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Review articles: yea or nay?

I’ve written two review articles over the course of my graduate career, and read many many more…but I have to say, I’m not that convinced about their usefulness.  As an author, I don’t really feel like I’m contributing anything new to the field, and as a reader, I find that the questions I have often go unanswered.  So how useful are review articles, really?

How specific should the topic of a review article be?

When writing a review article, I have a hard time determining the scope of the work; and when I read reviews, I often find that the authors have spent too little time on too many topics, or too much time on just one topic.    Is it important to cover the whole state of the field, or is it more useful to tackle a smaller set of questions in more depth?  The editor of a solicited review will often give guidelines for what they want you to cover, but in my experience, they tend to leave a lot of leeway for interpretation.  And how “data-based” should a review be?  I think one of the fun parts of writing a review is indulging in wild speculation about the future of the field.  I really enjoy the chance to propose interesting questions and unsupported theories.  I find reading speculative reviews to be inspiring – sort of like chatting about crazy ideas with your colleagues over lunch.  But how often can these ideas actually be applied directly to your work at the bench?

How valuable can a review be when the info is taken solely from the literature?

I know one PI who assigns every new member of his lab the task of writing a review article.  I think this is a fantastic idea, since it forces a new post-doc or student to read extensively and think carefully about the state of the field before starting any experiments.  On the other hand, would you really want to read an article written by someone with no hands-on experience in the field?   Of course, there is always the chance that an “outsider” to the field may have a unique insight on certain problems, since they’re coming at it from a fresh and unbiased angle.

I probably find review articles to be the most helpful when writing the introduction to a research article.  Reviews are treasure troves of references, and can drastically decrease the time spent searching for citations.  I also find that well-written reviews often point to obscure or unusual papers that can be hard to track down otherwise.  It can be a little discouraging, though, to realize that you’re basically working on a “mini version” of a review article that has already been written!  And the extensive background cited by the review article can be distracting when it comes to writing a focused intro to your own work.

What do you think?  Do you enjoy reading or writing review articles?  Let us know why!

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