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To ‘review’ or not ‘to review’: That is the question

One of the more common kinds of papers we write as academics are so-called ‘review papers’. In addition to regular peer-reviewed research articles, of course.

Colleagues very often ask us about ‘review papers’ in our workshops and in our WeChat advice groups. Won’t it be easier for me to write a review paper than a regular article at the start of my career? Can you give me some advice and templates to help me put together a review article?

The first thing to discuss is the question of ‘what a review paper is’. It’s very important to remember that these kinds of articles are usually written by invitation from journal editorial boards or editors and are intended as useful, useable summaries of current research questions or fields. Journals most often invite review papers from established, well-known academics or research groups because they want to increase their citation rates and get people interested in reading their content. Keep in mind that the motivations journals have for inviting and publishing these kinds of articles are quite different from yours as an author.

Take the case of the journal I edit, for example; we know that current reviews of interesting and debated questions in our field will be widely read and well-cited, so we quite often ask leading scientists to consider writing one for us. We send out a number of invitations each month because we also know that we will be lucky if one senior colleague comes back to us and agrees to write a review article, perhaps with other members of her/his research team or collaborators. These articles drive up the readership and citation rate of our journal.

So: this is the first thing: review papers are usually invited articles that journals go out looking for. We get very few direct submissions of these kinds of papers, out of the blue. That’s not to say that you should not consider writing a review article early in your career, it’s just that this might not be the best use of your time and energy as an early career researcher (ECR). You’ll build your academic reputation faster and more effectively writing and publishing good, original research articles in high-profile journals.

An academic review article is quite different from the literature review you might produce as part of your MSc or PhD, for example, and I think it’s here that quite a lot of confusion creeps in: ECRs often think that since they have conducted a review of the literature relevant to their thesis research question then they should also write this up and publish it as a ‘review paper’. However, as we’ve discussed, this is not really the point of such papers: journals will want to publish them because their authors are established leaders in the field and, therefore, others will want to read them.

I do encourage ECRs to have a think about writing such papers but perhaps after you’ve already put a few original articles into the literature and have started to build a reputation in your field. I was told once by an eminent academic that his strategy was always to write five original articles on one theme and then write a review paper summarising what had been found so far on that particular question. Not a bad strategy perhaps.

What are the important issues to consider when writing a review paper? Is there a template for these kinds of articles?

Well, obviously, the first thing you need is an interesting and relevant question. Something that other researchers in your field will be keen to learn about, or be brought up to speed on. There are debated issues in all research fields, things that colleagues argue or disagree about: the trick here though is to broaden your perspective and make the questions that you think about in your research widely relevant and interesting for all scientists. Or what about a question related to your research that everybody (scientists and not) will be interested in? This is one of the keys to ensuring your research has wide impact and is noticed perhaps by policymakers.

Review articles are also quite different to regular research articles in their structure. The best way to think about writing one of these papers is to note down a series of themes within the general scope of the question you are considering. One way to do this is to think about the different kinds of evidence that have been used to address the issue of your review and then to structure your article around these as themes: for example, ‘chemical evidence’, ‘biological evidence’, and ‘statistical analyses’, or according to the time periods during which key research was carried out, perhaps ‘the 1990s’, ‘between 2000 and 2015’, or something along these lines. These papers cannot be structured in the same way as regular research articles: there will not be a standard ‘Materials and Methods’ section or ‘Results’ section, but they should begin with an ‘Introduction’ and end with a ‘Discussion’ or ‘Synthesis’ section that summarises what’s known and the authors own opinion regarding the question being addressed.

So how about this for a template: A good and effective review paper that addresses a particular burning question in your research field might start with an ‘Introduction’ that sets the question. This section tells the reader what the question is in one or two sentences at the start and then summarises the ‘state of current debate’ regarding the issue. What are the different factions, people working on this topic, thinking when it comes to the solution of this issue. Why is there a debate, in other words? A reader needs to know from the outset why the question is interesting and why they should continue reading. The Introduction section of a review paper is different again to this section in a regular research article because you don’t want to cover much previous work here: that will come later in the ‘review’ sections of your article. Just outline the question, why it’s interesting, and why people care about it, perhaps in a series of paragraphs in that order. Introduction sections to review articles tend to be quite short and just set the scene as the content of the article comes later.

As we’ve discussed then, you want a series of subheadings for the sections then that will come between the Introduction and the Discussion (or Interpretation) of your review. There are no clear rules as to what these section headings should be, and this will depend on your subject area, but keep them brief and in logical sequence. We can provide further advice on this if you get in touch with one of our team.