3 Ways to Improve Your Literature Review

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Supercharge your literature review — get more done in the same amount of time

I’m a PhD Chemist who specializes in polymer science, specifically on making sustainable polymers in applications such as wind energy, automotive adhesives, and airplanes. I learned a lot of things during my PhD about who I was, what I wanted to do, and most importantly how to teach myself anything.

The way to teach yourself anything is to review the literature and this post will give you three ways to make your literature review 10x more efficient and the next time you give a presentation or have to speak during a meeting you can be confident that you know your stuff and look your boss in the eye and tell him that you are right.

1. Go Back to The Beginning

Every modern field started somewhere so go back to the start. We have the internet and this is infinitely easier than it was 20 years ago. Understanding where your field started and how it has evolved to where it is today will give you the insights of someone who has worked in that field their whole life.

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Let’s say you are a paint salesman at Sherwin Williams and a mother of 4 comes into your store asking you about wanting to get her house repainted. But she is uncertain about paint containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that could hurt her children. If you know the history of interior consumer paint then you know that the VOCs level of paint is at it’s lowest level ever, continually dropping, and that it is the most versatile way to cover the walls of a house with color, design, and patterns. Further, advances in interior paint are now at a stage where they are designed for specific climates so a paint for a house in New Orleans is different than a paint for a home in Arizona. Things such a mold and mildew prevention are on the minds of scientists at paint companies while also reducing or removing components that were thought to be safe 10–20 years ago. As someone who works in the paint field you can show her literature on how VOC reduction in paint has gone from 600 grams/liter in the 1940s to almost 0 in 2010.

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Paint has come a long way since being solvent borne in the 1940s

Having an understanding of where your field was 20, 30, 50, 100 years ago will help put everything in perspective and is a way to rapidly increase your experience in anything. All you need to do is read back through history.

2. Ready Everything You Can Find

Reading a patent from the Shell Development Company in 1958 saved my ass in that it taught me how to do 1 reaction that was the basis of my PhD. If you are a graduate student in engineering or science and you are not reading patents then you need to start. The National Science Foundation is projected to award about 1.7 billion dollars in research funding for 2016, but this includes diverse disciplines such as geology, chemistry, marine biology, and aerospace engineering.

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This patent saved my ass in graduate school. It unlocked much of the work in my PhD and it was published in 1958

If you are a scientist or engineer with hopes of going into industry then you really need to be reading the patent literature. The patent literature contains at times vague data, it is not as detailed as an academic paper, and it’s written in a weird lawyer dialect. A set of patents will however demonstrate current or past trends in any industry where progress is not restricted to 1.7 billion dollars/year.

This sounds like obvious advice, but not everyone has the patience to figure out how patents work and extract the useful information. Reading the claims and a few examples in a patent can immediately tell you if it is useful, especially if you are reading 20–30 in a day trying to figure out what is useful for you. If you are really interested reading the introduction and detailed description of the invention can be helpful in providing context and lead to further readings of the literature cited.

In a industrial field such as polymer science of epoxy resins the patent literature is on the cutting edge because more private research dollars have been spent on epoxy resin research by companies like Hexion, Huntsman, Shell, and 3M than any government institution since the 1950s. Sometimes it’s up to academics to catch up.

3. Market Research and Market Trends

If you have made it this far in this article then you know that going back to the beginning and reading everything including obscure patents from the 1950s is important for advances in 2016 and beyond. So armed with your vast amounts of data and literature how do you make it mean anything in your own research, writing, or real world application? The answer is knowing the market.

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After you have read 30–50 years worth of literature you should have a good idea of where the market is headed

So you are a professional with 20–30 years of experience in some field and you are 10 years way from retirement. Maybe you are in middle management and you have 10 people that report directly to you. If you are not up to date on market trends and where the market is headed in the next ten years then you have a rough 10 years ahead of you. What is stable and safe now might not be stable and safe in 5–10 years.

Understanding how and where markets are going can give value added importance to the literature review you just performed.

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Blockbuster didn’t know where the market was going and some small company called Netflix took over

The internet has made literature review infinitely easier than it was twenty years ago but it has also been the birthplace of new industries and markets that can cannibalize old ones. Understanding how and where those markets are going can give new meaning and provide insight to the literature review you just performed.

For example lets say you just performed a literature review on hazardous chemicals that will be phased out in the next 3 years. These chemicals could prohibit the sale of products like plywood and break pads and signify a radical shift in the market for somewhere like Europe. You know the market will be different in 3 years so you have 1–2 years to develop something new and get it approved before those new laws take effect.

Sometimes you don’t have 3 years, but rather it happens overnight. Read social media, what are people talking about on twitter where your field is the subject. What are your competitors patenting this year and do they know something you don’t? Reading everything you can get your hands on is great, but if you don’t think about it in a sense of The Market then its not as valuable.

If you have questions related to graduate school, polymer chemistry, or trends in the chemical industry then find me on

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Thank You for Reading to the End

Written by

Writer of The Polymerist newsletter. Talk to me about chemistry, polymers, plastics, sustainability, climate change, and the future of how we live.

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