How to conduct a proper literature review?
This is a very important question that every researcher (Ph.D. or Master student) should have at the early stages of his/her research program. In my opinion, there are generally 2 approaches for this.
- If you are an expert in that field, judge with your own discretion
- If you are new to the field, follow the steps described below
If you are already an expert in the field, you can technically judge the proposed method and choose the best paper. But if you are new to the field, you need to assess the papers from several perspectives. Often, the authors highlight the strengths of their techniques and provide results that support their idea. The problem is that they may not show the weaknesses. In order to go around this, you need to look at the authors’ other work. Are they new to the field or they just have one paper in this area? Typically the first and last authors are the most important. It is usually worth investing some time to research the background of the last author, which is typically the academic adviser (the professor). Has his/her research group proposed similar ideas in the past? Is this work a continuation or expansion of this research group past work? By following a positive trend, you can somewhat conclude that this technique has a strong background and has potential to grow. Citation is also very important. I have seen some papers which seem very promising at the beginning, but when I searched for papers that cited this paper, I realized that not so many people/researchers have adopted their technique. So, it may be wise not to follow these types of work, specially if you are new to the field. Of course, publication date is also important. If a paper is published 10 years ago and very few paper have cited it, it is not a good sign. Specially, if the authors themselves seem to have abandoned it. Is the first author still working on the same trend, or he/she is doing something else? But if a paper was published last year, number of citations may not be important.
Another important aspect of literature review has to do with the widespread use of a technique. For example, if a technique has been adopted in several fields, it means that this technique is well established and investing time studying it is worth the time you spend. Author’s of such work are typically well respected and having their name on publications is a good sign.
At the end, I would like to emphasize on the importance of the trend that a certain research group follows. It is very important to know these and have a comprehensive view of what they have been following, to gauge whether or not a research work can be trusted.
If you have any questions, post them in the comments section. As you may have guessed, I have successfully carried out many research projects over the years and would be very happy to help you. During my graduate years I have faced these challenges as well as working in the industry.