Do a lit review

How to do a literature review for a project in the lab.


What to read

A great place to start is the bibliography folder for the project(s) you are working on. As you read, you should be sure to update the project's lit review.

How to read

Barbara Sarnecka has a great blog post on how to read the literature. I'm quoting her approach to surveying literature here, in which you spend 30-60 minutes per paper.

1. Read the title.

Make note of any words you don’t understand, or any questions you have.

2. Read the abstract.

The abstract is a summary of the whole paper, and it’s worth taking the time to read carefully, several times over if necessary. Again, make note of any questions you have or words you don’t understand.

3. Scroll through the paper and look at the figures.

Figures that illustrate methods or models should give you a good idea of what the researchers did. Figures that illustrate results should show you what the researchers found, and good ones will show you what the researchers’ hypotheses were. Again, make note of any questions you have.

4. Skim through the rest of the paper for the answers to your questions.

The rest of your reading of this article will be guided by the questions you wrote down in Steps 1-3. With experience, you will be able to find the answers to most questions quickly. Here are some examples of common question types, and where to find the answers.

What does [word] mean? Or, what does [abbreviation] stand for? All technical terms and abbreviations should be defined the first time they are used. But sometimes authors break this rule in the title and abstract, where word counts are limited. So look in the introduction for the definition of your mystery word or abbreviation. If you are reading the paper on a screen, you can save time by using the ‘find’ function to search. If the word or abbreviation is not defined in the paper, shame on those authors. You can decide whether to look it up online (but be careful, because scientific terms can be used very differently across different subfields) or just let it go. Personally, I usually let it go. An author who doesn’t bother to define terms isn’t trying very hard to communicate with me, and is not entitled to more of my valuable time and attention.

What question did the authors set out to answer? You can usually find this information in the last paragraph of the introduction. If the information is not there, the authors haven’t organized their introduction properly. Again, you can choose whether to search further or let it go.

What did they measure, and how did they measure it? This information is in the method section, along with information about who the participants were (for experiments with human subjects) and (hopefully) all the other details you would need in order to replicate the study.

What did the authors find? (Not what they think it means.) How did they analyze their data? This information is in the results section.

What do the authors think their findings mean? This information is in the discussion.

5. Write a few sentences to a paragraph of notes.

The final step in surveying an article is to write a paragraph or so for your own notes, summarizing the authors’ central claim and the main evidence for it. Also note any details that are particularly relevant to your work. For example, if the study used a design or an analysis that you might use, make a note of it.

Updating the lit review

Here's what you should put in each:



Citation (APA)

the full APA citation of the paper (generated from the bibliography)

Main idea

A few sentences to one paragraph summarizing the main idea of the paper (see 5 above)

Notes & questions

Any extra notes you want to add or question you have about the work

Suggest a new paper

If you’ve found a new paper that you think is relevant to a project or that the lab would find interesting, please share it! There are 2 steps to sharing a paper with the lab.

1. Upload the paper to paperpile

Log in to paperpile using the shared login found in the Lab Passwords doc on the Lab HQ.

Add the paper to paperpile using any of the options under the "add papers" tab. I recommend the "Search Online" option if it is available.

2. Share as a message in Basecamp

Once the paper has been added to paperpile, you should share it as a message in the Papers team on Basecamp. The title of the message should be the author and year of the paper.

Write a summary of the main idea of the paper. Be sure to include any keywords you think may be important for finding the paper using the search functions, including topics, relevant ages or age ranges, or lab projects you think may benefit from the paper. Keywords may be written as part of the summary or may be included in a brief introduction to the paper as shown below:

Summary by Annalise Kendrick

Include a hyperlinked citation at the top of the message. You can copy the citation from paperpile using the "Cite" button and choosing "Citations".

To create a hyperlink from the citation, highlight the entire citation and choose the link icon. In a new window, return to paperpile and click the down arrow to the right of the paper entry. Choose "Get Link" to automatically copy the link. Return to your message and paste the link into the hyperlink field.

Post the message.


Do I add all of my old papers? No! Just be sure to use the Papers team from now on!

How do I keep track of individual papers for my project? However you want. The Papers team is just to help us keep track of papers as a lab! You are still free to organize the papers for your individual project however you would like. Just be sure to share any relevant papers with the lab as well!

Do I have to answer people's questions about a paper I submit? No, it is not the submitter's job to answer every question asked about a paper they submitted. Any discussion about a paper should be 100% voluntary. One possible response if you are unsure of an answer could be, "I'm not sure! If you read it and find out the answer, I'd be interested to know this myself".

How do I search for a paper in Basecamp? You can search for a paper using the search function on the Basecamp toolbar. You can adjust the "Search Everything", "by Anyone", and "Search Everywhere" fields to narrow your search to Messages by a specific person (or leave this on "by Anyone") in the Papers team.