Scientific Communication for Natural Resource Professionals

Chapter 12: Writing Review Papers

Peter B. Moyle


The world of scientific publication has responded to the information explosion in two particularly interesting ways. First, researchers and the articles they produce have become increasingly narrow in their focus (with exceptions). Second, review articles have increased in importance as a way for researchers in narrowly focused areas to connect with a broader audience by writing reviews in their own specialty. Further, review articles allow researchers to learn about advances in areas related to their own without having to plow through a jargon-strewn field of technical reports. Writing review articles seems to be increasingly important as a scholarly way to gain recognition for articles buried in specialty journals on subjects only a specialist can love and understand. Review articles often can connect ideas from different fields into a broader synthesis. The importance of review articles in modern scientific communication is reflected in the fact that increasing numbers of journals include them as part of the mix of articles that they publish, in part, because of frequent high citation rates, which boosts journal “impact factors” (Simons 2008).

A review article is a summary of information in a specialized field of knowledge that is written to bring that information to a broader audience. Usually the audience is made up of professionals within the author’s general field of expertise (e.g., fisheries). However, the most widely read reviews usually connect specialized knowledge to other fields, offer a synthesis of that knowledge, and suggest new conceptual frameworks for future studies. The readership of scientific review articles can be broadened by providing recommendations useful to managers or policymakers. Typically, review articles do not contain original data, although they can present original analyses of the literature and can reach novel conclusions. More often than not, however, reviews are simply summaries of information in a given area with rather general conclusions (e.g., “more research is needed in this area”). Although review articles can include blogs, op-eds in newspapers, articles in popular magazines, and books (including textbooks), the type discussed in this chapter is a peer-reviewed synthesis of literature in a specialized area of knowledge. Such reviews are aimed at broad professional audiences, mostly scientists, including those who make recommendations to policymakers. The most distinguishing characteristics of these reviews are length (usually 10 or more published pages) and an extensive bibliography. They usually are literature reviews, but they also can be quantitative reviews that assemble multiple data sets from different sources for comparison and synthesis (e.g., Halverson 2008). The latter type of review is often labeled a meta-analysis.