How to research quickly a state of the art – Practical guide

State of the art

Every scientific oeuvre starts with a state of the art. A state of the art is a text that summarizes the key concepts on the topic, explains the current status of the subject, and discuss the latest advances and challenges in the field.

This text is the starting point of the arguments that follow. It establishes a common ground between the writer and the reader. It is like an updated map of the subject that serves both the author to know how to organize the ideas and the reader to understand the context.

Create such a map is very useful when you are learning a new topic. You need a map to orient yourself. How the topic looks like. Its structure, variants, extension. Once you grab the main structure of the topic and its possibilities, you can lose yourself in the details wherever part catches more your attention.

I am talking about finding a few key resources that capture the essence of a topic and used them to sketch a mind map to orient yourself. This strategy is helpful in many situations. During learning, your mind map helps you to understand where each piece of information fits in the overall picture. When you are discussing a complex topic, your mind map puts your arguments into perspective with respect to the arguments of the rest of the people in the conversation.

Educate yourself quickly about a specific topic from the source is a useful skill. For example, assess the state of the art of a new technology or summarize the key arguments on a subject.

Scientific subjects can be very dense and difficult to follow. Having clear the basics makes a whole difference when diving into the topic.

So, how can we build this map in practice?

Search

Let assume that you are already familiarized with the basic terms of the topic of interest. You can express the subject in your own words and explain the key ideas to someone else. You aren’t novice anymore. You are ready to read SCIENCE, with capital letters.

At this point, you want to read scientific literature to create your own deep understanding of the topic. You need a list of few keywords on the subject. Don’t worry if your list is not too extensive, with 4 or 5 terms should be enough to start. As soon as you make your first queries, you will fine-tune those terms with related keywords.

If you are unfamiliar with scientific databases and you don’t know which one to use, I suggest starting with Semantic Scholar. It is a general database with many cool features enhancing the literature skim.

For the first query start with my 3-terms-formula

  1. Top 1 keyword of your topic. It can be a single word or a multi-word term
  2. Niche or application. This part is optional. It depends on how specific your initial keyword is, but in most cases, the top keyword is too broad.
  3. Review. Add the word “review” to get review articles. Review articles will give you a broader view of your topic and they contextualize the rest of the publications in the field.

Let’s imagine that you want to learn the state of the art of artificial intelligence applications in the healthcare industry. Your first keyword would be “artificial intelligence” and the second keyword or the niche “healthcare” and finish with “review”.

Within the first 10 results, you can already see two interesting articles. You can continue the search with different angles, playing with related terms like “machine learning” or “medicine”, and see what comes out.

Once you find a good keyword combination, you can move to the searching options. In Semantic Scholar there is an option where you can sort by relevance, citation count, most influential, and recency. I would play with these options to see how the results vary.

If after these tweaks you still haven’t found a perfect match you can narrow it down by filtering the field of study and publication type.

Try also removing the word “review” to see if there is an article that hit the bull’s eye.

Select

The scientific literature is vast and there is more information than we will ever be able to read. So, be very selective especially with your first articles

Select between 5 to 10 articles. Even if you think you are missing something by leaving out certain papers, don’t worry. Each review article will give you tons of references to read.

Chose a minimum of 2 articles from different authors. Although keywords are similar between authors there are always analogous terms for the same concept. Capturing this variability will help you to understand better the topic.

Look for the most relevant publications in the last two to five years. This is a rule of thumb. It depends a lot on the field. For fast-paced topics, 3 years is already old material.

Recent articles are better, not only because the information is updated, but also because it is easier to go back in time than forward. Think that if you read a paper from 2016, all the studies cited in the text will be from 2015 or older. You are missing references to the most recent studies.

Read

Now, you are ready to go. Download the articles. Add them to your library. Read, highlight, tag.

This will take you at least a couple of days. This process is time-consuming: identifying relevant articles, selecting which ones are worth adding to your scientific library, and actually reading the articles in depth. So, the stricter you are during your selection the more meaningful/practical/productive your reading time will be later.

The good news is that you only have to do it once. After that, you will set up a system to keep you updated automatically. Because the purpose of building your own scientific library is to have a resourceful tool and not a burden.

Let’s recap for a moment. Out of our initial search of the state of the art, we should have identified a maximum of 10 articles. Most of them reviews. Preferably published in the last 2 years.

Again, do not be afraid of left interesting articles out of your initial top ten selection. If they are worth it, they will come back to you via a citation in context or in future searches with different search criteria.

Keep up to date

After reading all this new knowledge, you will know where you want to go next. From this point, you have two roads to follow. The active and the passive way.

The active way consists in look for all the references that have caught your attention during reading, plus additional searches of new relevant terms you have found out. This is the case when you want to know more about the subject immediately. In this way, you can go as far and as deep as you want.

The passive way is intended to keep you updated in long term. It consists in feed yourself automatically with relevant publications on a weekly basis. We will explore both methods in the next posts.

Conclusion

Those are just the first steps in outlining the main lines of a new knowledge map. Educating yourself and comprehending the current status of a complex subject can’t be done overnight, but with these steps, you can quickly reach a good point of understanding.

A state of the art consists in read a lot. What is important is not only to read but also to capture the information to use it later. In this blog, I discuss how can we do that in a practical and efficient way.

For now, start your scientific library following these steps in your topic of interest. In the next posts, we will see how to keep it updated with little effort and massive results.

Your turn

What topic you would like to research the state of the art?

Leave us your answer in the comments.


How to build YOUR own scientific library

In this blog, I write about how to find, organize, and retrieve scientific studies efficiently to create your own scientific library.

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Author: Enrique Morales Orcajo, PhD

I am an engineer, scientist, and traveler based in Europe. I write about how to consume and digest scientific studies in a practical and efficient way. My goal is to help you make more sound scientific judgments.

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