Tips For Writing a Review Paper

When my director proposed that I should begin writing a review article few month into my PhD program, reflecting on that moment now I would have hoped to cross a prep-article with some insights and tips on how to write a scientific review article. Unfortunately I did not, and now that I have finally submitted my second revision (fingers crossed that it will be finally approved for publication), I've noted for a while on my To-Do list the writing of this post. I will try to be as clear and honest as possible highlighting some tips to complete the task of writing a scientific review paper.   

Yes it is unusual that a first year PhD student writes a literature review even before beginning his research. Most PhD candidates if not all must go threw the phase of a bibliographic study, reading hundreds of research papers, dissertations and reports to familiarize themselves with their thesis. Into their second year they've published one or two conference papers and writing a review isn't a priority. My directors and I chose a different path where my first task was to complete the bibliographic study but it should give birth to a review. Easier said than done, but ultimately rewarding and I cannot draw to you how much it will help you during your doctoral studies, however I will try to share some essential tips in the hopes that they will facilitate the preparation, writing and submission of your review paper. 

Narrow the Scope of the Review

My thesis involves wind turbine optimization, mainly the optimization of the composite structure of wind turbine blades. I remember the moment when I ran my first search on Google Scholar on "wind turbine optimization" and thousands of researched papers appeared. If you don't settle the area of your review with your directors at start you will be sucked into an indefinite vortex of endless sources, a terrifying journey nonetheless frustrating and depressing. Limit your search's only to your topic, choose well the papers that deserve an overview and don't step outside too much or else hundreds of undiscovered doors will appear behind them hundreds more. Since understanding the question is halfway into solving the problem, the first step is to narrow the scope of the review, define an objective or objectives (be careful not too many) and automatically you are now targeting a specific audience. It's game time so put your game face ON. 

Patience, Patience and more Patience

Game face is ON now, but I've got some hard news for you: it took me 8 months to write the review and about of 4 months of revision, correction and back and forth submissions. Patience is a must. You must be prepared to read a lot of papers.

I Found a Published Review - Panic Alert !

You are most likely going to come across published reviews that might slightly discuss the subject of your intended review. Don't Panic! It doesn't mean that your paper is going to be rejected and sure doesn't give you the right to simply continue where he left off. A good review is one that is up-to-date but the authors should not forget older studies. 

Trust your Mind, your Directors and No One Else 

Often your colleagues in the laboratory are working in different fields and cannot be an efficient second hand. Even if they might be familiar with your field, no one really wants to help you, simply because it's a mess! Every week summarize your progress into PowerPoint slides, organize Skype meetings and discuss with your advisors. Take their detailed comments into consideration and don't hide your feelings along the way. Admit to them that this particular paper requires a deeper analyse or that you don't find any significant value in exploring a certain sub-domain. 

Get to Know a Reference Manager Software 

Organization is crucial. As mentioned earlier, the first shock is when hundred of papers suddenly appear on Google and you let the "save as" begin and so organizing your references is very crucial. I found two tools to be the most important in finding and managing my references. The first is Google Scholar, I did not find a better search engine that allowed me to locate, read and download journal and conference papers. In addition it worked suitably well with my second favourite tool, EndNote the reference manager software. Beneath every article in Google Scholar, a Cite option is available which gives you the possibility to copy or paste a formatted citation (MLA, APA or Chicago formats), but more importantly import the citation.

I am not familiar with other reference manager software but in a previous post, I presented an overview of EndNote, Zotero and Mendeley. EndNote allowed me to automatically or manually import a reference, attach the pdf to the citation, group my reference into categories and insert a citation in my manuscript in any desired style.

Google is Helpful - But Not Enough

Most of the papers you are looking can be fetched by Google Scholar but that's not enough. Many journals are not accessible by your institution there is a price to view or download the article. Moreover, for some reason the link from Google Scholar might be broken. The best solution is to write to the author, email them requesting that they send you a copy. Don't be intimidated to tell them that you are writing a review and you want to evaluate their paper.

Never Too Early to Get Typing 

You don't want to drown yourself into reading too many articles to the point where you get lost. It's never too late to start typing a find your comfort spot. I preferred summarizing the research papers on PowerPoint slides making it possible to simultaneously discuss with my advisors either on the spot or threw video conference calls. Learn to create your own metric, a scale that you can grade the papers with, distinguishing the least from the most important. You might prefer using Excel sheets where a row/column system can be used to resume the papers.

Take Time Off 

It's not going to write itself by itself, you need to be in the mood. Take some days off, rest, travel... When your ready, get back to work, but don't flourish yourself with too much sugar, you don't want to loose interest so don't extend your vacation.

Choose Well Your Journal

Carefully choose your journal before submission. Be realistic, but at the same time courageous enough to submit it to a high ranking journal. There is no shame in receiving tough comments from the reviewers. Once they've commented, read them with care and open heart. If needed defend your case and make the adjustments where suggested. I found it best to begin brainstorming for the name of the journal for submission starting from your references. If your required to suggest reviewers, extract them from your references as well. Before submitting, make sure you read the guide for authors because you don't want to fall behind schedule due to the incorrect font in the caption of the tables. One a side note, you should take a glimpse at the ethical guidelines/ policies of the journal.

Finally the best advise I have to share is the following: it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. 


  1. Good article Adam, I lived the experience of writing a review article just after few months of my beginning, and as you said you need a lot of patience especially for the big quantities of comments coming from your supervisor and director and then the correction that you should do. But at the end of day its so helpful for you to use it as a reference in your later work too.

    I would notice that I use Mendeley as a reference manager software, and it is so powerful, it lets you organize your documents in all the ways you want.

    I would add also one point that it can be helpful for research. The scientific network sites as "Reasearch Gate", It allows you to find all publications written by an author working in the same domain of you. So it can keep you updated with most of the related works done in your discipline. In addition, it facilitates the communication with you and the authors too.
    I think it would be interesting to build your virtual network with the authors working in the same domain.

    1. Thank you Ibrahim for your comment, much appreciated as always.

      As for Mendeley, I've read a lot of positive comments about it, I have yet to try it, I am familiar with EndNote, although I think that a platform that can deduce from my references/citations my disciplines and suggest papers will be helpful.

      I am surprised I did not mention ResearchGate, although on my brainstorm I had it written down. Yes I am very excited that such platform is available for Researchers all over the world, with the ability to share valuable resources.


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