December 2011

Tips for writing your first scientific literature review article


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.

Getting started 

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).


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his is a struggle with me and the points mentioned are very helpful. Point 6, enlightened me so much. Thank you!! Arthur Roberts





  • It is quite interesting....and I want to get help from your suggestions

  • Hi Emily,
    By chance I stumbled over your report of writing this grant review. Your tips and points are very useful for any researcher in this situation and even for me being a Professor of Laboratory Medicine. I have never written a review article in my life, and reading your narrative I clearly know why I have always turned down such offers, as those would have amounted to a tremendous piece of work.
    Apart from your approach and struggle for overview I would like to mention that making a mind map has always helped me
    to a great deal in my scientific writing. Perhaps you may want to elaborate on this topic a bit in your tips and tricks...
    I very much enjoyed reading your text, here.
    Many thanks for sharing your experiences and all the best to you
    Jörg Berg, MD, EurClinChem
    Professor of Laboratory Medicine
    Medical University of Graz
    General Hospital Linz
    Austria, Europe

  • Dr. Eliud E. Villarreal-Silva

    Hi, Emilly.

    I am a Ph.D. student in Monterrey, Mexico. I am writing a review and I think your advices are very useful.


  • Hello, thanks a lot for providing a valuable information. I m Dr.Vishal Ghorpade, Post graduate student in Pharmacology, B.J.Medical College, Pune, India.

  • Hi Emilly,

    Point 5 & 6 are very practical. Am writing a review and will definitely try that!.


  • I am a surgeon working in Sri Lanka. Your tips gave me some inspiration to complete my review article, as I was just staggering with it and trying to excuse myself with clinical work!!

  • i think i know what middle school u went to can u tell me so i can see if im right ?????

  • i wnat to write a review article plese give me a tips to write a very standard review article

    Thanking you

  • Dear Emily,

    This is very useful as I am a very new to this field of reaseach. Your structure of the message is fantastic. Many thanks for sharing!!


  • This is a struggle with me and the points mentioned are very helpful. Point 6, enlightened me so much. Thank you!!

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