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November 3, 2012 / jpschimel

Synthesis vs. synopsis: how to write a good review

This column is adapted from my response to an author who was writing a review and inquired whether it would be appropriate for the journal I edit. The paper was about a method that is used increasingly in the field, but there are as many variations as there are labs doing it.

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There are many specific variants on this method and authors rarely explain their choice for one over another. The scientific problem develops because we don’t know if the different approaches give different answers or whether there is a coherent approach to fine-tuning for different soil types. The uncertainty creates a problem for researchers—which specific version should they use? How should they adjust for their specific conditions? Also, as with any exciting new method, some people will pick it up and use it ignorantly, and as a result badly.

To make this a powerful paper, you need to offer insight that will help inexperienced users. Just showing readers that there is a minefield in front of them may be useful, but it is more useful to tell them how to find a path through that minefield and most useful to actually show them the path.

Presenting information on the existing variants, where they have been used, and by whom, offers interesting factoids for experts in this area, but not for new users who need help in figuring out how to approach this problem. That information will give us a place to start looking, but then this won’t be the paper we end up using and citing. As a reader (and editor) I don’t want something that is largely an annotated bibliography (i.e. just synopsis). I want something that teaches me something new and useful (i.e. synthesis). In the era of Google Scholar and Web of Knowledge, pure synopsis isn’t as useful as it once was—I can find the papers in a few minutes, instead of the weeks it might once have taken. But I can’t read them any faster, and I’m no smarter.

Your opportunity is to help me identify the critical insights that I should take away from all the papers. You’ve read them and distilled their messages for yourself. Give us the fruits of your intellectual labors. That will make this a review I want to publish.

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One Comment

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  1. suresh / Jan 16 2014 10:45 pm

    Typo in title — should be “Synthesis” not “Sythesis”? Nice blog by the way.

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