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Problem

In many fields, it is customary that every paper has a section describing the state of the art of the field, to give a background and show familiarity with related works. While sometimes, this can mean an exhaustive enumeration of related works in the area, other times it is more useful to reference literature reviews or surveys. However, this can be a problem: If a recent survey of the field exists, there is the danger of plagiarizing the survey. This is even more of a problem with meta-surveys, since otherwise you might just use several distinct surveys (if available).

What I found

For a similar question, one answer proposes referencing both the survey and the original work. However, wouldn't it still look weird if the entire section consists of mainly one reference, that is paired with several others?

Question

Which works do you cite in a state of the art section, when there is a recent and thorough survey for the topic of your paper?

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  • What's wrong with "Suvey-Author et al. (2020) provide a recent overview of the cuddling hedgehogs dilemma."? – Oleg Lobachev Oct 1 '20 at 19:36
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Let me reframe your question somewhat, in a way that hopefully leads to a helpful answer.

It is widespread to think that the purpose of the "literature review" section of an article is to describe "the state of the art of the field, to give a background and show familiarity with related works", as you say. But I would argue that that even though that is very often what such sections do in practice, that should not be their primary goal and that certainly is not the most valuable thing they should do.

Rather than broadly reviewing the literature, a "literature review" section should focus squarely on framing the current article in the context of the literature. It should not do anything more (or less) than that. That is, it should show how the current article fits in the existing scholarly conversation. To do this, it should show what literature is similar, but in a way that clearly shows how the present article is different. In particular, it should clearly show how the present article aims to contribute to knowledge that is currently missing in the literature.

So, coming directly to your question, from this perspective, if there is a recent state-of-the-art review published, there is no problem at all. Such a review should only help you to better frame your own article to show what is close to your work, yet different. Above all, do not try to cite all the existing literature. Only cite the literature that makes your point: your article is different from similar literature and contributes important knowledge that is still missing from the literature.

From this perspective, concerning which work to cite, it is more likely that you would cite the specific original papers that refer to topics that are similar but a little bit different from your own article. You might cite the survey paper as a general source, but citing it does not tell readers much about how similar or different the literature is from your own work. It is your custom summary and citation of each individual paper that is close that would do this. And note that your custom summaries are not summaries of each entire article--that is not very useful, since the survey paper probably already does this--rather, it is a to-the-point summary of exactly in which way each article is similar yet different from your own work. That would be original (since the survey paper does not do that) and would help readers better appreciate the contribution of your own work.

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  • I generally agree with your input on the purpose of a literature review section. I'm not sure that this solves the citation problem, though. Do you cite the survey paper, the original paper, or both? – nonthevisor Oct 2 '20 at 14:33
  • @nonthevisor I have added a paragraph to explicitly address that point. – Tripartio Oct 3 '20 at 16:27

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