The work that an author creates can look very different when a researcher uses it, a novel property of digital publishing with which we have hardly begun to grapple. Authors’ incentives and objectives shape the creation and dissemination of their scholarship. But while respecting authors’ objectives, the scholarly publisher may at times have a role to reformulate their works to serve additional needs of readers and other users.
There are implications of this principle in a number of scholarly publishing forms, but today I want to focus on its application for the review article in particular. In a previous post, I focused on how literature reviews are created, especially the challenges facing an author in seeking comprehensiveness. Here, I will address the needs of the researchers who consult literature reviews and review article, or might wish to do so, following their publication, and some strategies to better serve their needs.
Review articles may appear in any number of different journals, but some journals have long been devoted to the review article or incorporate them systematically. Annual Reviews publishes extensive subfield-specific reviews of the recent literature in 46 fields. Studies in English Literature organizes its quarterly issues into each of four recurring time periods, and each issue includes a review of recent publications pertaining to that time period. The Journal of Economic Literature contains not only regular review articles but also book reviews, a classification system for new books, and an index of dissertations in the field.
In these cases and most others, the review article follows narrative conventions similar to other journal articles. The sources being reviewed are referenced through the same citation system as other articles. Sometimes there is a conclusion or set of recommendations for the field. And ultimately, the article is formatted as a PDF.
In another area, reference, our approach to the publication genre has been systematically rethought since the spread of the internet. While so much of the narrative has focused on Wikipedia and its implications for Encarta, Britannica, and World Book, academic and professional audiences still need and use specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias. These reference works may stand alone through their own digital interfaces as the databases that they naturally are rather than the codices they were once forced to be. And many are also integrated into the Credo Online Reference Service, which provides an integrated discovery and access experience across a variety of underlying works. An editor labors to create The Dictionary of American Regional English, but a graduate student simply finds a definition for an unfamiliar word she has come across in an archive. This is a shift of the greatest importance: the systematic elimination of the book, not only print but electronic as well, from our conceptualization of undertaking a reference task.
How might this line of thinking apply for the literature review? When my former colleague Matthew Long and I wrote about the research practices of academic chemists, we couldn’t help but focus extensively on discovery. In addition to their needs for streamlined current awareness without sacrificing serendipity (which I covered for the Kitchen here), chemists spoke at length about the fantastic resources that are comparatively buried in the traditional form of the literature review.
While compiling the state of a given field is a coherent project on the creation side, delivering this to the researcher in the form of an article assumes a certain type of discovery process. It assumes that a subsequent researcher finds and downloads this journal article and then works through it, presumably in a fairly linear fashion. Valuable for many purposes, absolutely, but for others this may make no more sense than printing a dictionary and binding it as a codex.
Could the review article’s organization and analysis of the field be used to improve discovery in other types of research workflows? There is extensive data implicitly present in such pieces about relationships among publications, which could be useful as a signal that articles are related to one another (offering up the possibility of implicitly curatorial in addition to semantic or usage based recommendations). A review’s annotation and discussion of individual sources would be quite valuable as signals for trust if incorporated in a discovery system, much as book reviews serve for monographs in online bookstores and licensed content platforms. Imagine seeing the one sentence blurb from a neutral scholar while conducting a search, or even the secondary social functionalities that could be developed. We might also find stronger bases for altmetrics than those currently in use.
Repurposing the review article or other literature reviews in these ways would be no small challenge and might be prohibitive retrospectively. But prospectively, publishers should consider opportunities for adding structure to review articles (if not all literature reviews) that would enable them to be reused in other settings. Without diminishing the value in having the review article remain as a standalone output, can we capture the benefits of having access to the analysis they contain in other settings as well?