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PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to find papers when you do your literature review

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

When you start your literature review, you may feel intimidated by the quantity of work that you should go through. You may as well be worrying where to start in the first place.

In today’s post, we look at different places where you can find (references to) papers that could be of your interest. Not all papers will eventually be equally important for your thesis. Depending on the article and its contents, you may simply browse the article for the main findings in less than 20 minutes, or you may sit down with the article for a week, pulling apart all its calculations and equations. But of course, you can’t know how important a reference is until you find it and have a first look at it.

Here are nine different places where you can find (references to) papers that you may want to check:

1. Ask your supervisor where to start
If your supervisor gave you your thesis topic, he/she may already have a folder with information on the topic. Especially when you are hired on a funded project, your supervisor must have already been doing some preliminary work to write the proposal. Your first destination for your literature review is thus to ask your supervisor for references that can get you started.

2. Read up on the basics in a textbook

If you are new to a topic, there is no harm in reading a textbook. While a textbook may not have the depth and information of a journal article, it can provide you with the basic concepts that you need to understand to start reading in more detail. In addition to this information to get you started, textbooks also typically have extensive lists of references. You can check out these references and download the relevant articles.

3. References from the research proposal
If you’re hired on a funded project, then the references to the research proposal are a good place to start familiarizing yourself with the work that supported the proposal in the first place. Download the references cited in the proposal so that you have all relevant background.

4. Find a good review paper on your topic
An excellent starting place for finding good references as well as getting a broad overview of your research topic, is by reading and analyzing a review paper on the topic. The references cited in the review paper can then be next up on your reading list.

5. Look for technical reports, theses, code documents etc
Don’t limit yourself to research papers to find references to other papers. In technical reports and code documents on your topic, you can find important citations (as well information of practical value). When it comes to depth and extent of analytical work, nothing is as complete as a PhD thesis. Look for theses from students who worked on your topic, and see which references they cited.

6. Google Scholar

Google Scholar can help you find relevant articles by using the search function. In addition, you can subscribe to updates of colleagues in your field, so that you have the latest references accessible. Depending on the publisher of a journal paper, Google Scholar may also be faster in reporting a certain article in their database than other database, which can take up to 2 years to include an article.

7. Scopus
While Scopus has strong searching functions, and help with identifying the relative importance of a paper in its field with the published metrics, it may be slow in including articles (for my own publications, I have noticed it may take up to 2 years before an article is included).

8. ResearchGate
ResearchGate allows for “traditional” searching for publications, but it also allows you to do the following: 1) follow researchers in your field so you can see their updates, 2) follow research projects of other researchers to receive updates, and 3) interact by commenting on publications, asking questions, and sending direct messages.

9. References of papers
Just as for the list of references of a good review paper, the list of references of any paper you read can be a good starting point to find more papers to read. Make it a habit to carefully check the list of references and see which publications you have “missed” so far.

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