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I need to start learning about a new research topic, I've been collecting articles for about a year now. I collected +400 articles, spanning a range of ~40 years.

I haven't had the time to read them since I was working on finishing a few papers, I'm finished now so I want to get on it.

The question is: should I start from oldest to newest, or from newest to oldest?

I can see some pros and cons in both approaches:

Oldest to newest:

  • Pro: it feels right, since that is the way the research actually happened.
  • Con: It will take me a lot of time to become acquainted with the latest developments in the field, and I am not able to start working on it until I do.

Newest to oldest:

  • Pro: I will quickly develop some knowledge (not in depth though) into the actual state of the field. This allows me to start working, at least on minor things.
  • Pro: It will alert me of wrong paths taken previously in the field, so when I find them in the older literature I'll be already aware.
  • Con: It will be considerably more difficult to follow, specially at first, since I'll be diving into the analysis of the latest developments of an unknown field.
  • Con: I'll necessarily be jumping back to older literature anyway, risking going down the rabbit hole of research.

1 Answer 1

It depends on whether there's a lot of building on understanding certain concepts in order to understand some other things. If so, then you'll need to control the order you read things in rather carefully, so you don't end up rather lost.

If not, then follow your nose. Dive in where it seems most interesting, and then work your way around with your curiosity as your guide.

When this journey of discovery starts to slow down, then you can go through them more methodically. At this point you will be familiar enough with the area that you will be able to do some skimming (e.g. it looks like this one was a preliminary form of the idea that was later more fully fleshed out in such-and-so).

Make sure you make a guide for yourself, which you should update from time to time, of what your goals are, in other words, a list of what you are trying to accomplish and understand through this big reading project.