The Review Paper in Science

To understand Reviews as a kind of scientific publication, it helps to compare them to Research Reports,the type of publication with which we are most familiar.

             Reviews                                                     Reports
Evaluate current trends across                Contribute original experimental
a specific area of research                      evidence to a specific question

      Introduction                                            Introduction
      Review Topic 1                                        Method
      Review Topic 2                                        Results
      Review Topic 3 (etc.)                               Discussion
      Conclusion                                            (Conclusion, in some fields)

A research report explains the investigation and results of a single research question (or small set of highly-related questions). Research Reports are published in a format we are very familiar with, the IMRD, that plays nicely with an idealized version of the scientific method:  

Research Reports Use IMRD to Manage Real Estate, Following an Idealized Scientific Method

A review paper is a different beast altogether.  Where research reports do include the expert literature, a Review paper looks at solely published reports to explain what is happening in an area of research as a whole.  Review Articles make a different sort of contribution to science (McMillan, 2001, 3, emphasis added):

In contrast to research papers, conference presentations, and proposals, a review paper is a journal article that synthesizes work by many independent researchers on a particular subject or scientific problem.  By bringing together the most pertinent findings of a large number of studies, a review paper serves as a valuable summary of research.  Although it does not present the writer’s new discoveries, it does reflect his or her painstaking review of the literature in a defined field.  Moreover, a good review not only summarizes information but also provides interpretative analysis and sometimes a historical perspective. Reviews may vary in aims, scope, length, and format, but they all include a relatively lengthy reference section.  Journal editors sometimes invite prominent experts to write reviews of their particular fields, since the ability to give an audience an authoritative overview of a subject usually develops with experience.  Whether solicited or unsolicited, review papers still must conform to journal specifications, and their author receive feedback from editors and reviewers before final publication.

So, the Review Article has very different features from a research report. The task of the writer is to take a step back and look at what is going on across many individual research projects with the purpose of giving direction to the field.  It’s one of those “forest and tree” situations:  in a research report, the scientists are examining a tree; in a review paper, the scientist is looking at the forest.  In science, the review writer tries to understand what is happening across an area research, to discover patterns among the individual pieces of research that experimental researchers may or may not be aware of.  Reviewers provide two very important and practical contributions to science.  First, they do the hard work of all the reading required so that research results are regularly gathered in one place.  Second, reviewers evaluate current research trends and make recommendations for where research and/or applications of research should be focused. 

Reviews are as recognizable by their organization as research reports are; the body is organized according to topical subheadings that clue readers to content. Introductions tends to be concise; conclusions are downright brief.

Review outlines provide lots of information about content (screenshot of pdf page)


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