Staying on Top of the Literature

I recently have been talking to some of my colleagues about how to do literature reviews effectively, and I thought it might be useful to share the techniques that I have been using over the past year. I’d like to say right away that I am definitely not an expert (I have never even written a literature review article!) but I’ve tried many different things and I thought those adventures might be worth sharing. I also noticed that I couldn’t find any articles like this one when I was trying to teach myself how to do a literature review - that is, no one was sharing the activities they actually did on a regular basis to stay up to date on the literature. I’m sure most of us don’t need a perfectly rigorous method, but all of us just need to have some means of staying abreast of the key developments in our field. This article is meant to share what I have been doing because I have found it possible to do these things regularly, and I also want to start a conversation with my colleagues because I think I can improve this in many ways.

When I started as a grad student, I read and watched a couple different sources on how to do literature reviews. I would recommend

I’m going to divide this post into sections as follows:
(1) What is a literature review?
(2) How do you find sources? (3) How do you read papers? (4) How do you record what you have learned from a paper?

What is a literature review?

A literature review typically refers to an article written to present a collection of papers from a field of research, although for the purposes of this post I would like to broaden the definition to also refer to the activity of staying up to date on the literature in your field, which we should all do regardless of whether we plan to write an article or not. A formal literature review article is usually written to acheive one of two objectives: to update the research community on the state of the art in the research, and to argue for a new approach to doing the research [1]. Literature reviews are generally not exhaustive - that is, they usually do not cite every single article that has ever been published within a specific field [1]. Researchers expect to complete literature reviews in the space of 2-4 months, not 18 months like a clinical review, which must be more thorough [1]. Literature reviews tend to cite on the order of 100 references.


[1] Julie’s notes.

Written on September 3, 2019