Literature review — that isn’t

Research papers are considered incomplete without a literature review section. This demand is much stronger when it comes to PhD thesis. In papers, some authors put this at the beginning after introduction, and some opt to put this at the end before the conclusion. Most beginner authors, and sometimes even experienced ones, are confused about the purpose of this section. And not surprisingly a typical LR section would look like

In paper 1, authors describe ……

In paper 2, the authors describe…

Paper 3 talks about …

Paper 4 is about work by ….

If you drop one or two of these paragraphs, no one will notice the omission! This is not literature review, as it offers no review! It has 2-3 problems. Before we analyse that, what is the purpose of literature review?

First of all, when you report some work, one would like to know if anyone has attempted such a thing before. If not, exactly the same thing, at least something close to it? If it is already done, then you have a stronger job to defend your work, since you are reinventing (if not copying) the work already done. Usually, the answer won’t be a “yes”. And that usually does not mean you have invented something completely out of the blue!

There will be related aspects that may have been done or attempted by others. A similar approach for a different domain? A different approach for the same domain? Similar domain or problem, with different assumptions/restrictions? And so on. This usually will give you a baseline for you to refine your approach. If you are departing from the model widely followed in the literature for similar class of problems, it is necessary for you to defend the departure.

Each such work needs to be looked at critically, from the perspective of your research objective. And this is why it is a review! So the review cannot be a paraphrase of the conclusions or abstract of the papers; let alone a verbatim copy of a few sentences from it. That is why a paper reviewed by 10 researchers will be depicted in 10 different ways. This is, of course, the hardest task often, since we are taught to adore anything published elsewhere, and more so, if it bears a tag like IEEE or ACM etc.

First of all, a researcher must take the view that no paper is perfect. This links to the mindset issue I remarked in an earlier chapter. Second, criticising a paper from the perspective of my research objective does not make the other paper bad! I am only expressing that the situations applicable to that work may not apply to my work, or the result obtained for that work may not suffice for my work, …. This is the key for growth of research.

So a literature review should be a consolidated opinion of what you have found from the literature in relation to your work. Has anybody attempted this problem? Who all did? In what all different ways? Did they succeed? To what extent? What was missing? Is this a solved problem?

If no one has directly attempted this, what are the closest attempts to your objective? How are their domains similar to yours? And different from yours? How will this difference make that work unsuitable for your objective? What approaches are found in the literature which are potential candidates for your work? Are those approaches applicable to you? If not, why not? What results (performance, accuracy, etc) have been obtained by them? How good are they for you?

Bringing out all these aspects, you summarise your findings, and then chart your own path.

This requires reading the papers, making your own notes, connecting up the papers in your mind, linking them to your problem, and then writing down the review. Literature review is not an incremental summary of papers you ended up reading. It is also not a show piece of how many papers you have read!

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