There’s an old saying — “A week’s worth of time spent in the library can save a year’s worth of time in the laboratory.”

Of course today the time is usually spent on-line with Google instead of the library. Enter the quantity vs. quality debate. Do you want 5 highly relevant sources to your project with the chance that you miss an important one? Or 5 million potentially relevant sources to your project that you have to sift through to find the golden nuggets? The answer is probably the first.

So ask yourself, do you feel proficient at navigating the aggregated on-line knowledge of human existence? If the first thing that pops into your head is a cat video on youtube, you need to talk to a librarian. If you haven’t completed an extensive literature review in the past, you’re a rookie. Call in a pro to give you pointers before you waste everyone’s time. Talk to your librarian. Did you know that WSU has a dedicated Engineering Librarian, Chelsea Leachman? She was trained as an engineer and is married to one. She knows how you think. Talk to your librarian.

Contrary to popular belief, librarians are not out of style, only the antiquated stereotypes of them are. The amount of scientific information the world is generating is increasing at an exponential pace. Even with the new abilities to search this information for yourself, the learning curves are steep, and the expectations to have rigorously evaluated background literature are stringent. Suffice it to say, there has never been a more important time in history to have very, very good librarians on your side.

Let me be absolutely clear that the #1 problem I’ve noticed from our engineering students in the last eight years is an inability to find the most relevant and credible information for their projects. Not math skills, not hands-on skills, not team skills, not communication, but simply doing a thorough review of what’s out there. The way Chelsea described it to me, “the students don’t understand their projects. So they don’t enter good keywords for searches. So they return irrelevant sources that they don’t read. So they never get to know their projects.” Ignorance is a vicious cycle — one that takes time, practice, and dedication to overcome.

You should consider double checking to make sure you have identified the following:

  1. Relevant testing standards nearly all of the experiments have a testing/operating standard that covers the general classification of machinery. These will often tell you how many data points to take, how many times you need to re-run a point, and what types of tests should be done.
  2. Relevant peer-reviewed journal publications. Although the standards may say what to do and how for the experiment, they may not give you the most recent and credible theoretical approaches for analyzing and correlating the data. You should quickly look through recent journal publications to see if recent research provides new theory for your experiment.
  3. Doctoral and Master’s theses. These are often golden finds as theses tend to describe everything in-detail from a novice viewpoint that’s empathetic to yours! You may even get a detailed operating procedure!
  4. Company product websites and manuals. Just like this site, they can be created by anyone, anywhere, and are not necessarily peer reviewed for credibility, but if highly relevant, are worth spending time on. Do you really know how that instrument works?

The primary focus of this class though are testing standards. Chelsea has grabbed many of the relevant standards for your projects and has a worksheet that breaks down and shows you how to use these testing standards. Note that there are even testing standards for data analysis and uncertainties.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

Now that Chelsea has shown you where to find and how to use the standards relevant to your project, you need to document them now, before you forget.

Literature reviews can be boring, especially to someone who is very familiar with the body of knowledge (a boss for example). So you need to stay efficient, credible, and work to try to teach us something interesting/relevant. While there isn’t a right or wrong way to structure this section of your report, good literature reviews tend to have the following elements:

  1. A quick narrative describing how the literature review is structured to maximize relevance to the need described in the introduction.
  2. An efficient history of the type/paradigm of the machine/widget/specimen you are testing. This historical view approach is often convenient as it naturally shows what has been done, in some kind of timeline, culminating in why the current test is needed.
  3. The applicability of standards, what aspects of the experiment covered, and why or why not you are conforming to particular standards (the standards may not be relevant for how you plan to operate the test, but you still need to acknowledge and understand the spirit of the standard).
  4. Particularly relevant journal publications and industry manuals or websites that cover parts of your experiment.
  5. A summary that shows what is covered, THE GAP IN UNDERSTANDING, and why you need to do theory and experiments to solve the original customer/client need from the intro.

Now for the specifics of actually using your sources and citing them appropriately. Here’s an example:

“Aerospace is an important industry.”

“Unmanned Aerial Systems are a rapidly growing sector of Aerospace (Teal Group 2012).”

“Unmanned Aerial Systems are predicted to be a $14 billion dollar industry by 2020 and Washington State will be the 2nd largest contributor (Teal Group 2012).”

Which sentence above reads as the most relevant and credible to you? I’m guessing the last. Notice how good sources give you specific numbers that can be traced back to the source. I’ve used them in my sentences to SHOW how big/important something is, rather than just to TELL the reader. Which sentence can be said by anyone? Which sentence makes you valuable as an employee/engineer?

How you list your sources is another consideration. You should always use the format that’s relevant to your company or journal that you will eventually submit the report to. If you are given the option, cite the article with the names of the authors/group producing the publication and year as I have above (Leachman 2016). The name and publication year provides the readers a way to assess the credibility of the information immediately when they read it. Another way is to use a footnote and place the citation at the bottom of the page. Placing the sources at the very end of the report or presentation requires the reader to flip back and forth. It’s a pain! Have you ever been in a presentation where someone put the works cited at the end, but flipped through the slide so quickly that nobody could read anything that was on it? If it’s worth citing, put the source where and when your readers need it.