Performing A Literature Review And Managing References

About the Author: Seth is a rising senior undergraduate in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. He participates in volunteer microbiology research and has been involved in the Killian Lab since 2016. He is an Undergraduate Research Fellow and is currently developing a tissue engineering tendon platform to study the enthesis.

An important part of the research process is finding out what’s already known about the subject you want to explore. In well-researched areas, this might mean searching through hundreds of papers published by investigators before you. Fortunately, there is a special kind of research paper that gathers all recent findings and remaining questions about a given subject, called a review paper. Review papers essentially summarize a large amount of information in order to allow researchers to become well-informed in a field without reading hundreds of papers.

When delving into a subject the reader knows little about, it is best to read two or three review papers published within the last five years. The more recent the review paper, the better, as it describes the current understanding of the subject of interest. Furthermore, these review papers will highlight specific published work that may be of high interest to the researcher. At the end of reading these papers, the researcher should have a significantly improved understanding of the subject and know whether the question initially posed is a valid one. If the question is worth pursuing, researchers may further investigate the work highlighted by the reviews, as well as perform general searches on databases like Google Scholar and PubMed. For further guidance on performing a literature review, see articles on starting a literature review here and here, or for writing a review paper here and here.

During a literature review, researchers will find it helpful to use a computer application that is capable of editing and organizing research papers. One such application is called Mendeley, and is freely available to the public. Mendeley allows users to highlight important information in PDFs, in addition to easily cite scientific papers. A Microsoft Word Plug-in allows users to cite papers as desired using whatever reference scheme they choose. Once a paper is cited using Mendeley, its citation is appended to the end of the document, and its corresponding number is inserted into the text. This allows for much higher efficiency when typing technical papers, and is highly recommended.

Figure 1: A short excerpt from a paper published by Heisenberg et al. discussing intracellular actin flows. Note Mendeley’s shading allows readers to emphasize key points in a text.

General guidelines to follow when beginning a review paper on an unfamiliar subject include: highlighting text, using darker shades to signify higher importance, reading once for general understanding and once for key details, and thoroughly examining figures. First, highlighting inherently draws attention to specific and most important parts of the paper upon re-reading. Second, by reading once for general understanding, and then narrowing scope to the key details, readers will find the paper easier to understand and extrapolate from. Finally, figures assist visual learners, as well as offer a simplified visual depiction of the most important information in the article.

As a general rule, organizing references is made much simpler through use of a reference organizing software. A user interface for Mendeley is shown below:

Figure 2: The user interface for Mendeley, which shows authors, titles, years, publisher and publish date of scientific papers. Further segregation of papers into varying folders created by the user further increase organizational potential.

Of course, other software outside of Mendeley exists to achieve this same purpose, and readers do not have to use a reference organizing software at all. However, readers will find a significant improvement in efficiency when comparing use of a reference organizer against other methods.


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