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My Ph.D. supervisor assigned me a literature review paper to complete on a topic that I choose. I know very well the field and I did the necessary research, downloading every publication that I found on the topic. Nonetheless, I am feeling a bit lost since I don't know if there are guidelines for conducting a review paper.

Should I have a target journal for the submission before completing the review or should I choose one after the completion of the paper? I ask since maybe every journal may have different rules on review papers.

Are there rules that I can follow so I can fulfill the review's goals and not veer off into irrelevant details?

Thanks to everyone who may help me see light at the end of this tunnel.

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    This would be good questions to ask your adviser! Aug 15, 2023 at 12:00
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    I don't know the status of the author, but in my opinion, review papers shouldn't be written by PhD students (or perhaps early career researchers). In my field (machine learning) it requires considerable experience (not just knowledge or intelligence) to judge the value of competing approaches to some particular problem. These review papers are commonly used by students and it is vital that the evaluation is very solid. I think it is a job for experts (or better still, groups of experts) who have used all of the methods and made mistakes etc. Aug 15, 2023 at 15:13
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    That is not to say students shouldn't be writing literature reviews - it is a good activity, it is just they probably shouldn't be submitted for publication in journals. Coverage is also an issue that requires experience - I've seen some literature reviews on neural networks written by students and you would think from reading them that the field started less than a decade ago ;o) Not the student's fault, there are advantages and disadvantages to both ends of the age scale! Aug 15, 2023 at 15:37
  • @DikranMarsupial A researcher can be both an experienced clinician or supported by an experienced clinician and a junior researcher at the very first step of his/her career in research. Nonetheless, the topic chosen for my review was the result of other research that I am conducting by myself. My question, posted here, has the purpose to gain more information from senior researchers, if it is possible from different fields, about how it is appropriate to conduct a review, with a step-by-step approach.
    – Heart
    Aug 19, 2023 at 9:26
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    @Heart That is why I wrote "I don't know the status of the author" the point I was making is that reviews shouldn't be written by people without experience. Unfortunately it is very common these days for reviews to be written by students simply because they have to write a review anyway as part of their training so the supervisor is trying to get some added value from that effort. Unfortunately it is not always added value for the audience. I wrote it as a comment because it is a useful caveat but not an answer to the question. Aug 19, 2023 at 9:51

4 Answers 4

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If possible, try to check whether you local university library offers courses / classes for that. In addition, there are some good Youtube tutorials out there for beginners. Take hand written notes of every article you read, summarizing key points and publication details. This will help you to detect patterns (e.g. outcomes) that are worth reporting / considering. Good luck!

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    +1 And maybe use a computerized index-card system so that after reading the literature you can search the publications for keywords, develop chronological progressions of developments, index authors/publications/etc.
    – Trunk
    Aug 15, 2023 at 17:01
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If you have a (potential) journal in mind. Read some of their review articles and try to abstract from that what works there. Perhaps do the same for a different journal in the field. Ask yourself why certain elements were included.

The details depend on the field, of course, but you probably want to cover major results, trends, typical methodology (and exceptions). The outlines of the various papers might be enough to get you started.

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I think you are trying to get the work effectively done for you by asking a pile of questions on it.

Look, a review paper can be requested by a supervisor for many reasons, e.g.

  • To make the student develop an overview of a new topic

  • To provide a base paper on which the supervisor him/herself may write a better review paper for presentation to a regional or national conference

  • To provide a base paper for a published review of the topic in question

  • To test the PhD student's capacity for information extraction, absorbtion, synthesis and written communication

  • To do some or all of the aforementioned purposes

For your own working convenience I'd advise you to pretend you are drafting this review for presentation to a group of Y1 PhD students so the others can understand in outline the topic, its challenges and current lines of research into it.

So write it in simple English, small words, minimal jargon, short sentences and a natural flow - beginning, middle, end.

Before you begin your draft, look at other review papers (preferably on this topic but otherwise on closely related topics) and think about how the better ones are (1) structured and (2) presented, i.e. the writing and the diagrams.

Just go ahead and give it a lash. The only bad review paper is the one that's not attempted.

Your supervisor will critique your finished paper but you should still give it a good effort.

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In my experience, is a good idea to know some examples from related reviews and articles publish in specific journals. Some journals have a guide to admitting proposals. Without knowing what is the specific topic that you are working is a little difficult to do precise guidance, nevertheless here you have an open-access article related to a methodology to make a literature review.

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