|Emily Crawford often retreated to her apartment rooftop in San Francisco to write her review. Photo courtesy of Matthew Perry.
When I undertook the task of writing a scientific literature review article last year, I had hoped that a Google search would reveal a handful of how-to pages thoughtfully created by veterans of this particular writing process. I found nothing of the sort, so I plowed ahead on my own, inventing techniques for myself. I’m now offering this piece for other young scientists who find themselves in similar situations. What you’re reading now is basically a case story with an N of one, but it is the sort of essay I wish had been available to me when I started.
I was running a protein over a nickel column on a Sunday evening in February 2010 when my adviser approached me about co-authoring a review article for Annual Review of Biochemistry. My adviser is a busy guy, with a lot of papers and grants to work on, so I knew that by “co-author” he meant that I would be the main researcher and writer, getting mostly broad, guiding suggestions from him. That was fine with me – as a fifth-year graduate student, I had learned to cope with, and even prefer, extreme independence. To be honest, I was excited to have this opportunity to examine the literature in depth and to create something useful out of it. The due date was August, so I had six months to synthesize decades’ worth of research papers on our topic into one conveniently sized, nicely packaged bundle of facts and interpretations.
Our topic was caspase substrates, a diverse group of proteins essential for programmed cell death and thus important to our understanding of how to kill cancer cells. A PubMed search for “caspase substrates” yielded more than 2,000 research papers. I had no illusion that this project could approach comprehensiveness, and luckily my adviser didn’t either. I would have to assess the limits imposed by the journal (30 pages, six months) as well as my own limits and the necessity to balance the writing project with lab work that was essential to finishing my Ph.D.
Narrowing the scope of the article to conform to these boundaries was perhaps the biggest challenge of this process.
Knowing that I work better when I focus on one project at a time, I spent the next two months carrying out all of my regular lab work while only pondering the review article and skimming the literature when I had time. After that, I transitioned to full-time reading and writing. I found a café that I liked in my neighborhood and spent nearly every morning there that summer drinking tea, eating pumpkin muffins and working on my laptop. Afternoons I often spent writing at my apartment or at the library on campus. I knew that concentrating on the article in my crowded, noisy laboratory would be impossible, but it also was essential to spend some time there each week consulting with my labmates on my literature research, keeping up with lab business and gossip, and retrieving my ergonomic pipettes from other peoples’ benches around the lab (they always seemed to get kidnapped as soon as I posted a “working from home” status update on Facebook).