Some thoughts about literature review

by Edward Z. Yang

While working on my senior thesis, I had to write a prior work section, which ended up being a minisurvey for the particular subfield my topic was in. In the process, a little bird told me some things...

  • If you can, ask someone who might know a little bit about the subject to give you the rundown: there's a lot of knowledge in people's heads which never got written down. But also be aware that they will probably have their blind spots.
  • It is better to do the literature review later rather than earlier, after you have started digging into the topic. I have been told if you read the literature too early, you will get spoiled and stop thinking novel thoughts. But I also think there is also a little bit of "you'll understand the literature better" if you've already thought about the topic on your own. Plus, it's easy to think that everything has been done before: it's simply not true! (But if you think this, you will get needlessly discouraged.)
  • Don't indiscriminately add papers to your database. You should have something you want to do with it: is it an important paper that you have to cite because everyone knows about it? Is it directly addressing the issue you're dealing with? Does it happen to be particularly well written? Is it something that you could see yourself reading more carefully later? Don't be afraid to toss the paper out; if it actually was important, you'll run into it again later.
  • Every researcher is a historian. When you look at a paper, you're not just looking at what is written inside it, but its social context. There's a reason why "prior work" is so important to academics. If you don't understand a paper's context, it's unlikely you'll understand the paper.
  • Researchers don't necessarily talk to each other. Pay attention to who they cite; it says a little bit about what community they're in.
  • Researchers are happy to send you copies of papers they have written (so fear not the paywall that your university hasn't subscribed to). They may even volunteer extra information which may come in handy.
  • Be methodical. You're doing a search, and this means carefully noting down which papers you skimmed, and what you got out of them, and keeping track of other veins of research that you need to follow up on. It's like chasing a rabbit down a hole, but if you have some clearly defined search criteria, eventually you'll bottom out. You can prune the uninteresting papers later; the point here is to avoid duplicating work.
  • Read papers critically. Not everything that is published is good; that's the point of research!

What are your favorite maxims to keep in mind while you're surveying the literature?