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How to Write a Scientific Review Paper

How to Write a Scientific Review Paper

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Published by: albertshaldar on Sep 08, 2009
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WRITING SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH PAPERS
 
I. What is a Research Paper?
There are two kinds of research papers. Primary or experimental research papers describean experiment performed by the author. (I mean "experiment" in the broadest sense, as ina scientific investigation. The investigation may employ a rigorously controlled labexperiment, a controlled field experiment, a theoretical/mathematical investigation, or simply some new scientific observations. The key is that the body of the paper is about anovel investigation conducted by the author.) Secondary or review research paperssummarize the research that has been done in a particular area. Reviews generally do notintroduce much new information or new results, but rather synthesize a larger body of work, providing a new perspective on a field or question. In this class, you will berequired to write a scientific review paper.A secondary research paper or review paper is not a 'book report' or an annotated list of experiments in a particular field, but demands a considerable, complete literature review.However, beyond just reporting the results and conclusions of other studies, the reviewmust integrate, interpret and expand these conclusions. Often, articles must be read over and over again to really understand the subtle relevance of a particular result or conclusion. Then, the independent conclusions of separate investigations must becombined into a cohesive presentation. They must be contrasted and compared; are thereconflicting conclusions? Can apparent conflicts be resolved through a new outlook or interpretation? Review papers often take historical perspectives, describing how a field(and the major questions in that field) changed as more information was accumulated. Or,review papers may focus on 'the state of the art' in a particular field; interpretingdivergent results and suggesting an appropriate avenue for future research.Who writes review articles? Usually, it is the experts in a particular field. They have theexperience and knowledge to critically evaluate experiments and organize them in a new provocative way; perhaps incorporating them into a new, unifying theory. Good review papers are not easy to write; if they were, more scientists would write them. By writingyour review paper, I expect you to become a 'departmental expert' on a topic, able to'wow' your fellow AP biology students with your new knowledge about your field. I doexpect to see a creative synthesis of the literature, rather than a jumbled regurgitation of facts.
 
II. Writing a Review Paper
Your paper will have the following sections:
Title
Abstract
Introduction
Body
Conclusion
Acknowledgements
Literature CitedAlthough you are not conducting an experiment in the physical sense, you shouldconsider your paper a 'thought' experiment. You are going to read a body of information and provide a new outlook on a topic. You will not reveal a newscientific 'fact' as an experimenter would, but you will reveal a new idea or interpretation. As such, build your paper the way an experimenter would: 1)research a topic and find a particular set of issues, results or opinions that seem inconflict; 2) research this area in more detail, and then think independently. Buildan argument or thesis that either supports one side of the conflict or resolves it.This is the 'experimental' part of the work, and it is as unique as a newexperiment.
A. Ask a Question.
Usually this is a broad, unrefined question; after all, you haven'tresearched the topic yet. If you have been 'given' a question, don't fool yourself intothinking you are ahead of the game. You are really no better off. You don't know why it isa relevant question, or how you are going to address it.Take notes in your own words. Keep the notes in a binder. Record the complete citation,so you don't have to look it up again. Relate their findings to your question.
Is your question relevant, or is it trivial?
Is your question redundant (has it already been answered)?
Who are the experts in the field? (You can use them later for author searches.)
What methods have been used to address these questions?
Finally, what did they find?
B. Review Literature.
With the advent of on-line search capabilities, most student headstraight for the computer terminal to start their literature search. THIS IS A FATALMISTAKE, BECAUSE IT FOCUSES YOUR ATTENTION ON THE PRIMARYRESEARCH LITERATURE BEFORE YOU HAVE A SOLID BACKGROUND IN THEFUNDAMENTAL ELEMENTS OF THE FIELD. Before you attempt an on-line search,
HIT THE STACKS
. Go to the library and find general references on your topic.Introductory textbooks can be a big help to you at this stage, providing important
 
 background information in language the non-specialist can understand. After youfamiliarize yourself with the background material that specialists assume you know, proceed to the technical literature; this includes both primary research articles andsecondary research articles by scientists studying your topic. Your best bet here would bea review article. Again, before the computer search, go to the stacks and look for reviewseries in your discipline. In ecology, for example, there is
 Annuals Reviews of Ecologyand Systematics
,
 Advances in Ecological Research
, and
Trends in Ecology and Evolution
.Review articles are "gold mines" of relevant literature; the author has already compiledand integrated some of the major articles on the topic! By finding one good reviewarticle, you can save yourself hours at the computer terminal navigating through acomplete on-line search. BE SMART! Even if you have to pull volumes down one by oneand check the table of contents, you will probably find a review article that is relevant toyour topic. A good review article will: 1) integrate lots of articles (even into the 100's!),2) show you what major research directions in the field, and 3) summarize the major conclusions. It would take you hours at the computer to sift through searches to locate allthese articles; you'd probably delete some you didn't think were relevant and print out alot that you find to be irrelevant later. SO AGAIN, DO NOT START WITH AN ON-LINE SEARCH. I KNOW IT IS EASY, BUT IT IS A DECEPTIVELY INEFFICIENTWAY TO START A PROJECT. YOU WILL FIND YOURSELF COMING BACK TIMEAFTER TIME, DOING NEW SEARCHES AS YOUR KNOWLEDGE IN THE FIELDMATURES. SAVE IT FOR LATER WHEN YOU CAN OPTIMIZE ITS POWER ANDMAXIMIZE YOUR OWN EFFICIENCY.
Abstract.
This is a concise summary of the paper. Ideally, it should be short (roughly 3%of the length of the paper), and should include a sentence describing each of these topics:
objectives and introduction (background)
methods
results
conclusions and discussion (relevance)Again, the space limitations may force you to be selective. In addition, the methods andresult may be difficult to describe completely in single sentences, and may require alarger fraction of the space budget. However, you must also include a conclusionsentence; what do the results from your research mean? If published, the abstract willappear in citation sources such as Biological Abstracts and Science Citation Index. It isthe first thing someone will read, and it must be descriptive and interesting! The abstractdemands clear, direct writing. When readers finish the abstract, they should be sointrigued by the experiment that they decide to read the entire paper. What search strategydo you use when you pick up a journal? You read down the titles. Then, you read theabstract. Here is where you try to gain the attention of the reader. If you do not succeed,your reader may not want to continue reading your paper. Abstracts are very difficult towrite; it will take more time to write than any other paragraph in the whole paper.

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