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Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review

Marco pautasso.

1 Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology (CEFE), CNRS, Montpellier, France

2 Centre for Biodiversity Synthesis and Analysis (CESAB), FRB, Aix-en-Provence, France

Literature reviews are in great demand in most scientific fields. Their need stems from the ever-increasing output of scientific publications [1] . For example, compared to 1991, in 2008 three, eight, and forty times more papers were indexed in Web of Science on malaria, obesity, and biodiversity, respectively [2] . Given such mountains of papers, scientists cannot be expected to examine in detail every single new paper relevant to their interests [3] . Thus, it is both advantageous and necessary to rely on regular summaries of the recent literature. Although recognition for scientists mainly comes from primary research, timely literature reviews can lead to new synthetic insights and are often widely read [4] . For such summaries to be useful, however, they need to be compiled in a professional way [5] .

When starting from scratch, reviewing the literature can require a titanic amount of work. That is why researchers who have spent their career working on a certain research issue are in a perfect position to review that literature. Some graduate schools are now offering courses in reviewing the literature, given that most research students start their project by producing an overview of what has already been done on their research issue [6] . However, it is likely that most scientists have not thought in detail about how to approach and carry out a literature review.

Reviewing the literature requires the ability to juggle multiple tasks, from finding and evaluating relevant material to synthesising information from various sources, from critical thinking to paraphrasing, evaluating, and citation skills [7] . In this contribution, I share ten simple rules I learned working on about 25 literature reviews as a PhD and postdoctoral student. Ideas and insights also come from discussions with coauthors and colleagues, as well as feedback from reviewers and editors.

Rule 1: Define a Topic and Audience

How to choose which topic to review? There are so many issues in contemporary science that you could spend a lifetime of attending conferences and reading the literature just pondering what to review. On the one hand, if you take several years to choose, several other people may have had the same idea in the meantime. On the other hand, only a well-considered topic is likely to lead to a brilliant literature review [8] . The topic must at least be:

  • interesting to you (ideally, you should have come across a series of recent papers related to your line of work that call for a critical summary),
  • an important aspect of the field (so that many readers will be interested in the review and there will be enough material to write it), and
  • a well-defined issue (otherwise you could potentially include thousands of publications, which would make the review unhelpful).

Ideas for potential reviews may come from papers providing lists of key research questions to be answered [9] , but also from serendipitous moments during desultory reading and discussions. In addition to choosing your topic, you should also select a target audience. In many cases, the topic (e.g., web services in computational biology) will automatically define an audience (e.g., computational biologists), but that same topic may also be of interest to neighbouring fields (e.g., computer science, biology, etc.).

Rule 2: Search and Re-search the Literature

After having chosen your topic and audience, start by checking the literature and downloading relevant papers. Five pieces of advice here:

  • keep track of the search items you use (so that your search can be replicated [10] ),
  • keep a list of papers whose pdfs you cannot access immediately (so as to retrieve them later with alternative strategies),
  • use a paper management system (e.g., Mendeley, Papers, Qiqqa, Sente),
  • define early in the process some criteria for exclusion of irrelevant papers (these criteria can then be described in the review to help define its scope), and
  • do not just look for research papers in the area you wish to review, but also seek previous reviews.

The chances are high that someone will already have published a literature review ( Figure 1 ), if not exactly on the issue you are planning to tackle, at least on a related topic. If there are already a few or several reviews of the literature on your issue, my advice is not to give up, but to carry on with your own literature review,

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is pcbi.1003149.g001.jpg

The bottom-right situation (many literature reviews but few research papers) is not just a theoretical situation; it applies, for example, to the study of the impacts of climate change on plant diseases, where there appear to be more literature reviews than research studies [33] .

  • discussing in your review the approaches, limitations, and conclusions of past reviews,
  • trying to find a new angle that has not been covered adequately in the previous reviews, and
  • incorporating new material that has inevitably accumulated since their appearance.

When searching the literature for pertinent papers and reviews, the usual rules apply:

  • be thorough,
  • use different keywords and database sources (e.g., DBLP, Google Scholar, ISI Proceedings, JSTOR Search, Medline, Scopus, Web of Science), and
  • look at who has cited past relevant papers and book chapters.

Rule 3: Take Notes While Reading

If you read the papers first, and only afterwards start writing the review, you will need a very good memory to remember who wrote what, and what your impressions and associations were while reading each single paper. My advice is, while reading, to start writing down interesting pieces of information, insights about how to organize the review, and thoughts on what to write. This way, by the time you have read the literature you selected, you will already have a rough draft of the review.

Of course, this draft will still need much rewriting, restructuring, and rethinking to obtain a text with a coherent argument [11] , but you will have avoided the danger posed by staring at a blank document. Be careful when taking notes to use quotation marks if you are provisionally copying verbatim from the literature. It is advisable then to reformulate such quotes with your own words in the final draft. It is important to be careful in noting the references already at this stage, so as to avoid misattributions. Using referencing software from the very beginning of your endeavour will save you time.

Rule 4: Choose the Type of Review You Wish to Write

After having taken notes while reading the literature, you will have a rough idea of the amount of material available for the review. This is probably a good time to decide whether to go for a mini- or a full review. Some journals are now favouring the publication of rather short reviews focusing on the last few years, with a limit on the number of words and citations. A mini-review is not necessarily a minor review: it may well attract more attention from busy readers, although it will inevitably simplify some issues and leave out some relevant material due to space limitations. A full review will have the advantage of more freedom to cover in detail the complexities of a particular scientific development, but may then be left in the pile of the very important papers “to be read” by readers with little time to spare for major monographs.

There is probably a continuum between mini- and full reviews. The same point applies to the dichotomy of descriptive vs. integrative reviews. While descriptive reviews focus on the methodology, findings, and interpretation of each reviewed study, integrative reviews attempt to find common ideas and concepts from the reviewed material [12] . A similar distinction exists between narrative and systematic reviews: while narrative reviews are qualitative, systematic reviews attempt to test a hypothesis based on the published evidence, which is gathered using a predefined protocol to reduce bias [13] , [14] . When systematic reviews analyse quantitative results in a quantitative way, they become meta-analyses. The choice between different review types will have to be made on a case-by-case basis, depending not just on the nature of the material found and the preferences of the target journal(s), but also on the time available to write the review and the number of coauthors [15] .

Rule 5: Keep the Review Focused, but Make It of Broad Interest

Whether your plan is to write a mini- or a full review, it is good advice to keep it focused 16 , 17 . Including material just for the sake of it can easily lead to reviews that are trying to do too many things at once. The need to keep a review focused can be problematic for interdisciplinary reviews, where the aim is to bridge the gap between fields [18] . If you are writing a review on, for example, how epidemiological approaches are used in modelling the spread of ideas, you may be inclined to include material from both parent fields, epidemiology and the study of cultural diffusion. This may be necessary to some extent, but in this case a focused review would only deal in detail with those studies at the interface between epidemiology and the spread of ideas.

While focus is an important feature of a successful review, this requirement has to be balanced with the need to make the review relevant to a broad audience. This square may be circled by discussing the wider implications of the reviewed topic for other disciplines.

Rule 6: Be Critical and Consistent

Reviewing the literature is not stamp collecting. A good review does not just summarize the literature, but discusses it critically, identifies methodological problems, and points out research gaps [19] . After having read a review of the literature, a reader should have a rough idea of:

  • the major achievements in the reviewed field,
  • the main areas of debate, and
  • the outstanding research questions.

It is challenging to achieve a successful review on all these fronts. A solution can be to involve a set of complementary coauthors: some people are excellent at mapping what has been achieved, some others are very good at identifying dark clouds on the horizon, and some have instead a knack at predicting where solutions are going to come from. If your journal club has exactly this sort of team, then you should definitely write a review of the literature! In addition to critical thinking, a literature review needs consistency, for example in the choice of passive vs. active voice and present vs. past tense.

Rule 7: Find a Logical Structure

Like a well-baked cake, a good review has a number of telling features: it is worth the reader's time, timely, systematic, well written, focused, and critical. It also needs a good structure. With reviews, the usual subdivision of research papers into introduction, methods, results, and discussion does not work or is rarely used. However, a general introduction of the context and, toward the end, a recapitulation of the main points covered and take-home messages make sense also in the case of reviews. For systematic reviews, there is a trend towards including information about how the literature was searched (database, keywords, time limits) [20] .

How can you organize the flow of the main body of the review so that the reader will be drawn into and guided through it? It is generally helpful to draw a conceptual scheme of the review, e.g., with mind-mapping techniques. Such diagrams can help recognize a logical way to order and link the various sections of a review [21] . This is the case not just at the writing stage, but also for readers if the diagram is included in the review as a figure. A careful selection of diagrams and figures relevant to the reviewed topic can be very helpful to structure the text too [22] .

Rule 8: Make Use of Feedback

Reviews of the literature are normally peer-reviewed in the same way as research papers, and rightly so [23] . As a rule, incorporating feedback from reviewers greatly helps improve a review draft. Having read the review with a fresh mind, reviewers may spot inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and ambiguities that had not been noticed by the writers due to rereading the typescript too many times. It is however advisable to reread the draft one more time before submission, as a last-minute correction of typos, leaps, and muddled sentences may enable the reviewers to focus on providing advice on the content rather than the form.

Feedback is vital to writing a good review, and should be sought from a variety of colleagues, so as to obtain a diversity of views on the draft. This may lead in some cases to conflicting views on the merits of the paper, and on how to improve it, but such a situation is better than the absence of feedback. A diversity of feedback perspectives on a literature review can help identify where the consensus view stands in the landscape of the current scientific understanding of an issue [24] .

Rule 9: Include Your Own Relevant Research, but Be Objective

In many cases, reviewers of the literature will have published studies relevant to the review they are writing. This could create a conflict of interest: how can reviewers report objectively on their own work [25] ? Some scientists may be overly enthusiastic about what they have published, and thus risk giving too much importance to their own findings in the review. However, bias could also occur in the other direction: some scientists may be unduly dismissive of their own achievements, so that they will tend to downplay their contribution (if any) to a field when reviewing it.

In general, a review of the literature should neither be a public relations brochure nor an exercise in competitive self-denial. If a reviewer is up to the job of producing a well-organized and methodical review, which flows well and provides a service to the readership, then it should be possible to be objective in reviewing one's own relevant findings. In reviews written by multiple authors, this may be achieved by assigning the review of the results of a coauthor to different coauthors.

Rule 10: Be Up-to-Date, but Do Not Forget Older Studies

Given the progressive acceleration in the publication of scientific papers, today's reviews of the literature need awareness not just of the overall direction and achievements of a field of inquiry, but also of the latest studies, so as not to become out-of-date before they have been published. Ideally, a literature review should not identify as a major research gap an issue that has just been addressed in a series of papers in press (the same applies, of course, to older, overlooked studies (“sleeping beauties” [26] )). This implies that literature reviewers would do well to keep an eye on electronic lists of papers in press, given that it can take months before these appear in scientific databases. Some reviews declare that they have scanned the literature up to a certain point in time, but given that peer review can be a rather lengthy process, a full search for newly appeared literature at the revision stage may be worthwhile. Assessing the contribution of papers that have just appeared is particularly challenging, because there is little perspective with which to gauge their significance and impact on further research and society.

Inevitably, new papers on the reviewed topic (including independently written literature reviews) will appear from all quarters after the review has been published, so that there may soon be the need for an updated review. But this is the nature of science [27] – [32] . I wish everybody good luck with writing a review of the literature.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to M. Barbosa, K. Dehnen-Schmutz, T. Döring, D. Fontaneto, M. Garbelotto, O. Holdenrieder, M. Jeger, D. Lonsdale, A. MacLeod, P. Mills, M. Moslonka-Lefebvre, G. Stancanelli, P. Weisberg, and X. Xu for insights and discussions, and to P. Bourne, T. Matoni, and D. Smith for helpful comments on a previous draft.

Funding Statement

This work was funded by the French Foundation for Research on Biodiversity (FRB) through its Centre for Synthesis and Analysis of Biodiversity data (CESAB), as part of the NETSEED research project. The funders had no role in the preparation of the manuscript.

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  • 04 December 2020
  • Correction 09 December 2020

How to write a superb literature review

Andy Tay is a freelance writer based in Singapore.

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

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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doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-03422-x

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Updates & Corrections

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.

Hsing, I.-M., Xu, Y. & Zhao, W. Electroanalysis 19 , 755–768 (2007).

Article   Google Scholar  

Ledesma, H. A. et al. Nature Nanotechnol. 14 , 645–657 (2019).

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Brahlek, M., Koirala, N., Bansal, N. & Oh, S. Solid State Commun. 215–216 , 54–62 (2015).

Choi, Y. & Lee, S. Y. Nature Rev. Chem . https://doi.org/10.1038/s41570-020-00221-w (2020).

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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.

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How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
  • Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods?
  • Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

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To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological

The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological

If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources

Theoretical

A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.

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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

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  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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7 Writing a Literature Review

Hundreds of original investigation research articles on health science topics are published each year. It is becoming harder and harder to keep on top of all new findings in a topic area and – more importantly – to work out how they all fit together to determine our current understanding of a topic. This is where literature reviews come in.

In this chapter, we explain what a literature review is and outline the stages involved in writing one. We also provide practical tips on how to communicate the results of a review of current literature on a topic in the format of a literature review.

7.1 What is a literature review?

Screenshot of journal article

Literature reviews provide a synthesis and evaluation  of the existing literature on a particular topic with the aim of gaining a new, deeper understanding of the topic.

Published literature reviews are typically written by scientists who are experts in that particular area of science. Usually, they will be widely published as authors of their own original work, making them highly qualified to author a literature review.

However, literature reviews are still subject to peer review before being published. Literature reviews provide an important bridge between the expert scientific community and many other communities, such as science journalists, teachers, and medical and allied health professionals. When the most up-to-date knowledge reaches such audiences, it is more likely that this information will find its way to the general public. When this happens, – the ultimate good of science can be realised.

A literature review is structured differently from an original research article. It is developed based on themes, rather than stages of the scientific method.

In the article Ten simple rules for writing a literature review , Marco Pautasso explains the importance of literature reviews:

Literature reviews are in great demand in most scientific fields. Their need stems from the ever-increasing output of scientific publications. For example, compared to 1991, in 2008 three, eight, and forty times more papers were indexed in Web of Science on malaria, obesity, and biodiversity, respectively. Given such mountains of papers, scientists cannot be expected to examine in detail every single new paper relevant to their interests. Thus, it is both advantageous and necessary to rely on regular summaries of the recent literature. Although recognition for scientists mainly comes from primary research, timely literature reviews can lead to new synthetic insights and are often widely read. For such summaries to be useful, however, they need to be compiled in a professional way (Pautasso, 2013, para. 1).

An example of a literature review is shown in Figure 7.1.

Video 7.1: What is a literature review? [2 mins, 11 secs]

Watch this video created by Steely Library at Northern Kentucky Library called ‘ What is a literature review? Note: Closed captions are available by clicking on the CC button below.

Examples of published literature reviews

  • Strength training alone, exercise therapy alone, and exercise therapy with passive manual mobilisation each reduce pain and disability in people with knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review
  • Traveler’s diarrhea: a clinical review
  • Cultural concepts of distress and psychiatric disorders: literature review and research recommendations for global mental health epidemiology

7.2 Steps of writing a literature review

Writing a literature review is a very challenging task. Figure 7.2 summarises the steps of writing a literature review. Depending on why you are writing your literature review, you may be given a topic area, or may choose a topic that particularly interests you or is related to a research project that you wish to undertake.

Chapter 6 provides instructions on finding scientific literature that would form the basis for your literature review.

Once you have your topic and have accessed the literature, the next stages (analysis, synthesis and evaluation) are challenging. Next, we look at these important cognitive skills student scientists will need to develop and employ to successfully write a literature review, and provide some guidance for navigating these stages.

Steps of writing a ltierature review which include: research, synthesise, read abstracts, read papers, evaualte findings and write

Analysis, synthesis and evaluation

Analysis, synthesis and evaluation are three essential skills required by scientists  and you will need to develop these skills if you are to write a good literature review ( Figure 7.3 ). These important cognitive skills are discussed in more detail in Chapter 9.

Diagram with the words analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Under analysis it says taking a process or thing and breaking it down. Under synthesis it says combining elements of separate material and under evaluation it says critiquing a product or process

The first step in writing a literature review is to analyse the original investigation research papers that you have gathered related to your topic.

Analysis requires examining the papers methodically and in detail, so you can understand and interpret aspects of the study described in each research article.

An analysis grid is a simple tool you can use to help with the careful examination and breakdown of each paper. This tool will allow you to create a concise summary of each research paper; see Table 7.1 for an example of  an analysis grid. When filling in the grid, the aim is to draw out key aspects of each research paper. Use a different row for each paper, and a different column for each aspect of the paper ( Tables 7.2 and 7.3 show how completed analysis grid may look).

Before completing your own grid, look at these examples and note the types of information that have been included, as well as the level of detail. Completing an analysis grid with a sufficient level of detail will help you to complete the synthesis and evaluation stages effectively. This grid will allow you to more easily observe similarities and differences across the findings of the research papers and to identify possible explanations (e.g., differences in methodologies employed) for observed differences between the findings of different research papers.

Table 7.1: Example of an analysis grid

A tab;e split into columns with annotated comments

Table 7.3: Sample filled-in analysis grid for research article by Ping and colleagues

Source: Ping, WC, Keong, CC & Bandyopadhyay, A 2010, ‘Effects of acute supplementation of caffeine on cardiorespiratory responses during endurance running in a hot and humid climate’, Indian Journal of Medical Research, vol. 132, pp. 36–41. Used under a CC-BY-NC-SA licence.

Step two of writing a literature review is synthesis.

Synthesis describes combining separate components or elements to form a connected whole.

You will use the results of your analysis to find themes to build your literature review around. Each of the themes identified will become a subheading within the body of your literature review.

A good place to start when identifying themes is with the dependent variables (results/findings) that were investigated in the research studies.

Because all of the research articles you are incorporating into your literature review are related to your topic, it is likely that they have similar study designs and have measured similar dependent variables. Review the ‘Results’ column of your analysis grid. You may like to collate the common themes in a synthesis grid (see, for example Table 7.4 ).

Table showing themes of the article including running performance, rating of perceived exertion, heart rate and oxygen uptake

Step three of writing a literature review is evaluation, which can only be done after carefully analysing your research papers and synthesising the common themes (findings).

During the evaluation stage, you are making judgements on the themes presented in the research articles that you have read. This includes providing physiological explanations for the findings. It may be useful to refer to the discussion section of published original investigation research papers, or another literature review, where the authors may mention tested or hypothetical physiological mechanisms that may explain their findings.

When the findings of the investigations related to a particular theme are inconsistent (e.g., one study shows that caffeine effects performance and another study shows that caffeine had no effect on performance) you should attempt to provide explanations of why the results differ, including physiological explanations. A good place to start is by comparing the methodologies to determine if there are any differences that may explain the differences in the findings (see the ‘Experimental design’ column of your analysis grid). An example of evaluation is shown in the examples that follow in this section, under ‘Running performance’ and ‘RPE ratings’.

When the findings of the papers related to a particular theme are consistent (e.g., caffeine had no effect on oxygen uptake in both studies) an evaluation should include an explanation of why the results are similar. Once again, include physiological explanations. It is still a good idea to compare methodologies as a background to the evaluation. An example of evaluation is shown in the following under ‘Oxygen consumption’.

Annotated paragraphs on running performance with annotated notes such as physiological explanation provided; possible explanation for inconsistent results

7.3 Writing your literature review

Once you have completed the analysis, and synthesis grids and written your evaluation of the research papers , you can combine synthesis and evaluation information to create a paragraph for a literature review ( Figure 7.4 ).

Bubble daigram showing connection between synethesis, evaulation and writing a paragraph

The following paragraphs are an example of combining the outcome of the synthesis and evaluation stages to produce a paragraph for a literature review.

Note that this is an example using only two papers – most literature reviews would be presenting information on many more papers than this ( (e.g., 106 papers in the review article by Bain and colleagues discussed later in this chapter). However, the same principle applies regardless of the number of papers reviewed.

Introduction paragraph showing where evaluation occurs

The next part of this chapter looks at the each section of a literature review and explains how to write them by referring to a review article that was published in Frontiers in Physiology and shown in Figure 7.1. Each section from the published article is annotated to highlight important features of the format of the review article, and identifies the synthesis and evaluation information.

In the examination of each review article section we will point out examples of how the authors have presented certain information and where they display application of important cognitive processes; we will use the colour code shown below:

Colour legend

This should be one paragraph that accurately reflects the contents of the review article.

An annotated abstract divided into relevant background information, identification of the problem, summary of recent literature on topic, purpose of the review

Introduction

The introduction should establish the context and importance of the review

An annotated introduction divided into relevant background information, identification of the issue and overview of points covered

Body of literature review

Annotated body of literature review with following comments annotated on the side: subheadings are included to separate body of review into themes; introductory sentences with general background information; identification of gap in current knowledge; relevant theoretical background information; syntheis of literature relating to the potential importance of cerebral metabolism; an evaluation; identification of gaps in knowledge; synthesis of findings related to human studies; author evaluation

The reference section provides a list of the references that you cited in the body of your review article. The format will depend on the journal of publication as each journal has their own specific referencing format.

It is important to accurately cite references in research papers to acknowledge your sources and ensure credit is appropriately given to authors of work you have referred to. An accurate and comprehensive reference list also shows your readers that you are well-read in your topic area and are aware of the key papers that provide the context to your research.

It is important to keep track of your resources and to reference them consistently in the format required by the publication in which your work will appear. Most scientists will use reference management software to store details of all of the journal articles (and other sources) they use while writing their review article. This software also automates the process of adding in-text references and creating a reference list. In the review article by Bain et al. (2014) used as an example in this chapter, the reference list contains 106 items, so you can imagine how much help referencing software would be. Chapter 5 shows you how to use EndNote, one example of reference management software.

Click the drop down below to review the terms learned from this chapter.

Copyright note:

  • The quotation from Pautasso, M 2013, ‘Ten simple rules for writing a literature review’, PLoS Computational Biology is use under a CC-BY licence. 
  • Content from the annotated article and tables are based on Schubert, MM, Astorino, TA & Azevedo, JJL 2013, ‘The effects of caffeinated ‘energy shots’ on time trial performance’, Nutrients, vol. 5, no. 6, pp. 2062–2075 (used under a CC-BY 3.0 licence ) and P ing, WC, Keong , CC & Bandyopadhyay, A 2010, ‘Effects of acute supplementation of caffeine on cardiorespiratory responses during endurance running in a hot and humid climate’, Indian Journal of Medical Research, vol. 132, pp. 36–41 (used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence ). 

Bain, A.R., Morrison, S.A., & Ainslie, P.N. (2014). Cerebral oxygenation and hyperthermia. Frontiers in Physiology, 5 , 92.

Pautasso, M. (2013). Ten simple rules for writing a literature review. PLoS Computational Biology, 9 (7), e1003149.

How To Do Science Copyright © 2022 by University of Southern Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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How to Write a Scientific Review Article

By Leila Haery

LinkedIn

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.

Start reading!

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.

exclamation.jpg__65x63_q85_subsampling-2_upscale.png

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.

Curated Table Large.png

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! 

Get feedback

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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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:

Recommended articles.

writing a scientific review

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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The Fundamentals of Academic Science Writing

Writing is an essential skill for scientists, and learning how to write effectively starts with good fundamentals and lots of practice..

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Nathan Ni holds a PhD from Queens University. He is a science editor for The Scientist’s Creative Services Team who strives to better understand and communicate the relationships between health and disease.

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A person sitting in a laboratory writing notes with a pen in a notebook.

Writing is a big part of being a scientist, whether in the form of manuscripts, grants, reports, protocols, presentations, or even emails. However, many people look at writing as separate from science—a scientist writes, but scientists are not regarded as writers. 1 This outdated assertion means that writing and communication has been historically marginalized when it comes to training and educating new scientists. In truth, being a professional writer is part of being a scientist . 1 In today’s hypercompetitive academic environment, scientists need to be as proficient with the pen as they are with the pipette in order to showcase their work. 

Using the Active Voice

Stereotypical academic writing is rigid, dry, and mechanical, delivering prose that evokes memories of high school and undergraduate laboratory reports. The hallmark of this stereotype is passive voice overuse. In writing, the passive voice is when the action comes at the end of a clause—for example, “the book was opened”. In scientific writing, it is particularly prevalent when detailing methodologies and results. How many times have we seen something like “citric acid was added to the solution, resulting in a two-fold reduction in pH” rather than “adding citric acid to the solution reduced the pH two-fold”?

Scientists should write in the active voice as much as possible. However, the active voice tends to place much more onus on the writer’s perspective, something that scientists have historically been instructed to stay away from. For example, “we treated the cells with phenylephrine” places much more emphasis on the operator than “the cells were treated with phenylephrine.” Furthermore, pronoun usage in academic writing is traditionally discouraged, but it is much harder, especially for those with non-native English proficiency, to properly use active voice without them. 

Things are changing though, and scientists are recognizing the importance of giving themselves credit. Many major journals, including Nature , Science , PLoS One , and PNAS allow pronouns in their manuscripts, and prominent style guides such as APA even recommend using first-person pronouns, as traditional third-person writing can be ambiguous. 2 It is vital that a manuscript clearly and definitively highlights and states what the authors specifically did that was so important or novel, in contrast to what was already known. A simple “we found…” statement in the abstract and the introduction goes a long way towards giving readers the hook that they need to read further.

Keeping Sentences Simple

Writing in the active voice also makes it easier to organize manuscripts and construct arguments. Active voice uses fewer words than passive voice to explain the same concept. It also introduces argument components sequentially—subject, claim, and then evidence—whereas passive voice introduces claim and evidence before the subject. Compare, for example, “T cell abundance did not differ between wildtype and mutant mice” versus “there was no difference between wildtype and mutant mice in terms of T cell abundance.” T cell abundance, as the measured parameter, is the most important part of the sentence, but it is only introduced at the very end of the latter example.

The sequential nature of active voice therefore makes it easier to not get bogged down in overloading the reader with clauses and adhering to a general principle of “one sentence, one concept (or idea, or argument).” Consider the following sentence: 

Research on CysLT 2 R , expressed in humans in umbilical vein endothelial cells, macrophages, platelets, the cardiac Purkinje system, and coronary endothelial cells , had been hampered by a lack of selective pharmacological agents , the majority of work instead using the nonselective cysLT antagonist/partial agonist Bay-u9773 or genetic models of CysLT 2 R expression modulation) .

The core message of this sentence is that CysLT 2 R research is hampered by a lack of selective pharmacological agents, but that message is muddled by the presence of two other major pieces of information: where CysLT 2 R is expressed and what researchers used to study CysLT 2 R instead of selective pharmacological agents. Because this sentence contains three main pieces of information, it is better to break it up into three separate sentences for clarity.

In humans, CysLT 2 R is expressed in umbilical vein endothelial cells, macrophages, platelets, the cardiac Purkinje system, and coronary endothelial cells . CysLT 2 R research has been hampered by a lack of selective pharmacological agents . Instead, the majority of work investigating the receptor has used either the nonselective cysLT antagonist/partial agonist Bay-u9773 or genetic models of CysLT 2 R expression modulation.

The Right Way to Apply Jargon

There is another key advantage to organizing sentences in this simple manner: it lets scientists manage how jargon is introduced to the reader. Jargon—special words used within a specific field or on a specific topic—is necessary in scientific writing. It is critical for succinctly describing key elements and explaining key concepts. But too much jargon can make a manuscript unreadable, either because the reader does not understand the terminology or because they are bogged down in reading all of the definitions. 

The key to using jargon is to make it as easy as possible for the audience. General guidelines instruct writers to define new terms only when they are first used. However, it is cumbersome for a reader to backtrack considerable distances in a manuscript to look up a definition. If a term is first introduced in the introduction but not mentioned again until the discussion, the writer should re-define the term in a more casual manner. For example: “PI3K can be reversibly inhibited by LY294002 and irreversibly inhibited by wortmannin” in the introduction, accompanied by “when we applied the PI3K inhibitor LY294002” for the discussion. This not only makes things easier for the reader, but it also re-emphasizes what the scientist did and the results they obtained.

Practice Makes Better

Finally, the most important fundamental for science writing is to not treat it like a chore or a nuisance. Just as a scientist optimizes a bench assay through repeated trial and error, combined with literature reviews on what steps others have implemented, a scientist should practice, nurture, and hone their writing skills through repeated drafting, editing, and consultation. Do not be afraid to write. Putting pen to paper can help organize one’s thoughts, expose next steps for exploration, or even highlight additional experiments required to patch knowledge or logic gaps in existing studies. 

Looking for more information on scientific writing? Check out The Scientist’s TS SciComm  section. Looking for some help putting together a manuscript, a figure, a poster, or anything else? The Scientist’s Scientific Services  may have the professional help that you need.

  • Schimel J. Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited And Proposals That Get Funded . Oxford University Press; 2012.
  • First-person pronouns. American Psychological Association. Updated July 2022. Accessed March 2024. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/grammar/first-person-pronouns  

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English dominates scientific research – here’s how we can fix it, and why it matters

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Científica del Instituto de Lengua, Literatura y Antropología (ILLA), del Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales (CCHS) del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales (CCHS - CSIC)

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It is often remarked that Spanish should be more widely spoken or understood in the scientific community given its number of speakers around the world, a figure the Instituto Cervantes places at almost 600 million .

However, millions of speakers do not necessarily grant a language strength in academia. This has to be cultivated on a scientific, political and cultural level, with sustained efforts from many institutions and specialists.

The scientific community should communicate in as many languages as possible

By some estimates, as much as 98% of the world’s scientific research is published in English , while only around 18% of the world’s population speaks it. This makes it essential to publish in other languages if we are to bring scientific research to society at large.

The value of multilingualism in science has been highlighted by numerous high profile organisations, with public declarations and statements on the matter from the European Charter for Researchers , the Helsinki Initiative on Multiligualism , the Unesco Recommendation on Open Science , the OPERAS Multiligualism White Paper , the Latin American Forum on Research Assessment , the COARA Agreement on Reforming Research Assessment , and the Declaration of the 5th Meeting of Minsters and Scientific Authorities of Ibero-American Countries . These organisations all agree on one thing: all languages have value in scientific communication .

As the last of these declarations points out, locally, regionally and nationally relevant research is constantly being published in languages other than English. This research has an economic, social and cultural impact on its surrounding environment, as when scientific knowledge is disseminated it filters through to non-academic professionals, thus creating a broader culture of knowledge sharing.

Greater diversity also enables fluid dialogue among academics who share the same language, or who speak and understand multiple languages. In Ibero-America, for example, Spanish and Portuguese can often be mutually understood by non-native speakers, allowing them to share the scientific stage. The same happens in Spain with the majority of its co-official languages .

Read more: Non-native English speaking scientists work much harder just to keep up, global research reveals

No hierarchies, no categories

Too often, scientific research in any language other than English is automatically seen as second tier, with little consideration for the quality of the work itself.

This harmful prejudice ignores the work of those involved, especially in the humanities and social sciences. It also profoundly undermines the global academic community’s ability to share knowledge with society.

By defending and preserving multilingualism, the scientific community brings research closer to those who need it. Failing to pursue this aim means that academia cannot develop or expand its audience. We have to work carefully, systematically and consistently in every language available to us.

Read more: Prestigious journals make it hard for scientists who don't speak English to get published. And we all lose out

The logistics of strengthening linguistic diversity in science

Making a language stronger in academia is a complex process. It does not happen spontaneously, and requires careful coordination and planning. Efforts have to come from public and private institutions, the media, and other cultural outlets, as well as from politicians, science diplomacy , and researchers themselves.

Many of these elements have to work in harmony, as demonstrated by the Spanish National Research Council’s work in ES CIENCIA , a project which seeks to unite scientific and and political efforts.

Academic publishing and AI models: a new challenge

The global academic environment is changing as a result the digital transition and new models of open access. Research into publishers of scientific content in other languages will be essential to understanding this shift. One thing is clear though: making scientific content produced in a particular language visible and searchable online is crucial to ensuring its strength.

In the case of academic books, the transition to open access has barely begun , especially in the commercial publishing sector, which releases around 80% of scientific books in Spain. As with online publishing, a clear understanding will make it possible to design policies and models that account for the different ways of disseminating scientific research, including those that communicate locally and in other languages. Greater linguistic diversity in book publishing can also allow us to properly recognise the work done by publishers in sharing research among non-English speakers.

Read more: Removing author fees can help open access journals make research available to everyone

Making publications, datasets, and other non-linguistic research results easy to find is another vital element, which requires both scientific and technical support. The same applies to expanding the corpus of scientific literature in Spanish and other languages, especially since this feeds into generative artificial intelligence models.

If linguistically diverse scientific content is not incorporated into AI systems, they will spread information that is incomplete, biased or misleading: a recent Spanish government report on the state of Spanish and co-official languages points out that 90% of the text currently fed into AI is written in English.

Deep study of terminology is essential

Research into terminology is of the utmost importance in preventing the use of improvised, imprecise language or unintelligible jargon. It can also bring huge benefits for the quality of both human and machine translations, specialised language teaching, and the indexing and organisation of large volumes of documents.

Terminology work in Spanish is being carried out today thanks to the processing of large language corpuses by AI and researchers in the TeresIA project, a joint effort coordinated by the Spanish National Research Council. However, 15 years of ups and downs were needed to to get such a project off the ground in Spanish.

The Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia, on the other hand, have worked intensively and systematically on their respective languages. They have not only tackled terminology as a public language policy issue, but have also been committed to established terminology projects for a long time.

Multiligualism is a global issue

This need for broader diversity also applies to Ibero-America as a whole, where efforts are being coordinated to promote Spanish and Portuguese in academia, notably by the Ibero-American General Secretariat and the Mexican National Council of Humanities, Sciences and Technologies .

While this is sorely needed, we cannot promote the region’s two most widely spoken languages and also ignore its diversity of indigenous and co-official languages. These are also involved in the production of knowledge, and are a vehicle for the transfer of scientific information, as demonstrated by efforts in Spain.

Each country has its own unique role to play in promoting greater linguistic diversity in scientific communication. If this can be achieved, the strength of Iberian languages – and all languages, for that matter – in academia will not be at the mercy of well intentioned but sporadic efforts. It will, instead, be the result of the scientific community’s commitment to a culture of knowledge sharing.

This article was originally published in Spanish

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CEE Comm Lab helps first-year undergraduates present scientific research

The following is a modified excerpt from the MIT News article, “ First-year MIT students gain hands-on research experience in supportive peer community ” by Callie Ayoub.

During MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) this January, first-year students interested in civil and environmental engineering (CEE) participated in a four-week undergraduate research opportunities program known as the mini-UROP (1.097). The six-unit subject pairs first-year students with a CEE graduate student or postdoc mentor, providing them with an inside look at the research being conducted in the department. The program culminates with a presentation event open to the entire CEE community.

Overall, eight labs in the department opened their doors to the 2024 cohort, who were eager to take advantage of the opportunity to collaborate with current students and build a community around their interests. The interdisciplinary nature of the department’s research offered participants a wide range of projects to work on, from redefining autonomous vehicle deployment to mitigating the effects of drought on crops.

Mini-UROP participant Iraira Rivera Rojas works in the Marelli Lab in CEE.

Mini-UROP participant Iraira Rivera Rojas works in the Marelli Lab in CEE.

Throughout the duration of the mini-UROP, participants attended three workshops led by Jared Berezin , the manager of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Communication Lab (CEE Comm Lab). The communication lab is a free resource to undergraduates, graduates, and postdocs in the CEE community, providing one-on-one coaching and interactive workshops. Held on Fridays during IAP, the workshops focused on visual and oral communication strategies to help students contextualize their projects, explain scientific concepts, describe their methodologies, and present their results.

“Students were fortunate to have research mentors in the lab, and my goal was to provide communication mentorship outside of the lab,” says Berezin. “Our weekly workshops focused on scientific communication strategies, but perhaps more importantly I’d prompt them to talk about their projects, ask questions, and brainstorm together. They really embraced the opportunity to foster a supportive peer community, which I think is a core part of the CEE experience.”

Mini-UROP participants present their research to fellow students, staff, and faculty.

Mini-UROP participants present their research to fellow students, staff, and faculty.

A significant challenge students face while completing the program is condensing their research down to a clear and concise two-minute presentation. To assist with this task, the workshops also featured presentations by CEE Communication Fellows Ignacio Arzuaga and Matthew Goss , providing students with a preview of how their own presentations may take shape. Before the final presentation event, students also had the option to meet with Comm Fellows to receive feedback, rehearse their talks, and practice responding to questions about their work.

“The final talks were impressive, and I was proud of the students for approaching both their research and communication challenges with such curiosity and thoughtfulness,” Berezin remarks.

To learn more about the experiences of students and mentors during the 2024 mini-UROP, you can read the full MIT News article .

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‘The Effect’ Review: Dissecting the Science of Desire

In Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Lucy Prebble’s play, Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell are a couple who fall in love during a pharmaceutical trial.

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A woman and a man dressed in white sweatsuits are standing upstage while a woman in the foreground is sitting with her back to the camera.

By Naveen Kumar

A white plastic bucket sits on a spare stage at the Shed, where the director Jamie Lloyd’s stark, riveting production of “The Effect” opened on Wednesday night. By the time its content — a human brain — is revealed, Lucy Prebble’s heady and scintillating drama is already interrogating the biology of desire.

What begins as the drug trial of an antidepressant shifts into more slippery territory when a flirtation develops between two of the participants. As they circle each other, neurons blazing, questions swirl about whether their attraction has been chemically engineered — and if love controls the mind or the other way around.

The simplicity of a brain plopped in a pail for scientific research becomes something of a mordant sight gag.

Previously staged Off Broadway in 2016, “The Effect” digs into what one of the study’s architects calls “nothing short of a revolution in medicine”: drug intervention that considers the psyche a plastic aspect of the self. Lloyd’s production, which premiered in August at the National Theater in London, poses the play’s philosophical inquiries on a stark and minimal plane that feels both cosmic and atomically intimate.

During the experiment’s intake, we learn that Connie (Taylor Russell) gets sad but isn’t depressed (“when I’m sad, I’m sad,” she says) and that Tristan (Paapa Essiedu) has a playful swagger, half-flirting with the study’s administrator, Dr. Lorna James (a game and frank Michele Austin), while she asks about his medical history.

When Tristan meets Connie, he offers to turn in the urine sample she’s holding: “How about I take your piss for you?” (Props, aside from the bucket and brain, are mimed.) “You need to drink more water,” she observes, looking at his own.

Their exchanges are framed, on an elevated platform with the audience seated on either side, as a behavioral study stripped of context and identity markers. Dressed in lumpy, cloud-white sweatsuits, and often confined to separate glowing squares on the stage, they relate to each other — and to Lorna’s surveilling questions — from within a pressurized void. (The set and costumes are by Soutra Glimour, the lighting by Jon Clark.)

The intricate and mesmerizing character portraits that emerge are entirely relational, defined in response to external stimuli. (The presence of other trial participants goes unremarked upon.) The clinical setting and escalating doses are tightly controlled by Lorna and her supervising colleague, Dr. Toby Sealey (a suave and gravel-voiced Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), constant observers seated at either end of the platform. But what about the reaction between two people?

Essiedu’s Tristan is roving, loose-limbed and solicitous. A Hackney native and a regular on the pharmaceutical trial circuit, he instinctively goads the more watchful and considered Connie, a psychology student from Ontario who is studying in London, where the play is set. Russell’s Connie is discerning, logic-driven, warm and curious.

Even as the play explores the conundrum of its causation, the affair between Tristan and Connie bristles with heat, its own natural phenomenon.

Both performances are superb, particularly as the characters progress through a fast-burning romance. The first time they touch, he’s inviting her to dance with no music. Ribbing and affectionate, they mimic each other’s accents — further collapsing the distance between them. Essiedu is sly and agile, like an amorous cartoon cat sauntering on hind legs. Russell has the softness and hard will of Viola or Juliet, her voice pillowy with grace and acuity.

Lloyd, whose austerity sent a pulsating current through last season’s Broadway revival of “ A Doll’s House ,” casts Tristan and Connie’s love story as a sci-fi thriller, emphasizing contrasts between light and darkness, hard-edged facts and the messy unknowns of erotic impulse. Lingering billows of fog indicate the uncertainty of perception, while a faint, propulsive score by Michael Asante (and sound design by George Dennis) seems determined to sync the heart rates of everyone in earshot.

The arguments that fuel Prebble’s rapid-fire dialogue demonstrate a razor wit — she was a writer and producer on “Succession” — and a deft hand at splicing theory and behavior. And she excels at articulating ineffable states of feeling. (Connie says the drug’s effects are “like having the weather inside.”)

A soapy back story between the two psychiatrists, though excellently conveyed by Austin and Holdbrook-Smith, feels a bit contrived. But their debates about the ethics of manipulating the mind — and whether a person’s nature is even susceptible to change — deepens the stakes of their inquiry. The ex-lovers’ positioning at either end of the stage underlines the notion that desire is as much about separation — not having the thing you want — as it is fulfillment.

Science, like love, is an infallibly human endeavor. Whatever we think we know, particularly about the nature of consciousness, is shaped by our subjectivity. But we can only really know ourselves in relation to other people. Otherwise we might as well be a bunch of brains floating in space.

The Effect Through March 31 at the Shed, Manhattan; theshed.org . Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

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COMMENTS

  1. Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review

    Literature reviews are in great demand in most scientific fields. Their need stems from the ever-increasing output of scientific publications .For example, compared to 1991, in 2008 three, eight, and forty times more papers were indexed in Web of Science on malaria, obesity, and biodiversity, respectively .Given such mountains of papers, scientists cannot be expected to examine in detail every ...

  2. How to write a superb literature review

    The best proposals are timely and clearly explain why readers should pay attention to the proposed topic. It is not enough for a review to be a summary of the latest growth in the literature: the ...

  3. A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Scientific Review Article

    Structure of a Scientific Review Article. 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" . The ideal scientific ...

  4. How to Write a Literature Review

    Examples of literature reviews. Step 1 - Search for relevant literature. Step 2 - Evaluate and select sources. Step 3 - Identify themes, debates, and gaps. Step 4 - Outline your literature review's structure. Step 5 - Write your literature review.

  5. How to write a good scientific review article

    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.

  6. Writing a Literature Review

    7 Writing a Literature Review . Hundreds of original investigation research articles on health science topics are published each year. It is becoming harder and harder to keep on top of all new findings in a topic area and - more importantly - to work out how they all fit together to determine our current understanding of a topic.

  7. How to write a review paper

    on how to write a good review paper. Among the most . useful for scientific reviews, in my estimation, are those by Torraco (2016, 2005) and Pautasso (2013). Many of the steps detailed in the instructional list that follows are found in these papers. More detailed review-writing instructions that walk a prospective author through each component of

  8. How to Write a Good Scientific Literature Review

    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.

  9. A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Scientific Review Article

    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 ...

  10. How to Write a Scientific Review Article

    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.

  11. PDF sci article review

    Summaries and critiques are two ways to write a review of a scientific journal article. Both types of writing ask you first to read and understand an article from the primary literature about your topic. The summary involves briefly but accurately stating the key points of the article for a reader who has not read the original article.

  12. How to Write a Scientific Review Article

    In scientific writing, the IMRAD structure (introduction, methods, results, and discussion) is a standard format adopted by a majority of academic journals. Although specific author guidelines might vary, in most cases, the review paper should contain the following sections:

  13. Tips for Writing a Scientific Review Article

    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 ...

  14. 8 Tips for Writing a Scientific Literature Review Article

    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.

  15. Scientific Writing Made Easy: A Step‐by‐Step Guide to Undergraduate

    Abstract Scientific writing, while an indispensable step of the scientific process, is often overlooked in undergraduate courses in favor of maximizing class time devoted to scientific concepts. ... This procedure will also give you a glimpse into the peer review process, which is integral to professional science writing (Guilford 2001). Don't ...

  16. The Fundamentals of Academic Science Writing

    Writing is a big part of being a scientist, whether in the form of manuscripts, grants, reports, protocols, presentations, or even emails. However, many people look at writing as separate from science—a scientist writes, but scientists are not regarded as writers. 1 This outdated assertion means that writing and communication has been historically marginalized when it comes to training and ...

  17. Writing a scientific article: A step-by-step guide for beginners

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