Guest Post: No time for literature review? Outsource it

outsourcing literature review

This is a guest post from Julio Peironcely from Next Scientist.


Julio Peironcely is the founder of the blog Next Scientist and a PhD student at Leiden University. Julio helps scientists with blogging and social media. Grab his videotutorial on How To Create A Science Blog.

We all know reading papers and writing a literature review should be the abc of a scientist. But let’s be honest, we don’t have time for it. So why not outsource literature review?

Before you kill me for suggesting not to read academic papers let me explain. If you do research in field A, of course you have to read and know every single paper.

Now imagine you found field B interesting, and you think could use some of the techniques from field A you are familiar with. Before you start working on adapting those techniques, you should figure out if somebody already did that.

So you need to read papers from field B and decide if it is worth investing more time. But this takes time and it is uncertain and you rather be doing something you are sure it will work.

Does outsourcing sounds more interesting now?

No, I am not proposing to ask a company of virtual assistants in India to do it for you. Well, sort of.

I am proposing something closer to you. Ask an undergraduate student to do a literature review for you in exchange for some credits.

Before you accuse me of prostitution or slavery, let me explain.

I am doing a PhD in The Netherlands and in many studies here, MSc students have to do a 5 week literature review project. Afterwards they will go on a 3 month and later a 9 month internships.

For research groups like mine, having literature review students is a great way to find potential interns, which is a great way to find potential PhD students.

The idea is simple. During some weeks the student will find papers on a topic of your choice. He will read them and condense all this knowledge for you in a nice report. All you have to do is every now and then guide the student in his data collection and in his writing.

It is a win-win situation. You get a report with the state of the art and a list of useful references in case you decide to proceed with your initial idea in field B. The student gets some credits and learns to read and write academic articles. And he can also decide if he likes the research in your group and join later on for an internship.

In case you deicide to outsource your literature review, I would like to share with you what I learnt while supervising students doing literature reviews.

Manage Your Expectations

Do not expect a report that looks like one of those Nature Reviews. Understand it is made by a student and not by you. So don’t judge the quality as if you had written it.

It is not 100% effort free for you. If you have to get something useful at the end, you need to guide the student and teach him how to find information, how to write down the main ideas and how to connect them.

Be specific

Do not pose an immense research question like “How is genomics used for cancer?”

Narrow it down to concrete ideas like “How has next generation sequencing been used to differentiate ovarian cancers?”

Supervise the writing

Writing is a skill that takes time to develop and writing a literature review is a good opportunity to do so. Help the student with academic writing.

Ask for an early draft version of the report so you can have a peak at how the student writes. Try to correct bad habits and and share tips to make the text clear and concise.

Give some freedom

We all have preconceived ideas and assumptions. So if you micromanage your student and force him to follow a fixed path, you will end up discovering what you already know.

The student is not limited by your experience, so let him explore around and wait to be gladly surprised by what he can propose.

Don’t give too much freedom

It can happen that the student gets fascinated by a paper, he wants to know more about it and dives in. When you realize, the report contains only ideas similar to the ones described in that paper. But you wanted an overview!

Do not let personal interests of the student dictate the direction of the project. If he is into eastern culture and you ask for treatments for ovarian cancer, do not let him base the report on just acupuncture and feng shui.

You learn in the process

You learn to plan a little project, that has to be realistic and doable.

You discover new ideas and ways of thinking from a fresh mind.

You become more accountable, since the student depends on you.

Now it is your turn

Have you asked students to do literature review for you?

What are your best practices concerning literature review?

We would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below.


    • says

      I don’t think the idea is for students to write your literature review. They write a literature review for their own project about a topic that you decide. You basically get to read their lit review and understand a new topic and they get to submit it for their report.

  1. says

    It’s a good idea. However, to make it workable you need to get the right resources (i.e. access to these students). Most PhD students in my uni work ‘alone’ (quite sad!) and no access to such resources. We don’t even have literature review or writing classes during master level. Sigh! I do see the win-win situation of the idea and only wish our faculty has thought of such initiative.  

    • says

      Yes I know, we don’t have that facility here either. Might be something to think about though if we ever get a chance to change things :)

      One thing I did think about though is that with PhD places being
      quite competitive, masters students might be willing to do a literature review for experience, a reference and to get to know members of a group in which they would like to work. I’m certainly going to look for opportunities to try it out.

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