Discussions between the children's services manager at an National Health Service trust, and a children's nursing lecturer from the trust's partnering university clarified that there was a need to establish a greater understanding of the local circumstances surrounding adverse events in drug administration - particularly when those events involved nurses. Indeed it is claimed that nurses spend up to 40% of their time administering drugs. It was agreed that a collaborative research study, specifically designed to explore the nature of drug administration errors, could inform future trust policies and procedures around both drug administration and error, as well as the various university curricula concerning drug administration. This study, supported by senior management in the trust, and the chair of the local research ethics committee, has commenced. The first part of this study -- an introductory literature review, is presented here. The work of O'Shea [J Clin Nurs (1999)8:496-504] is significant in structuring the review that bears a number of recurring themes. It is not the intention of this literature review to reappraise O'Shea's original critique but to expand on her work, offer a contemporaneous perspective in the light of studies and reports published since 1999, and reset the topic in the context of clinical governance. This literature review has already provided an underpinning framework for a pilot questionnaire to staff who have been involved in drug administration errors and is also the basis for curricular input to preregistration students on the subject of risk management and drug administration. In conclusion, several recommendations about the shape of future research are offered.