Tips on Literature Surveys
Prof. Marie desJardins
An evolving document, and in no particular order...
Finding Relevant Papers
- Google is a useful tool, but should not
be the only place you
look! Also, as you get to know the field you're investigating, you
can keep going back to google (and other sources) with new keywords
(buzzwords) you've discovered.
- CiteSeer, an online
citation index and paper database maintained by NEC, is a terrific
resource. Many of the top google hits will likely be to CiteSeer
papers. In CiteSeer, you can search by keyword/title/author, and can
follow citation links forward and backward from important papers.
There are also other nifty features like semantically similar papers,
and "importance" measured based on number of citations.
Many papers have associated (but possibly incomplete/incorrect) BibTeX
- For AI papers, if you really don't know where to start AI Topics is
sometimes helpful. It's a AAAI-maintained website that has some
introductory material, a collection of links on various topics, news
articles, and other interesting pointers. But the actual content is
on the non-technical side (it's more at the high-school term-paper
level), so it should just be one resource, not your
- Identify a few important and relevant (recent or classic/seminal)
papers, and work forwards and backwards through citation links
(following references in the paper, and looking in CiteSeer to see who
later cited this paper).
- It's important to know what are the key publications (top
journals and conferences) and researchers (most published and cited
authors) in your field of interest. You may be able to find this out
early in the process by asking somebody who's knowledgeable, or by
stumbling on (or starting from) the key seminal paper(s). Or you may
have to discover it more gradually. (If you see a citation or a name
repeatedly, look it up! It's important! But also note:
"important" is not synonymous with "good" -- sometimes everybody cites
a paper just because everybody else does, not because it's actually a
particularly good or useful paper.)
- Also pay attention to institutions -- you'll quickly learn which
places are doing important work in your area. (And my list of top
institutions for AI won't be the same as your list of top institutions
for graphics, or whatever. In fact, my list of top institutions for
my particular subareas of AI might not be the same as that of some other AI
researcher with a different focus. Of course, these things are
subjective, so my list might not even be the same as that of a
researcher with the same focus...)
Locating and Reading Papers
- If you can't find a paper online, try the library, other students,
your advisor or outside reader. Many professional societies offer access to
their on-line libraries to their members, including AAAI, AAAS, ACM, IEEE, and USENIX.
- Be sure you use your time wisely, using the paper-reading tips
we've already gone over to figure out which papers are worth reading
closely, and which only deserve a cursory review.
- Don't make the
mistake of "depth-first search" of the paper space. Instead, look at
papers closely enough to know how important they are, and to start
creating clusters of "similar" papers (i.e., identifying themes,
threads, or styles of research within the field). Then organize your
reading by clusters. This is a much more efficient way to read than a
scattershot approach. Also, doing this as you go along will help you
to organize the literature survey itself.
- As you read papers, make note of important citations to follow up
on (and what cluster those citations seem to belong to).
- Know when to stop. There will be more related fields than you can
possibly follow up on. Be prepared to say "Researchers in statistics
and physics also touch on these topics," perhaps (if you're lucky)
with a pointer to relevant survey papers on those areas, and
leave it at that.
- Take notes and keep them in an organized system -- notebook,
online, whatever. Don't just scribble on pieces of paper. I like to
make notes in the margins of papers, but also to write short bulleted
summaries of papers that are particularly relevant for an area that
I'm trying to synthesize.