What are scoping studies? A review of the nursing literature

Int J Nurs Stud. 2009 Oct;46(10):1386-400. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2009.02.010. Epub 2009 Mar 27.


Background: Scoping studies are increasingly undertaken as distinct activities. The interpretation, methodology and expectations of scoping are highly variable. This suggests that conceptually, scoping is a poorly defined ambiguous term. The distinction between scoping as an integral preliminary process in the development of a research proposal or a formative, methodologically rigorous activity in its own right has not been extensively examined.

Aims: The aim of this review is to explore the nature and status of scoping studies within the nursing literature and develop a working definition to ensure consistency in the future use of scoping as a research related activity.

Design: This paper follows an interpretative scoping review methodology.

Data sources: An explicit systematic search strategy included literary and web-based key word searches and advice from key researchers. Electronic sources included bibliographic and national research register databases and a general browser.

Results: The scoping studies varied widely in terms of intent, procedural and methodological rigor. An atheoretical stance was common although explicit conceptual clarification and development of a topic was limited. Four different levels of inquiry ranging from preliminary descriptive surveys to more substantive conceptual approaches were conceptualised. These levels reflected differing dimensional distinctions in which some activities constitute research whereas in others the scoping activities appear to fall outside the remit of research. Reconnaissance emerges as a common synthesising construct to explain the purpose of scoping.

Conclusions: Scoping studies in relation to nursing are embryonic and continue to evolve. Its main strengths lie in its ability to extract the essence of a diverse body of evidence giving it meaning and significance that is both developmental and intellectually creative. As with other approaches to research and evidence synthesis a more standardized approach is required.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Data Collection
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Evidence-Based Nursing / organization & administration
  • Guidelines as Topic
  • Humans
  • Information Storage and Retrieval / methods
  • Models, Nursing
  • Needs Assessment
  • Nursing Research / organization & administration*
  • Organizational Objectives
  • Pilot Projects
  • Program Development
  • Research Design* / standards
  • Review Literature as Topic*