Research Tips & Stories for Everyone
This is the first post - Yay! Research is a fun but sophisticated job (at least to me), so there will be lots of tips to share over many many posts. So, I wish to keep each relatively short & concise yet informative.
Literature review is one of the most important things in research. Why it is so important? Let me explain in this way. When we do research, write manuscript, and submit to a certain journal to persuade the editor and peers how important and suitable the work is for it, one word always bugs us - Novelty. Alas, just typing it already makes me stressed out! In modern research (especially in science and engineering), the novelty of work has been so emphasized in paper publication and how well to assess novelty of your work & make persuasive argument about it will likely be deterministic factors in successful defense of your work.
How literature review is related to novelty? Simple - the literature review provides the basis to evaluate novelty. Novelty is a comparative quality, so the knowledge of prior works in your research field/topic is essentially determine what's novel or not. The thorough and up-to-date literature review can empower you to 1) quickly filter and assess the novelty of your and others ideas, 2) formulate well-versed and -supported arguments to the editor and your peer reviewers, and most importantly 3) focus your limited time and resources to new, meaningful, and impactful ideas to best contribute in your field instead of repetitive or redundant addition (which are oftentimes the hallmark of bad research).
There can be many ways to do literature review nicely. Here are few methods I personally find useful and effective:
Curated literature review
Each research field has own wide and deep sea of literatures which are too much to digest all when we start our research career or dive into a new field. For such cases, curated literature reviews can be very nice mode to select. There are various forms of curated literature reviews.
1) Review papers
Review papers are the most traditional form of curated literature review, often written by the authors who are familiar with a certain research topic. But, I wish to add some caveats - there are too many review papers, often with ever overlapping contents (especially during COVID-19 pandemic), so selection of few good review papers can be a wise choice than being overwhelmed by reading reviews. My advice is to go for the most prestigious and highly selective journals of your field. Nature Publishing Group has developed a pretty comprehensive set of review journals (journals named Nature Reviews XXX) which are pretty helpful with relatively concise format with the copyedited stylish figures. In my fields, there are some traditional review journals like Chemical Reviews and Chemical Society Reviews which are in longer and detailed formats. Each field may have equivalent of these type of journals.
2) News collections
As research findings become broadly reaching to the general public, there are many news collection websites and their SNS accounts (Twitter, Facebook, etc) that cover various research areas. While this is not as professionally formatted or written as academic review papers, it is often very handy way to keep up-to-date on the latest research articles in your field (or at least make SNS time feels less guilty). In my fields, I follow Phys.org for physical sciences and engineering, Medical Xpress for biomedicine, and Science News for broad topic.
Daily crawling literature review
This is the main dish of tip I wish to cover - my favorite & arguably the most powerful mode of literature review, but with much higher difficulty. It is for advanced users who may take research as their long-term career, mostly because this approach is more like a making a habit than a quick-use tip. Let me explain more about this.
In each field (or fields if you work on multidisciplinary topics), new papers appear almost daily (or weekly/monthly depending on journals - but any field has more than one journal to cover, so virtually daily). If you could check most of newly appearing papers daily & keep track what's new and key contents (for works closely relevant to your research topic/interest) continuously over years, you will surely undergo an amazing process of becoming something wonderful - a walking review paper - the status that I think ideal & beautiful. I understand this sounds like a crazy approach, but I could do this for the last 7 years and I really guarantee that this is truly powerful. The key is efficiency and making a habit.
1) Efficient daily crawling - RSS feeds are your friend
Simplest way to keep up-to-date is just visiting all key journals in your fields every day or publishing day (every Wed around 1 PM ET for Nature, every Thu around 2 PM ET for Science, etc - I hate myself that I know these...). But, it will be overly tiresome processes as you may have a long list of journals to keep track - such inefficiency is the major source of difficulty to keep this powerful daily crawling not sustainable for long time. When I first tried to do this, I imagined that it would be wonderful if I have personal assistant who can collect all new papers in every key journals I selected and bring them on top of my desk every morning... and surprisingly there is a widely used technology doing exactly that - RSS Feed.
Most journals have RSS Feed link in their website that forward their new articles to the linked RSS Feed account (as an example, see Nature website below).
So, with your RSS Feed account to link from all journals of your interest, it can serve as a nexus of forwarded new article alarms you can check every day! There are various RSS Feed account services, but I personally recommend Feedly due to its intuitive and nice user interface & no cost (most basic functions are freely available). Also, many journal RSS Feed page provides option to directly link to your Feedly account (like the above Nature website). Feedly also supports search function where you can search your interested journal name directly and add if it appears in the search result. You also can easily categorize journals for easier tracking.
There is also one very cool feature in Feedly. It allows to export your collection of RSS Feed into OPML file to share it with others. Conversely, you also can import other people's OPML file as well (you can enter this menu by clicking a gear button "Organize Sources" next to Feeds tap). This is my OPML file if you are interested (contains key journals for multidisciplinary, materials science & engineering, clinical and biomedical research; You probably need to save as a file & import in your Feedly account to use).
Feedly is an online service, so you may need to open web browser. In my case, I find it is more convenient to have a desktop app that are connected to Feedly. There are several good RSS Feed apps for Mac and Windows - I recommend Leaf (the above image) which has very nice user interface!
2) Habitual literature review - Potential morning routine to add
Even with nice tools to make this process efficient, still the most important thing is making it into daily routine or habit. Reading papers every day can feel like a torturous way to live a life. But, I have done this everyday for the last 7 years, the first thing I do as a morning routine together with drinking a cup of coffee after wake up & wash without pain or pressure. How? Maybe I am an abnormal crazy research nerd. Or maybe the same reason why I and you love and do research. We are curious about things we do not know & eager to learn and understand better - now you have efficient tools to know and learn new stuffs every day in your beloved research fields/topics, why not do it with fun and joy? Make a habit & have fun. After few years, you will find yourself of being a proud walking review paper in your field (and surely be loved by your colleagues and collaborators).
Let me finish this tip by adding few more recent thoughts on potential advantages of the daily crawling literature review. Curated literature review, especially through prestigious review papers in each field is efficient and effective, but also come with some danger of being biased or affected by the existing academic power structure. As nicely summarized in recent articles including the one in Nature Review Materials, there is a tendency that papers from well-known and prestigious research groups/journals/institutions are being more frequently cited due to their higher visibility. I think that the daily crawling literature review practice can potentially overcome this danger by directly be exposed to new works in up-to-date manner with minimal curation, and therefore, empowering researchers to truly choose and cite the most relevant papers for each context based on their contents.
Let's all be walking review papers!
Disclaimer. The contents are my personal opinion and do not represent the view of any institution or company I am affiliated/employed. If you find any incorrect information, please feel free to let me know via my email.