Optimising your citation chances with a review: One facet
How to write a piece that's appreciated by specialists and non-specialists
Article first published online: 14 AUG 2012
Copyright © 2012 WILEY Periodicals, Inc.
Volume 34, Issue 9, page 715, September 2012
How to Cite
Moore, A. (2012), Optimising your citation chances with a review: One facet. Bioessays, 34: 715. doi: 10.1002/bies.201290039
- Issue published online: 14 AUG 2012
- Article first published online: 14 AUG 2012
No, the sub-title is not a question that is missing the question mark. However, it might appear to many authors to be a manifestation of the classical Roman puzzle – a conundrum that, by definition, has no solution. Indeed, they may well ask ‘but how can I possibly write a review that will be recognised as authoritatively detailed by my direct peers, whilst also being accessible to a broader readership?’ Surely, however, that is exactly the question that they should tackle. A review that is recognised by specialist and less specialist readers optimises its chances of citation. Let me explain why I think that such a review is not so impossible…
Much of the problem lies in making entry points – from title down to section heading and first sentences – that are suitable for both connoisseurs and beginners. That is why, as an editor, I recommend that authors start each section and sub-section with a statement of principle, before diving into the details. Even experts in a field are used to (for them) established principles being presented at the beginning of manuscript, section and sub-section. That which can be understood by non-expert can always be understood by expert; the converse is patently not always true. As long as such introductions are not trivial and pompous they serve as a ‘comfortable’ route into the topic. Triviality should be avoided at all costs. An example that once came my way is ‘Sexual reproduction enables an organism to pass half of its genes on to the next generation…’ Neither expert nor non-expert readers in cell and molecular biology are likely to find that particular introductory sentence very respecting of their education.
Now, back to those details, for they are a large part of what makes a review an authoritative work in its narrower field. Must they all be incorporated in the body text? I believe not, because even a very field-specific reader does not have exactly the same knowledge as the author in question. That reader might simply find such a collection of discrete field-specific findings too dense to penetrate – and most importantly – to synthesise into higher level insight! I often receive peer review reports from such experts, who have felt rather overwhelmed by the detail. A tell-tale sign (sorry, reviewer X!) is a very brief review report containing a statement such as ‘The authors have compiled an extremely thorough overview of the field…’ I therefore recommend that authors try the following approach: as far as possible, cover principles – with a small number of salient examples – in the body text, whilst sequestering dense detail into tables, or information boxes. Those tables and boxes should satiate the remaining urge for detail that the field's experts might have. The body text, in contrast, should attempt to present readers with an integrative synthesis of the field that builds to the most important conclusions. If readers are left to synthesise and integrate myriad details themselves, it negates one of the most important functions of a review; furthermore it assumes that readers have much more time on their hands than is truly the case.
And now to the beginning. Arguably the hardest task is at the start of the manuscript: that of introducing topics in a way suitable for expert and not-so-expert reader. A title is often best split into two parts: one that presents the general concept; the other that specifies. If a sub-title is allowed, even better. The abstract allows more scope: here the novel concept(s) should be placed early, but in a context that is of broad relevance, and broadly understandable. The endeavour becomes easier as the manuscript progresses: as the story builds, all readers become more knowledgeable and able to digest the more field-specific concepts. But that pre-supposes, of course, that the manuscript is ordered in such a fashion, and that brings me to my final point: everyone, whether expert or not-so-expert, likes to read a story. The scientific narrative is not some fantasy to which it would be ridiculous to aspire; rather it is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for a work that the largest possible number of readers will devour, leaving merely crumbs on the plate. Synthesis, rather than cataloguing, of findings, tends to form the basis of a narrative. And that should be done before the writing starts…