Friday, June 01, 2007

Review Articles Are Your Friend

The following text is from a set of committee recommendations for MPOW on the matter of promoting review articles in subject guides:

"A subject guide is not an annotated list of indexes. When we start learning a new discipline, we do not dive into the most recent scholarly research on the topic.
Fister has shown that undergraduates typically have a hard time getting started on their research papers primarily because they do not know how to narrow either their reading or the topic. (Leckie GJ. Desperately seeking citations: Uncovering faculty assumptions about the undergraduate research process. The Journal of Academic Librarianship 1996;22(3):201-8.)
There are a number of reasons why we should be recommending review articles when applicable to the discipline. Review articles cover a topic over the course of decades and not just the most recent developments in the field; they tend to be written a more general manner; they are likely to mention scholars that a student would recognize from their previous lectures or course readings; and, they provide a rich citation source for further reading.

Finding tools are not always the best route to good evidence. Our search strategies quite often describe the information-seeking process as one in which tools--reference works, bibliographies, catalogs, indexes--are used successively and systematically to locate information, with the implication that most of the information used in research is located through finding tools. In fact, students (and other researchers) find the most direct and efficient route to sources through the citation network. The students interviewed used finding tools, browsing, and the citation network all to good purpose. They used finding tools chiefly as a method of browsing the field in the first phase of research, but relied more on citations in the later phase, once the research question was thoroughly defined. If students find much of their material through the citation network and through serendipitous browsing of shelves, we should point those out as factors in the search strategy rather than emphasizing the use of privilege bibliographic tools as the correct way to locate information. (Fister B. The research processes of undergraduate students. Journal of Academic Librarianship 1992 07;18:163.)
Furthermore, there are faculty expectations in the science, health and engineering disciplines that review articles should be a part of an undergraduate’s research:

Faculty members were also asked what types of literature they expected students to use in doing assignments… Somewhat more surprising is the expectation that undergraduates should be using review articles (67%), which are rather specific types of articles that are not easily found unless one is already familiar with the purpose and occurrence of review articles. In relation to this, several of the faculty interviewed observed that students did not seem to understand what review articles were or how they should be using them, which is problematic if more than two-thirds of the faculty expect students to use them.

Types of Literature Faculty Students to Use

Types of Literature

Faculty Expecting

Scholarly journals




Review articles


Electronic indexes / abstracts


Handbooks, manuals


Government documents


Print indexes / abstracts


Encyclopedias, dictionaries


Statistical data


Popular Literature


Note: “Science” includes Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Earth Science, Mathematics, Statistics, Nursing, Medical Science, Kinetics, Occupational Therapy, Computer Science, and the Engineering departments.

(Leckie GJ. Information literacy in science and engineering undergraduate education: Faculty attitudes and pedagogical practices. College and Research Libraries 1999;60(1):9 )"

I think review articles are a sadly underutilized resource in the library. Outside of the library, they get their due: PubMed creates a tab of 'Review Article' results as part of their default search interface.

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