Scholarship: How to Do It Efficiently

bylukeprog8y9th May 2011143 comments

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Scholarship is an important virtue of rationality, but it can be costly. Its major costs are time and effort. Thus, if you can reduce the time and effort required for scholarship - if you can learn to do scholarship more efficiently - then scholarship will be worth your effort more often than it previously was.

As an autodidact who now consumes whole fields of knowledge in mere weeks, I've developed efficient habits that allow me to research topics quickly. I'll share my research habits with you now.

 

Review articles and textbooks are king

My first task is to find scholarly review (or 'survey') articles on my chosen topic from the past five years (the more recent, the better). A good review article provides:

  1. An overview of the subject matter of the field and the terms being used (for scholarly googling later).
  2. An overview of the open and solved problems in the field, and which researchers are working on them.
  3. Pointers to the key studies that give researchers their current understanding of the topic.

If you can find a recent scholarly edited volume of review articles on the topic, then you've hit the jackpot. (Edited volumes are better than single-author volumes, because when starting out you want to avoid reading only one particular researcher's perspective.) Examples from my own research of just this year include:

If the field is large enough, there may exist an edited 'Handbook' on the subject, which is basically just a very large scholarly edited volume of review articles. Examples: Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (2007), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (2009), Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience (2009), Handbook of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (2008), Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics (2011), Handbook of Relationship Intitiation (2008), and Handbook of Implicit Social Cognition (2010). For the humanities, see the Blackwell Companions and Cambridge Companions.

If your questions are basic enough, a recent entry-level textbook on the subject may be just as good. Textbooks are basically book-length review articles written for undergrads. Textbooks I purchased this year include:

Use Google Books and Amazon's 'Look Inside' feature to see if the books appear to be of high quality, and likely to answer the questions you have. Also check the textbook recommendations here. You can save money by checking Library Genesis and library.nu for a PDF copy first, or by buying used books, or by buying ebook versions from Amazon, B&N, or Google.

Keep in mind that if you take the virtue of scholarship seriously, you may need to change how you think about the cost of obtaining knowledge. Purchasing the right book can save you dozens of hours of research. Because a huge part of my life these days is devoted to scholarship, a significant portion of my monthly budget is set aside for purchasing knowledge. So far this year I've averaged over $150/mo spent on textbooks and scholarly edited volumes.

Recent scholarly review articles can also be found on Google scholar. Search for key terms, and review articles will often be listed near the top of the results because review articles are cited widely. For example, result #9 on Google scholar for procrastination is "The nature of procrastination" (2007) by Piers Steel, the first half of which is a review article, while the second half is a meta-analysis. Bingo.

You can also search Amazon for key terms. I recently searched Amazon for 'attention neuroscience.' Result #2 was a 2004 scholarly edited volume on the subject. A bit old, but not bad for my first search! I found the PDF on library.nu.

In order to find good review articles, textbooks, and scholarly edited volumes you may first need to figure out what the terminology is. When I wanted to understand the neuroscience of pleasure and desire, it took me a while to figure out that the neuroscience of emotions is called affective neuroscience. After consuming that field, I had learned a lot about pleasure but not much about desire. I then realized that I didn't care about desire as an emotion but instead as a driver of action under uncertainty. That aspect of desire, it turns out, is studied not under the field of affective neuroscience but instead neuroeconomics.

Similarly, when I was originally looking for 'scientific self-help', I had trouble finding review articles or textbooks on the subject. It took me months to discover that professionals call this the psychology of adjustment. Who would have guessed that? But once I knew the term, I quickly found two textbooks on the subject, which were good starting points for understanding the field.

Note that not every scholarly edited volume is a volume of review articles. New Waves in Philosophy of Action is a collection of new research articles, not a collection of review articles. It is a poor entry point into the field. Some edited volumes are okay entry points into the field because they are a mix of review articles and original research, for example Machine Ethics (2011). But remember that a 'good' edited volume on a subject does not protect you from the entire field being mostly misguided, like machine ethics or mainstream philosophy.

Also note that if you can't find an edited volume on your subject, one may be just around the corner. In 2007 there was no decent edited volume on neuroeconomics, but there were three review articles. Then in 2008, Decision Making and the Brain was released.

 

Going granular

Once textbooks and review articles have given you a good overview of the key concepts and terms, open and closed problems, studies and researchers on your chosen topic, it's time to go granular.

Textbooks and review articles will point you to the articles most directly relevant for answering the questions you have, and the researchers working on the problems you care about. Visit researchers' home pages and check their 'recent publications' lists. Find the papers on Google Scholar and read the abstracts. Make a list of the ones you need to read more closely. You'll be able to download many of them directly from links found on Google Scholar. For others, you'll need to visit a university library's computer lab to download the papers. The university will have subscribed to many of the databases that carry the papers, and university computers will let you past the paywall (but on-campus wifi will not). To get access to a paper you can't get at a nearby university, you can:

  1. Contact the author via email and request a copy (or a preprint), explaining that you can't get it elsewhere.
  2. Ask your friends at other universities to check if their university has access to it.
  3. Look to see if the article has been published in a book that is available at your library or online.

I've never purchased an article from an online database because the prices are outrageous: $15-$40 for a 20-page article, usually. If I absolutely can't get access to an article, I make a judgement as to how much weight to give the study's conclusions, inferring this from the researcher's history and the abstract and responses to the article I can read and other factors.

Skim through promising research articles for the information you want, watching for obvious problems in experimental design or quality of argument. This is where your time investment in scholarship can explode, so be conscious of the tradeoffs involved when reading 100 abstracts vs. reading 100 papers.

You can also try contacting individual researchers. This works best when the subject line of your email is very descriptive, and is obviously about a detail in their recent work. The content of your email should ask a very specific question or two, quoting directly from their paper(s). Researchers are often excited to hear that somebody is actually reading their work closely, though philosophers get more excited than neuroscientists (for example). Neuroscientists are called for comment by the media somewhat regularly. This doesn't happen to philosophers.

Finally, if you've done all this work already and you're feeling generous, perhaps you could take a little time to write up the results of your research for the rest of us! Or, help make Wikipedia better.

 

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