Tools for a Research Project – Part I: Literature Review

If you are masters student like me, chances are that you will be asked to do a lot of research based assignments and projects. The most important of the lot will be your masters’ thesis. You will be expected to pick a topic and conduct independent research under the guidance of a supervisor(s). The simple old school copy-pasting from Wikipedia won’t cut it. Depending upon your area of study, you will have to review the work done in the past in the subject area, conduct experiments, collect data, perform calculations and discuss the results.

This is no easy task, but there are a number of tools that will make your life a lot easier. I am currently working on my thesis and use all of these on a day-to-day basis.

Google Scholar

The first step in starting a research project is always the literature review. Many people dread this stage. Becuase this includes searching for the research papers, reading through pages after pages of technical writing, much of which is difficult to understand in the first read, and finally figuring out which part of that paper is relevant to your work. 

To find the papers you can use Google Scholar. It is a very robust tool to search for academic literature. After going on to google scholar you could just type in the words and wade through thousands of paper which Google’s algorithm throws at you. Or you could do it the smart way. For that, you will have to click on the small triangle on the right side of the search box. This reveals advanced search options.

Let’s say I am working on Deccan flood basalt and trying to figure out which minerals I will find in the cavities near the town of Nashik. In the box ‘with all the words, I will have to include terms pertaining to my main research theme so I will include ‘Deccan’, ‘flood’ and ‘basalt’. Now you would be wondering why I left Nashik out when it is my region of interest. Even though I will be focusing my work on that area it would help me to know the overall composition and properties of Deccan basalt. I can leave the word ‘Deccan’ out and search for flood basalts of the entire world.

Next is ‘with the exact phrase‘. I usually leave this blank unless I know of something very specific. This can be very useful for other sciences where effects, phenomena, theories, functions and the likes are given the names of places and scientists. For example Euler’s theorem. If you include this in the first box, any article which contains these two words will be returned. So the article may contain Euler number and Pythagoras theorem and it will be returned as a search result even though you didn’t want it.

Going back to our first example, if I want to know of all the flood basalts in the world, except Siberian traps for whatever reason, I will include ‘Siberia’ in the field ‘without the words‘. This comes really handy when seemingly unrelated articles keep popping up. Field after this is ‘with at least one of the words‘. If you want to know more about specific sub-topics, instead of searching for them one by one, you can add all of them here. e.g. ‘trace element’, ‘zeolite’, ‘fractures’.

If you already know of any authors who have published good papers on the topic, you can include the name of the author in ‘Return articles authored by’. Including only the last name of the author usually works but if you are sure of the full name of the author you can include the initials of the first and the middle names as well. If you want to be more specific and only want to read articles of that author published in specific journals, you can include those in ‘Return articles published in‘. You can also set the time period in which the articles are published in ‘Return articles dated between‘. This option can be used to set an upper limit, lower limit and specific year depending on which boxes you fill.

From the search results displayed, some will have a link displayed in front of them. These articles are available to download without any hassle. For others, you may have to visit the page and see if the article is available for download. If it isn’t available straight away, you can try logging in using your institute account. There is a possibility that your institute is a subscriber of the journal in which the article of your interest is published.

Google scholar also has a chrome extension. While browsing if you come across the name of a paper, you can simply select it and click on the extension. It will give you the link to that article on the scholar.



Now that you have downloaded all the documents, how will you manage them? You can dump them all in a folder and open each article one by one every time you need to search for something. There is also a risk of hard disk crashing. And what if you have more than one device on which you work? Going through a paper in your free time on your phone for example. You will have to manually copy each new article that you download. Needless to mention all the trouble you will have to go through matching the comments and highlights you have added while reading.

One great solution is Mendeley. It is what is called as a reference manager. There are similar softwares available but they all are either paid or not as feature rich.I can write an entire post about using Mendeley effectively but I will restrain myself as much as I can.

Visit Mendeley’s website, create an account and install Mendeley on your computer. Once it is set up, simply drag and drop the articles which you have downloaded from google scholar. it is likely that you will be working on more than one projects at any time. It is a good practice to make separate folders for each one.

Once you’ve downloaded an article, simply drag and drop it and Mendeley will add it to your library.  Once a file is added, open it and open the sidebar so that you can see all the details. Make sure that all of them such as spellings of the names of the authors, the order of the authors, name of the journal, etc are correct. If not, rectify them straight away. It will help you in the long run.

Now you can read the files in the Mendeley itself. No need for a separate program. You can highlight and annotate the articles and it will be synced to your account. Setup Mendeley on all the devices you have and now you can take your references with you wherever you go.

I will discuss another very important feature of Mendeley along with other tools in Part II of this post.


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