakeholders in order to sense check interpretations as they were developing [ 72 ].

This review has shown that link workers experience challenges in their role due to the structural realities (at a practice and broader level) within which the role has been developed and implemented, and these are also shaped by political and social forces. These challenges may call into question the sustainability of social prescribing due to the threat they pose to the retention of link workers in their roles, as well as the ability of local community infrastructure to support those in greatest need. The question of link worker retention is pertinent in the broader context of global healthcare workforce shortages where recruiting and retaining staff in key roles is already challenging [ 73 ].

Our review highlights a need for greater consideration of how the link worker role is defined, deployed, trained, and supported, which may affect recruitment and retention. It also highlights the need to ensure that the infrastructure it is being implemented into is sufficient to meet needs. Social prescribing models may require more intensive and longer-term modes of delivery to support those experiencing social and economic disadvantage. Further considerations ought to be given to ensuring that the community infrastructure is available and able to receive social prescribing referrals. A failure to acknowledge the wider reality of people and communities means that social prescribing risks being a neoliberal solution to problems neoliberalism has caused. Therefore, it may not be able to deliver its intended outcomes. Social prescribing should not be considered a substitute for broader social policy changes needed to address health inequities and ensure the equitable distribution of funding to areas and populations of greatest need.

Availability of data and materials

Datasets used in the review are available from the corresponding author upon request.


Critical Appraisal Skills Programme

Community links practitioner

General practitioner

Motor neuron disease

National Health Service

United Kingdom

Voluntary and community sector

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The authors would like to thank Nia Roberts who undertook the database searches for this review and Georgette Eaton who aided with article screening. The authors would also like to acknowledge the support and input from various Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) contributors who have helped shaped the analysis.

This work was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) NIHR Doctoral Fellowship Programme awarded to AT (NIHR302325) and by the NIHR School for Primary Care Research (529). BH is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). KM and ST are members of the NIHR SPCR Evidence Synthesis Working Group. CP is also supported through an NIHR Senior Investigator Award (NIHR202396). The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care or the institutions where the authors are based.

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Turk, A., Tierney, S., Hogan, B. et al. A meta-ethnography of the factors that shape link workers’ experiences of social prescribing. BMC Med 22 , 280 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-024-03478-w

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Building community capital—the role of local area coordinators in disability services: a critical review.

distinguish between theoretical framework and literature review

1. Background

2.1. eligibility criteria, 2.2. information sources, 2.3. selection of sources of data, 2.4. data charting process, 2.5. quality assessment, 2.6. analysis and presentation of results, 3.1. study selection, 3.2. characteristics of included papers, 3.3. synthesis of results according to the ccf, 3.3.1. social capital, 3.3.2. financial capital, 3.3.3. human capital, 3.3.4. built capital, 3.3.5. political capital, 3.3.6. cultural capital, 3.3.7. natural capital, 4. discussion, 5. conclusions, supplementary materials, author contributions, institutional review board statement, informed consent statement, data availability statement, conflicts of interest.

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Click here to enlarge figure

Inclusion CriteriaExclusion Criteria
LAC role with people with disability (population) AND
LAC role in a disability service context (context) AND
LAC role focused on community capacity building (concept)
LAC models of care or practice with people with disability
LAC role in communities that are not focused on disability
Published 2000—Aug 2023
Peer-reviewed journals
Empirical studies: qualitative and quantitative studies
Literature reviews
Expert opinion papers
Grey literature documents: policy documents and evaluation reports
Published before 2000
Case studies
Book Chapters, Conference Papers, and Abstracts Submissions (e.g., to enquiries or commissions)
English language
No geographic limitation
The statements, opinions and data contained in all publications are solely those of the individual author(s) and contributor(s) and not of MDPI and/or the editor(s). MDPI and/or the editor(s) disclaim responsibility for any injury to people or property resulting from any ideas, methods, instructions or products referred to in the content.

Share and Cite

Hickey, L.; Davidson, J.; Viney, C.; Daniels, E.; Spaven, L.; Harms, L. Building Community Capital—The Role of Local Area Coordinators in Disability Services: A Critical Review. Disabilities 2024 , 4 , 493-506. https://doi.org/10.3390/disabilities4030031

Hickey L, Davidson J, Viney C, Daniels E, Spaven L, Harms L. Building Community Capital—The Role of Local Area Coordinators in Disability Services: A Critical Review. Disabilities . 2024; 4(3):493-506. https://doi.org/10.3390/disabilities4030031

Hickey, Lyndal, Jennifer Davidson, Catherine Viney, Emily Daniels, Lea Spaven, and Louise Harms. 2024. "Building Community Capital—The Role of Local Area Coordinators in Disability Services: A Critical Review" Disabilities 4, no. 3: 493-506. https://doi.org/10.3390/disabilities4030031

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