How To Write a Review Article for a Scientific or Academic Journal
Decisions about how to write a journal review depend first and foremost on what exactly is meant by ‘journal review.’ The term is often applied, for example, to the reviews of individual journal articles that university students produce for course credit, but these are more accurately called article reviews. On the other hand, the term ‘journal review’ might refer to a review of a journal. Although reviewing an entire journal is rare, reviewing its publications over a set period of time is more common. Such a chronologically determined review would constitute one of the kinds of review articles that many academic and scientific journals publish, and it is usually a review article (also known as a survey paper or overview) that is intended when a ‘journal review’ is mentioned in a publishing context. How to write a journal review article for successful publication is therefore the focus of the advice offered here.
Journal review articles vary markedly in length, scope and purpose. A short review article will usually be under 10,000 words in length, including the many citations and references required, while a long review can extend to 40,000 words or more. The scope and purpose of a review article are closely interrelated, so if the purpose of a review is to survey every piece of writing ever published on a particular topic or in a specific area of specialisation, the scope will range from the very first publication in existence and include every subsequent document up to the most recent one. Many review articles are more limited in purpose and therefore have a much narrower focus: studies published over the last five years, for instance, or a particular kind of methodology might determine the scope of a review of scientific literature. Most reviews published in academic and scientific journals focus on high-quality peer-reviewed articles, reports and monographs presenting original research, but a journal’s guidelines on how to write review articles should always be consulted for precise requirements regarding the kind and number of sources that should be reviewed, as well as the desired length and structure for the entire review article.
Some journals provide very specific instructions about the types of review articles they publish, so a journal publishing in the humanities might want narrative reviews based on the reviewer’s extensive knowledge and experience, whereas a scientific journal may prefer systematic reviews in which the criteria for selecting studies to review are predetermined to minimise bias. With very few exceptions, however, the goal of writing a journal review article is to evaluate and compare the selected publications critically in relation to a specific research topic, problem or question. Review articles that lack a focus of this kind often lack a logical and persuasive argument as well and can all too easily deteriorate into little more than an annotated bibliography. An informative if brief introduction to situate the reader and thoughtful organisation of the studies discussed into categories based on theories vital to the field, trends in the research, themes central to the reviewer’s line of argument, or different methods and results will contribute to a review that is driven by the reviewer’s ideas and logic, not by the content of the sources reviewed. Publications that contradict the reviewer’s perspective should be included along with those that support it, and concluding thoughts on what the review has revealed about the current state of scholarship in the area should be offered, usually along with recommendations or suggestions for future research.
Many academic and scientific journals do not accept submissions of unsolicited review articles, preferring to invite experienced and prestigious scholars to write review articles focussed on specific topics and problems within their publication scope. Other journals do consider unsolicited submissions, but the guidelines should be checked for instructions on how to proceed with a submission as well as how to write the review article. Often it is not the finished review article itself that is wanted initially, but a proposal that provides the reviewer’s credentials, outlines the topic and purpose of the intended review and lists the publications that will be reviewed. If a journal editor is interested, he or she may have some constructive criticism or suggestions that will help the author plan and write a review article that the journal will be pleased to publish and its readers eager to put to productive use in their own research.
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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.