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How to Write a Scientific Review Paper

Lit review blog 1

What is a scientific review paper?

A review puts together information from individual research articles into an overall picture. It gives background on a topic for non-experts, and it provides an overview of our current understanding.

Three main types of reviews

All reviews focus on a particular topic (theme), include a database search, and integrate the information into an overall picture. However, there are three main types of reviews

  • General (Narrative) review – Mainly includes a search of the latest findings, or integrates different avenues of research that have been linked to a common theme
  • Systematic review – Focuses on a particular question or issue (typically a clinical question), includes a literature search based on predefined search terms, and it typically provides an assessment of the quality of the data
  • Meta-analysis – Focuses on quantitative research that can be mathematically integrated to produce mean or median findings and to improve the statistical power of comparisons

Why reviews are important

Reviews are important for novices to gain an overall understanding of an area of research. They are important to researchers, because they highlight the most recent research findings and the state-of -the art methods developed in the field. Moreover, they point out knowledge gaps that suggest new avenues of research and why they are needed.

Journal expectations

Journals expect reviews to be focused, thorough, fair, and respectful:

  • Focus: Do not wander to related topics; do not recount the history of a topic
  • Thorough: Do not restrict coverage to your own group of colleagues; provide thorough coverage of the topic
  • Fair: Include a fair representation of both sides of any issues, point out conflicting findings, particularly findings that might disagree with your own findings
  • Respect: Portray a professional attitude; do not be dismissive, judgmental, or negative about findings that contradict your own point of view

Proposing a review paper

Some journals only accept reviews that are requested by the Editor. However, most journals will consider a review proposal. Therefore, it is important to convince the editor of the importance of your review. In addition to describing the topic, you should include the following:

  • A clear rationale: There are several good reasons for publishing a review:
    • Many recent studies have been published about a specific topic
    • Conflicting views have been voiced in several individual studies
    • Novel connections have emerged between different avenues of research
  • Your experience in the field: It is important to highlight your (and your coauthors’) experience in the field, because most reviews are written by well-established researchers. Therefore, you must demonstrate to the Editor that you are qualified to write the review.

How to organize a review

  • Organize papers into clear topics – each topic is a concept related to the overall theme
  • Organize the topics in a logical way that relates to the big picture – it may be helpful to construct a diagram to visualize how the topics fit into the big picture
    • Topics might be organized chronologically, if developments occurred sequentially through time
    • Topics might be organized constructively, beginning with findings about the basic concepts, and building up to more sophisticated or more detailed concepts
    • Topics might stand alone, as branches off of a main theme
  • Decide which papers should be used to describe the current understanding (Introduction) and which will describe recent findings (Body of the review)
    • Fair representation: Include articles on both sides any particular issues
  • Create diagrams and pictures to convey how different findings contribute to a concept; some of these might be used in the discussion/conclusion section

How to write an abstract for a review

Review abstracts are typically unstructured. They should include the following points:

  • Focus and definitions – Indicate the focus of the review and define terms related to the main topic
  • Problem you wish to address – briefly explain the rationale
  • Specific topics – Indicate the main individual topics you will cover to address the problem
  • Conclusion – Highlight how the important findings contribute to the field (i.e., state the purpose/central message), and suggest future directions

How to write the introduction for a review

The introduction provides background material which brings all readers up to speed on the current understanding of the big picture, and it gives the rationale for the review

  • Background – start by giving some background on the overall topic and define terms
  • Current understanding – describe seminal findings that support the current understanding of the main topic; be sure to note both sides of any discrepancies
  • Current knowledge gaps – indicate where we are missing information, and why the information is necessary
  • Rationale – give the rationale for the review (see above)

How to write the main body of a review

The body describes the latest data published in different areas (subtopics) related to the overall topic. It may or may not have a methods section; most narrative reviews do not include a methods section; when required by the journal, it simply describes the search methods

  • Each subtopic should describe a specific piece of the big picture – keep in mind which concepts have already been discussed to avoid redundancy
  • Focus on how individual studies led to an understanding of the subtopic
  • Draw conclusions based on these new findings, and how they relate to the overall topic
  • Use drawings or pictures to illustrate the conclusions
    • Illustrations are highly useful for conveying complex concepts
    • Use color to highlight the different components and to attract attention
    • Make diagrams spacious, legible, and as simple as possible to facilitate reading
    • Be sure to label all the components – don’t make the reader rely on the text
    • Make illustrations as polished as possible to convey professionalism

How to write the discussion/conclusion for a review

The discussion/conclusion section is generally not very long, because conclusions are typically drawn in the individual subtopic sections. Therefore, the discussion/conclusion should:

  • Summarize the main points
  • Emphasize how the new findings have advanced the field
  • Highlight the knowledge gaps and/or suggest new avenues of research
  • Summarize the importance of the information we have gained

Here are some examples of general reviews:

  1. Zoccali C, et al. The systemic nature of CKD. Nature Reviews Nephrology 2017; 13: 344-358. click here
  2. Vallianou N, et al. Do antibiotics cause obesity through long-term alterations in the gut microbiome? A review of current evidence. Current Obesity Reports 2021. click here
  3. Hellström A, et al. Retinopathy of prematurity. Lancet 2013; 382: 1445–1457. click here
  4. de Assis and Oster. The circadian clock and metabolic homeostasis: entangled networks Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences 2021; 78:4563–4587. click here


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