How to Realize Multiple Benefits from Literature Research:

March, 2004

Deriving benefits from researching technical literature used to be intensive and time-consuming work.  Many advances have come to fruition that have made this work dramatically easier.  When most people realize the new abilities that are available to them, they feel unfortunate that they have been in the dark for so long.  

It is surprising how little literature research is performed in many industries.  The phrase "literature research" is used to convey that it differs from laboratory research.  It means finding all the information that others have published about the technologies of interest to you.  Just one fact that someone has discovered after years of lab research and published can make a dramatic difference to your company or your career.  Technology is changing very rapidly.  This article will briefly touch on some techniques, but emphasize how significant benefits can be obtained.  

Internet:

A great aid in this work is the internet.  Often information can be found on the Internet faster, these days, than performing more traditional research work in libraries.  Furthermore, in many situations one can chose their skill level on the Internet.  While libraries used to have only technical books and journal articles on a particular subject, the Internet often will contain pages written for non-technical or entry-level readers.  Also, no matter the skill level, there is likely to be more illustrations.  Along with Internet surfing, information also comes through email newsletters and  web or email bulletin boards.  This tool is too valuable to ignore.  Most public libraries now have research features on their web sites that often only a library card number is needed to provide access.

Engineering College Libraries:

However, those who rely on the internet and email alone for research are missing out on some even greater tools.  In the last five years most college libraries have subscribed to services that allow users to search for published material on their computers.  Once a desired article is located, there may be no need to find it in the "stacks" or to order it from a distant library.  A significant percentage of the articles are available in full text and downloadable right from the computer terminal.  Added to this tremendous convenience is the ability to then copy the digital document directly to the user's removable memory media (i.e. a floppy or a zip disc).  Thus, no money is deposited in the copy machines and there are no papers to file.  For those articles where full text is not available, the abstract is usually displayed.  Reading the abstracts makes it easier to decide which articles are worth retrieving through older techniques.  

This type of service is available in most engineering libraries to the students.  Some colleges (especially state-funded colleges) allow the non-student community access as well.  Furthermore, more public libraries are adopting this technology.  For those who live in an area where these tools are not available to non-students, it may be worth it to take (or teach) one course every now and then to have access to these as well as many other services that are available at colleges these days.  Furthermore, some employers offer such services, but may not be well advertised.  Often the library or institution allowing access to such services will also provide a password so that the user can access them from their home or office.  However, it is valuable to start out working in the library where help is readily available in the form of library staff, fellow users and written documents. 

There are infinite possibilities to how these tools may be used.  However, by way of illustration a discipline is proposed for an engineer employed by a company.  Let's say you are such an engineer.  You should challenge yourself to completely read an average number of articles per week that are related to the core technologies of your company.  This may mean every month traveling to a library to search for about 40 potential articles.  Then after reviewing the abstracts for those 40 articles, 8 articles are targeted for thorough study, to fulfill a discipline of 2 articles per week.  

You will have to check with your company's legal department about copyright issues.  All that will be said here is that it used to be the case that when articles were ordered from distant libraries, those libraries were obliged to tack on a hefty copyright fee.  This fee was often several times the cost of the libraries retrieval and copying service fees.  However, now someone can go to a library or gain access from their home or office to full text documents arriving over the computer without a copyright fee solicited.  

Taking Notes:

Notes should be taken during and directly after each articles is read.  It will be best if these notes are typed directly into a word processing document.  Thus for each article, start a new document.  If the article is in digital form already, the title, author, date, abstract and other details can be copied and pasted into the note-taking document.  Otherwise type them in.  The same goes for highly relevant quotes.  As the article is read and especially after it is completed, record things like: new thoughts, concepts that are particularly relevant to your company, points where you disagree with the authors, statements that the authors made that you would like to double-check and what follow-up study or work might be required.  Also create a list of keywords pertinent to you.  This will be useful if you create a small database by which all collected articles can be searched. 

Another useful technique is to sketch out concepts that the authors present.  For example, the authors may describe a procedure in accurate technical language, but due to space or time, exclude an illustration that depicts the procedure.  It can be very helpful to sketch out what the authors are discussing in the proper scale.  This not only provides a clear image of the concept, but also when you return to the article at a future date the sketch can provide much faster recognition of the concept than rereading the text.

Contact Authors:

A very useful discipline is to compose an email or letter to the authors of the each article.  Most notably, this letter should contain questions you would like answered.  While you do not have to send this email, most would be surprised with the percentage of authors who will generously respond to your questions.  This practice is valuable for the following reasons. 

  1. It encourages one to think about questions and to document them, even if the correspondence is never sent.
  2. If one of the authors does respond with answers, this means more information specific to your interests.  Often authors cannot capture all the details of their work in articles, but they do not mind sharing those details.
  3. Especially for those authors that respond, you make a contact.  The impressions made from these short emails may turn into valuable associations in the future.  These are people who spend a great deal of time on subjects that are of interest to you.  They have much more information, contacts and value beyond what they reported in their articles.

Of course, there are also dangers to watch out for in this technique.  For example, if you say, "I found your article useful and we will be using your techniques here at our company."  This may open the door for intellectual property litigation.  Even if you are certain that these issues would not exist, you may not wish to share too much on how you wish to use the research. 

Patents & Manuals:

Patents are often overlooked in research.  They used to be harder to search.  Today, say Google Patents, makes this search easy, though it still does not compare to a hiring someone to or traveling to patent office.  Patents tend to be harder to read than other publications and since they are not peer-reviewed, time can be wasted on certain filings.  On the other hand, they can explain processes and designs that are not published in any other article, web page or text book.  Similarly locating user or repair manuals can also yield extraordinary information.  

Issue Notes:

At the end of say six months, you may have read fifty-two articles.  However, you also should have an equal number of notes.  Reviewing those notes can be helpful on their own.  However, a method that will yield further benefits is to edit those notes into a single document that can be sent to others.  For example, such a document can be sent to fellow employees.  This is a valuable document because the material is very relevant their work and furthermore, it is pre-digested, so the people you send it to do not have to read and attempt to understand the entire article.   

If you have mostly digital articles, you can easily burn a CDs containing all these articles as well.  However, this will almost certainly violate copyright laws.  However, it is also advantageous that this is prohibited.  The people who desire more information on a certain article will feel compelled to communicate with you to receive this information in some form.  This feedback is valuable in building contacts, but also keeping track of the fruit resulting from your report.  For example, if someone in a remote department had received your report with the articles that subsequently lead them to make dramatically successful changes, you may have no evidence to claim that your report sparked the changes.  On the other hand, if someone has to send an email or voicemail to receive further information, that is documentation confirming your involvement and can be useful ammunition for employee evaluations.  The value of this feedback can lead one to avoid inserting links for articles freely available on the Internet, as well.

Such a report should definitely be sent to workers within your organization who have the background to make use of the information.  However, sending it to others, such as non-technical people in upper management or to lower-level non-technical people, can also provide benefits.  Even though these people may not read and understand your report, there will be visibility that you are keeping up on core technology.  They may ask others, with the proper background, what they thought of your report and this could be positive impressions on your behave.  Your company may wish to publish a even more polished version of your report outside the company.  Such a report covering very recent research could easily be crafted as a review article that could draw attention to your company's products.  It could also be sent out in a newsletter to customers and/or suppliers.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, the tremendous advances in research tools can, not only increase the knowledge and insights for the individual professional, but can also be useful in building positive visibility for the same person.


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