Understanding Your New Field of Research


There are hundreds of academic journals publishing peer reviewed literature from all over the world. Even crazier is the hundreds of thousands of papers that are published each year. Hell, in my world, Optics Express publishes a couple hundred papers a month, and the vast majority of those articles have little to no direct impact on my research… you are bound to run into these similar issues as well.  Getting started in a new area of research can feel like you are swimming in the deep end for the first time. It can be overwhelming to sift through and get an idea of what has been done or whats newly emerging in a particular field.

Where do you start? How can you possibly keep track of everything? Luckily, in this multipart series,  I hope to give you some guidance to make it easier to sift through all of this work. It will take some time –like anything in science –but having a clearer path makes it less overwhelming to tackle. To get in the right mindset, there are some questions you need to ask yourself.

Ask yourself:

What is your line of research? 

Is there a term that describes your area of research? It can be very general, or very specific. In my case, my research can be broadly classified under the field of ‘Neurophotonics’, which is a diverse field in and of itself. More specifically, I tend to classify myself under the umbrella of ‘Infrared Neural Modulation’ which is significantly more specialized. The techniques that I use encompass the fields of ‘Multimodal Imaging’, ‘Nonlinear Imaging’, ‘Coherent Raman Scattering Imaging’, ‘Multiphoton Imaging’, and ‘Optical-tissue Interactions’ –to name a few. Your fields can be as broad or as narrow as you want. Just whatever you do, make a list of terms.

Are there lines of research that are complementary to yours?

Depending on where you see your research going, there may be some other fields that complement your line of work. Since I do a lot of imaging, I try to look for image processing methods that might be useful. I do what I can to read on the thermodynamics and biomechanics of lipid bilayers, which is a topic within the physical chemistry community. While my research is more physically motivated and less molecular-ly (is that a word?) motivated, the cellular neuroscience and neurology literature is another area I try to keep up with. Keeping these fields in mind will be particularly useful when we discuss staying current with research. Make a list of these terms as well. 

Who are the “big players” in your field?

This will vary drastically between different fields. Once you go to some conferences, the big names in your field are fairly easy to figure out. This will often times come forth in your literature searches as well.

The “big players” in a particular field are the ones who get asked to write the thorough reviews, comments, and opinion sections in journals; those who are actively involved in the conversations ongoing in your field. If you can find a recent (published within the last 2-3 years) review article directly relating to your project, that will provide you a relatively up-to-date assessment of the particular field from one of these big players or their protege. This is not always the case in niche fields, and if you fall into this case then you have a little extra leg work to do but it will give you a more accurate survey of the field.

To take this a step further, look to see who these big names are citing in their publications. This can also be a great way to find really useful papers that may have been published 10 or 20 years ago, that likely have some useful information in them that you might have otherwise missed. I have found a number of papers from the early 90’s this way, doing rudimentary laser-tissue interactions studies that are more relevant to today’s imaging community than anyone may have predicted. Beyond that, there are tons of labs that do fantastic work that do not publish in high-impact journals. These papers are often cited by the high impact journals – these are the majority of papers that make up a particular field of work. These papers you should really be looking for.

It’s also worth noting that post-docs in big players’ labs may go on to have labs of their own publishing on similar subject matter. It might be worth while to find those names (usually co-authors on papers, verified on lab websites) and dig through the internet for more information.

Make a list of any and all of these names and add to it as you go.

Where are the big players publishing?

Finding where the big names are publishing will give you a great idea on where to look to find other related work. This give you an insight as to where you should be aiming for your publications, but also how to pitch your research effectively and to identify what journals may be worth following in your field.

Be wary though. Depending on the field, you will often find big names publishing in journals like Science, Nature, PNAS, etc. Higher-impact often features novel discoveries, and they tend to shy away from hosting large bodies of work on a particular subject. These papers are often very thorough and take quite a bit of time and effort from numerous people to make it happen – they are impressive to say the least. However, it may not be representative of where most of the work lies.

In the biomedical optics and biophotonics field, Nature Photonics is the big-league journal. Occasionally there are Nature and Science publications as well. But generally, Journal of Biophotonics, Biomedical Optics Express, Journal of Biomedical Optics, Neurophotonics, Journal of Physical Chem B, and Scientific Reports are some that I regularly keep up with.

Make a list of journals that typically publish work from your field.

Are there past or current members of your lab that have published in your field of research?

This point can give you a huge leg up on getting familiar with a particular field. If there is work that has already been done in your lab, those publications can really offer perspective on the status and trajectory of your field. Make a list of these papers, read each one and annotate thoroughly. It will save you a lot of wandering around in the future.


Understanding who is publishing where in your field, who those people are citing, and how they pitch their work is critical to gaining a solid understanding in a new field of research. Take the time to compile lists of people, journals and articles you would like to follow. Next, we will discuss how to use a citation manager to compile and organize literature, as well as some good practices for staying current on today’s literature.


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