Research Paper Related Work Problems

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:
  • Overview of the papers in this paragraph:SNS question asking has been studied in many contexts, including on Facebook (Lampe et al., 2012;Morris et al., 2010;Panovich et al., 2012;Teevan et al., 2011), on Twitter (Efron and Winget, 2010;Java et al., 2007;Li et al., 2011;Paul et al., 2011), in the enterprise (Thom et al., 2011), and across cultures (Yang et al., 2011;Liu & Jansen, 2013).
  • Sentences about relevant papers:
    • Morris et al. (2010) found most questions posted to social network sites are subjective, seeking recommendations and opinions.
    • Paul et al. (2011) showed many are also rhetorical, with the asker expecting social answers rather than informative ones.
    • The prevalence of subjective and rhetorical questions on social network sites has been a challenge for socially embedded search engines like SearchBuddies (Hecht et al., 2012), a Facebook agent that algorithmically suggests URLs in response to questions.
  • How this paper contributes: Our crowd-powered system handles these nuanced scenarios because people are kept in the loop.
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:

Do not assume that choosing a research problem to study will be a quick or easy task! You should be thinking about it at the start of the course. There are generally three ways you are asked to write about a research problem: 1) your professor provides you with a general topic from which you study a particular aspect; 2) your professor provides you with a list of possible topics to study and you choose a topic from that list; or, 3) your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic and you only have to obtain permission to write about it before beginning your investigation. Here are some strategies for getting started for each scenario.

I.  How To Begin:  You are given the topic to write about

Step 1: Identify concepts and terms that make up the topic statement. For example, your professor wants the class to focus on the following research problem: “Is the European Union a credible security actor with the capacity to contribute to confronting global terrorism?" The main concepts is this problem are: European Union, global terrorism, credibility [hint: focus on identifying proper nouns, nouns or noun phrases, and action verbs in the assignment description].

Step 2: Review related literature to help refine how you will approach examining the topic and finding a way to analyze it. You can begin by doing any or all of the following: reading through background information from materials listed in your course syllabus; searching the USC Libraries Catalog to find a recent book on the topic and, if appropriate, more specialized works about the topic; conducting a preliminary review of the research literature using multidisciplinary library databases such as ProQuestt or subject-specific databases found here. Use the main concept terms you developed in Step 1 and their synonyms to retrieve relevant articles. This will help you refine and frame the scope of the research problem. Don’t be surprised if you need to do this several times before you finalize how to approach writing about the topic.

NOTE: Always review the references from your most relevant research results cited by the authors in footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography to locate related research on your topic. This is a good strategy for identifying important prior research about the topic because titles that are repeatedly cited indicate their significance in laying a foundation for understanding the problem. However, if you’re having trouble at this point locating relevant research literature,ask a librarian for help!

ANOTHER NOTE:  If you find an article from a journal that's particularly helpful, put quotes around the title of the article and paste it into Google Scholar. If the article record appears, look for a "cited by" reference followed by a number. This link indicates how many times other researchers have subsequently cited that article since it was first published. This is an excellent strategy for identifying more current, related research on your topic. Finding additional cited by references from your original list of cited by references helps you navigate through the literature and, by so doing, understand the evolution of thought around a particular research problem.

Step 3: Since social science research papers are generally designed to get you to develop your own ideas and arguments, look for sources that can help broaden, modify, or strengthen your initial thoughts and arguments [for example, if you decide to argue that the European Union is ill prepared to take on responsibilities for broader global security because of the debt crisis in many EU countries, then focus on identifying sources that support as well as refute this position].

There are least four appropriate roles your related literature plays in helping you formulate how to begin your analysis:

  • Sources of criticism -- frequently, you'll find yourself reading materials that are relevant to your chosen topic, but you disagree with the author's position. Therefore, one way that you can use a source is to describe the counter-argument, provide evidence from your review of the literature as to why the prevailing argument is unsatisfactory, and to discuss how your own view is more appropriate based upon your interpretation of the evidence.
  • Sources of new ideas -- while a general goal in writing college research papers in the social sciences is to approach a research problem with some basic idea of what position you'd like to take and what grounds you'd like to stand upon, it is certainly acceptable [and often encouraged] to read the literature and extend, modify, and refine your own position in light of the ideas proposed by others. Just make sure that you cite the sources!
  • Sources for historical context -- another role your related literature plays in helping you formulate how to begin your analysis is to place issues and events in proper historical context. This can help to demonstrate familiarity with developments in relevant scholarship about your topic, provide a means of comparing historical versus contemporary issues and events, and identifying key people, places, and things that had an important role related to the research problem.
  • Sources of interdisciplinary insight -- an advantage of using databases like ProQuest to begin exploring your topic is that it covers publications from a variety of different disciplines. Another way to formulate how to study the topic is to look at it from different disciplinary perspectives. If the topic concerns immigration reform, for example, ask yourself, how do studies from sociological journals found by searching ProQuest vary in their analysis from those in law journals. A goal in reviewing related literature is to provide a means of approaching a topic from multiple perspectives rather than the perspective offered from just one discipline.

NOTE: Remember to keep careful notes at every stage or utilize a citation management system like EndNotes or RefWorks. You may think you'll remember what you have searched and where you found things, but it’s easy to forget or get confused.

Step 4: Assuming you've done an effective job of synthesizing and thinking about the results of our initial search for related literature, you're ready to prepare a detailed outline for your paper that lays the foundation for a more in-depth and focused review of relevant research literature [after consulting with a librarian, if needed!]. How will you know you haven't done an effective job of synthesizing and thinking about the results of our initial search for related literature? A good indication is that you start composing your paper outline and gaps appear in how you want to approach the study. This indicates the need to do further research on the research problem.

I.  How To Begin:  You are provided a list of possible topics to choose from

Step 1: I know what you’re thinking--which topic from this list my professor has given me will be the easiest to find the most information on? An effective instructor should never include a topic that is so obscure or complex that no research is available to examine and from which to begin to design a study. Instead of searching for the path of least resistance choose a topic that you find interesting in some way, or that is controversial and that you have a strong opinion about, or has some personal meaning for you. You're going to be working on your topic for quite some time, so choose one that you find interesting and engaging or that motivates you to take a position.

Once you’ve settled on a topic of interest from the list, follow Steps 1 - 4 listed above to further develop it into a research paper.

NOTE: It’s ok to review related literature to help refine how you will approach analyzing a topic, and then discover that the topic isn’t all that interesting to you. In that case, you can choose another from the list. Just don’t wait too long to make a switch and be sure to consult with your professor first that you are changing your topic.

III.  How To Begin:  Your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic

Step 1: Under this scenario, the key process is turning an idea or general thought into a topic that can be configured into a research problem. When given an assignment where you choose the research topic, don't begin by thinking about what to write about, but rather, ask yourself the question, "What do I want to know?" Treat an open-ended assignment as an opportunity to learn about something that's new or exciting to you.

Step 2: If you lack ideas, or wish to gain focus, try some or all of the following strategies:

  • Review your course readings, particularly the suggested readings, for topic ideas. Don't just review what you've already read but jump ahead in the syllabus to readings that have not been covered yet.
  • Search the USC Libraries Catalog for a good, recently published book and, if appropriate, more specialized works related to the discipline area of the course [e.g., for the course SOCI 335, search for books on population and society].
  • Browse through some current journals in your subject discipline. Even if most of the articles are not relevant, you can skim through the contents quickly. You only need one to be the spark that begins the process of wanting to learn more about a topic. Consult with a librarian and/or your professor about the core journals within your subject discipline.
  • Think about essays you have written for past classes and other coursework you have taken or academic lectures and programs you have attended. Thinking back, what most interested you? What would you like to know more about?
  • Search online media sources, such as CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, or Newsweek, to see if your idea has been covered by the media. Use this coverage to refine your idea into something that you'd like to investigate further but in a more deliberate, scholarly way based on a particular problem that needs to be researched.

Step 3: To build upon your initial idea, use the suggestions under this tab to help narrow, broaden, or increase the timeliness of your idea so you can write it out as a research problem.

Once you are comfortable with having turned your idea into a research problem, follow Steps 1 - 4 listed in Part I above to further develop it into a research paper.

Alderman, Jim. "Choosing a Research Topic." Beginning Library and Information Systems Strategies. Paper 17. Jacksonville, FL: University of North Florida Digital Commons, 2014; Alvesson, Mats and Jörgen Sandberg. Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research. London: Sage, 2013; Chapter 2: Choosing a Research Topic. Adrian R. Eley. Becoming a Successful Early Career Researcher. New York: Routledge, 2012; Answering the Question. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Brainstorming. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Brainstorming. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Chapter 1: Research and the Research Problem. Nicholas Walliman. Your Research Project: Designing and Planning Your Work. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011; Choosing a Topic. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University;  Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; How To Write a Thesis Statement. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Identify Your Question. Start Your Research. University Library, University of California, Santa Cruz; The Process of Writing a Research Paper. Department of History. Trent University; Trochim, William M.K. Problem Formulation. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006.

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