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Tips for writing your first scientific literature review article BY Emily Crawford Emily Crawford often retreated to her apartment rooftop in San Francisco to write her review. Photo courtesy of Matthew Perry. Tips writing articles facebook 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 was running a protein over a nickel column on a Sunday evening in February when my adviser approached me about co-authoring a review article for Annual Review of Biochemistry.
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.
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.
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. 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. Afternoons I often spent writing at my apartment or at the library on campus. I tips writing articles facebook to reassure myself by remembering that I had been rather good at writing term papers in college; but this was a larger task and one with the potential for having an impact on someone, somewhere, sometime who wanted to learn about caspase substrates.
In the end, I finished by the deadline well, plus one two-week extension the editor agreed to grant me and was very happy with the product and with all I had learned about caspase substrates, about the scientific literature and about the review-writing process.
I hope the following tips will help other scientists who find themselves in this kind of uncharted territory. Distilling all sorts of data from experiments done by scientists all around the world into a coherent story turned out to be very satisfying.
I look forward to doing it again someday, perhaps in a somewhat more efficient manner. Define the scope of the article. Make an outline, keep lists of topics that are and are not within your scope, and remind yourself to stop any time your reading wanders outside your scope.
My adviser and I settled on devoting the first half of our article to a broad survey of a few key research topics for example, the physical details of the caspase-substrate interaction and devoting the second half to a few highly detailed vignettes about some of the hundreds of known caspase substrates.
Your labmates and collaborators are invaluable resources. Be careful not to let this lead you too far astray.
Look for areas that have not yet been thoroughly reviewed or areas for which you think you have a fresh take on old data. Find places to write where you can concentrate, and take breaks often to stretch, get a snack or even step outside for a few minutes.
On days when I struggled with concentration, I often used a timer to structure my day. I would work for 60 minutes, then take a sanity break, then work for another 60 minutes, and on and on. Impose some structure on the mess that is the scientific literature. I developed a strategy for each research topic that I wanted to review including the broad survey section in the first half and the vignette sections in the second half.
First, I found the most recent papers on the topic and went through them, picking out what looked like important references. I worked my way backward to a set of about 10 key papers.
Then I quickly read and made a summary for each, usually in the form of a bulleted list of the conclusions drawn from each figure. Next, I combined those summaries into a single table.
I did this by hand on paper; an Excel spreadsheet also would work. Each research article was one row arranged by publication dateand the columns were results or conclusions reached.
I then easily could see which papers agreed on which topics, what trends emerged over time and where the controversies in the field lay. I found that once I had made a table, the narrative of that particular research topic almost wrote itself.
Spend some time writing with all your PDFs and Web browsers closed and your desk cleared of any paper. This was advice my adviser gave me about a month before the due date, when he could tell that my brain and my PDF library were so overflowing with data that I was struggling with actually producing any text.
On the other hand, with the Internet and all my PDFs in front of me, I tended to generate sentences that were very dense with information but not necessarily closely related to each other — and not always pertinent to the specific scientific narratives I was attempting to compose.
I started making real progress on the writing only when I spent a few August afternoons sitting on the roof deck of my apartment building with a pen and paper and no Internet-capable devices.
Yes, I sometimes wrote things that were wrong or at least imperfect when constructing a section from memory. However, I often ended up with a strong scaffolding onto which I could later add some of those dense, fact-laden sentences.
This was easy in my case, because my adviser and I both preferred that I be the main researcher and writer and that he act as a consultant on high-level issues. However, I am keenly aware of other cases that did not work out nearly as congenially.Brevity is a virtue in writing, but you still need some flow in your narrative.
If you pare down the article to its bare bones, it becomes an outline, not an article. If you pare down the article to its bare bones, it becomes an outline, not an article.
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for editing & other tips) and I keep it handy when I write. The steps certainly help me with outlining, and outlining helps me write more efficiently. Like a lot of other people, I.
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