The perils of searching the literature

Back in the day, there was no internet, and researchers had to search for papers by actually searching. In a library, with old copies of journals. Sometimes they wrote to authors, and the authors mailed them physical copies of their papers. (When you publish a paper, journals still offer you the option to order hundreds of these physical copies, called “offprints.”) I know, right? Ridiculous.

Now we can just search online. Instead of sifting through piles and piles of journals, I search, download, and in mere seconds can have the paper I wanted saved on my computer under some totally non-obscure name like “fledgling_conflict+habitat_yellowwarbler” that I will definitely not forget the meaning of in a week.

Judgmental fish thinks you will definitely forget what that file name means.

Judgmental fish thinks you will definitely forget what that file name means.

Yet despite this incredible technological progress, there are still some perils to searching the literature:

1) No results. Really? But someone must have studied this! But… but I need to cite it!!

2) 17,988 results. Good luck with that.

If each one of these geese could read and summarize 20 papers for me…

If each one of these geese could read and summarize 20 papers for me…

3) Exactly the right result. Exactly. As in, someone did the project you’re proposing way back in 1996. And with a larger sample size than you were anticipating, too. Time to think of a new project.

4) Scary result. “Effects of porcine testis extract on wound healing in rat.” I hope I never meet whoever is coming up with projects like that.

5) Really scary result. “Depredation of Black-throated Blue Warbler nestlings by an introduced slug (Arionidae).” Excuse me while I read this out of morbid curiosity, then have terrifying slug nightmares.

We may be sea slugs but we fully support our terrestrial brethren's attacks on the vertebrates. Eat them while they are young, slimy brothers, lest they grow up to eat you!

We may be sea slugs but we fully support our terrestrial brethren’s attacks on the vertebrates. Eat them while they are young, slimy comrades, lest they grow up to eat you!

6) Semi-inaccessible result. “Paper” is actually a chapter from a book. So I have to walk to the library and handle an actual physical object in order to get this information? Oh but that’s so much work…

Leopards do not go to the library.

Leopards do not go to the library.

7) Really inaccessible result. Oh great, this paper looks good – “Not available online”? What?! Why don’t we have online archives for Western Estonian Journal of Field Ornithology from 1939??

8) Utterly fascinating, completely irrelevant result. Get intrigued by the title, read the paper, read various papers it cites, and then realize you’ve just spent several hours getting interested in a field that you are not working in. Bonus points if all of these awesome papers are in low-impact journals and from the 1980s – indicating that this is not a currently-hot field that you can switch to. Sigh, put the awesome old low-impact papers aside, and resolve to do research in that field when you are a tenured professor and no one can fire you.

Limpet thinks you should stop reading fascinating irrelevant papers and get back to work.

Limpet thinks you should stop reading fascinating irrelevant papers and get back to work.

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6 thoughts on “The perils of searching the literature

  1. Love it! Made me realize: one of the most wonderful things about being retired is that I can read all the irrelevant papers I want. Although I guess, since I’m not actually researching anything, they’re all technically irrelevant!

  2. Our first search generated 2172 relevant papers. We sifted these to 665 (was number of the beast but one was a duplicate). Then i reviewed each abstract and allocated them to review groups by disease stage. Even then we had about 100 papers per group so i created a way to score each paper systematically … All to create national treatment guidelines based on systematic review of a large body of poor quality data. I disagree with the cat. The relevant stuff is dull, long live the serendipitious gems.

    • Wow! (Pity the 666 didn’t work out – I’d like to see that in a Methods section.) I’ve been sort of dancing around doing something similar – but with fewer papers – for the review I’m working on, but I haven’t managed to create a scoring system that I’m happy with for more than a few days. Bravo for doing that, that’s awesome.
      And I agree, too often the relevant stuff is dull – but unfortunately I haven’t found a way to get a publishable review out of just appreciating the few awesome papers yet…

  3. Hahaha! Wonderful… I did years of research in the publishing industry, and ran into this dilemma. The wealth of misinformation in the Internet Age is FANTASTIC! :)

    p.s. We had sea slugs where I was raised. Interesting beasts.

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