Keeping up to date with new literature and reviewing the existing literature helps you to build deep knowledge and understanding in your field. Developing effective reading strategies and systems to retain and evolve your knowledge over time is a key part of your research project. With millions of papers published every year in more than ten thousand different journals, the challenge lies in finding relevant papers for your work, deciding which ones to read in-depth and working out how to retain and build an expansive knowledge over a long time frame, while balancing this alongside all your other research activities.
In this multi-part Academic Reading Series we’ll focus on systems for reading and learning from academic papers, pooling information from our experiences in academia and advice from current researchers. In this first part we’ll cover searching for papers.
Why read Academic Papers?
Academic papers share the details of recent developments and discoveries, and are the most up to date records of advances in a field. When starting a new project, you’ll typically first spend a lot of time reading. This reading helps you to build a solid working knowledge, and learn about current areas of investigation and interest from researchers in your field.
Every paper you read can also help you to:
- learn standard techniques and methods for your project
- discover emerging or new techniques and theories
- find and access relevant data sets for analysis
- identify other relevant papers in reference sections
- spot gaps for your exploration
- notice opportunities for new projects and collaborations
- save yourself time so you don’t repeat what’s already been done
Papers are an invaluable source of information that you can use to build your foundational knowledge, determine interesting directions and to generate novel ideas for your projects.
Papers and your Research Project
Publishing papers is the academic standard for disseminating ideas, discoveries and findings. Through your research projects, you’ll add to the body of academic knowledge, ideally contributing something novel to your field. Depending on your research stage your project may involve writing a thesis or dissertation, publishing a literature review or papers to share your ideas within the research community.
Typically academic writing involves referring to previously conducted work in the field to provide the context for your own work and sharing the information and evidence that supports your approach or methodology, as well as your findings and interpretations. So the papers you are reading will form a critical part in shaping your research and are also needed for your writing.
While reading, you can start to create a personal catalogue of information and ideas that you can refer to when writing. Depending on how you build your catalogue and organise notes from your reading, you can then save yourself time searching for relevant knowledge when you sit down to write or want to plan out an investigation in future.
Finding Relevant Papers when starting a Project
When you first start a project, you’ll likely be pointed in the direction of some relevant literature by your supervisor or PI. There are several ways to find other relevant literature to read and would strongly recommend speaking with the experts around you, such as asking other researchers within your group, (if you are joining a group) or looking at your PI’s other publications, and exploring the publications of any collaborators on those papers. Your PI may have varied research interests so keep in mind not all of their publications will be relevant for your project.
If you are continuing a project from a previous researcher, then their thesis or publications can hold relevant information, as well as point you towards other relevant literature from their references and bibliography.
Recommendations from your PI and other researchers may point you in the direction of Seminal papers – the work that initiated or presents key ideas and theories in your field. These are the papers synonymous with your field so as you are searching for relevant papers, don’t disregard some of the older papers in your searches.
Another way to identify relevant literature is finding relevant conferences in the field and exploring the presentations, posters and keynote speakers listed on the websites. Again asking other researchers in your group and your supervisors will help you find conferences and meetings.
It’s tempting to go search and uncover everything through searching online, but don’t forget to take advantage of the specific knowledge and expertise available from the people around you.
Finding Relevant Papers Online
As you deepen your familiarity with your research, you’ll start to notice and identify the most relevant recurring keywords in the papers you’re finding. Take note of them for use in your future searches. These keywords and combinations of those keywords can be used to help you with finding further relevant literature through literature databases like Google Scholar, PubMed or Web of Science. You could even use these keywords to set up notifications to alert you about newly published papers related to these keywords.
Literature databases operate on keyword searches and have additional filters available to apply further parameters to your search, such as publication date or publication type as well as citation count. Generally high citation counts, when you consider the publication date, can indicate key papers and researchers in the field. These high citation papers, and their authors offer another avenue for finding relevant papers for your project, from the references section of the paper and looking at other publications from these authors.
Review papers can be a particularly good source of other relevant papers. Reviews assess and analyse the published work in a field to date, and also highlight potential areas for further investigation. The references section of these papers can point you towards several further relevant papers for your project.
You might have come across the idea of a ‘Seed Paper’ and this is a paper you find that is very relevant to your work, which can act to point you in the direction of other relevant work. Tools like LitMaps can be useful here, as they show you the prior and derivative work based on the references in the paper, and which papers have since cited the paper.
Ongoing Literature Search
Searching the literature is an expansive and iterative activity. Finding relevant papers to read should be a regular part of your research activities. As you identify your keywords, you can take advantage of automated notifications when new papers are published. You might also identify particular journals that publish relevant research and you can monitor RSS feeds, using tools like Feedly to see new publications.
There are also lots of AI tools to help with your academic research from identifying relevant papers, generating summaries and ‘talking’ with collections of your papers. These tools can definitely speed up your search and reading process. Keep in mind AI can be an incredibly useful tool, but you’ll need to analyse, interpret and apply the knowledge to direct your project in new and interesting directions.
Literature Searches are an iterative process, you might need to try several different combinations of keywords to find the most relevant results. And as your project evolves or you follow different lines of inquiry in your work, you should search with updated and/or new keywords to unearth relevant literature.
It can be beneficial to save these searches, as well as the papers you want to look at in more detail. Some tools keep a log of all your searches performed, others you might need to keep track using your own system.
Organising Relevant Papers
As you start finding relevant papers, it’s beneficial to make use of Reference Managers. These tools capture the important information about a paper and contain a link or copy of the paper for you to access in future. Adding your papers in you’ll start to build your own personal literature library, which will be an invaluable resource as you continue your project.
With a growing literature collection, which will only get larger over time, Reference Managers are a much better option than having a load of open Tabs, saved bookmarks in your browser or a Folder of PDFs on your desktop. These Managers let you develop organisational systems to group related papers together and help you to add references into your academic writing. Proper referencing is a critical part of all academic writing and is made much quicker with a reference manager. You can use popular reference management tools like Mendeley and Zotero, and Protolyst also has built-in referencing.
In the next part of this series, we’ll cover deciding which papers to read and different approaches to reading papers.
- There are many ways to identify relevant literature to build your knowledge and inform your research project direction. You can search through literature databases, search using AI tools, and don’t forget to seek suggestions from your PI and other researchers in your group.
- Once you’ve identified a relevant paper, look at the references in that paper and explore other publications from the Authors to continue building your knowledge.
- Reading papers is an ongoing activity, consider using systems to organise your searches and the papers you discover
- Keep track of your Keywords to iterate on your searches for relevant Literature
- Make use of Reference Managers to keep track of all the papers you are discovering to read and refer to in future
- Keep track of all relevant papers, you can decide which ones you should read and how to read them later
What tips and advice would you add? We’d love it if you let us know!