How to write an article for a literature review or data review for a medical journal

A thorough review of literature is needed for a new drug application (NDA); every article or abstract ever written on the drug needs to be referenced. These articles do not end up as a thoughtful opinion piece and are unlikely ever to be republished as is as a review article.

However, the medical literature is filled with review articles, I have prepared more than a few myself. They are useful in giving an overview of a scientific field, a disease, treatment options, just about anything of interest to health and science professionals.

And while we are defining review articles, a published review is always opinion, always a discussion of other folks’ primary data, and cannot, cannot, ever be referenced in an article for data. You have to go back to the original source of data to be able to quote it. Because the reviewer may have misinterpreted, misquoted, and remember, inaccurate health information kills.

Writing a review, follow these steps, in this order:

  1. Formulate the question you are asking that the review will answer, eg, how effective are oral diabetes drugs in maintaining normal FBG (fasting blood glucose) in obese males between 30 and 60?
  2. Plan the search according to how you answer the question: is the review exhaustive (do you want every article every published anywhere on this topic) or narrow (every male between 30 and 60 who is living in Benin) or an article or 2 (2 articles that may or may not be representative of the literature).
  3. Remove review articles if your goal is to review the data.
  4. Remove review articles if your goal is to review opinion
  5. Read all the articles and write an outline which tells a story
  6. Write an interesting story that is worth reading, between 1000 and 3000 words
  7. Back up each statement with original data; for example, don’t say “in Africa, men of 45 are dying from lack of treatment for diabetes” when you have as a source a single paper from a single village in Guinea that is a case report of one man.
  8. Add a complete reference section, according to the style sheets published by the journal you are writing for, in the absence of other guidance, the AMA Style Guide.

Who are the authors? The person who wrote it and who contributed data and articles. Journals generally want the contribution of each author stated. Not infrequently, authors lie and the article is ghost-written and the authors paid to slap their names on the article.

Published by

Susanna Dodgson

The Medical Writing Institute is a boutique school for training health and life science professionals in the art of medical writing. The director, Dr Susanna J Dodgson, has been teaching medical writing since 2004, and really wants health science information to be properly presented.

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