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Six things you should keep in mind when writing a review article

July 19, 2019 | 5 min read

Writing a review article is about more than seizing on an interesting topic and gathering the references.

Writing a review article is about more than seizing on an interesting topic and gathering the relevant references. It is an opportunity for you to contribute to the development of your field by creating a synthesis of the best resources available and potential new research areas to explore in the future. Done well, a good review article can end up becoming the definitive “go to” guide on a topic, forming the backbone of reading lists and appearing as a reference in countless books and articles globally.

Yet, the key elements for a compelling review article are still a mystery for many researchers, especially those in the early stages of their careers. To help illuminate this phenomenon, Matt Pavlovich(opens in new tab/window) and Lindsey Drayton(opens in new tab/window), editors in the Trends reviews journals group with Cell Press, offered their editorial perspective on what they look for in a review in Researcher Academy(opens in new tab/window)’s latest webinar(opens in new tab/window). Below are the key take-aways from the experts.

  1. A review is not a list of results

    The most important question you need to ask yourself before proposing or writing a review is whether you have something new to say. A review article should form more than just the sum of its parts: readers should learn something(s) that they couldn’t get just by reading the references. Therefore, make sure you include your point(s) of view including a comparison, critique and assessment of the studies you are reviewing and/or your ideas for future experiments.

  2. If possible, submit a proposal before writing the manuscript

    You can save yourself a lot of time by reaching out to the editors of the journal in question to see whether or not it’s worth writing a full-length piece for their journals. Doing so also gives editors the opportunity to help shape your idea into something that delivers powerfully for the journal, which also means a higher chance of publication for your paper.

    In the proposal, you need to make clear why the topic is important – and why it is important now. You also need to justify why you should write it. You do not necessarily need to explicitly list the reasons, but you should present them in a way that makes the editor understand why they should accept your proposal.

  3. Have a clear idea in mind about the structure you want for your article

    Starting with an outline and knowing exactly how you want to lead your readers through your narrative (being aware how their “journey” should develop) not only makes your article much clearer and easier to follow, it also helps you decide what should and should not be included in the review. It is important to manage readers’ expectations early on by telling them why you have chosen to write this review right now and highlight how your article differs from other existing work.

  4. Avoid jargon

    You are an expert in the field – that’s why you are writing a review. But your readers may not be as familiar with the intricacies of the topic. Therefore, try to avoid jargon as much as possible. In case you have to use technical language, do not forget to explain it in lay terms or include a glossary if you have that option. While doing so, make sure that the definitions conform to accepted standards and that terms are used consistently throughout your article.

    To go the extra mile, it is also highly recommended to have someone unfamiliar with your field to read your article to make sure it makes sense to a lay audience.

  5. Follow the journal’s guidelines

    Many review authors invest much effort in polishing the content of their reviews but forget to pay sufficient attention to the journal’s stylistic and formatting guidelines. This common pitfall can easily lead to a slow-down and not being aware of – and acting on – any requirements, can negatively affect your review article’s chance of being published. Make sure, then, that you carefully familiarize yourself with the house style and guide for authors for the journal in question.

  6. Expect to heavily revise the first draft

    Even if you think you have followed all the requirements and produced a perfect first draft of your review article, there is a high chance you will receive it back with numerous comments and suggestions for change. Don’t be disappointed or discourage. Keep in mind that the editors and reviewers are here to help your paper succeed and by following their advice, you will emerge with a stronger version. Make the best out of this by approaching the comments with an open attitude and really engage with them instead of just treating it apathetically as a “paint by numbers” job. If you can afford to do so, it’s often a wise idea to take a few days off and refresh your mind before returning to your article and working on a revised draft.

There is a lot more to know!

You can learn more about other insightful tips and practices on writing a compelling review article in the full webinar recording at the Elsevier Researcher Academy(opens in new tab/window) and can also find answers to some questions asked during the separate webinar on the Cell Mentor program (opens in new tab/window) . If you still have questions after doing so, you are welcome to post in the associated Mendeley group(opens in new tab/window) where the team will endeavour to find answers to your questions.