Trivial Suggestions: Doing Effective Related Work (Part 1)

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When I was a graduate student, I did face several difficulties in dealing with writing related work and organizing references.

This “Trivial Suggestions” post is the first part of a dual part post of managing citations and writing related work section.

Handling Citations

First, install a citation manager.

There are many citation managers such as: Zotero, Mendely, Refworks, etc.

I use Zotero and am happy with it. The chrome plugin is amazing. You can add a citation to an article or to the list of Google scholar articles with a single click.

Here is a decent tutorial on using Zotero:

Also, check out EndNote - Click (Thanks to Keerthi), which downloads PDFs (which need special access) using your university account.

Advantages of using citation managers:

  • Organization: You can perform high-level categorize (e.g., into folders) of all the works.

For instance: I can organize all the works related to bootloaders based on the type of problem they focus on. E.g., Bootloader (Top most level) -> Defenses, Attacks, etc.

  • Interoperability: It can easily port to various formats without reformatting the works. You can dump all your related works by a single button into the desired format and put it into your proposal, paper, etc.

First, have answers to at least the following questions:

  • What is the problem you are trying to solve?

E.g., “Finding vulnerabilities in bootloaders”, “Helping students learn better programming”, “Automatically understanding human emotions from their voice”, etc.

Once you know the problem:

– Find techniques (hopefully, other than yours) people have used to solve it.

– Find works that show that the problem is important.

  • What techniques are you trying to use to solve the problem?

E.g., “Static analysis”, “Fuzzing”, etc.

Once you figured out the technique:

– Find other problems which most commonly use the technique.

– Find works that introduced the technique.

How far back (chronologically) should we go to consider a work to be relevant?

This depends on the specific stream and how active is the area of research. E.g., for machine learning, with its ultra-active area of research, anything older than three years can be (or maybe) considered irrelevant.

For system security, I suggest five years. However, this again depends on the specific problem and approach you are trying to use. Maybe you are using a very old approach (say ten years old) for a new problem. In that case, even though the work is old, you should cite the paper proposing the old approach.

In Part 2, we will see how to write a good related work section.