A junior faculty conundrum: should I write that review article?

You are an assistant professor in the biomedical sciences and are three or four years in, trying to really hammer on your productivity before the tenure dossier goes in a couple of years from now. Professor MegaMentor, editor of your society’s second-tier journal (impact factor of 2.5), approaches you to write an invited review article on the state of your field. You take a look at the promotion and tenure guidelines for your institution and find that review articles are not counted as “original, peer-reviewed research publications.”
Professor MegaMentor has been very good to you since she spotted you as a rising postdoc when your advisor sent you to a Gordon Research Conference. She’s helped you already get invited twice as an ad hoc reviewer on a NIH study section, recommended you for your current position, and is someone who you will suggest as an external referee when you come up for promotion and tenure. This invitation is a great honor and you start pulling together your PDFs and some old hardcopies of articles.
But your cranky old chair, ProfessorBugUpHisAss, tells you that review articles are a waste of time and that you should only put your effort into getting the least-publishable-units of your primary research out the door and in press.

You walk down the hall disgusted – that out-of-touch old loser – you’ve been invited to write an article by a senior scientist who respects your opinions and growing reputation in your field.
So you saunter over to the office of AssociateProfessorRockStar who is about to come up for full professor after only five years since getting tenure. She and other senior members of faculty tell you that review articles are a thankless job best left to folks who’ve gotten tenure or those who don’t care if they don’t.
C’mon, what about the “scientific stature” of being invited to write a review article by a prominent scientist in your field? It will still be peer-reviewed and will be in a society journal – not the top journal but still a society journal. Plus, the review won’t be just a mindless literature regurgitation; you will synthesize new ideas and it might even serve as the basis for the Background and Significance section of your new grant application. A publication is a publication, right?
[cue crickets]
I was just rolling through a reformatting of my CV and found a couple of my own review citations and pulled out the original articles. Some of them are pretty good and I’ve turned to them time and time again to give to new people in the lab. Some older ones I even still use in teaching because of their historical perspective. One even got incorporated into a clinical textbook despite me not even being a MD. And two of my reviews are among the top four most-cited articles of my career.
These articles bring me pride, even ten or fifteen years later, but I doubt that they brought me tenure.
While publishing in Nature Reviews journals might be an exception, review articles largely get no respect by promotion and tenure committees, at least in the pharmacology related departments where I have trained and served.
Is my experience common? Should junior faculty put any energy into review articles, invited or not? Are there any subdisciplines where review articles get counted as original contributions to the literature? Should anyone write review articles, regardless of whether they hold tenure or not?
Why then are review articles the first place many of us turn to get a feel for an area where we lack significant expertise?
Better yet, in writing for a more general audience, are review articles simply the science blogs of the conventional publishing world?


12 thoughts on “A junior faculty conundrum: should I write that review article?

  1. Write the review article and be proud of it. You can safely ignore all the rhetoric about review articles not counting in tenure decisions. That’s a load of crap.
    What they mean is that review articles are no substitute for published original research but they are lying to you if they pretend that review articles–especially good ones–are ignored. A candidate with a good publication record of original research and good review articles is vastly superior to one who has never been invited to review his/her own field. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
    Besides, you have long-term interests to consider. Don’t let the tenure decision interfere with those interests.

  2. My primary faculty mentor (as assigned in my tenure packet) and my Dept chair both encourage me not only to accept invited reviews but to write reviews and send them to journals (like the Trends series) without invitation. My personal view is that reviews are an excellent opportunity to increase the visibility of your particular niche within an area and they create the impression (or maybe illusion) that you are an important player in your area. All of these things feed into the national and international reputation part of the promotion and tenure packet.
    Finally, reviews are relatively easy to do. More often than not they are just enhanced versions of your background and significance portions of your grants. Why should no one outside of your NIH study section ever see these things that we labor over for months?

  3. I accepted an invitation to write a review article during the 3rd year of my pre-tenure appointment. I think review articles play an important role in establishing your credentials as an authority in your area. Also, a good review article will continue to garner citations for a long time.
    The important thing to keep in mind is that review articles are icing on the cake. Peer reviewed research publications are the cake.

  4. How does it work for a postdoc or a senior graduate student contributing to a review article? I contributed to one review article in Analytical Chemistry when I was in grad school, one book chapter during my postdoc, and have two upcoming review articles (co-authored) in my postdoc. Do these have any value when I apply for faculty positions?

  5. Go ahead and write the review and be proud it. I’ve similar experiences 14 and 5 years ago, invited to write, but my superior make hell lot of excuses and requirements to dicourage me and may be to stop me, I went through the higher authority and get it appoved and finally published. I’m proud of my review papers.
    I sincerely encourages my junior scientist to start writing review articles for society and regional journals as a start.

  6. I think that writing reviews is very good. I just did a count and my review/book chapter to primary research article ratio is almost 1:3 (I have about 95 primary research articles) over the last 16 or so years (I am an Associate Professor now). I find it very gratifying and I use these reviews as ‘prizes’ for students or postdocs in my lab – it is really good for them to publish 3 papers in my lab AND a review article. I think that the whole system benefits.
    I have gone to meetings where students come up to me and say things like – I read your review in Trends journal or ‘such and such’ journal and I am surprised because I write reviews for myself and assume that no body will read them (of course, the reprint requests are not so common these days because of wide availability through institutional subscriptions) but it also helps keep track of at least a fraction of the people who read the article.
    I have almost been made fun of at a talk I gave where the person who introduced me talked about what I had published but then added that ‘he has also published LOTS of reviews.’ That was the ONLY time in my life, I felt that perhaps one should not do it. Of course, I am incorrigible and reckon that I have written at least 15 reviews since then.

  7. Sounds like we’ve got a lot of support for review articles from this learned gathering of commenters. Perhaps junior faculty should consider suggesting Profs Moran, Pandey, or Parveez as external examiners.
    I agree completely with those of you who said hold that while there is no substitute for original, peer-reviewed research articles, having also written reviews is a big plus – I like how Prof Moran goes so far to note how he would view two candidates relative to their review track record. I think that this answer also speaks to John’s query as to how reviews would be viewed as a candidate for a tenure-track faculty position.
    Several of you noted that writing reviews helps the trainee in another sense – a review article can be written while one is accumulating data for research publications. I have found this approach valuable for new postdocs who are jumping into a different area. Getting up to speed on the new literature seems to be more effective when one is also having to write a review.
    Great supportive advice from some very prominent scientists – keep the comments coming.

  8. I’m with the crowd in that review articles cannot substitute for primary research article but do contribute positively to one’s status.
    This is one strategy of a high-publishing lab with which I am familiar that partially offsets the suckage of only hitting very high IF journals. The corresponding low article numbers of each individual trainee is partially compensated because it seems like each CNS is followed by a review somewhere by the first author with only the PI or maybe one more person.

  9. Not to be too crass about it, but review articles are also a way to publicize your own peer-reviewed papers to a wider audience. You certainly can’t write a review focusing solely on your own work (unless you want to piss off the editor and every potential tenure reviewer), but you can subtly work in your important contributions and put them in context. This will eventually help with the number of times your papers are cited, a criterion many tenure review panels consider.
    Write the reviews!

  10. Thanks for comments from the senior investigators.
    I’m a 3/4 yr postdoc and my review:data paper ratio is about 1:6 so far. I have also struck this anti-review article bias occassionally and I haven’t really known what to make of it. In my cross-disciplinary field the sentiment has usually come from physiologists who do detailed intensive investigations in what I regard as very small numbers of people/animals.
    I was of the opinion that being invited to write a review was a mark of prestige in one’s career (although barring our major textbook, should I ever be so lucky, I won’t write chapters- I regard them as slave labour). So it’s good to hear from the senior people here that reviews aren’t universally regarded as a waste of my time.
    I’ll try to remember Prof Moran’s advice- No Substitute.
    Thanks again

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