Lit review

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

1. Collecting papers

Usually the first thing you want to do is just collect a bunch a papers that exist on your topic. No need to read all of the papers at this stage — you are just gathering potentially relevant papers.

The tips below are adapted from Dr. Meredith Tamminga! Thanks for sharing 🥳

Step One: Collect papers via Google Scholar

  • Search for topic keywords (e.g. acquisition of variation)

  • Download all relevant-seeming papers from first few pages of results.

  • You might want to setup a library proxy since you are likely off campus. Here are the instructions for Penn's: If you are not a Penn student, your visit your university library for instructions.

  • Include “linguistics” in search if you are finding non-linguistic papers (for example,

    the first result for “morphological change” is titled “Caspase-3-generated fragment of gelsolin: effector of morphological change in apoptosis” — good clue that these words have different meanings in other fields!).

Step Two: Search relevant journals for topic keywords

  • Go to the home pages of journals that you know to be relevant to the topic (for example, Language Variation and Change, Cognition, Journal of Memory and Language) and use the “search within” feature.

  • Download any papers that you haven’t yet come across.

Step Three: Cite/skim/summarize the first round of papers

  • You can pull citations from Google Scholar: click the little “cite” link at the bottom of

    the search hit, then use the APA format (or you can click on “BibTeX” at the bottom of

    that window...) .

  • Look over each paper’s abstract — you can remove papers from the process at this

    stage if they aren’t as relevant as you thought, for the ones you retain, you can paste the citation and abstract into the relevant thread on #Lab Papers.

  • Also add the citation to the relevant folder in Zotero.

If you haven't been assigned a thread to use in #Lab Papers, yet, you can create one for your topic.

Step Four: Mine bibliographies of most relevant papers

  • Use the abstracts from Step Three to pick out the several (maybe 3-5) most directly

    relevant papers you’ve found so far.

  • For each highly-relevant paper, actually read the lit review (usually the introduction) while cross-referencing with the bibliography — highlight or check off each reference that you don’t yet have and want to find.

Step Five: Iterate

  • Go to Google Scholar and search for each paper you noted in Step Four.

  • Download the papers you are able to find and do Step Three and Step Four on them.

  • You can repeat this process a few times if you keep finding new things, or stop if you seem to be going in circles.

2. Surveying the literature

The tips below are adapted from Dr. Barbara Sarnecka's blog post on the topic.

Dr. 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.

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