What does a journal editor expect to see in a literature review?

A proper selection of literature, whose review allows for forming hypotheses for further projects, helps expand the frontiers of scientific research. Any scientific work should consider and analyze previous investigations. Without a thorough study of the literature on a particular topic, the author cannot be sure of his research relevance. Therefore, before starting new research, the author should prepare a thorough systematic review of previous works on the topic under study – the first step toward “evidence-based research”. In this way, the work has a solid scientific foundation.

Regardless of the field of science, the tasks, expectations, and requirements regarding the literature review quality are, surprisingly enough, almost identical among journal editors. Let us consider the editor’s expectations concerning publications, which is possible to consider universal. Within this, we recommend discussing two aspects. The first will focus on the rationale for an expert literature review, followed by a much shorter description of how to properly compose the literature review so that the editor will find it scientifically justified. It would be better, in our opinion, to focus on the rationale for the literature review than on practical guidelines for its drafting. However, before reading the Action Plan in the second part of the recommendations presented, read the arguments in the first part.


Why does the author need an expert literature review?

Let us remember all the components of a scientific paper:

– Title,

– Abstract,

– Introduction,

– Literature review,

– Methodology,

– The text body, results, discussion, limitations, and conclusion.

Pay attention to the critical point, namely, the literature review location in the structure of the scientific paper. This follows the study rationale and precedes the research design and hypothesis formation.

If the literature review does not fit the issue, everything that follows becomes very ambiguous. Therefore, the literature cited must be:

1) Obvious (i.e., most relevant);

2) Innovative (present all possible explanations of the phenomenon under study);

3) Relevant (the author should consider the phenomenon in the context of the latest research);

4) Accurate (i.e., accurately and correctly reflect the conclusions of previous studies).

In other words, editors and scientific supervisors require that the literature should meet the persuasiveness, novelty, relevance, and accuracy criteria. In another case, the structure of the literature review may be considered inadequate. For example, if the author cites incomplete or erroneous sources, the editor may justly assume that the rest of the paper also contains many errors.

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The relevance and completeness of the literature review are non-trivial. The editor expects the author to justify why it is necessary to consider the research in this particular vein. If the author fails to convince the editor of this, the editor has the right to question whether the material presented will be acceptable and clear to the readers. If the rationale for the critical points of the submitted work is not obvious and does not help him understand the research context, the editor may justly reject the author for publication.

In What Editors Want: An Author’s Guide to Scientific Journal Publishing, the authors Philippa J. Benson and Susan S. Silver (2012) wrote the following: “Since editors cannot be experts in the areas their journal covers… the authors’ job is to intrigue the editor and then the reviewers and readers, and to convince them of the relevance of their work”.

The editor and reviewers of the journal carefully evaluate the literature chosen for the review, as this allows them to understand whether the research is relevant to the scientific issue and what gaps in this field the author is trying to fill.

They will assess the authority of the author, particularly on the ability to compile the appropriate literature review, which must satisfy three conditions:

1) The author’s competence in the subject matter of the paper presented;

2) The literature review must present and analyze the most significant ideas and results of previous works;

3) The literature review should give the reader an idea of the previous research and explain who, when, why, and how they conducted it.

The author’s literature review should: tell about the achievements of scholars in the topic under study; illustrate how the presented work contributes to the solution of the problem from a scientific perspective; demonstrate the author’s competence in historical and current issues of the topic under development, in addition, the place of the research work in the overall scientific picture. However, note that you should not quote everything because an expert review should be systematic, meaning that the author should be selective when compiling the literature review and analyze only those works directly related to the topic of the study. Extensive literature reviews blur the ideas of the author’s research. If the narrative drags on, there is a risk of losing the reader’s interest, while selectivity in the issues presented for the literature review can help attract their attention.

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A good review performs the following functions:

– Defines and explains the problem;

– Summarizes information about previous research;

– Identifies relationships, contradictions, gaps, and inconsistencies;

– Suggests next steps in researching the problem.

Thus, the literature review informs readers about what has been happening in a given field of science, what stage of development the issue is at and identifies an area for further research.


Action plan

In this part of the presentation, let us focus on the requirement that the author’s research should rest on a solid scientific basis, namely on a thorough systematic review of works on the subject. How to do this? The process runs in three stages.

Stage 1

This stage should create a short list of keywords to describe the referred literature. Of course, the author will take these keywords from the intended paper. This initial stage suggests that it should compile a set of keywords and phrases that will give an idea of the research topic as clearly as possible.

Stage 2

In the second stage, the author must enter keywords or phrases into the appropriate search engines. The result will be a “raw” list of references that most likely be larger than expected. Probably it will include papers that do not correspond to the topic of the author’s research because of the ambiguity of keywords. Here, the Researcher should adjust the keywords or phrases and revise the search process to refine perhaps several times the list of literature that best corresponds to the research topic.

Such a criterion as the quality of the papers included in the review is also essential. For example, it will be entirely appropriate to consider only those papers that describe empirical data (rather than opinions) and the magnitude of the effect obtained; studies in language the author understands; manuscripts that present data consistent with the author’s sample, and others. At each stage, it is essential to document the criteria the author uses to select the literature that will allow the author to best describe the character of the literature presented in the review in the future. Despite the desire to include as many papers as possible in the review, the author should reduce them to an acceptable number. For the sake of brevity of argument in the literature review, we recommend using no more than 30 sources.

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Stage 3

The third stage in creating a literature review is to analyze, critique, and evaluate the works highlighted by the author because of the search. After identifying the topics and problems of these studies, the author can illustrate the filling of gaps in research in this field. Thus, the literature review will not resemble a simple list of references. An essential element of the author’s review should be a description and justification of the literature selection process for the study. This step should describe the criteria used to select the papers for the literature search – keywords and characteristics.

A preface to the paper can be approximately like the following:

“The papers cited in the study were selected using the keywords ‘nail biting’ and ‘adolesc’ in Google Scholar, PubMed, Ovid, Sage, Springer, Science Direct search engines, and the Cochrane Library Database.

Publications had to meet the following criteria:

– Published within the last decade;

– English;

– Access to the full text of the publication;

– Literature unindexed in medical databases was ineligible.

The Appendix in the Supplementary Material to this paper contains 22 studies meeting the criteria”.

A brief paragraph where the author describes the process of selecting papers for the literature review will demonstrate his competence and impartiality and will lead to the approval of the submitted research for publication. All these criteria are the key elements of evidence-based research.