by Kareem Carr
Bottom line: This is a strategy for rapidly aggregating and analyzing a large number of research papers on a particular topic using online resources.
Beginning the research process can sometimes seem daunting and for this reason we often put it off. It can seem like it ought to take months. Frequently, when we do apply ourselves, we approach it in a more awkward and disorganized way that we should. However, this need not be the case. The 100-paper strategy is simply a strategy that I have found for aggregating and summarizing 100 papers in a week or less.
Organization is key. The strategy draws almost all of its power from doing this in an organized way. To this end, we must be able to execute actions quickly. In order to execute actions quickly, we must have clear simple goals at each stage and do one thing at a time. We must be ruthless in cutting away the little inefficiencies that cost us seconds or stretch into minutes or hours of indecision.
If possible do this in one sitting. This will help you to gain an overall understanding of the work being done in your field more easily than if you spread this stage over several days or weeks.
1. Do this on a connection where you can easily download the papers without needing to enter access information for each journal. Even small delays like entering passwords can be costly. Use Google Scholar or something similar. Increase the number of search results per page to the maximum.
2. Spend 10 minutes or so coming up with appropriate search terms. Try them out; get a sense of whether you are getting the types of results that you want. If you’re having trouble, try looking at the key words listed in articles on your topic.
3. For each page of search result read as quickly as you can. Ask yourself only one question: is this relevant to my topic? If it is open it in a separate window and move on immediately. Since this is a 100 paper strategy, we stop when we have approximately 100 papers. (If you want more, you can of course, continue). DO NOT read the paper any more than you need to decide whether it is relevant. Ideally you should be able to determine this from the title and abstract only. If you can’t, it’s probably not relevant.
4. In the second stage, check if you have access. If you do, save it with a file name including the author and the year. If you do not have access, decide quickly whether it is worth gaining access. If so, then save the citation and move on. Gaining access may require an email to the right authorities or identifying which library you must visit.
5. It is possible that you may fail to get enough results. At this point, you must reconsider your search terms or explore the papers that cite the papers you have found and the ones that are cited by your papers.
In my experience this takes 8 or 9 hours allocating about 5 minutes per paper.
6. Develop a few key questions about each paper based on the types of papers you have seen and your topic of interest. The strength of the theorems, any limitations, relevance to the whole question and the types of assumptions required is a good starting point.
7. Using a spreadsheet program, set up a spreadsheet with column headings for the citation and for the questions you identified above. Enter the name of the papers and the authors and any journal number that you might find useful.
8. Skim each paper quickly until you find the information for the appropriate columns in your spreadsheet and answer only these questions. While seemingly innocuous, the simplicity of filling in the boxes speeds up the analysis of the paper dramatically. A column for entering short comments about any anomalies can be useful. Ideally, this process should only take 10-15 minutes per paper.
It’s important not to just let your collection of information sit there. Make it work for you. Group papers by subsections of topics. Make diagrams. Don’t be afraid to add new categories as your understanding of your topics increases. Use this spreadsheet to identify the key papers that you want to go back and read in detail.
If you follow this procedure to completion, you will have a corpus of knowledge in a spreadsheet that is easily searched and analyzed. In ten weeks, a working knowledge of 1000 papers on your topic could be attained.