This information should ideally be presented in a ‘funnel’ format, flowing from the most general information at the beginning of the section to more specific information as the text continues. Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements in turn.
An Introduction to Writing Review Articles
Last week, I gave a talk (online, of course) about ‘Writing review articles’. It was aimed at graduate students who, as part of their training, had to identify a topic in the field of developmental biology and write a mini-review on that particular topic. However, my talk contained some general advice about writing review-type articles, as well as some general writing tips, so I thought I’d share a summary of it here.
I guess the first thing to point out is that review-type articles come in lots of different ‘flavours’. They all vary with regard to length, scope, style and overall purpose, and are given different names by different journals. But they all aim to summarise and distill research findings. This makes them very different to primary research articles, whic h aim to present data, although they are handled in similar way, i.e. they are submitted to a journal and peer-reviewed by 2-3 experts in the field.
But remember that readers are usually a mix of experts and non-experts who will be looking for very different things so a good review will cater for both of these audiences. For example, a graduate student might turn to a review article when they start in a new lab to find out more about the history of a field, or to get a summary of key findings. By contrast, an experienced post-doc or PI might want to read a review written by one of their peers to find out what the current state of thinking in a field is. Ideally, a good review should therefore aim to provide a combination of balanced summaries and critique whilst being authoritative, forward-looking and inspirational. However, note that the exact ‘flavour’ or format of the review will also dictate its purpose, e.g. a ‘Perspective’ article in Journal X might aim to summarise a handful of recent studies, whereas an ‘Essay’ in Journal Y might aim to provide a more comprehensive analysis of the last decade of research.
The first step is to choose the topic you want to write on and come up with a rough idea of the scope of your article. You may already have this in mind but it’s important, before you begin writing, to really nail the exact purpose of your article. To help you do this, I‘d suggest the following:
- Identify the particular theme/topic/idea that you want to focus on. In most cases, this will be something that’s closely related to the topic you work on, e.g. you might be working on something, or reading up on a particular area, and feel that a review would be helpful. If you need inspiration (i.e. if you want to write but aren’t sure what to write about), read, speak to people, and think about talks you’ve been to. What’s exciting in your field right now? Are there papers that change the way we think about something? Have you seen/read papers that converge on a similar theme/idea?
- Check that there aren’t already reviews on this topic, i.e. something that’s been published within the past year or so. This is important; no-one wants to read a review that doesn’t offer anything new.
- Decide if there is enough recent material to include (or too much). At this point, you may need to go back to the drawing board to either expand on or refine the scope of your article. It’s also helpful to read a few reviews (mini-reviews vs longer reviews) to get a feel for how much material a review can cover.
- Identify and write down the main aim/purpose of your article. What’s the key message you want to get across? Why is this important and timely? Why would people want to read your article?
Note that lots of reviews are commissioned, i.e. the author is invited to write by a journal/editor. So, if you know you want to write a review on a particular topic and have a pretty clear idea of what your review will cover, a good place to start is by contacting a journal to see if they’d consider it. This also then means that you’ll (hopefully) be working alongside an editor from the outset to develop and refine the scope of your article. You’ll also have your target audience, article format and word limit in mind while you’re writing so can tailor the review accordingly.
Once you have a plan, you can start writing. I’d suggest that you start with the Title, Abstract and Introduction – these are the first parts that the reader sees of the article so they need careful thought. By starting off with these, you’ll also have the scope/purpose of the article clear in your own mind. You can then work on the main text of the article (the ‘meaty’ bit) and the Conclusions with this scope/purpose in mind, although you’ll need to return to the Title, Abstract and Introduction for a tidy up once you’ve written the main text.
- Title, Abstract and Introduction: These should be short and self-contained, and should complement each other. Each one in turn should provide more detail, aiming to draw the reader in. Remember: lots of readers will only read the title and abstract (e.g. when they search for articles in Pubmed) so these basically act as a ‘hook’ to grab their attention. They also need to be ‘discoverable’ on the Web, i.e. database friendly and containing the relevant keywords.
- Choosing a title: Choose something that is short, clear and self-explanatory; try to avoid puns/idioms and colloquial phrases or references. Try to convey the key message but also provide context.
- Abstract: The abstract should then aim to highlight the most important parts of the article. The answers to the following 5 questions provide a good starting point: What is the main topic you’re going to focus on? What do we know so far? What is new/why is this now an interesting time for this field? What are the broad implications of these newer findings? What does your review aim to do?
- Introduction: The Introduction should then expand on the Abstract and set the scene. Provide context by first introducing the topic: why is this topic interesting/significant, what do we know about it so far, how has the field progressed, what has the new progress shown? Ideally, the Introduction should end with a clear description of the article’s scope, aims and structure, i.e. a walk-through of the main topics that will be discussed and the order in which these will be covered. This just lets the reader know what they can expect from the article. If possible, introduce or re-iterate the main ‘message’ of the article.
- Conclusions: Emphasize the key message or theme of the article and, if needed, reiterate the data that support this message. Highlight the broader significance of this conclusion. Finally, if possible, bring your voice to the article: What do you think are the most compelling questions raised by these studies? What approach(es) could be taken to address these open questions? Are there technical hurdles that need to be overcome? What are the broader implications of this, i.e. why are further studies needed and what benefits might they offer?
- Display items: Use figures to emphasize or illustrate key concepts/processes, or to introduce or summarize. Remember that figures should ideally act as stand-alone items; you should be able to follow them by eye and without referring to the main text, although each figure should have a clear title and a figure legend the walks the reader through the figure. In general, schematics are easier to follow than images reproduced from primary articles. Tables can be useful for summarizing lots of information, for comparing/contrasting things, or for highlighting advantages and disadvantages. Some journals encourage the use of text boxes, which can house additional or background information or material that is peripheral to the main theme of the text.
General background information
The first paragraph of the introduction establishes the broad context for the study by providing a general introduction to the field. How broad this paragraph is depends on your target journal and audience. If you choose to submit to a general journal with a wide scientific readership, it is a good idea to start with some fairly general information, as not all readers will necessarily be familiar with your specific field. If you plan on submitting to a highly specialized journal, however, you can begin this section with a much more specific and focused description of the background, as most of your readers will already be familiar with the context of the study.
Let’s say, for example, that your study addresses MAPK signalling in triple negative breast cancer in a specific population. If you are submitting your paper to a journal with a broad focus, it could be useful to begin this section with a brief introduction to breast cancer in general. If, however, you choose to submit to a breast cancer–specific journal, it would be reasonable to start the introduction by discussing triple negative breast cancer, or even the role of MAPK signalling in triple negative breast cancer.
Making structure work for you
Notice how articles on bigger outlets (particularly those that focus on news) tend to have an introductory phrase, similar to a subtitle, which resumes the article or creates the premise for the topic to be discussed: