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.
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.
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.
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…
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.