Lit Research 101: Tools and Tips

So, what exactly is “literature research”? This is also referred to as “literature review” but (in my honest opinion) the word “review” just doesn’t do adequate justice to the level of searching, archiving, reading and note-taking that is involved. In short, lit research is a one-person quest to discover and review the full body of published, authoritative materials pertaining to a specific research area or topic. In previous eras, this meant spending hours in the stacks at the local library and if sufficiently dedicated, utilizing the inter-library loan to get your hands on the latest-and-greatest publications and journals. However, in today’s hyper-connected society, literature research involves a lot of web searches using software tools to help you mine the vast collections of research publications and related information freely available via the internet.

(here’s a good YT video if you’re interested in a more in-depth understanding of the lit review/research process)

If lit research seems like a tedious and odious ordeal, it is because it IS a tedious and odious ordeal! For the first leg of your journey to becoming a recognized expert on a given academic subject — and to produce some meaningful and original contribution to your field’s body of knowledge — you must first sit at the feet of the sages who paved the road before you. By “sit at their feet”, I mean you have to read their publications and understand their various approaches to solving your research topic or question. While the initial goal is to learn what has been accomplished in your chosen field of study, there is a second objective that you need to keep an eye out for as your pore over COUNTLESS papers and articles (notice that I didn’t say “books”): gaps or shortcomings in past research endeavors. These gaps may present opportunities for future research questions or topics.

Here’s another quick, free lesson: not all publication sources are created equal! One thing I learned from my initial web searches for research papers was that there is a conference or journal out there for everyone and everything. If you have high aspirations as a researcher (or attend a school with a research reputation to uphold), then you may want to apply some discretion in the venues from which you select reference materials (see my post on Journals & Conferences). IEEE and ACM are the usual sources for high-quality, peer-reviewed research papers but not all of their conferences are deemed equal. There are multiple ways to elicit the prestige level of various globally-dispersed conferences but the quickest way for me was to simply ask my faculty advisor! She quickly pinpointed the top-tier conferences and similarly identified ones that I should stay away from. Since then, I’ve learned that the top papers commonly cite publications from the top conferences and journals.

Every week of this lit research phase brings new lessons for what to do and definitely what NOT to do! I am amassing a core set of tools that is making my time digging through papers well-spent and organized. Here’s a glimpse at my current “go to” tools:

Mendeley: Mendeley is my lit research “command center”. All of my sources, citations and documents are collected and managed by Mendeley. There are other reference management tools out there — EndNote, BibTex, etc. — but I settled on Mendeley after using their Web Importer plug-in for my Chrome browser. While I can use the Mendeley app for my literature searches, I typically opt for Google Scholar or IEEE/ACM online libraries. With the Mendeley plug-in, I can find a document or citation or interest and simply push a button to have it catalogued in my local research database by whatever topic/subtopic I choose. Since it is still early in my lit research phase, I am still narrowing down my research topic and greatly appreciate binning references into topical buckets that may one day fall off of my research radar.

Google Scholar: Backed by Google’s amazing search engine, Google Scholar is a god-send for research authors. I just learned TODAY(!) that Scholar shows the number of times the paper has been cited (my Simulation Interoperability Workshop whitepaper is stuck on 3 citations). This indicator reflects a paper’s relative “popularity” and can loosely be used to ascertain “goodness”. I can retrieve some of the same results as Scholar by using Google’s regular search engine and filtering by ‘’ or ‘’.

Overleaf: When I first started my doctoral studies many — many — moons ago, I was perplexed by academia’s fixation with the industry standard for typesetting, LaTeX. Now mind you, back in those days, PCs were just growing out of its primitive MS-DOS phase and into its first edition of MS Windows. Needless to say, Microsoft Word and other word processing applications were a long way away from being the robust tools they are today. Well, this LaTex was all the rage back then but during my extended break from the research world, I’d assumed that LaTex went extinct liked I’d secretly hoped for vi and emacs! So imagine my surprise when I learn that LaTex is still going strong and a whole new suite of tools are now available to help you keep the long-standing tradition of authoring research papers in LaTeX alive and well. I first downloaded TexMaker on my desktop and then I found Overleaf, an online LaTex editor that allows collaborative writing and editing. After just a short time using Overleaf, I am slowly shaking off my early LaTex misgivings and appreciating the opportunity to get my advisor’s markups without seeing the dreaded, mood-crushing RED INK!


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