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I'm composing a literature review on the use of air bubbling carriers in direct contact membrane distillation. I've encountered various papers with promising findings, some of which might overshadow my own results. Should I incorporate all of them or selectively choose which ones to include?

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    What is your motivation for creating the literature review? What role do you want the finished manuscript to serve? What is your intended audience? To me, the choice of which sources to include follows from these fundamental questions about the project itself. Apr 16 at 15:56
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    Normally one reads relevant papers in the process of work. Otherwise, one may rediscover wheel.
    – yarchik
    Apr 16 at 23:23

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You should include everything that is relevant to set the stage for your own work. If there are papers that would "overshadow" your work -- i.e., if others have already done something that you are presenting as new -- then that's unethical. You should only present things as new if you honestly believe that they are new.

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    Happens all the time. Reminds me rediscovery of calculus in 1994. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/9602/…
    – yarchik
    Apr 16 at 23:27
  • @yarchik It's perhaps true that people "all the time" rediscover methods that are already known. But when they publish those, one at least typically assumes that they were simply unaware of others having done the same. The question here is about someone who knows that others have done related and similar work. Apr 17 at 16:53
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You should certainly be selective, but that selection should include, rather than exclude, papers that "overshadow" your results. But, if there are papers that do this, then what are you doing? Well, there are a few possibilities (not an exhaustive list):

  • You are replicating results. This can be very valuable and, in many fields, is not done enough.
  • You are confirming (or not) results in a different population, setting, or something like that.
  • You are improving earlier analysis by adding new variables, using better methods, or something like that.

If you are doing a dissertation, then it must contribute something new to the field. If you are submitting to a journal, then there must be some reason for them to want to publish it.

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    "If you are doing a dissertation, then it must contribute something new to the field" applies almost universally to PhD dissertations, but not necessarily to undergraduate dissertations. Apr 17 at 9:07
  • @DanielHatton True. But I rarely hear the word "dissertation" used for undergrad work. There was a discussion about this here on Academia not too long ago.
    – Peter Flom
    Apr 17 at 11:17
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As @WolfgangBangerth answered, you are ethically obligated to report other research you know so that you can honestly assess how novel your results are. However, in practice, when I have had a similar feeling or fear as I discovered other work that seemed very similar to what I've done, on carefully reading such papers, I could almost always find some important details in which my work was different. So, I recommend that you carefully read these other articles and take note of what your work adds to the literature. As you cite these works, you should primarily emphasize your true novelty. Of course, there is always the risk that your true novelty is not that important--that is an unfortunate risk of doing research. In any case, there should be a journal (perhaps not as popular as your original target) that would be willing to publish even a minor novelty.

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