No one ever likes related work

I haven’t submitted a ton of papers over my years in grad school. I’ve submitted more than some and a lot less than others. And way way way less than anyone who’s been in academia as a professor. However, there is one thing I’ve noticed from the all the review responses I’ve seen (whether in response to my own papers or to others) and that is that no one ever likes the related work section.

Seriously, I’ve never seen a review come back that says “wow, your related work section is great” or “thorough job on the related work section” or even more simply “good related work.” Instead, reviews seem to always include some negative comment about the related work. The comment often includes a “why didn’t you cite x” where x may or may not be the reviewers own work and they feel ripped off that you didn’t reference them. Or it may be super vague like “the paper only briefly touches on some of the related work while missing lots of the other important work done” that really doesn’t help you as an author. Seriously reviewer, if you feel there’s key related work missing, the best thing you can do is tell them what papers you find key so they can add them in. And, of course, there’s always the comment about not mentioning work in field x or y that really isn’t even remotely related to yours.

With the amount of papers that are published now, and the number of publishing venues, it’s impossible for even a diligent author to have read absolutely everything on the topic. All the authors can do is to try to give a reasonable overview to indicate that yes, they have read up on the topic. This doesn’t mean that the related work section should be automatically criticism free – there are cases where you may know of some paper that really does fit and isn’t mentioned, so yes, pass it along. But we need to stop with the ridiculously high standards that no one can meet – a related work section that touches on every possible piece of related work out there.

Some of my favorite responses are the ones that state that there isn’t enough related work, and there also isn’t enough description on the experiment done or analysis of the results. Well, dear reviewer, something has to give. There’s only so many pages that I’m allowed to fill, and I generally assume that you’d rather read about what I did over what others¬†have done. And so it’s always a balancing act – how to give enough detail on my own, while attempting to satisfy the unsatisfiable related work section.

Reason 85 I don’t want to stay in academia – I’m just not willing to get into these petty fights anymore and care about stuff that really doesn’t matter.


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