Literature reviews, conferences, and seminars

There are a few sources that academics can use while developing their research questions. These include the current literature (such as books and journals) and academic meetings (such as conferences and seminars).

Literature review

Formulating a good research question almost always requires a thorough assessment of the relevant literature on the topic of your research. The main goal of a literature review is to determine what research has been conducted on the topic of interest, how it was conducted, and what knowledge gaps still exist.

Conferences and seminars

As with performing a literature review, attending conferences and seminars is an excellent way to keep up with the latest research developments, understand what is being studied,  and identify what knowledge is missing in your field. This knowledge can help you formulate your research question. Exciting or controversial topics are often presented, and there are opportunities to speak with peers and experts. If you have the chance, try to present your unpublished results (usually in poster form) at a conference and encourage people you meet to give you feedback on your presentation. The way others respond to your work will be a good indicator of how much (or how little) your future manuscript will appeal to others.

If you present your work at a conference and it gains little attention, compare your topic with topics that attracted greater interest. How do they differ? Can you adjust your topic to focus more on current trends? If your study fails to attract the attention of your peers at a conference, your article will be less likely to be published, or to be read and cited if it is published.

If you work in chemistry and need online resources to formulate a research question, see the example below:

Example: Chemistry

A vast amount of published literature and a number of databases collectively catalog the structure and characteristics of chemical compounds.

The reference librarian at your institution’s chemical library can help focus your literature search on the best resources. The more information you bring to your librarian (field focus, hypothesis), the more he or she can help. Do not hesitate to ask for further help when your independent searches stall. Staring at a computer screen not knowinig what to do next is not a good use of your time. Librarians can help with onsite, offsite, computer, and mobile access; database licenses, permissions, citation and acknowledgment requirements; and resources available though other libraries. 

Chemical databases 

Chemical databases allow you to search by structure drawings or molecular weight or formula, in addition to standard names and identifiers. SciFinder (Chemical Abstracts Service online) is often considered the most comprehensive chemical database, covering some 89 million substances and 40 million literature references dating back to 1907. More specialized databases may offer more efficient searches for particular processes or classes of compounds.

Literature searches

Literature searches for existing data on compound characteristics can help you streamline or redirect your own research. This can save you countless hours. Reliance on such third-party data has traditionally required attention to its “provenance” (origin) by verifying peer review status, replicability, clearly identifiable compound characteristics, fit with other established research, and consideration of alternative conclusions. Modern databases may generally be assumed to have done much of this vetting on your behalf. Note that each journal may have guidelines or standard practices for citing or incorporating received compound data. These guidelines may shape how you conduct and document your literature search. 

In addition to large literature databases such as Scopus  and Web of Science, you can try special publisher repositories such as the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemical Sciences Article Repository.

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