Tiju Thomas

Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering
Indian Institute of Technology Madras
Sardar Patel Road, Chennai 600036, Tamil Nadu, India


ph. no: +91 8056456442
email id: tt332@cornell.edu or tijuthomas@iitm.ac.in

Our Research Group

Applied Nanostructures Engineering and Nanochemistry (ANEN) Research Group

ID6020 Panel Discussion notes (28 Sep., 2017)

Sifting through scientific literature, and critical reading of academic articles

In an age of information explosion, figuring out what to read and how to read is important. It is becoming increasingly challenging to stay on top of all major developments taking place within one's discipline. I suspect that even if we devoted all our time for literature survey, we would still not be able to read every article published in our discipline. I must admit, I find it really challenging to stay on top of every important event in materials science. Honestly speaking, I have'nt yet figured out the most fool proof way of fruitfully navigating through piles and piles of literature, while retaining every important detail I come across.

Hunting for the most relevant pieces of information is a skill every researcher should have. And yet, it surprises me that we barely spend any time talking about the art of sifting through academic literature. Like any other art, it requires intuition, skill and practice. After several years of doing academic research, I think I am slowly coming close to having a successful strategy for staying on top of recent developments in my field(s).

Here is what years of trial and error taught me! I am going to give you some general suggestions and hints for good literature survey:
(a) identify prominent journals in your discipline and subscribe for their electronic newsfeeds. The feeds will provide you with tit-bits of recentmost developments in the area covered by the journal. This can provide you with the first glimpse of latest developments.
(b) learn to use abstracting services. They are usually helpful in zeroing-in on articles of relevance to you. While using the search engine of the abstracting services, play with different key words and descriptors, which are crucial to the sub-discipline you are interested in. Using time-sensitive searches is also very helpful in understanding the chronological developments in your sub-discipline.
(c) after zeroing-in on a paper; you may spend some time reading the title, abstract, and figures captions. This should help you understand the primary thesis of the paper. If it seems interesting and relevant to your work, dig deeper, and read the contents of the paper carefully.
(d) While reading the paper, ask basic questions about the results presented. Do you think the results are presented and discussed in a consistent manner? Are all the statements made substantiated, and consistent with already existing knowledge in the field? How do the results presented contribute to the state of the art? A well-written paper should provide answers to these basic questions with crystal clarity. Using your knowledge of the subject, try to find answers for other questions of relevance, that are popping up in your mind.
(e) after reading the paper, you should spend some time contemplating about how it fits into the larger scheme of the discipline. Does this paper enable you to identify new directions and problems, which you could work on?

Even if you are entrusted with reviewing an article, some of the hints provided above (regarding critical reading of an academic article) will be helpful.