Questions About Meta-Synthesis

The differences between a literature review, a systematic review, a meta-analysis, and a meta-synthesis are:

  • A literature review is a summary of the literature that builds an argument to support further research in a specific topic. It typically does not use formal or systematic methods. This is what is usually found at the beginning of a study’s report, such as a peer-reviewed article or a dissertation.
  • A systematic review of the literature uses systematic methods to search and select the literature about a topic. It is typically organized by key concepts. It does not use formal analysis methods to analyze the findings in the literature.
  • A qualitative meta-synthesis uses formal analysis methods to analyze the findings in literature that reports on qualitative research. It may or may not use systematic methods to search and select the literature that is included in the meta-synthesis. There are several different types of meta-synthesis that vary according to the methods they use for the search and selection of literature and for the analysis of the literature’s findings.
  • A meta-analysis uses statistical methods to analyze the findings in the literature that reports on quantitative research.

It is possible to conduct a synthesis project alone; however, working alone or working in a team will have a significant influence on the scope of the work, how long the meta-synthesis will take, and how you will approach the work. For example, if you are doing a meta-synthesis solo, you will want a scope of work that is narrow so that it is manageable. On our projects, we have always worked in teams of about 4 people, with external funding to cover our labor. It has taken us an average of three years to conduct a meta-synthesis project that covers about 20 years’ worth of literature.

It is vital that you find research partners with the right expertise, interest, availability, and skill sets. You need to have a team with a diverse set of experiences and skills that are relevant to the meta-synthesis project, particularly varied methodological and topical expertise (see Chapter 2 in Heyvaert, Hannes, & Onghena, 2017).

A viable synthesis question should be clear, open-ended, and specify the participant population and the research site of the study. A good synthesis question is one that provides clear objectives for the study.

Our team considers that all of us come to a project with a particular lens that shapes the work. We argue that it is better to be clear and to state what frameworks are informing our research design and process than to claim there is no theoretical framework.

Start with your synthesis question. If your synthesis question encompasses a large field of study with a lot of published literature that may be relevant, think about ways to narrow it down with your selection criteria. Some possibilities include: defining a narrower publication date range, a specific population or research context, a specific research design or theoretical framework, including only peer-reviewed articles, and narrowing the languages in which the pieces are written (e.g., English only; see Q8). The key is selecting elements that are not present in all studies in the field so that those that now fulfil the criteria can be eliminated. Here is an example where time frame would help narrow down your scope: if your question revolves around CRISPR technology, then you would limit your search to the years after CRISPR was developed.

Gray literature is anything that contains unpublished studies and/or manuscripts that have not been peer-reviewed, and they include dissertations, conference proceedings, government reports, and white papers. You should include them if they are relevant to your meta-synthesis question and fulfil your selection criteria.

Yes, it is possible to include international literature or literature in other languages beyond English. You will need to ensure that this literature fulfills your selection criteria. You will also need to consider the ramifications of including this literature, such as whether your team includes someone who can read the literature in its original language and whether there are translations available. Whatever decisions you make, make sure to document them in the methodology section of your manuscript or report.

A meta-synthesis project can include quantitative, mixed methods, and qualitative studies. However, integrating quantitative findings entails more work for the synthesis author(s) because it will be necessary to convert them into a format that is compatible with the rest of the findings, such as narrative format.

There is no recommended minimum or maximum number of pieces for your synthesis. It depends on your synthesis topic and what currently exists and is readily available in the literature. The range can vary greatly. For example, our most recent literature synthesis on women of color graduate students in computing includes 11 pieces; however, our literature synthesis on women of color in undergraduate engineering education included 65.

You should first see if your “irrelevant” codes can actually fold into one of your other codes and/or themes. If it truly is a unique code, then you should keep the code in your codebook. If it seems like an interesting finding that needs more research, then perhaps you can include it as a future area of research in the discussion section of your manuscript.

Yes, you can use CAQDAS software during a meta-synthesis project. If you are working in an area where there is a lot of published literature, using CAQDAS can be particularly helpful to help manage it. Our team uses NVivo, but other CAQDAS software, like ATLAS.ti, MAXQDA, Dedoose, and Quirkos, can work just was well. Use whatever software you feel comfortable with and can afford. Our team also does not mind doing things low-tech.

We have become aware of the availability of several AI products to conduct the search and selection process in synthesis and review work, such as Abstrackr, Colandr, FASTREAD, Rayyan, RobotAnalyst, and ASReview (open source). However, our team does not use AI for our meta-synthesis work. There are online resources that compare these products, such as this article by van de Schoot et al. (2021) that appeared in Nature: These products may be particularly useful when conducting a meta-synthesis on your own, given that it can accelerate the search and selection process.

Questions About the Institute for Meta-Synthesis

We designed the Institute for Meta-Synthesis in a modular fashion, making it adaptable to the needs of different audiences, through five delivery formats:

  • Intensive – An in-depth exploration of all modules with the institute team leaders providing coaching for participants’ projects. This experience is four days of live instruction. Each session includes application components, in which participants will have significant time to apply the processes and practices to their own research projects.
  • Workshop – An introductory level approach to all modules, with a focus on skills and general practice. This experience is a half-day to one-day of face-to-face instruction.
  • Seminar – A short, focused in-depth exploration of one topic. This experience is one to two hours of face-to-face instruction.
  • Webinar (synchronous) – A focused in-depth exploration on one topic for one hour online, with a live Q&A session.
  • On-demand Modules (asynchronous) – A curated, online repository of institute content adapted for online use through video and PDF. This will be available to individuals or institutions free of charge.

IMS events  are funded through NSF and are organized in coordination with our institutional partners — Boston University, University of Georgia, University of Massachusetts at Boston (UMB), Fort Valley State University (FVSU), Simmons University, University of Texas Austin (UTSA), and the University of West Georgia. So, participation in IMS events is free and open to those affiliated with or invited by said institutions or by TERC. All interested in participating will need to go through an application process.

Given the current pandemic, we foresee that all events will take place virtually until further notice. Once IMS begins to offer in-person workshops, a limited number of stipends will be available to support participant travel. Applications for travel funds will be released when in-person workshops are announced.

Yes, the Institute for Meta-Synthesis offers limited one-on-one and group  coaching sessions with the TERC-based team to those who complete a full IMS workshop and are working on a meta-synthesis project.

At this time, intensive sessions are being organized in coordination with our institutional partners; so, participation in IMS events is free and open to those affiliated with or invited by said institutions or by TERC. All interested in participating will need to go through an application process.

At this time, we are offering intensive workshops for US-based scholars. In the future, we may offer online workshops for scholars outside of the United States. Please email Dr. Lisette Torres-Gerald ( with your interest in the intensive workshops to receive an application to fill out and submit back for us to review.