Literature Survey Pitfalls

Following are some of the common issues and misconceptions that I come across while giving feedback to literature surveys:

  1. Think motivation is same as problem statement
    • Motivation leads to the problem. Then problem statement should stand by itself while justifying what, why, and how.
  2. Too little or too much information
    • Good balance is required. When a literature survey contains only the high-level details and/or few references, it’s a good indication that the student haven’t put much effort to find and understand the literature. When too much information is presented, usually student is dumping information directly from original sources, without being able to figure out what’s relevant and what’s not. A good write up should consider multiple literature sources, present key ideas from each source (in student’s own words), present them in a logical order, and critically evaluate their pros and cons.
  3. Focusing only on the tool you plan to use
    • It’s ok to develop your solution targeting a particular tool or platform. But you need to look at what else is available, and then give a strong justification why you selected a particular tool/platform when others are around.
  4. Not discussing more recent work
    • Reviewers usually look at how many papers you have referred that appeared within the last 2-3 years (as a fraction of all references). If this number is very low, it indicates either no one care about the problem anymore or student hasn’t done a good job in finding literature.
  5. Not summarizing and connecting ideas
    • Presentation of multiple literature without having a logical flow, that is also interesting to read. This may not be achieved in one run. First plan, then write, and finally reorganize (usually with supervisor’s support). Whenever possible, compare and contrast multiple solutions in the form a table.
  6. Not referring to figures and tables
    • Just adding figures and tables without referring to them. Each figure or table you add needs to be referred in the write up. Also, each figure, graph, and table need to be explained in sufficient detail. If you don’t plan to explain something, don’t add it to literature survey.
  7. Not citing figures, graphs, and tables taken from other sources
    • No need to cite, if you draw a new diagram (not a copycat) based on your understanding of a particular literature source. Else you need to cite it.
  8. Having too many subsections
  9. Literature survey is not a marketing pitch
    • Be aware when you cut and past a tool’s list of features. Those are to promote the use of the tool, whereas literature survey’s focus should be how it work and can it be useful to your problem.
  10. Not starting with an outline
    • Come up with an outline. Then discuss that with your supervisor before investing too much time to write it.
  11. Not doing a quick spelling and grammar check
    • This invites negative feedback from supervisor leading to at least 1 additional round of review. This tells about your commitment and level of quality you set for yourself.