8 Key Steps for Writing a Literature Review Article for a Journal
Knowing how to write a literature review for an academic or scientific journal is a valuable skill. Many scholarly journals publish stand-alone literature reviews as review articles, survey articles or literature overviews, and some journals are entirely dedicated to publications of this kind. Review articles tend to be extremely well read, with busy experts and professionals as well as students and other novice researchers benefiting immensely from reviewers’ descriptions and evaluations of the scholarship in a field of study or area of specialisation. Review articles also tend to be highly cited, making them appealing for both journals and authors, and the authors who write reviews can enjoy the opportunity to demonstrate an enviable depth and breadth of knowledge as well. This is a vital point to recognise, because that depth and breadth of knowledge is necessary to produce a truly insightful and useful literature review for publication in a journal. Without it, the work required to become familiar with the scholarship in a field or on a specific topic, analyse it critically and objectively, and then write about it with authority and interpretive wisdom can be monumental and more than a little intellectually challenging. For this and other reasons, many journals prefer to invite experienced experts to write literature reviews, but some journals will accept unsolicited review articles or consider author proposals for literature reviews of research areas relevant to their publication aims and scope.
The literature reviews written for academic and scientific journals vary as widely in subject matter and content as the journals themselves do, so any particular review may require procedures and considerations that others do not. However, there are processes and activities essential to most if not all publishable journal review articles, and these are outlined and described below along with a number of helpful tips on how to write a successful literature review for journal publication.
1. Find, read and study with care the instructions for authors provided by the journal in which you hope to publish your literature review. If the journal publishes review articles, there will usually be some relevant guidelines, though these may simply inform authors that unsolicited literature reviews are not welcome. If this is the case, moving on to another journal is the best plan unless you consider yourself expert enough in the area to contact the editor and ask if the review you hope to write might be considered. If the guidelines indicate that a review proposal instead of a finished manuscript should be submitted for consideration, follow those instructions with precision, providing exactly what is requested in the formats specified. Details about the length, structure, formatting and content of review articles or the proposals for them should be noted, including the preferred documentation style for in-text citations and the list of references, and any restrictions on the number of sources that can be reviewed in a single review article. Stand-alone literature reviews recently published by the journal (and similar journals in the field) will provide useful models of how to write a literature review for a journal and perhaps offer some helpful references as well.
2. Choose and refine your review’s focus, topic or research problem or question. This step will probably already have begun before you consulted the journal guidelines in Step 1 and it may still be in progress as you search for studies to review in Step 3: these three initial steps often overlap each other considerably. Your focus, topic or research problem or question could be chosen based on a number of different factors, but your ability to do the subject justice should certainly be among them, and so should the potential usefulness of your review for fellow researchers and other readers of the journal, so give serious thought to what sort of review your anticipated audience will want to read. Specific research problems and questions can be particularly effective guiding concepts for review articles, as can trendy or hot topics and subjects of current debate, but be sure that you do not choose your topic simply because it is fashionable: your knowledge and experience must enable you to produce an informative and authoritative review or you will achieve neither publication nor the readers you anticipate. It is also best if the topic or research area has not been recently reviewed or is due for a review for another reason. If you submit a proposal to a journal editor, you may receive feedback that suggests adjustments to your intended focus or scope, so be prepared to reconsider your plans somewhat and alter them when necessary or desirable.
3. Do a thorough search for publications relevant to your topic. This is an important step even if you are intimately familiar with scholarship in the area of the planned review and believe you already have plenty of material to write a literature review for the journal. New studies are published every day, so some that you have not yet encountered may be available, and you will need to know if recent publications have tackled new methods or closed significant gaps in the scholarship. Assessing the contributions of new papers can be especially challenging because they may not have been read and cited yet, and closely related publications in other disciplines and research areas along with interdisciplinary studies may present special challenges as well. Yet these types of publications tend to offer new perspectives and can usually be easily discovered via keyword and key phrase searches. Be sure to use a few or several effective words and phrases and more than one of the databases commonly consulted in your field or discipline. Library catalogues and the librarians who manage them can also be extremely helpful, and the citations and reference lists in recent publications will lead to still more useful publications, as will other review articles on topics similar to your own. Peer-reviewed books, articles and reports are usually the preferred sources for journal review articles, but any publication that makes a significant contribution to the body of research can usually be included. You may find that your topic, focus or scope changes somewhat as you get a clearer picture of what has been published, so be aware that this is normal: searching for sources is part of the process of refining a subject for review. However, if you are working with a predetermined set of criteria as established in a systematic review, you will need to adhere to it in order to avoid or minimise bias.
4. Read the individual studies selected for your review carefully and critically, analysing their methodologies, results and conclusions, and evaluating their contributions to knowledge and research techniques in the field. As the author of a literature review article intended for journal publication, you are acting as an expert on the topic you are reviewing, and therefore as someone who is able to identify and explain important details that others might miss, so you must thoroughly understand all aspects of each study’s content and thoughtfully assess the value of its contributions and implications. Focussing on material and ideas directly related to your topic or research question will be wise, but publications reporting results and arguments that disagree with or contradict your own line of reasoning must be read and evaluated along with those that support your perspective. Taking well-organised notes to summarise and paraphrase sources as you read and reflect is essential. In order to plan and write your literature review article efficiently, you will need to know the exact source of each important bit of information. A reviewer who confuses or misrepresents the studies and publications he or she reviews is neither creditable nor authoritative, and is unlikely to achieve publication, especially if the review article will be peer reviewed. Be sure to record accurate and thorough bibliographical information along with your notes on each publication, to distinguish your own thoughts clearly from those you find in the studies you review, and to identify any passages that you directly quote from sources, providing a precise locator (such as a page number) so that you can find the original text again to check the wording.
5. Compare and categorise the relevant publications to obtain an informed perspective on the body of scholarship as a whole. This process will no doubt have begun as you read the studies one after the other, but a thoughtful literature review that will prove truly useful to readers of a scholarly journal requires extensive analysis, classification and synthesis. Categories, like the logic behind them, will vary depending on the topic and focus of the literature review, but they might be established via time periods and geographical areas, pioneering studies and major investigators, recent advances and discoveries, primary patterns and trends, central theories and themes, current debates and concerns, traditional and innovative methodologies, results and conclusions that support or contradict dominant arguments or perhaps your own argument, and any number of other possibilities. The categories chosen may overlap to some degree, with certain studies appearing in more than one, but the divisions should enable a logical and engaging discussion of the main points you wish to make about the studies reviewed. Any significant gaps, contradictions, misinterpretations, unproductive directions or other shortcomings detected in the scholarship should be noted and given serious consideration. Taking effective notes will be as important as you analyse and evaluate the body of scholarship as it was when you focussed on individual studies, and carefully organising the publications and your notes with your categories and overall argument firmly in mind will also prove helpful as you begin to outline and write your review article.
6. Prepare an outline of the content and structure you envision for your literature review article. The journal guidelines will be paramount here, so they should be kept close at hand as you work on this step. Many academic and scientific journals will require or prefer a particular structure for review articles. This tends to be straightforward, such as a threefold division into an introduction, main body and conclusion, with a simple heading to mark each, but the instructions should be carefully followed nonetheless. The main body of a review article is often divided into subsections, especially if the review is long, and these too may be required and their specifications laid out in the journal guidelines. In most cases, however, subdivisions and subheadings are chosen by the author in keeping with the content and argument of the review, so the categories you have identified in Step 5 can be used to design subsections and subheadings that effectively divide the material in the main body of the review into discussion topics that highlight your line of argument. Sometimes additional main sections are needed either to observe journal guidelines or to provide information to help the reader understand the research situation. A review article with a very brief introduction, for example, might follow it with a section on the current situation in the research area; a literature review that for the most part ignores the chronology of publications might include a brief section on the history of research in the field; a review that focuses on theory might provide a section to define unfamiliar terminology; and a systematic review of scientific literature might dedicate a section to the criteria used to include and exclude studies for the review. Other minor sections such as acknowledgements may be necessary, and a list of complete bibliographical references always is. All the sections and subsections can be listed using working headings in the outline, and point form notes beneath each heading or subheading can indicate the studies and ideas that should be included and discussed in that section or subsection. Remember that the right organisational strategy can be a key element in producing a valuable literature review, and if a review article is particularly long and complex, concept maps might help both you and your readers visualise relationships among studies, methodologies, theories and other important elements as well as the overall structure of the review.
7. Write the separate sections of the literature review in whatever order facilitates efficiency and a successful result. Some authors begin with the introduction and work on through to the conclusion, but many find it more productive to draft the main body of the review, wrestling with the studies considered and the ideas presented before turning back to write the introduction and any other background sections helpful for situating the reader and then forward to draft the conclusion. Whatever order is used for writing the sections and subsections of a literature review, the main concern is that they present a smooth logical progression of thought in the finished review article. The effective use of transitional words and phrases will help you achieve this goal, and remember that studies that prove problematic by defying tidy categorisation can also prove useful by offering meaningful points of transition between categories and subsections. As you write, be aware that a reviewer’s voice and focus can all too easily be lost beneath the mass of research and arguments in the studies reviewed. Stay focussed on your research topic or question by stating the objectives of the review in your introduction, touching on them at pertinent points in your discussion and returning to them in your concluding thoughts. A publishable review article usually offers valuable conclusions about the status of scholarship in the research area, suggests why significant gaps and inconsistencies have arisen, explains new answers and interpretations for old questions and findings, or introduces new questions and productive directions for future research based on the analysis of the existing scholarship. Any one or more of these goals might therefore play a part in your review and especially in its concluding thoughts, which should support any propositions you may have made in the introduction. Do not forget to add in-text citations and complete references for the studies you review and for any other research you make use of in your review article.
8. Read, proofread, edit and revise your literature review before submitting it to a journal editor for consideration. Even if the editor has solicited the review or approved your proposal, shabby work will not be published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal, and if by chance it does slip through, the publication of a poor review will not shine a kindly light on your knowledge or abilities. Read and revise your review to clarify the logic of your argument and ensure that your writing style is formal, direct and concise. Refine headings, subheadings and the transitions between sections, subsections and paragraphs to reflect the structure and progression of your main argument. Ensure that your conclusions include clear take-home messages about the scholarship, its strengths and its weaknesses that readers of the journal will find useful when pursuing new research in the area. A second opinion can be incredibly helpful, so you may want to recruit a trusted colleague or mentor who specialises in your area to read your review article and offer constructive comments about content and structure. Finally, you will need to proofread and edit your review to eliminate all errors in data and other information, correct any mistakes in spelling and grammar, and improve awkward syntax and inappropriate punctuation so that your writing effectively communicates your intended meaning. As you are polishing and perfecting your work, do not neglect citations, quotations and references, which are extremely important aspects of a review article. Each and every one should be carefully checked to ensure accuracy and the use of the appropriate style, and paraphrases and summaries of the studies reviewed should also be checked with an eye alert to wording that may constitute unintentional plagiarism. Only when you have done all you can to write the best literature review possible should you submit it to a journal for consideration, peer review and quite possibly another round of revisions.
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