How to write: Related Work

This post is the part of a series on how to write a paper. The first was on abstracts and the second on introductions.

The section that often follows the introduction is the related work section. The related work section may also be called a literature review. The point of the section is to highlight work done by others that somehow ties in with your own work. It may be work that you’re basing your work off of, or work that shows others attempts to solve the same problem.

There are a couple of schools of thought when it comes to writing the related work section. The first school of thought is to mention absolutely everyone and every paper that may be even remotely related to the topic at hand. Personally, I don’t like this method as it usually ends up being a long section with at most one sentence on each paper since there’s no room to give any actual amount of detail. It is also one of the reasons you may find a 4 page paper that is actually 3 pages of writing and 1 page of references.

The second is to pick and choose the most important papers and to only talk about them. This method allows the author to give about a paragraph or so of space for each paper and actually give details about what the paper is about. A paragraph of space is actually adequate to explain the contributions of the work and how it relates to your own work.

That’s the other important part of the related work. If you’re going to mention a paper, it needs to have some concrete relation to the work you’re doing. You should be able to (easily) defend each paper as to why you chose it and why it’s important. Some papers will be easy to defend – these are the papers that present work you’re building upon or papers that are about other solutions to the problem you’re working on. Others are more difficult. If it’s difficult to defend, then ask yourself why you’re including the paper and if it’s really necessary.

A few suggestions to make writing your related work section easier:

  • Every time you read a paper, write  a short summary of the paper and highlight an important sections. This way you can read your own recap of the paper to decide if it’s applicable instead of relying on the abstract.
  • Use the reference section of the papers you read to search for other papers to read. If paper a is closely related to your topic, then likely the papers they reference are papers that are also closely related to your topic and you should read them.
  • Look through the history of papers published at the journal/conference you’re submitting too. It’s likely you can find papers related to your topic.
  • When writing a paragraph on a paper, make sure you can answer the question “how does this relates to my work?” If you can’t, consider not including it.
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