Monday, November 10, 2014

A Formula for Academic Papers: Related Work

The Related Work section of an academic paper is often the section that graduate students like writing the least. But it is also one of the most important sections to nail as the paper heads out for review. The Related Work section serves many purposes, several of which relate directly to reviewing:
  • The person handling the submission will use the referenced papers to identify good reviewers,
  • Reviewers will look at the references to confirm that the submission cites the appropriate work,
  • Everyone will use the section to understand the paper's contributions given the state of existing research, and
  • Future researchers will look to the Related Work section to identify other papers they should read.


When placing your research in the context of the existing literature, there is no need to show that prior work is all wrong to show that your paper makes a contribution. In fact, doing so is likely place reviewers and readers who have written relevant content in a combative frame of mind as they read. But these are the people you most want to listen to what you have to say! So rather than focusing on why your work is better than what has already been done, show how it builds on existing knowledge to provide additional insight. Write your Related Work section as if you were telling the cited authors why they should care about the work that you present. After all, they are the people who will probably be reviewing your paper.

Papers do not need to exist in a vacuum to be interesting, and the typical contribution that can be made in ten pages is relatively limited. While you should aim to change the world with your body of research, you are unlikely to do so within a single paper. Avoid over stating your contributions. Be particularly wary of declaring that your paper is the "first paper that we are aware of" in an area. While I know it is tempting to do so (and I am even guilty of doing it myself), statements like this usually trigger an intense related work search when I see them as I review. It should concern you if you believe nobody else has looked at an analogous problem to yours. Chances are very high that there is something similar out there that your work can draw from.

Conversely, do not freak out if you happen to come across related work during your literature search that seems to address the exact same problem that you are studying. In an ideal world you would identify all relevant work prior to starting your own research so that it can inform your approach, but in the real world that doesn't always happen. You may have holes in your initial lit review, or related work may be published after you begin a study. Surprisingly, however, this is generally a good thing. It means that other people are excited and interested in your topic, and it provides you with a fresh way of looking at things. There is a large space to study surrounding any problem, and your work probably makes a contribution. The challenge is just to figure out what that is and how to communicate it clearly to your readers. 

Because reviewers will be drawn in part from the papers you cite, cite papers written by people you would like reviewing your work. Reviewers are likely to look at your citation list to ensure completeness -- and, sometimes, to ensure that papers they have written are cited. To avoid bruised egos, do not leave significant holes and try to include papers by a variety of different authors.

Include citations to your own papers when relevant, even if the paper you are writing is being submitted anonymously. There is no need to anonymize these citations. Instead, cite your papers the same way you would cite any other paper, in the third person. For example, in a paper on cross-session search I write, "Teevan et al. [32] showed, via query log analysis, that nearly 40% of queries were attempts to re-find previously encountered results." But while it is fine to cite your own work, be wary of over-citing yourself. Too many papers by an unexpected person typically signals that that person is an author, and generally looks bad.


A typical Related Work section follows a basic structure:
  • It starts with few sentence overview of the general space, and
  • A preview of areas that are particularly relevant and will be discussed in detail.
  • The body consists of several paragraphs, each discussing a different relevant thread of research.
  • The section ends with a paragraph summary of the paper's contributions over existing research.
The first paragraph of the Related Work section should help a knowledgeable reader in the field place the work into a general bucket. Be aware of what is common knowledge in the community where the paper will appear to avoid giving too sweeping of an overview. There is, for example, no need to explain that there has been a lot of research into web search at the start of an information retrieval Related Work section. Instead, highlight the specific sub-area and tell the reader what aspects of that sub-area are particularly relevant.

In the body of the Related Work section, do not just list paragraphs that each summarize a single related paper. Summaries can be a useful way for you to build a picture for yourself of existing related work. But in the Related Work section, you should help your reader get the lay of the land by grouping and organizing the existing research. Start each paragraph with a sentence describing why the papers discussed in that paragraph are related, citing all of the papers to which the criteria applies. Then write a sentence or two about several of the most relevant papers from the group, highlighting the approach used and relevant findings. End the paragraph with a sentence explaining how the work in your paper contributes something new in light of these papers.

An example of this basic structure for a paragraph in the body of a Related Work section can be found in A Crowd-Powered Socially Embedded Search Engine:
ACM papers use numbers to cite related work, which provides limited context compared to other citation formats. Do not treat these numbers as part of the paper's text. You should not, for example, say, "In [23] the authors explore ..." Instead, write the text as if the numbers weren't there, saying, "Teevan et al. [23] explore ..."

End the Related Work section with a paragraph that summarizes what is know given existing literature, and highlight why the work to be presented in your paper offers a valuable contribution beyond this. An example can be found in Understanding How the Projection of Availability State Impacts the Reception of Incoming Communication:
In summary, the work presented in this paper builds on previous research to explore how availability information relates to people’s communication decisions. While earlier work focused on how availability information impacts the people initiating communication, we focus on its impact on the decisions of the recipient. Further, we are able to study this behavior at a much larger scale than previously possible by looking at the users of a popular enterprise communication system that infers its users’ availability.


Even though the Related Work section is very important to the overall paper, it should not be too long. It a ten page paper, a good rule of thumb is that you should be done with the paper's set-up (including the Introduction and Related Work sections) and on to the meat of the paper by the start of the third page. A good target length for a Related Work section in standard ACM format is one to two columns. To keep the section short, avoid subsections unless really necessary.

The actual list of references at the end of the paper should also be compact. I generally aim to fit the Conclusion and reference list entirely within a single final page. One way to do this is to target a reasonable number of references. I've averaged 31 references across all 10 page papers I've written since 2010. While you should not shrink the font size of your reference list, there are tricks you can play to minimize the amount of space each individual reference takes. For example, you can refer to common, well known outlets by their acronym. Do not, however, be sloppy with how you refer to papers. This can offend the paper authors and make it hard for readers to find the associated papers. Include correct, consistent details for each. Be sure to list references in alphabetical order to make it easy for the reader to scan to see if a paper is cited, since this is a task your reviewers are likely to do several times while reviewing.

Some communities place the Related Work section at the beginning of a paper, while others place it at the end. When writing a paper you should follow the norms of the community where you are publishing. However, if there is a choice about placement I recommend putting the section at the beginning. When I read papers that do not cover related work until after the main content, I find I spend much of my time reading wondering how what is being presented fits into the bigger picture.

Hopefully this post has convinced you to be thoughtful with how you place the research papers you write in context. The Related Work section is an extremely important part of the paper, and the resulting citation graph helps define the structure of the field. As a bonus, here are links to a few papers we have written that take advantage of the citation graph to make it easier to explore related work:


This post is part of a series of posts about the formula for academic papers. The components being discussed are:


  1. Great post and great advice, Jaime!

    Adding to what you said, I'm curious what you think about when the Related Work section should be written? In particular, I'm wondering if you think it's a useful idea to write a draft of it very early so you are clear about what people have already done, what hasn't been done, and exactly how other attempts to do something like what you are doing or answer the question you are answering differed? In drafting the related work early, you can discover work you didn't know about and end up changing your approach based on what others already found, shoulders of giants and all that?

    The reason I ask is Related Work is usually one of the first sections I draft, mostly for the reasons above, but you said graduate students hate writing this section, which might imply they do it last. Id love to hear your thoughts on that if you don't mind expanding on it a bit, thanks!

    1. Good question, Greg -- although timing questions are hard! Keeping on top of relevant literature before, during, and after a research project is important. There are many different ways to do this, including: running literature searches, carrying over knowledge from previous searches, attending conference, sharing your research and getting pointed to relevant content, reviewing, and writing the Related Work section. Personally, I almost never actually WRITE the literature review until fairly late in the process. The points I am trying to make in any particular paper just evolve too much in the process for me to be able to do it at the beginning.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Editing is becoming popular among youngster because they have needed it a lot. The edit personal statement will enable them to recorrect their statement and remove all mistakes.

  4. That's so nice information, thanks to share this awesome post with us, this technique is really so superb or useful for us...I feel great to find all these information at in this blog...!!
    best dissertation assistance

  5. Zotero is a free tool to collect, share, organize and cite your research sources.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. For students, especially PhDs it's very important to write research papers according to latest trends and standards.
    So first you have to think on what are you going to write and start writing after creating strict plan

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. This is the core of your research papers. Your methodology should be crisp, clear and definitive. Research paper

  12. This was a satisfying one.For getting a pleasurable job you compulsion to have a enjoyable resume.So, you dependence to create a sample professional resume. To know about science article review

  13. Nice post.Thank you,I found the best resource to update my knowledge.Hope this information can help me to crack GIS jobs in Hyderabad.

  14. I wanted to thank you for this excellent read!! I definitely loved every little bit of it. I have you bookmarked your site to check out the new stuff you post.

  15. Awesome website with awesome articles keeps up the good workResearch Paper Help
    Research Paper Help

  16. Wow I am delighted with this post and would certainly be obliged to see more of these kinds of posts.
    A well written paper is needed in a short period of time; the group of expert professionals is what you are looking for. In order to get your paper done in time is done by getting you a math with a subject relevant expert in seconds for your help. In order to meet your needs as well as expectations, we the team of our writers provide you with paper writing service which is budget friendly and of high calibre for you to excel out of the lot. Trust us and you will assured to be our loyal client.
    The team of service writers provides connection with academic writers who are vetted for a writing quality of high quality and editing assistance with students. In order to ensure that we can give maximum customer satisfaction we aim to connect every client with the suitable expert. A wide range of solutions is provided by us starting from a simple essay to a Ph.D. level dissertation. We provide confidential services and are completely between the two without the interference of the third party. We are here for leading your order to a success. Go ahead and place an order today!
    A reliable partner for getting customised papers done and in a certain deadline is us, Us. We are here to always keep you on time and help you give sufficient time for you other crucial tasks. This is not just an essay writing help service but to meet you’re other requirements at its best as well. We want to make you tension free with the help of our efficient professionals to be at your service through their knowledge and experience. You can check out all the features of our service in order to make it easy for you to place an order.
    This is the right place to seek out help when you are in a desperate need of completion of an assignment or any kind of write-up work. It is a writing service for students, job applicants and business professionals. We work as per the needs of the client and take an in-depth understanding of what a customer exactly wants and begin our work accordingly. We are here to help you in every possible way for you to excel. So take a look and check the kind of order required and place it or contact us for any further assistance.

  17. results to put pressure on senior managers for improving the quality of learning resources for students, and that copyright officers should get a pay increase by a grade or two (never going to happen!).
    Best Essay Writing Service UK

  18. I came across this type of large quantity of fascinating stuff in your online journal particularly its discourse. From the huge levels of remarks on your articles, I figure I am not in the slightest the only person having most of the pleasure here! keep doing awesome…writing a scientific paper

  19. Great Information sharing .. I am very happy to this article .. thanks for giving us go through info.Fantastic nice. I appreciate this post.
    british dissertation editors
    academic writing services

  20. Excellent .. Amazing .. I’ll bookmark your blog and take the feeds also…I’m happy to find so many useful info here in the post, we need work out more techniques in this regard, thanks for sharing.
    dissertation writing services uk

  21. Wonderful illustrated information. I thank you about that. No doubt it will be very useful for my future projects. Would like to see some other posts on the same subject!
    Assignment Writing Services
    Assignment Help

  22. Great tips that can help with your writing a literature review in acm format . This paper requires special writing approach and good research skills to finish it with the highest quality. You will have to learn the literature very well so it will be possible for you to write the review of the key points of your subject. And of course, you will need to make the research to read other thoughts and get some important information that will be useful for your writings. And if you will see that it is a hard task for you it will be possible to get assistance from the expert writers who are for a long time in this field.

  23. Its as if you had a great grasp on the subject matter, but you forgot to include your readers. Perhaps you should think about this from more than one angle.
    International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists

  24. Hello! I just read this information and i can tell you that this article is useful. Thank you for sharing it.

  25. This is a very good writing. kindly share more such useful information PhD Thesis Writing Services in India


  26. Elite Escorts in Pakistan are available with big huge Service we have a good social status Models they leads respectable lifestyle. A glamorous Independent  Girls are Offering simply awesome and unforgettable moments of life try out our upscale services these Females are just different call us now and enjoy the romantic experience.

  27. I’ve read some good stuff here. Definitely worth bookmarking for revisiting. I surprise how much effort you put to create such a great informative website. Dissertation Proofreading Services UK