Writing a review: thoughts from the trenches.


Somehow I’m in the middle of writing three review papers so I am gaining some perspective on writing them. The first one is basically my own fault; I started thinking a lot about nectar rewards and how they fit into my research. That thinking lead to a talk last year on some of my ideas to a bunch of like-minded folk at the Scandinavian Association of Pollination Ecologist’s meeting. Main lesson from my experience: never end a talk asking if you should write a review (and/or for interested co-authors) unless you really want to. Lucky for me I did and a group of collaborators joined me in the venture. We expect a long road for the review as we’re digging deep into the literature to summarize a number of aspects of nectar rewards and pollination. Then this spring, I was asked to join as a co-author on a second review for an invited collection on plant scents. It was a chance to work with someone new and think more deeply about studying floral traits in an integrated manner with a set deadline at the end of this past summer. I said yes! and we’re waiting on the peer-reviews of the manuscript now. Once committed to those two reviews, early this summer I was invited to write a current opinion piece with another short deadline. It was my first invitation to write a review and again on something I’m working and interested in: the chemical ecology of pollination biology. I wrangled a co-author into joining me and we’re currently in the mad dash to writing that paper.

So really I do know how I ended up writing three reviews at once (although all at very different stages and trajectories), I want to be.

What have I learned from the process so far? Well to begin, an obvious outcome is that the reviews have really brought me up to speed on the literature in all these different areas. I am reading a lot and my literature collections are exploding. Since the point of reviews, at least for me, is not only to sum up where we are but also point out where we need to go, it is also a great way to figure out the gaps. In some ways I feel like I’m laying all the groundwork for my next series of grants. I’m seeing the kinds of studies that need to be done to connect the dots. All the reading is allowing me to gain perspective on the fields that I work that I don’t often take the time to do. Sure I read and think about my research in a broader perspective but not as much as I would like. Having to put the pen to paper as it were, is really forcing me to take the time to read and think more broadly than usual.

Another benefit is that I’m learning new ways to work. The review this summer is the first paper I truly co-wrote with someone. Generally for my other work, I (or the lead author) have done most of the initial writing and then it is firing drafts back and forth. When I’ve been the lead, there is lots of input from my co-authors but ultimately, I’m the one doing most of the writing. I had never worked where each author takes different sections to write and then the manuscript is constructed. I took a chance with a new collaborator to do something I’d never done before but it was a really positive experience. I learned a lot, seeing how someone else builds up a manuscript. Now I’m also able to apply that experience to the other reviews. Besides the actual writing, international collaborations are getting me to figure out new technology to facilitate the writing. Skype and now Google hangouts (good for video feed from multiple people) are key to keeping meetings going. After some exploring and advice from the twitters, Zotero has been a great resource for building shared libraries across mac/PC computers. And currently Google drive is allowing the co-writing of a manuscript as my co-author and I try to build a fluent text for the opinion piece (rather than only focus on individual sections). All these things are challenging me to be even more collaborative then my past papers (not to short change my past collaborators who have been amazing and helped immensely improve initial drafts that I’ve written).

That leads to the other really tangible benefit of writing these reviews: the co-authors. I’ve been so inspired and learned so much already from working closely on these projects. It is really interesting to see different perspectives on the same topic and I am learning from my co-authors as much as from the papers I read. I leave our meetings charged and excited to do science and I feel really appreciative that I have this for not one but multiple collaborations. Basically it has been a lot of fun. I get to talk about ideas, learn from smart and great people and work towards a common goal. Hurray science!

As for the impact of these reviews on my career, since none of them is published yet I don’t really have any perspective on this. However, I think I have gained so much in the writing that it is definitely worth it, even if these reviews don’t go on to be highly cited or whatnot.

The one downside I can see is that I do have some data I really need to tackle and write up. Spending time writing reviews means that I’m not spending time writing my data papers. I don’t think I would have chosen to do three reviews at once if I could plan it but you can’t always control when opportunities present themselves. The data will be waiting when I have time again.

My advice (especially to grad students) as to whether to write a review: do it! If you see the need in the literature, it is a great way to summarize a field and give you perspective that will only help in writing introductions/discussions and future grants. If you can, find an excellent co-author or more to join in the writing.

4 thoughts on “Writing a review: thoughts from the trenches.

  1. Have avoided review papers because of work involved but really useful to see benefits. And I guess working on sections of a couple papers coming out of workshops has had similar (albeit) smaller positive effects for seeing scope of literature.

  2. I have two on the go – early stages plus desperately trying to get a plenary paper ready for publication ahead of the conference! Like you I find them quite interesting things to do – have also done a couple of meta-analysis review papers which are a different kettle of fish and possibly get cited more than standard reviews..

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