What a journal editor expects to see in a literature review

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What a journal editor expects to see in a literature review

Selecting an appropriate set of prior literature to review and then developing focused hypotheses to fill the gaps left by prior research helps push forward the frontiers of science. The foundation of an article’s results derives entirely from the focus of prior research. Without a strong analysis of prior literature, there can be no certainty that an article addresses important principles. As a journal editor, I always urge authors to ensure that they build their research investigation on the strongest of foundations, that is, present a systematic and transparent review of previous, similar studies before they embark on any new investigations. Doing so is the initial step in reflecting ‘evidence-based research.’  

It may be a surprise to learn that regardless of your specialty-in-science there is a great deal of commonality of concerns, expectations and requirements held by journal editors specific to the quality of literature reviews in submissions to their journals. I will here represent editors’ expectations which I believe to be universal in publication. I plan to discuss this in two parts. The first segment will deal with a description of the justification and rationale for a strong literature review, and this will be followed by a far briefer description of how to frame the literature review in a way that a journal editor will most likely find scientifically justifiable. It is perhaps because I’m a university professor and a journal editor that I will use more words in the justification and rationale segment than in presenting an actual solution to how an author might construct a literature review. However, please follow my argument in Part One before jumping forward to the action plan in Part Two.

Why you need a strong literature review:

Let’s remind ourselves where in the entire article-components the literature review fits. The sequence is: Title, Abstract, Topic Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, Body of the text, Results, Discussion, Limitations, Conclusions & Implications. Notice, please, the pivotal point at which the Literature Review resides ~ the junction between the justification for conducting research and the next step of research design and hypotheses. Clearly, this focal placement means that unless the literature review is targeted upon appropriate issues, everything that follows is of severely compromised value. For this reason it is critical that the literature that gets cited in the review is: (1) Compelling (i.e., the most appropriate); (2) Novel (i.e., addresses all possible explanations for the phenomenon under investigation); (3) Timely (i.e., systematically reviews the history of the investigations of the phenomena with particular reference to the most recent evidence); and (4) Accurate (i.e., precisely and correctly represent prior findings).

Editors and thesis advisors want to be sure that the literature meets the test of being compelling, novel, timely, and accurate. If any of these standards are not met, then the structure might be viewed as inadequate. For example, if editors spot citations to references that are incomplete, or in error, they might reasonably presume that the rest of the paper is riddled with error.

The relevance and completeness of the literature review is not a trivial matter. Editors expect authors to capture their interest by providing a rationale for why the study should be viewed as current. And, if you cannot do so, they will wonder if it might be equally obscure for the journal’s readership. If the justification for your article’s main-points fail to jump out and help the editor visualize the research-context for your argument, then the submission may be sidelined simply because you have not provided strong enough groundwork.

In What Editors Want (2012): Philippa J. Benson & Susan C. Silver shared that “since editors cannot be experts in every area that their journal covers,…the author’s task is to intrigue the editor and later on the reviewers and readers and convince them of the relevance of your work.”

The editor and the journal’s peer reviewers will carefully assess which literature set you have chosen to showcase because this emphasizes where and how the research fits within the wider scholarly landscape, and which gaps in knowledge your investigation will attempt to address.

Your credibility as a researcher will, in part, be evaluated by your ability to frame an appropriate literature review. Your literature review serves three purposes: It demonstrates (1) your grasp of relevant works; (2) your skill in identifying & discussing the most significant ideas and findings in earlier works; and (3) illustrates from a selection of prior research who did what, when and why and how they did it.

Your literature review tells what others have found on your topic, provides a context to illustrate how the work documented in your paper advances scientific understanding, demonstrates that you are familiar with past and present thinking on your topic and that you understand where your work fits in the scientific landscape. But, it must be said and clearly understood that a comprehensive review does not mean that everything that has ever been investigated gets cited, since a strong review is also systematic. That is, the review is highly selective and specific, referring only to work that is directly relevant to the argument you choose to make. Extensive literature reviews can swamp and drown your ideas.  If you don’t get to the point quickly readers will lose interest, so your selectivity of prior literature can work to promptly engage your readers.

A good literature review does the following:

  • Defines and clarifies a problem.
  • Summarizes previous research to inform readers of research that is the extant.
  • Identifies relationships, contradictions, gaps and inconsistencies and
  • Suggests next steps.

Thus, the literature review informs readers of where things have been, where they are, and where they need to go.

The Action Plan:

We are now at the point in my article where I am ready to describe exactly what I meant when I said in my introduction that it is necessary to build your research investigation on the strongest of foundations, that is, present a systematic and transparent review of previous, similar studies. How, you may be wondering, do you engage in a systematic review that is fully transparent?

The 3-step Process

Here are three steps that you need to follow:

Step 1:

In the first, you must create a short list of keywords that describes the body of literature to which you are making reference. Of course, one set of keywords will come from the article you are intending to write. This initial step presumes that you can pull together a set of keywords and key phrases that comprehensively and succinctly provide capstone descriptions of the focal area for your study.

Step 2:

Then, in the second step, you enter your set of keywords/phrases into appropriate search engines. The resulting corpus of articles comprises the ‘raw data’ of the literature you will review. Almost certainly this will result in more articles than you reasonably should be expected to digest and will certainly include some for which the ambiguity of your keywords causes them to be included, despite being off-target for your research focus. This is the point at which you may need to refine your keywords/phrases and revisit the search process to refine, perhaps several times, the set of literature that best describes your area of interest.  

You may, of course, add criteria to help select the ‘quality’ of the research that you will include in your review. For example, it is entirely appropriate to consider within this research-set only those articles which describe empirical data (rather than opinion descriptions), articles which include an indication of effect-size, research in a language that you can understand, manuscripts which describes data consistent with your sample, etc.  At every step it is important to document for yourself the criteria that you are using to qualify/disqualify sets of identified literature from the past so that later you can transparently describe the nature of the literature for which you are providing a digest.  

It is understandable that you might seek to include a reasonable number of articles, by further refining the data set (i.e., the articles which you will review) to a manageable number. In my own work I have chosen the arbitrary number of 30 as the maximum number that I will ever include because I want to maintain brevity in my argumentation.

Step 3:

The third step in this process of creating your literature review is to analyze, critique and assess the existing literature that you have disclosed in your search process. By identifying threads and themes in this research set you have a chance to illustrate how you will fill the gaps you have identified, making sure that your review does more than merely list and summarize.

Explaining the filtering process:

An important element in your review is a description of the process that you followed. This is the stage for making your research-selection process transparent. It is the point where you describe the criteria you used to select the articles which you are reviewing. This requires you to disclose your keywords, the exclusionary criteria, and all the filters that you used to refine the set to the manageable number that you describe in your literature review.

The text that you might use to preface your article could look something like this: The cited studies were reviewed using the keywords ‘nail-biting’ and ‘adolesc*’ in Google Scholar, PubMed, Ovid, Sage, Springer, Science Direct, & Cochrane Library databases. The inclusion criteria were determined as follows: Published in the last decade, having the publication language of English, access to the full text, and grey literature was not included. Twenty-two studies met the inclusion criteria, listed in Appendix within the Supplemental Materials to this article. The brief paragraph in which you describe the process for qualifying articles as included or not-included in your review provides transparency, demonstrates your evenhandedness in selecting the literature, and allows for replication. These criteria all serve as the cornerstones of evidence-based research.

My purpose in writing this article is to highlight the importance of the literature review as the pivotal focus that justifies your work as being critically important to add to the literature in your area of science. I’ve attempted to do so by showing a mechanism that enhances the likelihood that an editor will view your work as consistent with the standards for inclusion in prestigious, high impact international journals.

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Published on: Jan 09, 2020

A qualified school psychologist and Fulbright scholar passionate about helping authors understand and develop best publication practices.
See more from Caven Mcloughlin


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