Doug Kell, chief executive of the BBSRC, published an enormous review article in 2009 on iron chelation and disease. The review had 2,469 references. (D. B. Kell BMC Med. Genom. 2, 2; 2009). I’m not sure what the record for a single article is, but that is certainly a large number of references to have read and digested for a review.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find Doug Kell speaking up in favour of review articles in a brief letter in this week’s Nature. He highlights a comment in a recent news piece in Nature which was critical of a new bibliometric tool because it included review articles:
Review articles, which may not add much to the research, count the same as original research papers, which contribute a great deal.
Well, you can understand what they are saying. A typical review article may be a useful round-up, but it does not usually report new knowledge. Kell’s mega-review is in a different league, and it is not surprising that he should defend the role of the review article in research. He points out that reviews turn facts into understanding:
A research paper usually provides just one or two new facts, whereas reviews synthesize our understanding more broadly and make it more concrete… some reviews summarize thousands of papers.
Open Access policies (at least, those of MRC and Wellcome) also seem to regard review articles as less valuable than original research articles. While MRC-funded and Wellcome-funded authors must deposit all primary research articles into PubMedCentral within six months of publication, they are not obliged to do the same for review articles. I think such a requirement might cause some problems as often reviews are commissioned specifically. But I wonder whether we will at some point want to extend the OA umbrella to review articles?