Day 10: Start with the most influential literature in your field

Yesterday, I gave a quick tip about constructing a narrative for a literature review.

When you have a mountain of literature, though, it can be hard to know where to start.

Of the thousands of available papers, only a few (maybe as few as 5-10) will have had a big impact. By focusing on these groundbreaking papers and understanding;

– What problem they were addressing
– Why the problem needed solving
– How they did the work
– What they discovered or proposed
– Why it was so important and influential

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then you can use that as a foundation for understanding all the incremental work that follows (because they are responding to the groundbreaking work).

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9 thoughts on “Day 10: Start with the most influential literature in your field

  1. Hi James, this is wonderful tip! I won a PhD fellowship, and I am now at the exact stage of figuring out the “top 10” papers (which I am struggling ). Can you please let us know what you think is the best/fastest way/method of doing it (through Mendeley, Google Scholar search….?!).

    I’mm just kinda lost of where to start, and giving that I don’t actually have much time for finishing writing my dissertation (and that my topic is not much related to my advisor/lab research), I would MUCH appreciate your help/tips on this.

    Thank you so much and please keep doing the your WONDERFUL job!!!!

    • There are three easy ways to do it.

      1) Look at the number of citations. I’d use a search engine that allows you to decide how the results are sorted and just rank them that way (Google doesn’t let you do this, but web of knowledge does).
      2) Read the introductions of a few relevant papers. They will probably have some citations in common. The people everyone cites are the groundbreaking ones
      3) look at wikipedia. It will tell you who invented, for example, a particular technique or theory

      • Thank you! I can’t tell you how HAPPY I was to hear about Web of Knowledge. Unfortunately, I just got off the phone with their support team and the only way to subscribe to it is through an institution (unfortunately, you can’t pay for a subscription and I can’t access Web of Knowledge thought my institution).

        Is there any other good way/search engine to keep track of the most cited papers (i.e. that allows you to sort/control “search results” in the way you talked about)? As you mentioned in your “SEARCHING FOR LITERATURE: WHY GOOGLE SCHOLAR IS A BLUNT INSTRUMENT” article, google scholar makes it really hard (Impossible!) to do it, as we are not able, at all, to control how search results are presented.

        I thought I was alone in my “hate” for Google Scholar way of searching (since it seems to be the #1 choice of every PhD student….or perhaps the only one they know about). So, I would really appreciate if you can let me know if there is any other good search engine, that’s not Web of Knowledge. Thank you SO SO much!!!

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