How to Write a Review Paper


A review paper is not an original publication in the usual sense, though it can be valuable scholarship. On occasion, a review will contain new data (from the author’s own laboratory) that have not yet appeared in a primary journal. How­ever, the purpose of a review paper is to review previously published literature and to put it into perspective.

A review paper is oftentimes long, often ranging between 10 and 50 pub­lished pages. (Some journals now print short “mini reviews.”) The subject is fairly general, compared to that of research papers, and the literature review is, of course, the principal product. However, the really good review papers are much more than annotated bibliographies. They offer critical evaluation of the published literature and often provide important conclusions based on that literature.

The organization of a review paper usually differs from that of a research paper. The introduction, materials and methods, results, and discussion arrange­ment traditionally has not been used for the review paper. However, some review papers are prepared more or less in the IMRAD format; for example, they may contain a methods section describing how the literature review was done.

If you have previously written research papers and are now about to write your first review paper, it might help you conceptually if you visualize the review paper as a research paper, as follows: Greatly expand the introduction;

delete the materials and methods (unless original data are being presented or you will say how you identified and chose the literature to include); delete the results; and expand the discussion.

Actually, you may have already written the equivalent of many review papers. In format, a review paper is not very different from a well-organized term paper or literature review section of a thesis.

As in a research paper, however, it is the organization of the review paper that is important. The writing will almost take care of itself if you can get the thing organized.


Unlike for research papers, there is no prescribed organization for conven­tional review papers. Therefore, you will have to develop your own. A cardinal rule for writing a review paper is prepare an outline.

The outline must be prepared carefully. It will assist you in organizing your paper, which is all-important. If your review is organized properly, the overall scope of the review will be well defined and the integral parts will fit together in logical order.

Obviously, you must prepare the outline before you start writing. Moreover, before you start writing, it is wise to determine whether a journal (either a review journal or a primary journal that includes review articles) would be interested in considering a review article that you submit on the topic. Possibly, the editor will want to limit or expand the scope of your proposed review or add or delete specific subtopics. Or perhaps the journal is already publishing a review on the subject, in which case you should direct your effort elsewhere.

Not only is the outline essential for the preparer of the review, it is also very useful to potential readers of the review. Therefore, many review journals print the outline at the beginning of the article, where it serves as a convenient table of contents for prospective readers.

Also to guide readers, review papers make considerable use of subhead­ings (which, if an outline is published, correspond to the subjects it lists). For example, the review paper “Mechanics of Cytokinesis in Eukaryotes” by Thomas D. Pollard (Curr. Opin. Cell. Biol. 22:50-56, 2010) contains the following sub­headings:


Origins of cytokinesis genes

Mechanisms specifying the position of the division plane

Fission yeast

Budding yeast

Animal cells

Mechanism of contractile ring assembly

Fission yeast

Animal cells

Architecture of the ring

Mechanism of constriction and disassembly of the contractile ring

Actin filaments


Mechanism of constriction

Sources of drag



In 2015, Pollard, the author of this review paper, received the National Acad­emy of Sciences Award for Scientific Reviewing “for his many review articles describing the molecular mechanisms of the protein actin in cell motility and cell division”; it was noted that these articles “have been cited hundreds and even thousands of times.” This award, given in different years to authors in dif­ferent fields, has been presented since 1979. Information on recipients appears at, on the (U.S.) National Academy of Sciences website. To see some review papers by masters, look on this site to identify recipients in your field, and then search the litera­ture to find their reviews.


Before actually writing a review, you also need to determine the requirements of the journal to which you plan to submit the manuscript. Some journals demand critical evaluation of the literature, whereas others are more con­cerned with bibliographic completeness. There are also matters of organiza­tion, style, and emphasis that you should consider before you proceed very far.

By and large, the old-line review journals prefer, and some demand, author­itative and critical evaluations of the published literature on a subject. Many of the “book” series (“Annual Review of,” “Recent Advances in,” “Yearbook of,” etc.), however, publish reviews designed to compile and to annotate but not necessarily to evaluate the papers published on a particular subject during a defined time period. Some active areas of research are reviewed yearly. Both of these types of review papers serve a purpose, but the different purposes need to be recognized.

At one time, review papers tended to present historical analyses. In fact, the reviews were often organized chronologically. Although this type of review is now less common, one should not deduce that the history ofscience has become less important. There is still a place for history.

Today, however, most review media prefer either “state of the art” reviews or reviews that provide a new understanding of a rapidly moving field. Mainly the recent literature on the subject is catalogued or evaluated. If you are review­ing a subject that has not previously been reviewed or one in which misunder­standings or polemics have developed, a bit more coverage of the historical foundations would be appropriate. If the subject has been effectively reviewed before, the starting point for your review might well be the date of the previ­ous review (not publication date, but the date up to which the literature has been reviewed). And, of course, your review should begin by citing the previ­ous review.

Another type of review paper, known as a systematic review article, has become common in some fields. A systematic review addresses “a clearly formulated question” and “uses systematic and explicit methods to identify, select, and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect and analyse data from the studies that are included in the review” ( /5#letters). Commonly, systematic review articles follow a variant of the IM RAD format; for example, they include a methods section specifying such items as databases searched, search terms used, dates and languages included, and cri­teria for including and excluding studies. Academic librarians, some of whom specialize in literature searching for systematic reviews, can be well worth consulting when preparing such a review. Written sources of guidance for preparing systematic review articles include the PRISMA statement (Moher et al. 2009).


Another basic difference between review papers and primary papers is the audience. The primary paper is highly specialized, and so is its audience (mainly peers of the author). The review paper will probably cover a number of highly specialized subjects in your field, and so the review will be read by many peers. The review paper will also be read by many people in related fields, because the reading of good review papers is the best way to keep up in one’s broad areas of interest—or to start preparing to enter related areas of research. Finally, review papers are valuable in teaching, so student use is likely to be high.

Because the review paper is likely to have a wide and varied audience, your style of writing should be much less technical than for a research paper. Jargon and specialized abbreviations must be eliminated or carefully explained. Your writing style should be expansive rather than telegraphic (condensed).


Readers are much influenced by the introduction of a review paper. They are likely to decide whether to read further on the basis of what they find in the first few paragraphs (if they haven’t already been repelled by the title).

Readers are also influenced by the first paragraph of each major section of a review, deciding whether to read, skim, or skip the rest of the section depend­ing on what they find in the first paragraph. If first paragraphs are well written, all readers, including the skimmers and skippers, will be able to achieve some comprehension of the subject.


Because the review paper typically covers a wide subject for a wide audience, a form of conclusions is worth taking the trouble to write. Doing so is especially important for a highly technical, advanced, or obscure subject. Painful com­promises must sometimes be made if one really tries to summarize a difficult subject to the satisfaction of both expert and amateur. Yet, good summaries and simplifications will in time find their way into textbooks and mean a great deal to students yet to come.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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