How to write a Related Work section

A related work section is essential to most research articles (and every methods paper).
A fundamental contribution in methods papers is methodological novelty and editors will commonly ask how the method in questions differs from an already published method.
A well-written related work section will enable reviewers to confidently answer this question.

Goals of a related work section

The overall goal is to describe the related research areas and to place your method’s contributions to the field in this context.
By clearly describing previous work, you can better describe the current limitations and the need for new methodology.
It also gives you an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge of the area and helps others relate your current work to other scientific areas.
The section should include methods that formulated the problem, addressed a central or related problem, used a similar methodology as your work to a similar problem, or if your work was inspired by their work.  Be extremely generous in including related work — the proverbial scorned author turned reviewer is sometimes a real problem.

Structure of a related work section

There should be a common theme to each paragraph in this section.
For instance, you can describe related methods development work chronologically starting from early work and their assumptions as the models get more complex.
Subsequent paragraphs can describe how newer methods improved on previous work, relaxed assumptions, used fundamentally different approaches (frequentist versus Bayesian), or tried to solve similar problems. When describing each method, say what it is and how it builds on previous approaches before describing its limitations. Better to teach here and tell a story than just to establish dominance in a (possibly) crowded area. Related work sections are often judged on their intellectual honesty (at least by me).

The final paragraph should then place your contributions squarely in the context of the preceding research. It should be simple and clear, given the background from this section: “The main contributions of our work to the problem of Blah are i) …” and then later “The impact of our approach that addresses these existing limitations is …”

As with the abstract, viewing other published articles in the target journal on related problems will give a good sense of what is expected.