Dec 25

Tips for writing scientific journal review articles

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Scientific journal review articles summarize the findings of a large number of peer-reviewed articles, as well as provide opinions on the validity of the information, the design of the experiments, and predictions for the future direction of the field.  These review articles are typically authored by subject-matter experts (e.g. graduate students, professors, industry experts), either voluntarily or by invitation from a specific scientific journal.  Their purpose is to give an overview of either a field (e.g. vaccines) or a specific sub-topic of a field (e.g. recombinant influenza vaccines with needle-free delivery methods), making a large amount of information quickly accessible to readers.

Review articles differ from a typical scientific journal article in that they do not follow the format of “generate a theory, gather data, and draw a conclusion”.  A review article author may look at many existing scientific papers, select the strongest and most relevant data, and summarize it in a high-level format along with opinions of its validity and suggestions for future work.  A review article may also look at new technologies in a field and summarize those that are most relevant and promising.  Either way, the idea is to provide maximum information in a relatively short amount of space and refer the reader to the original articles in case they want to delve further into any topic.

Tips for writing a review article:

1.    Select a good topic – Whether you were invited to write a review by a specific journal (quite an honor!) or want to establish yourself as an expert in a particular field, take the time to select the best topic to review.  Do a thorough literature search to ensure that a similar review was not published in the last 5-10 years.  If another review exists, either narrow the scope of your review or make it more general.  This will differentiate your article and allow you to contribute useful information to the scientific body of knowledge.  The number of existing references articles may guide this decision as well, since a standard review article typically contains 100 to 200 solid references.

2.    Understand the restrictions – Review the rules for length and format of the particular journal to which you will submit your review article.  If you have any questions, contact a representative of the journal to make sure you understand the requirements before you begin.  Using the correct font type, font size, spacing, image format (e.g. JPEG, TIF), and reference format from the beginning will avoid time-consuming revamps at the end.

3.    Plan ahead – This cannot be emphasized enough! Review articles take a considerable amount of time, especially for the up-front research.  Be sure you can set aside enough of your time, otherwise you may be looking at a project that fizzles out before it gains traction.  To increase efficiency, consider combining efforts with a colleague or two.  Not only will you reduce your overall workload, you’ll bring different perspectives to the table.

4.    Create an outline – Invest time perfecting the outline and you will gain an ample return on your time investment.  Look at review articles both related to your topic and in other fields.  See what topics they choose to cover and how many articles they reference for each sub-topic.  Stick to topics for which you have expertise.  Be realistic about what you can expect to cover and then create a detailed outline.  Avoid the temptation to digress from your outline because you uncovered an interesting bit of information along the way.  Put that information in a separate file and come back to it if you have space left at the end.

5.    Research, research, research – Start with a few good review articles related to your topic and use their reference lists to find applicable articles (aim for papers published within the last decade).  Then use the reference lists of those articles to uncover even more.  Select only the most relevant articles as you will quickly find yourself swimming in a sea of paper.  If you have colleagues who are respected in the field, contact them to obtain papers they’ve authored or would recommend, but avoiding limiting yourself as the goal is to give a well-rounded review of the topic or industry.  Use EndNote or a similar program to organize your references and, if you prefer to read from a printed version, try printing just the first and last few pages (abstract, introduction, and conclusion).  You can always go back and print the remaining pages if the article is a winner.

6.    Incorporate visual aids – The majority of people are visual learners and assimilate information most efficiently from images, graphs, and tables.  In fact, some readers who are short on time will first skim the illustrations to determine if the paper warrants further attention.  Images should be attractive, while graphs and tables should be concise and easy to understand.  Images, graphs, and tables can be pulled from other scientific papers as long as there is no copyright infringement and permission from the creator is obtained.  The tables and figures that you create should summarize many of the findings of your review paper.  For example, for a review article on chromatographic techniques, one table could give a high-level summary of the main categories of chromatographic techniques, while another could list cutting-edge chromatographic techniques that you think are most promising for the future, along with application examples.

7.    Criticisms and predictions – Unlike other scientific articles, review articles are one place where subjective writing is not only allowed, it is encouraged.  The best review articles not only give a summary of current work in the field, they include commentary from the author, who is ideally a subject-matter expert. Readers want guidance on which experiments and techniques are sub-optimal and which are promising for the future.  If you are not an expert, avoid opinions that could get you in trouble, but if you are confident in your opinions on recent work in the field, incorporate them in a professional and respectful manner.

8.    Content review – Once you have a rough draft of the paper that contains the majority of the information you were planning to cover, forward to a few colleagues for feedback, including many who are familiar with the field and a few who aren’t to get a diverse set of comments.  Have them concentrate mainly on content, including identification of information gaps, but also be open to suggestions on format and wording.

9.    No back and forth – Once you have a final draft, go ahead and submit it to the journal.  It is easy to fall into the trap of nitpicking the small details, especially if you have two or more people collaborating on the review article.  Most journals require that your submission is reviewed by a panel of peers and subject-matter experts, some who are named by you.  Your article will likely come back with many comments and more changes will be necessary.

For more information on writing scientific review articles, please contact Bioedge Consulting for a free consultation.