On review papers

Papers that act as summaries, syntheses of data, or basic, outright reviews are both important and successful parts of science. The prominence and importance of journals like the Quarterly Reviews in Biology and especially Trends in Ecology and Evolution shows their relevance, and let’s not forget that classic academic texts like The Dinosauria or Romer’s Osteology of Reptiles are more or less reviews of the existing literature. Yes of course there are new interpretations tacked onto these and corrections made to taxonomies, anatomy and the rest, but mostly they are a compilation of the most important and significant papers on the subject and present a consensus view of the current scientific positions.

Reviews are really useful. After all, it’s impossible or at least exceedingly hard to dive into a new subject (or even keep up to date effectively, or simply refresh your memory) from scratch. This is true of course for academics, but also for students of all levels, technicians and the general public – we all have to start somewhere. Review papers (in general) provide a foundation on a subject, giving the first principles of the issues at hand and the outline of what is known and how and what it means. It is not an end in itself, anyone with serious pretensions to work in that subject should be reading much further and wider, but this will be the place to start and of course provides a great resource for a given topic.

However, oddly it seems an awful lot of journals don’t really like publishing them. While there are dedicated review journals out there, my recent experiences with them is that they are overflowing with submissions or requests by people to produce submissions, so clearly lots of people are writing them or want to write them. The huge interest in things like TREE and the massive citations accrued by papers in them or something like the Dinosauria shows people are using them. However, a great many journals simply say that they will not publish reviews, or review-like manuscripts (or similarly useful things like catalogues of specimens, lists of localities or whatever). We seem to be in the odd position where people want to write something, readers recognise their value, they are widely used and cited, but the journals don’t want them.

Moreover, even the review journals can be difficult when it comes to reviews! A paper of mine was ultimately rejected from QRB because one referee demanded that we include new primary data and an analysis of this. I don’t disagree that a review can still contain new data and new ideas, but really? A review paper in a review journal has to contain new work and analyses? Even those that do publish seem to go in for either the tiny (TREE papers are just a few pages) or the monolithic (Annual Reviews in Earth Sciences) with little scope for something say in the 10 page range.

A few more journals willing to accept such manuscripts or even a couple more journals dedicated to reviews would seem to benefit all and sundry and I for one hope this can be encouraged.

6 Responses to “On review papers”

  1. 1 Heinrich Mallison 24/01/2012 at 1:27 pm

    Friends recently made the experience that a manuscript was rejected by a review journal because of “too much original research”, with the added suggestion to submit it to a sister journal that as research articles as its focus. There, the paper was rejected because it had too much of a review character.

    Go figure!

  2. 2 Mike Taylor 24/01/2012 at 1:30 pm

    Agreed this seems like a gap. I can’t remember where I read it, but in one of the recent spate of RWA-related articles, or maybe in one of the comments, someone made the point that here seems to be a particular dearth of open-access review journals, so that someone wanting to adhere to an OA pledge is rather limited in options when submitting a review paper.

    By the way — a complete tangent — the TREE pre-submission enquiry form reads as follows in its guidelines: “For Letter pre-submission enquiries, please supply the full letter itself (guidelines for the preparation of TREE letters can be found at: http://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/authors)”. Huh. So your pre-submission inquiry consists of the full text of your submission, formatted according to the submission guidelines. Does that seem funny to you?

    • 3 Richard 24/01/2012 at 9:13 pm

      That’s only for letters, not actual review articles, and letters can only be 700 words long. There’s hardly any point in preparing a short summary of a 700 word article…

      • 4 Mike Taylor 24/01/2012 at 9:17 pm

        “That’s only for letters, not actual review articles, and letters can only be 700 words long. There’s hardly any point in preparing a short summary of a 700 word article…”

        Right, but then why would you send it as a pre-submission inquiry rather than just submitting it, since you have to format it according to journal guidelines anyway?

  3. 5 David 24/01/2012 at 10:05 pm

    The situation is the same in economics. There are review journals which are invitation only and only a few other ones and most other journals will say that they don’t publish reviews or even “synthesis” articles where a lot of information is organized in a new framework.

  4. 6 Robert A. Sloan 25/01/2012 at 5:05 am

    That is odd, and it sounds as if everyone would benefit from new review journals that focused in that length range and type of work. Makes sense. The papers that are indexes to everything in a subtopic would be darn useful!

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