Critical Thinking

As you review papers, do not be afraid to question what is being said.  Part of science is critically reviewing others’ work and checking for validity.  You can be sure that as you begin to write reports and papers, your peers will be reading them with a critical eye.  Developing the skills and knowledge base of a field required to evaluate and review papers critically is a process that takes time and effort.  However, you should start this process immediately.  Sometimes, having a new perspective on a problem provides valuable insight into issues.  One common pitfall new researchers fall victim to is the assumption that those details which they fail to comprehend are a result of their own lack of experience.  You should not be afraid to question results and strive for more understanding.  Often having work reviewed by new students with different perspectives results in an improvement of explanations and procedures.

If you plan to cite an article in a report or paper you write, be sure to read the entire paper completely.  You should never cite an article with which you are not fully familiar or do not fully understand. 

Have a conversation with your mentors about their opinions on the most appropriate journals and conference proceedings for your project.  Publications are ranked according to different criteria.  Conference proceedings vary by field in the quality of the work and extent of peer review.   For rapidly changing fields, some of the most important results are presented in full length, highly reviewed conference proceedings, as archival journals have a longer period from submission to publication (often years).  However, some conference publications are only abstracts or short papers and are based on a cursory technical review.  Your mentors will help you identify those publications which are most reliable, where you should focus your initial efforts.  In some research groups, team meetings include review and discussion of important new papers.  This can help you develop your foundation and skills for critical review.

Know Your Research Topic Thoroughly

Regardless of the focus of your research, after the preliminary review, you should be prepared to study relevant papers, reading them multiple times, working through equations, and making sure that you understand details of the research and its contribution.  This is time consuming, even for advanced researchers, but very important.   As you develop your knowledge of a given field, this process becomes easier, since you have a foundation upon which to build.

The onset of a research project is not the only time you will conduct a literature review.  Instead, it is an ongoing process throughout the life of a project, and your research career.  When you begin a project, it is imperative that you know what has been done in the past, and what researchers have studied recently.  Science is not stationary.  New discoveries are being made at a rapidly increasing pace, and new methods are constantly being developed.

Therefore, you should regularly repeat your main keyword searches and ascertain what is new.  You should do this at least once per month to help you stay current.  You can also use web services such as to alert you when relevant articles have been published.  This will also help to make sure you are not spending a large amount of time on research after you have been “scooped” by someone else.  ("Scooped" refers to when another researcher publishes an article on the same research topic as yours, but before you!)  With widespread access to literature, the probability of more than one researcher coming up with the same idea as yours is more likely than you would think.


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