scientific review

Writing a Scientific Review: Gathering Information, Writing, and Creating New Knowledge

Scientific reviews are one of the two main genres of scientific literature. Research papers declare new findings; reviews build the systems based on findings. Two scientific reviews on the same topic and based on a similar background may be dramatically different because of diverse views of the authors, slightly different contexts and focuses, or having (or not having) figures that make complex concepts clear and understandable. Don’t hesitate to write a review because someone could have chosen the same topic. Your work will be different. Here is my personal view on how to make your scientific review to stand out in a good way.

Focus on gathering information

1. Use Google Scholar.

This is a great search engine for scientists. It helps to find abstracts, papers, patents, theses, and dissertations—more types of literature than many others. Here are some Google scholar search tips:

  • By selecting “all versions,” you may find a free full-text version of the article.
  • See how the topic developed by checking the cited papers.
  • Just as in Google, exclude the terms not relevant to your search by the sign “-”.
  • If you are looking for a certain paper or would like to know who cited it, just search for the first 6–8 words of a title. This helps a lot when you are looking for referenced literature.
  • Use a “cite” button to import the citation into your reference manager.

Google scholar also has an ‘alerts’ function. Preparing a paper takes a long time and you will need to be updated on the topic. Figure out how to set up the Google Scholar alerts to be updated via email.

2. Follow authors on ResearchGate

Authors who contribute a lot in your field will continue to publish papers and abstracts. Following them on ResearchGate will ensure that you will be updated on their new findings.

3. Requesting the full texts (via e-mails or ResearchGate)

Never hesitate to request a full-text paper or book chapter from its author. It works really well and in the case of ResearchGate you just press the button instead of writing an e-mail.

4. Getting “print only” literature and making it digital

Don’t let not being able to find a paper online stop you. Some old journals and books are not digitized or are not accessible on the internet. However, you can go to the real library to request a photocopy. If the source of information really deserves your attention and your library doesn’t send PDF files or provide photocopies, there is still an option. You may photograph the pages yourself (make sure this is allowed first!) and turn the photos into PDF files using a converting software. Why do this if you could just read them and prepare your notes? Read the next advice:

5. Save all the papers you cite in a convenient way

You will have to re-read the parts of cited papers to double-check or refresh your notes. And you will have fewer problems if you give them the convenient and searchable names (I use the template “Year, Author and Title”). But bear in mind that you don’t have to save every paper that you download.

Focus on good writing

1. Reading

Many words are said and even more are written about good writing. In science, writing is necessary skill. The easiest way to understand the principles of scientific writing is by reading scientific literature.

2. Online courses

Online courses are an entertaining and structured way to learn scientific writing. I found “Writing in the Sciences” very helpful. However, this is not the only course that helps you to gain good writing skills. Here is a list of another 24 options. 

3. Reference managers

I have tried different types of referencing software: Zotero, Mendeley and EndNote. For me, EndNote appears to be the most simple and reliable system. If you have never used reference managers, ask someone in your lab to help you for the first time.

4. Finding the co-authors

Your co-authors are the most attentive editors. They take responsibility by putting their names on the paper. So, they may help you a lot not only in writing, but also in the publishing process (that can be tricky). Contact people if you believe they are experts who may be interested in contributing to your scientific review. Also, ask professionals in your field if they’d like to be reviewers of a submitted paper (some journals accept the list of reviewers recommended by you). This is not about spamming; it’s about networking.

5. Ask for an opinion or review from anyone

Your friends who work in a related field, your professional contacts, your family—anyone can help to make your paper more clear, understandable, and concise. If they agree to take a look, ask them what wasn’t clear, what was missing, and what was redundant.

Focus on a good scientific review

1. Check the previous scientific reviews

Check the literature on similar topics, and make it clear how your scientific review will stand out. You can’t just add new information that became clear in last 2 years. Your work should tell a new story about the known topic. Give a new point of view if this is possible, identify new trends, and ask new questions.

2. Read, think, then write

If you are trying to write a new paragraph right after you’ve read another research paper, your results will look like a crazy quilt. Gather information in your mind, make notes, and save potential references. Then, write the plan of your text, leaving places for the references. For me, this was the only way to prepare a consistent and solid manuscript. Plans of scientific review papers may be quite different, and the only requirement is the creation of a logical and clear structure

3. Create value

Think again about your audience; journal choice will help you to choose the right focus. What ideas or systematic view do you share? Do you provide readers with a helpful source of information and inspiration?

I’m not the first to write on this topic. You may find helpful sources like this article, this guide and this paper. I hope that I provided you with some tips that would help in creation of new great scientific review papers.

Do you have any more tips on how to prepare for and write a good scientific review? Let us know in the comments below!

2 Comments

  1. Shagufta Khan on March 31, 2017 at 2:10 pm

    I am not able to find the “writing in the sciences” on coursera.

  2. David on April 5, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    Asking a reference librarian for help with your literature search can save you a great deal of time.

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