I was once told “writing a review is relatively straightforward way into the literature, so it’s often the kind of paper on which PhD students ‘cut their teeth’”. “Hmm…” I thought. And the more I see of reviews (as Editor of a reviews and features journal), the more I disagree that a good review is straightforward. Technically it might be straightforward for someone with a once-in-a-lifetime overview of the current literature – such as a PhD student just about to write-up her/his thesis: technically in the sense of cataloguing the relevant literature. But is that a review? Maybe, but it would be a bit boring by most standards.
“Re-view” literally means “taking another look”. When we look at an object, our brain identifies different features of the object, e.g. shape, color, movement (information) to produce a meaning of the whole: how exactly that is done is still a mystery. It represents the famous “binding problem” of neuroscience and philosophy. Integrating information to produce meaning is clearly not a trivial function; integrating primary research findings to produce a “bigger” picture is also not a simple task. But that is what, in my opinion, distinguishes a really interesting and useful review from a trudging encyclopedic catalogue. Many people in science are in it for the challenge of understanding new things; a good review, as I define it above, can be a masterpiece of thinking and writing that will be read (and cited) by a disproportionately large readership compared with the primary literature it contains.
For a PhD student to write a review is certainly a good thing, but not because it’s a straightforward way into the literature – rather because of a more noble aim: that of contributing novel, synthetic, insights to one’s field. As I recently opined in an editorial,1 integrating research findings is just as much a scientific talent as producing them. /am
Andrew Moore is Editor-in-Chief of the review-and-discussion journal BioEssays.
This is part of an on-going series on “Getting Published” in BiotecVisions – a free monthly e-magazine on the latest in biotechnology.
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1.Moore, A. (2012). Have we produced enough results yet, sir? BioEssays, 34 (3), 163-163 DOI: 10.1002/bies.201290005