Tips for Writing a Scientific Review Article
by Sushama Sivakumar
Photo by John Fleischman
Toward the end of my graduate school training I had an opportunity to write a scientific review article. It was quite a learning experience and one that was well timed. I was close to completing my PhD, and the chance to assimilate all the literature in the field and interpret findings of recent scientific articles in an informative scientific review was exciting. I had six months to complete this arduous task, and here are some things I learned along the way:
- Give yourself plenty of time to write a scientific review. Compiling years of scientific progress into a short review article is not easy and it requires good understanding of the literature and implications of the discoveries made thus far. Most importantly, stay on time and submit your review article by the deadline. Start early, spend time reading literature extensively, and pen your thoughts as you go along.
- Make an outline and decide on the main topic for the review. It is easy to digress and include all the information in the field; however, this would not be useful to readers.
- Be aware of journal requirements. Decide where you are going to publish your review and be sure to read journal requirements for submission of the review. It is good to strictly adhere to journal requirements such as number of papers cited or word/page limits.
- Be well versed with the literature. It is important to know about the initial studies and also know of the latest discoveries (i.e., be scholarly). A good review summarizes relevant discoveries, discusses implications, and speculates on the future of the field.
- Make notes while reading the literature . It is impossible to remember every article that you read along with your thoughts or interpretations. Try making notes while reading. It will help give a structure to your review article.
- Analyze published scientific literature. As a scientist it is imperative to assimilate data and understand its implications or caveats. A scientific review article is a good place to discuss these issues and point out how caveats can be addressed in the future.
- Discuss significant findings. This allows the author(s) to elaborate on whether certain pathways/observations are conserved across species. Also discuss differences and speculate on how the different regulation in other species may be advantageous. Such evolutionary conservation is not only biologically significant but can also help readers understand how a process is regulated.
- Utilize graphics. Include charts or figures to depict key points of the review. A useful tool employed in many reviews is a timeline that details significant discoveries that have contributed to better understanding of the field.
- Request Feedback. Your lab mates, mentor, or colleagues in your university will be happy to read drafts and provide feedback. They may help with different perspectives or can also help you interpret certain studies in new ways you hadn’t thought of. Discussing your review with peers will definitely improve it and help prevent inaccuracies.
- Discuss the future of the field. Get your lab mate’s and mentor’s views on the future to determine if there is a consensus on where they think the field is headed. Speculate on how the future will improve our understanding of the field.
Most importantly take the time to write a scientific review! It helped me develop as a scientist. I understood the process of writing a scientific review, learned to be accurate yet consistent with scientific facts/discoveries, and got more experience critiquing scientific literature. I encourage everyone to take a short break from experiments to speculate on all the science and write a scientific review. This exercise can help your project too! Good luck writing!
About the Author:
How to write a good scientific review article
- 1 The FEBS Journal Editorial Office, Cambridge, UK.
- PMID: 35792782
- DOI: 10.1111/febs.16565
Literature reviews are valuable resources for the scientific community. With research accelerating at an unprecedented speed in recent years and more and more original papers being published, review articles have become increasingly important as a means to keep up to date with developments in a particular area of research. A good review article provides readers with an in-depth understanding of a field and highlights key gaps and challenges to address with future research. Writing a review article also helps to expand the writer's knowledge of their specialist area and to develop their analytical and communication skills, amongst other benefits. Thus, the importance of building review-writing into a scientific career cannot be overstated. In this instalment of The FEBS Journal's Words of Advice series, I provide detailed guidance on planning and writing an informative and engaging literature review.
© 2022 Federation of European Biochemical Societies.
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Introduction, selection of a topic, scientific literature search and analysis, structure of a scientific review article, tips for success, acknowledgments, conflict of interest statement.
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A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Scientific Review Article
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Manisha Bahl, A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Scientific Review Article, Journal of Breast Imaging , Volume 5, Issue 4, July/August 2023, Pages 480–485, https://doi.org/10.1093/jbi/wbad028
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Scientific review articles are comprehensive, focused reviews of the scientific literature written by subject matter experts. The task of writing a scientific review article can seem overwhelming; however, it can be managed by using an organized approach and devoting sufficient time to the process. The process involves selecting a topic about which the authors are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, conducting a literature search and critical analysis of the literature, and writing the article, which is composed of an abstract, introduction, body, and conclusion, with accompanying tables and figures. This article, which focuses on the narrative or traditional literature review, is intended to serve as a guide with practical steps for new writers. Tips for success are also discussed, including selecting a focused topic, maintaining objectivity and balance while writing, avoiding tedious data presentation in a laundry list format, moving from descriptions of the literature to critical analysis, avoiding simplistic conclusions, and budgeting time for the overall process.
Scientific review articles provide a focused and comprehensive review of the available evidence about a subject, explain the current state of knowledge, and identify gaps that could be topics for potential future research.
Detailed tables reviewing the relevant scientific literature are important components of high-quality scientific review articles.
Tips for success include selecting a focused topic, maintaining objectivity and balance, avoiding tedious data presentation, providing a critical analysis rather than only a description of the literature, avoiding simplistic conclusions, and budgeting time for the overall process.
The process of researching and writing a scientific review article can be a seemingly daunting task but can be made manageable, and even enjoyable, if an organized approach is used and a reasonable timeline is given. Scientific review articles provide authors with an opportunity to synthesize the available evidence about a specific subject, contribute their insights to the field, and identify opportunities for future research. The authors, in turn, gain recognition as subject matter experts and thought leaders in the field. An additional benefit to the authors is that high-quality review articles can often be cited many years after publication ( 1 , 2 ). The reader of a scientific review article should gain an understanding of the current state of knowledge on the subject, points of controversy, and research questions that have yet to be answered ( 3 ).
There are two types of review articles, narrative or traditional literature reviews and systematic reviews, which may or may not be accompanied by a meta-analysis ( 4 ). This article, which focuses on the narrative or traditional literature review, is intended to serve as a guide with practical steps for new writers. It is geared toward breast imaging radiologists who are preparing to write a scientific review article for the Journal of Breast Imaging but can also be used by any writer, reviewer, or reader. In the narrative or traditional literature review, the available scientific literature is synthesized and no new data are presented. This article first discusses the process of selecting an appropriate topic. Then, practical tips for conducting a literature search and analyzing the literature are provided. The structure of a scientific review article is outlined and tips for success are described.
Scientific review articles are often solicited by journal editors and written by experts in the field. For solicited or invited articles, a senior expert in the field may be contacted and, in turn, may ask junior faculty or trainees to help with the literature search and writing process. Most journals also consider proposals for review article topics. The journal’s editorial office can be contacted via e-mail with a topic proposal, ideally with an accompanying outline or an extended abstract to help explain the proposal.
When selecting a topic for a scientific review article, the following considerations should be taken into account: The authors should be knowledgeable about and interested in the topic; the journal’s audience should be interested in the topic; and the topic should be focused, with a sufficient number of current research studies ( Figure 1 ). For the Journal of Breast Imaging , a scientific review article on breast MRI would be too broad in scope. Examples of more focused topics include abbreviated breast MRI ( 5 ), concerns about gadolinium deposition in the setting of screening MRI ( 6 ), Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System (BI-RADS) 3 assessments on MRI ( 7 , 8 ), the science of background parenchymal enhancement ( 9 ), and screening MRI in women at intermediate risk ( 10 ).
Summary of the factors to consider when selecting a topic for a scientific review article. Adapted with permission from Dhillon et al ( 2 ).
Once a well-defined topic is selected, the next step is to conduct a literature search. There are multiple indexing databases that can be used for a literature search, including PubMed, SCOPUS, and Web of Science ( 11–13 ). A list of databases with links can be found on the National Institutes of Health website ( 14 ). It is advised to keep track of the search terms that are used so that the search could be replicated if needed.
While reading articles, taking notes and keeping track of findings in a spreadsheet or database can be helpful. The following points should be considered for each article: What is the purpose of the article, and is it relevant to the review article topic? What was the study design (eg, retrospective analysis, randomized controlled trial)? Are the conclusions that are drawn based on the presented data valid and reasonable? What are the strengths and limitations of the study? In the discussion section, do the authors discuss other literature that both supports and contradicts their findings? It can also be helpful to read accompanying editorials, if available, that are written by experts to explain the importance of the original scientific article in the context of other work in the field.
If previous review articles on the same topic are discovered during the literature search, then the following strategies could be considered: discussing approaches used and limitations of past reviews, identifying a new angle that has not been previously covered, and/or focusing on new research that has been published since the most recent reviews on the topic ( 3 ). It is highly encouraged to create an outline and solicit feedback from co-authors before writing begins.
Writing a high-quality scientific review article is “a balancing act between the scientific rigor needed to select and critically appraise original studies, and the art of telling a story by providing context, exploring the known and the unknown, and pointing the way forward” ( 15 ). The ideal scientific review article is balanced and authoritative and serves as a definitive reference on the topic. Review articles tend to be 4000 to 5000 words in length, with 80% to 90% devoted to the body.
When preparing a scientific review article, writers can consider using the Scale for the Assessment of Narrative Review Articles, which has been proposed as a critical appraisal tool to help editors, reviewers, and readers assess non–systematic review articles ( 16 ). It is composed of the following six items, which are rated from 0 to 2 (with 0 being low quality and 2 being high quality): explanation of why the article is important, statement of aims or questions to be addressed, description of the literature search strategy, inclusion of appropriate references, scientific reasoning, and appropriate data presentation. In a study with three raters each reviewing 30 articles, the scale was felt to be feasible in daily editorial work and had high inter-rater reliability.
The components of a scientific review article include the abstract, introduction, body, conclusion, references, tables, and figures, which are described below.
Abstracts are typically structured as a single paragraph, ranging from 200 to 250 words in length. The abstract briefly explains why the topic is important, provides a summary of the main conclusions that are being drawn based on the research studies that were included and analyzed in the review article, and describes how the article is organized ( 17 ). Because the abstract should provide a summary of the main conclusions being drawn, it is often written last, after the other sections of the article have been completed. It does not include references.
The introduction provides detailed background about the topic and outlines the objectives of the review article. It is important to explain why the literature on that topic should be reviewed (eg, no prior reviews, different angle from prior reviews, new published research). The problem-gap-hook approach can be used, in which the topic is introduced, the gap is explained (eg, lack of published synthesis), and the hook (or why it matters) is provided ( 18 ). If there are prior review articles on the topic, particularly recent ones, then the authors are encouraged to justify how their review contributes to the existing literature. The content in the introduction section should be supported with references, but specific findings from recent research studies are typically not described, instead being discussed in depth in the body.
In a traditional or narrative review article, a methods section is optional. The methods section should include a list of the databases and years that were searched, search terms that were used, and a summary of the inclusion and exclusion criteria for articles ( 17 , 19 ).
The body can take different forms depending on the topic but should be organized into sections with subheadings, with each subsection having an independent introduction and conclusion. In the body, published studies should be reviewed in detail and in an organized fashion. In general, each paragraph should begin with a thesis statement or main point, and the sentences that follow it should consist of supporting evidence drawn from the literature. Research studies need not be discussed in chronological order, and the results from one research study may be discussed in different sections of the body. For example, if writing a scientific review article on screening digital breast tomosynthesis, cancer detection rates reported in one study may be discussed in a separate paragraph from the false-positive rates that were reported in the same study.
Emphasis should be placed on the significance of the study results in the broader context of the subject. The strengths and weaknesses of individual studies should be discussed. An example of this type of discussion is as follows: “Smith et al found no differences in re-excision rates among breast cancer patients who did and did not undergo preoperative MRI. However, there were several important limitations of this study. The radiologists were not required to have breast MRI interpretation experience, nor was it required that MRI-detected findings undergo biopsy prior to surgery.” Other examples of phrases that can be used for constructive criticism are available online ( 20 ).
The conclusion section ties everything together and clearly states the conclusions that are being drawn based on the research studies included and analyzed in the article. The authors are also encouraged to provide their views on future research, important challenges, and unanswered questions.
Scientific review articles tend to have a large number of supporting references (up to 100). When possible, referencing the original article (rather than a review article referring to the original article) is preferred. The use of a reference manager, such as EndNote (Clarivate, London, UK) ( 21 ), Mendeley Desktop (Elsevier, Amsterdam, the Netherlands) ( 22 ), Paperpile (Paperpile LLC, Cambridge, MA) ( 23 ), RefWorks (ProQuest, Ann Arbor, MI) ( 24 ), or Zotero (Corporation for Digital Scholarship, Fairfax, VA) ( 25 ), is highly encouraged, as it ensures appropriate reference ordering even when text is moved or added and can facilitate the switching of formats based on journal requirements ( 26 ).
Tables and Figures
The inclusion of tables and figures can improve the readability of the review. Detailed tables that review the scientific literature are expected ( Table 1 ). A table listing gaps in knowledge as potential areas for future research may also be included ( 17 ). Although scientific review articles are not expected to be as figure-rich as educational review articles, figures can be beneficial to illustrate complex concepts and summarize or synthesize relevant data ( Figure 2 ). Of note, if nonoriginal figures are used, permission from the copyright owner must be obtained.
Example of an Effective Table From a Scientific Review Article About Screening MRI in Women at Intermediate Risk of Breast Cancer.
Abbreviations: ADH, atypical ductal hyperplasia; ALH, atypical lobular hyperplasia; CDR, cancer detection rate; LCIS, lobular carcinoma in situ; NR, not reported; PPV, positive predictive value. NOTE: The Detailed Table Provides a Summary of the Relevant Scientific Literature on Screening MRI in women with lobular neoplasia or ADH. Adapted with permission from Bahl ( 10 ).
a The reported CDR is an incremental CDR in the studies by Friedlander et al and Chikarmane et al. In all studies, some, but not all, included patients had a prior MRI examination, so the reported CDR represents a combination of both the prevalent and incident CDRs.
b This study included 455 patients with LCIS (some of whom had concurrent ALH or ADH). Twenty-nine cancers were MRI-detected, and 115 benign biopsies were prompted by MRI findings.
Example of an effective figure from a scientific review article about breast cancer risk assessment. The figure provides a risk assessment algorithm for breast cancer. Reprinted with permission from Kim et al ( 28 ).
Select a Focused but Broad Enough Topic
A common pitfall is to be too ambitious in scope, resulting in a very time-consuming literature search and superficial coverage of some aspects of the topic. The ideal topic should be focused enough to be manageable but with a large enough body of available research to justify the need for a review article. One article on the topic of scientific reviews suggests that at least 15 to 20 relevant research papers published within the previous five years should be easily identifiable to warrant writing a review article ( 2 ).
Provide a Summary of Main Conclusions in the Abstract
Another common pitfall is to only introduce the topic and provide a roadmap for the article in the abstract. The abstract should also provide a summary of the main conclusions that are being drawn based on the research studies that were included and analyzed in the review article.
The content and key points of the article should be based on the published scientific literature and not biased toward one’s personal opinion.
Avoid Tedious Data Presentation
Extensive lists of statements about the findings of other authors (eg, author A found Z, author B found Y, while author C found X, etc) make it difficult for the reader to understand and follow the article. It is best for the writing to be thematic based on research findings rather than author-centered ( 27 ). Each paragraph in the body should begin with a thesis statement or main point, and the sentences that follow should consist of supporting evidence drawn from the literature. For example, in a scientific review article about artificial intelligence (AI) for screening mammography, one approach would be to write that article A found a higher cancer detection rate, higher efficiency, and a lower false-positive rate with use of the AI algorithm and article B found a similar cancer detection rate and higher efficiency, while article C found a higher cancer detection rate and higher false-positive rate. Rather, a better approach would be to write one or more paragraphs summarizing the literature on cancer detection rates, one or more paragraphs on false-positive rates, and one or more paragraphs on efficiency. The results from one study (eg, article A) need not all be discussed in the same paragraph.
Move from Description (Summary) to Analysis
A common pitfall is to describe and summarize the published literature without providing a critical analysis. The purpose of the narrative or traditional review article is not only to summarize relevant discoveries but also to synthesize the literature, discuss its limitations and implications, and speculate on the future.
Avoid Simplistic Conclusions
The scientific review article’s conclusions should consider the complexity of the topic and the quality of the evidence. When describing a study’s findings, it is best to use language that reflects the quality of the evidence rather than making definitive statements. For example, rather than stating that “The use of preoperative breast MRI leads to a reduction in re-excision rates,” the following comments could be made: “Two single-institution retrospective studies found that preoperative MRI was associated with lower rates of positive surgical margins, which suggests that preoperative MRI may lead to reduced re-excision rates. Larger studies with randomization of patients are needed to validate these findings.”
Budget Time for Researching, Synthesizing, and Writing
The amount of time necessary to write a high-quality scientific review article can easily be underestimated. The process of searching for and synthesizing the scientific literature on a topic can take weeks to months to complete depending on the number of authors involved in this process.
Scientific review articles are common in the medical literature and can serve as definitive references on the topic for other scientists, clinicians, and trainees. The first step in the process of preparing a scientific review article is to select a focused topic. This step is followed by a literature search and critical analysis of the published data. The components of the article include an abstract, introduction, body, and conclusion, with the majority devoted to the body, in which the relevant literature is reviewed in detail. The article should be objective and balanced, with summaries and critical analysis of the available evidence. Budgeting time for researching, synthesizing, and writing; taking advantage of the resources listed in this article and available online; and soliciting feedback from co-authors at various stages of the process (eg, after an outline is created) can help new writers produce high-quality scientific review articles.
The author thanks Susanne L. Loomis (Medical and Scientific Communications, Strategic Communications, Department of Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA) for creating Figure 1 in this article.
M.B. is a consultant for Lunit (medical AI software company) and an expert panelist for 2nd.MD (a digital health company). She also receives funding from the National Institutes of Health (K08CA241365). M.B. is an associate editor of the Journal of Breast Imaging . As such, she was excluded from the editorial process.
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How to write a superb literature review
Andy Tay is a freelance writer based in Singapore.
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Literature reviews are important resources for scientists. They provide historical context for a field while offering opinions on its future trajectory. Creating them can provide inspiration for one’s own research, as well as some practice in writing. But few scientists are trained in how to write a review — or in what constitutes an excellent one. Even picking the appropriate software to use can be an involved decision (see ‘Tools and techniques’). So Nature asked editors and working scientists with well-cited reviews for their tips.
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Correction 09 December 2020 : An earlier version of the tables in this article included some incorrect details about the programs Zotero, Endnote and Manubot. These have now been corrected.
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How to Write a Good Scientific Literature Review
Nowadays, there is a huge demand for scientific literature reviews as they are especially appreciated by scholars or researchers when designing their research proposals. While finding information is less of a problem to them, discerning which paper or publication has enough quality has become one of the biggest issues. Literature reviews narrow the current knowledge on a certain field and examine the latest publications’ strengths and weaknesses. This way, they are priceless tools not only for those who are starting their research, but also for all those interested in recent publications. To be useful, literature reviews must be written in a professional way with a clear structure. The amount of work needed to write a scientific literature review must be considered before starting one since the tasks required can overwhelm many if the working method is not the best.
Designing and Writing a Scientific Literature Review
Writing a scientific review implies both researching for relevant academic content and writing , however, writing without having a clear objective is a common mistake. Sometimes, studying the situation and defining the work’s system is so important and takes equally as much time as that required in writing the final result. Therefore, we suggest that you divide your path into three steps.
Define goals and a structure
Think about your target and narrow down your topic. If you don’t choose a well-defined topic, you can find yourself dealing with a wide subject and plenty of publications about it. Remember that researchers usually deal with really specific fields of study.
It is time to be a critic and locate only pertinent publications. While researching for content consider publications that were written 3 years ago at the most. Write notes and summarize the content of each paper as that will help you in the next step.
Time to write
Check some literature review examples to decide how to start writing a good literature review . When your goals and structure are defined, begin writing without forgetting your target at any moment.
Related: Conducting a literature survey? Wish to learn more about scientific misconduct? Check out this resourceful infographic.
Here you have a to-do list to help you write your review :
- A scientific literature review usually includes a title, abstract, index, introduction, corpus, bibliography, and appendices (if needed).
- Present the problem clearly.
- Mention the paper’s methodology, research methods, analysis, instruments, etc.
- Present literature review examples that can help you express your ideas.
- Remember to cite accurately.
- Limit your bias
- While summarizing also identify strengths and weaknesses as this is critical.
Scholars and researchers are usually the best candidates to write scientific literature reviews, not only because they are experts in a certain field, but also because they know the exigencies and needs that researchers have while writing research proposals or looking for information among thousands of academic papers. Therefore, considering your experience as a researcher can help you understand how to write a scientific literature review.
Have you faced challenges while drafting your first literature review? How do you think can these tips help you in acing your next literature review? Let us know in the comments section below! You can also visit our Q&A forum for frequently asked questions related to copyrights answered by our team that comprises eminent researchers and publication experts.
Thank you for your information. It adds knowledge on critical review being a first time to do it, it helps a lot.
yes. i would like to ndertake the course Bio ststistics
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Writing a good review article
- 3 minute read
Table of Contents
As a young researcher, you might wonder how to start writing your first review article, and the extent of the information that it should contain. A review article is a comprehensive summary of the current understanding of a specific research topic and is based on previously published research. Unlike research papers, it does not contain new results, but can propose new inferences based on the combined findings of previous research.
Types of review articles
Review articles are typically of three types: literature reviews, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses.
A literature review is a general survey of the research topic and aims to provide a reliable and unbiased account of the current understanding of the topic.
A systematic review , in contrast, is more specific and attempts to address a highly focused research question. Its presentation is more detailed, with information on the search strategy used, the eligibility criteria for inclusion of studies, the methods utilized to review the collected information, and more.
A meta-analysis is similar to a systematic review in that both are systematically conducted with a properly defined research question. However, unlike the latter, a meta-analysis compares and evaluates a defined number of similar studies. It is quantitative in nature and can help assess contrasting study findings.
Tips for writing a good review article
Here are a few practices that can make the time-consuming process of writing a review article easier:
- Define your question: Take your time to identify the research question and carefully articulate the topic of your review paper. A good review should also add something new to the field in terms of a hypothesis, inference, or conclusion. A carefully defined scientific question will give you more clarity in determining the novelty of your inferences.
- Identify credible sources: Identify relevant as well as credible studies that you can base your review on, with the help of multiple databases or search engines. It is also a good idea to conduct another search once you have finished your article to avoid missing relevant studies published during the course of your writing.
- Take notes: A literature search involves extensive reading, which can make it difficult to recall relevant information subsequently. Therefore, make notes while conducting the literature search and note down the source references. This will ensure that you have sufficient information to start with when you finally get to writing.
- Describe the title, abstract, and introduction: A good starting point to begin structuring your review is by drafting the title, abstract, and introduction. Explicitly writing down what your review aims to address in the field will help shape the rest of your article.
- Be unbiased and critical: Evaluate every piece of evidence in a critical but unbiased manner. This will help you present a proper assessment and a critical discussion in your article.
- Include a good summary: End by stating the take-home message and identify the limitations of existing studies that need to be addressed through future studies.
- Ask for feedback: Ask a colleague to provide feedback on both the content and the language or tone of your article before you submit it.
- Check your journal’s guidelines: Some journals only publish reviews, while some only publish research articles. Further, all journals clearly indicate their aims and scope. Therefore, make sure to check the appropriateness of a journal before submitting your article.
Writing review articles, especially systematic reviews or meta-analyses, can seem like a daunting task. However, Elsevier Author Services can guide you by providing useful tips on how to write an impressive review article that stands out and gets published!
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How to Write a Scientific Review Article
By Leila Haery
Choose the topic and outline the organization of the review
Once you start reading, there will be a temptation to include every piece of information that was ever published. Obviously this isn’t possible. So, define your scope from the onset. Perhaps you, a colleague, or your adviser was invited to write on a particular topic. Alternatively, maybe you’re researching a topic for which no relevant or recent review exists. Once you pick a topic, try to be specific about exactly what aspect of the field you plan to review. If it’s a well-researched field, you may need to get specific to make sure your article doesn’t turn into a textbook.
Get the journal’s submission rules for review articles
Whether submitting a review by invitation or by your own accord, once you have these rules (word limit, formatting guidelines, etc.) you have some criteria to shape the document.
Get and use a reference management program (e.g., EndNote , Papers , Mendeley , etc.)
You’re going to be managing a lot of references. I cite as I write, meaning I use the software to add the citations in real time as I write. Things are going to get a little crazy (meaning you are probably going to cite hundreds of references) and it’s better to keep your references organized from the beginning. I also recommend using the citation style of (Last name, Year) in the document while writing, because it helps you later on to remember where you read particular studies or experiments. Later, you can easily convert the citation style to whatever the journal requires. Using the (Last name, Year) format also has the benefit of exposing you to relevant researchers in the field. Finally, you can sound credible and cool when you casually mention “Haery et al., showed that MYC expression was increased…” when discussing the review topic with your peers.
I started by reading other reviews because, as I mentioned, I wasn’t an expert in the field. To find reviews, I just searched online and found ones that I thought “looked good” by no definitive criteria. I read these articles to get a sense of the themes in the field and to learn what people cared about. I also used reviews to get a list of research papers that I needed to read. Once I had an idea of the themes in the field, I searched for recent research papers on these particular themes, for seminal papers on these themes, and also for articles from the active/well-known researchers in the field. I made sure to find information from genome-wide studies, as well as results from smaller and more specific studies. I also did not limit myself to the well-cited or popular papers, but looked for papers from a wide range of authors.
Just start writing
When I first started I thought I would read a bunch of papers and then feel ready to write. What actually happened was that each paper taught me a few things and also highlighted a few dozen things that I didn’t know about. Instead of reading a paper and getting my bearings, I would read a paper, panic, and then download a bunch of other papers. In mathematics, I think this is represented by factorials. In environmental science and ecology, this can be represented by the tip of the iceberg. For writers, this is probably “a normal day.” The way I broke this cycle was to just start writing.
No really, just start writing!
Don’t worry about grammar or formatting or continuity. Also don’t worry if you feel like you don’t still know enough about the topic. Just get as many words down on the page as possible. This could be in the form of lists, streams of consciousness, or anything else. Like I mentioned, I also added citations in real time as I wrote, so each statement was referenced even in the roughest version of the draft and I didn’t have to worry about having to hunt down sources later on.
A comment about citing: I wasn’t sure if I should cite reviews or the primary literature or both. I ended up citing both because I used both.
Curate and present some useful data
Typically lists and pictures are the most useful parts of reviews. These could be in the form of figures/schematics or tables. And don’t forget to include citations so that people can go back and read the original reference for the data. For example, we summarized how frequently each member of a class of proteins was mutated, as reported in various studies. We made a table that listed each protein in the class, then for each protein we listed all the studies that reported mutations in that protein (including how frequently a mutation was found and the size of the study). This was useful because you could easily see how frequently each protein was mutated, you could see how big the studies were, and you could find the original paper if you wanted to learn more. Another example: we made a schematic of all the proteins in the class that showed the relative sizes and the conserved domains. This information was available in GenBank, but it was useful to present it all in one place to get a sense of the similarities and differences among proteins in the class.
Offer your perspective
It doesn’t have to be long and it doesn’t have to be revolutionary, but you could include a few comments on where you think the field is going or what areas are worth exploring.
Edit and rewrite, then repeat
If you’re like me, your rough draft is really rough and so editing is going to be a long process. I was lucky in that my adviser always played an active role in writing and editing, so I always had someone to send drafts back and forth with. That being said, we probably exchanged dozens of drafts of the manuscript. This is the time to transform the document into something cohesive-- change the sentences, make it flow, and start telling the story. Like any editing process, you will need time away from the article to be able to keep editing it effectively. You will also begin to hate the article. This is normal and it means you’re on the right track!
After you’re done editing, send it to some actual experts in the field for their feedback on the scope and the content.
Submit your article!
Overall, writing a review can be overwhelming and challenging. My best advice is don’t overthink it. And to quote my adviser, "you just gotta do it." At the end of the day, someone has to write the article and that someone is going to be you. So, just do it! I will also paraphrase what I have heard many other creative people say about writing: you don’t know what it’s going to look like when it’s done, but you know what it looks like when it's not done. So, as long as it doesn't look done, just keep working on it. Also bear in mind that this is just a review article and not your life’s work: so remember that done is better than perfect. Good luck!
1. Haery, Leila, Ryan C. Thompson, and Thomas D. Gilmore. "Histone acetyltransferases and histone deacetylases in B-and T-cell development, physiology and malignancy." Genes & cancer 6.5-6 (2015): 184. PubMed PMID: 26124919 . PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4482241 .
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8 Tips for Writing a Scientific Literature Review Article
A scientific literature review article provides a thorough overview of the current knowledge on a certain topic. The main goal is to consider the difficulties or knowledge gaps in the field and help to fill them out. To write one requires lots of reading, but it can be an intensely satisfying process and produce a work that will be referenced and serve as a resource for students and young researchers.
Unlike an original research article, a literature review usually does not present results, such as from surveys or experiments. It’s mainly based on the combination of a thorough literature survey of published work together with the author’s critical discussion on the subject.
There are different types of literature reviews , like systematic, scoping, and conceptual, but overall, they’re all extremely valuable and useful for the scientific community, in their own way.
The eight steps below will give a simple how on writing a review.
Why to write a scientific literature review
One final note on the why before the how regarding reviews, 8 tips on how to write a scientific literature review (and a good one), 1. define a relevant question or questions that you intend to answer with the review (critical step), 2. do a literature survey, 3. create a datasheet to organize all the important information contained in each material collected, 4. define a structure for the text, 5. add context to your work, 6. extract relevant information from the literature material you selected, 7. add critical discussion, 8. make sure the english is sharp, clear, and well-edited.
There are plenty of reasons to take on the task of writing a review rather than conducting novel research.
First, as a review’s author, you can improve your knowledge of the theme and be on top of the recent findings. You can start to more closely follow the work of leading researchers and get new insights for your own research. And you position yourself as a thought-leader and knowledge-leader in the area. For an up-and-coming area, this is extremely useful.
For example, this review of the remote work literature by Charalampous et al. has been very valuable to me when I completed my dissertation. I connected with the lead author on ResearchGate. and I value our interaction .
If you’re a master’s or PhD candidate, by writing a review you’ll be producing starting material to be used on your dissertation or thesis, not to mention, obviously, that you’ll learn about the review-writing process.
And as mentioned, a good literature review article garners recognition and a considerable number of citations.
Reviews are the mark of a true scholar.
Research studies can be classified as qualitative or quantitative and whether your literature review is focused on one of these classes or the other will have an influence on its design.
The following tips below generally fit both qualitative and quantitative articles, although adaptations can be made in specific topics.
These tips don’t necessarily need to follow the exact order. Reviews can be iterative, and you’ll naturally happen across new references .
That will be your scope. Importantly, keep lists of topics that are and are not within your scope. This will help to determine what you’ll ultimately include in your initial survey.
Search for articles on the theme using appropriate keywords (research terms) and filters.
Include keywords associated with concepts or variables of your interest and also list synonyms or related terms.
For example, let’s say you want to write about drug abuse among college students. You can use the keywords such as “drug abuse”, “substance abuse”, “college students”, “university students”, and “undergraduate students”.
You can add filters to select articles in a specific language (e.g., English or Spanish) or that have been published recently (e.g., last 5 years), for example.
As we see with “college” and “university”, there are commonly different ways to say the same thing, and Boolean operators will help you here. Specifics are given below.
You can do the search directly on publishers’ and journals’ websites, on the reference lists of relevant papers, and using.
For these databases, ideally, you’ll have a good online library to use. There are also ways to find research articles for free .
You can choose from multidisciplinary sources (e.g., Google Scholar , Scopus , Web of Science ), or sources specific to a given area (e.g., Open Edition for social sciences, PubMed for biomedical sciences).
To complement the review, look for materials other than research articles by visiting government websites, international organization websites, and credible newspaper articles.
However you do your search, keep the following in mind:
- Check that there are no similar recent reviews addressing the very same question. Otherwise, there’s obviously no point in going further unless you’re taking a different angle.
- Consider if there’s enough research material to write about. Available literature can vary significantly from topic to topic. Try to examine if there are sufficient articles to make a robust discussion, contrast results and ideas, or make any conclusion. If there is no previous literature review on the subject, even a small number of papers may be OK. If other reviews have already been published, investigate what else has emerged since it was released.
- If your survey results in too many articles, narrow it down by adding new keywords or filters that match the specifications you consider most important. Look for topics that haven’t yet been thoroughly reviewed or for which there are conflicting data worthy of discussion.
- Use Boolean operators (“AND”, “OR”, “NOT”, etc.) together with the keywords to filter the results. Let’s take the same example on drug abuse among college students and imagine you don’t want alcohol to be included as a type of drug abuse in your search. In this case, you can combine keywords and operators this way: “drug abuse” OR “substance abuse” AND “college students” NOT alcohol.
Do a first selection of the articles by reading their titles and abstracts. If that doesn’t provide enough information for you, read the results and conclusions. There’s usually no need to get into the introduction or methods until later.
Eliminate works that don’t match the scope of the review. Then, organize the final data in a way to facilitate the writing process later on.
A based way to do this is using an Excel or Google Sheets spreadsheet. The rows represent each article and columns represent important groups of information such as authors, year of publication, methodology, main findings, etc.
Even better can be to use referencing software such as Mendeley to label and organize the works you download.
Although a literature review’s structure may vary based on journal guidelines and your preferences, it should at least contain a title, keywords, abstract, introduction, main text, discussion, conclusion, and references.
If you’re working on a systematic review, you can add a Methods section to describe the criteria you’ve used to select articles to review. You may also end the review with Future Perspectives for the field, considering your knowledge of the theme.
At this point, you can start considering journals for submission.
As there are many journal options out there, you may find it helpful to use journal finder tools like those at Elsevier , Springer , Wiley , and others .
Carefully read the instructions for authors and the formatting requirements of the journal you choose. Not all journals accept review articles, but there are some journals exclusively dedicated to them.
If publication time is important for you, check the journal or inquire directly to find the normal time for publication.
Start by creating an introduction, ideally not too long, addressing the main concepts and the current state of the field.
Call attention to the relevance of the theme and make clear why a review is needed and how it can be helpful. Then specify the goals of the review and what exactly the reader will find in your text.
If you are doing a more rigorous review, mention data sources and research methods used to select articles and define inclusion and exclusion criteria.
See this systematic literature review about social media and mental health problems in adolescents.
Note that already in the introduction the authors explore the scenario of mental health in adolescents, explain the concept of social media and contextualize what is known and what are the gaps regarding the relationship between social media and mental health problems in adolescents.
As a rigorous systematic literature review, a Methods section gives full details on how the survey was conducted.
In the main text, write about the articles’ findings, including the methods and parameters used. Does this especially if your review is focused on quantitative studies.
When dealing with qualitative studies, you may present the sampling methods applied.
Extract enough information to answer your research questions. You can group articles with similar characteristics and split the text on subheadings accordingly.
You also have the option to mention articles chronologically, if that’s relevant to the work.
Remember to summarize information so the text is objective and clear. You can work with appropriate graphical schemes, images, and tables – these can help the reader to better understand and memorize the important information.
See this literature review on the detection of depression and mental illness signs using social media . The authors divided the main text into subtopics according to the methods used by the analyzed articles to detect signs of mental illness.
A figure is provided to illustrate each method and the number of articles that used it. The review also presents a table summarizing important information from the articles.
Include your point of view and indicate the strengths and weaknesses of the works you wrote about. Address debate on conflicting results, when necessary.
This fits interestingly into the discussion of contrasting concepts, theories, and assumptions presented in different qualitative studies, for instance. Also, recognize the limitations of your own work.
Provide the main conclusion of your literature review. In this final section of the review, it may be interesting to make suggestions for future research.
See this review about the associations between maternal nutrition and breast milk composition . In the subheadings of the main text (“Main results” section), the authors discuss the results of the articles investigated and emphasize conflicting information among studies.
A final discussion is provided addressing the limitations of the studies. The main conclusions obtained from the literature review are presented in the final paragraph.
See this review about maternal obesity and breastfeeding characteristics . The authors present the findings of their literature survey and a “Discussion” section with explanations and possible confounding factors involved.
An individual topic is dedicated to the limitations of their review (for example, the authors say that “9 of the 18 studies included used self-reported maternal weight and height. Such estimates are not completely accurate with the possible risk of misclassification of BMI categories” [Turcksin et al., 2014, p. 180). Special sections approaching the implications of their findings for future research and for clinical practice are also provided.
Check for spelling and grammar mistakes and add all the references correctly. Use reference management software to avoid wasting time with formatting. There are free and user-friendly options to do so (e.g., Zotero , Mendeley ).
Better is to get a professional scientific edit . There are options available for editing. Choose the one that works for you, and make sure they’re capable and qualified.
Good luck with your review!
Denney, A. S., & Tewksbury, R. (2013). How to write a literature review . Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 24 (2):218i234.
Grant, M. J., & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies . Health Information and Libraries Journal, 26 (2):91-108.
Turcksin, R., Bel, S., Galjaard, S., & Devlieger, R. (2014). Maternal obesity and breastfeeding intention, initiation, intensity and duration: a systematic review. Maternal & Child Nutrition , 10 (2), 166-183. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1740-8709.2012.00439.x
Wee, B. V., & Banister, D. (2016). How to write a literature review paper? Transport Reviews, 36 (2), 278-288.
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