Googling is the first step. Consider adding scholarly searches to your arsenal.

by Tenoke 3 min read7th May 201346 comments


Related to: Scholarship: How to Do It Efficiently

There has been a slightly increased focus on the use of search engines lately. I agree that using Google is an important skill - in fact I believe that for years I have came across as significantly more knowledgeable than I actually am just by quickly looking for information when I am asked something.

However, There are obviously some types of information which are more accessible by Google and some which are less accessible. For example distinct characteristics, specific dates of events etc. are easily googleable1 and you can expect to quickly find accurate information on the topic. On the other hand, if you want to find out more ambiguous things such as the effects of having more friends on weight or even something like the negative and positive effects of a substance - then googling might leave you with some contradicting results, inaccurate information or at the very least it will likely take you longer to get to the truth.

I have observed that in the latter case (when the topic is less 'googleable') most people, even those knowledgeable of search engines and 'science' will just stop searching for information after not finding anything on Google or even before2 unless they are actually willing to devote a lot of time to find it. This is where my recommendation comes - consider doing a scholarly search like the one provided by Google Scholar.

And, no, I am not suggesting that people should read a bunch of papers on every topic that they discuss. By using some simple heuristics we can easily gain a pretty good picture of the relevant information on a large variety of topics in a few minutes (or less in some cases). The heuristics are as follows:

1. Read only or mainly the abstracts. This is what saves you time but gives you a lot of information in return and this is the key to the most cost-effective way to quickly find information from a scholary search. Often you wouldn't have immediate access to the paper anyway, however you can almost always read the abstract. And if you follow the other heuristics you will still be looking at relatively 'accurate' information most of the time. On the other hand, if you are looking for more information and have access to the full paper then the discussion+conclusion section are usually the second best thing to look at; and if you are unsure about the quality of the study, then you should also look at the method section to identify its limitations.3

2. Look at the number of citations for an article. The higher the better. Less than 10 citations in most cases means that you can find a better paper.

3. Look at the date of the paper. Often more recent = better. However, you can expect less citations for more recent articles and you need to adjust accordingly. For example if the article came out in 2013 but it has already been cited 5 times this is probably a good sign. For new articles the subheuristic that I use is to evaluate the 'accuracy' of the article by judging the author's general credibilty instead - argument from authority.

4. Meta-analyses/Systematic Reviews are your friend. This is where you can get the most information in the least amount of time!

5. If you cannot find anything relevant fiddle with your search terms in whatever ways you can think of (you usually get better at this over time by learning what search terms give better results).

That's the gist of it. By reading a few abstracts in a minute or two you can effectively search for information regarding our scientific knowledge on a subject with almost the same speed as searching for specific information on topics that I dubbed googleable. In my experience scholarly searches on pretty much anything can be really beneficial. Do you believe that drinking beer is bad but drinking wine is good? Search on Google Scholar! Do you think that it is a fact that social interaction is correlated with happiness? Google Scholar it! Sure, some things might seem obvious to you that X but it doesn't hurt to search on google scholar for a minute just to be able to cite a decent study on the topic to those X disbelievers.


This post might not be useful to some people but it is my belief that scholarly searches are the next step of efficient information seeking after googling and that most LessWrongers are not utilizing this enough. Hell, I only recently started doing this actively and I still do not do it enough. Furthermore I fully agree with this comment by gwern:

My belief is that the more familiar and skilled you are with a tool, the more willing you are to reach for it. Someone who has been programming for decades will be far more willing to write a short one-off program to solve a problem than someone who is unfamiliar and unsure about programs (even if they suspect that they could get a canned script copied from StackExchange running in a few minutes). So the unwillingness to try googling at all is at least partially a lack of googling skill and familiarity.

A lot of people will be reluctant to start doing scholarly searches because they have barely done any or because they have never done it. I want to tell those people to still give it a try. Start by searching for something easy, maybe something that you already know from lesswrong or from somewhere else. Read a few abstracts, if you do not understand a given abstract try finding other papers on the topic - some authors adopt a more technical style of writing, others focus mainly on statistics, etc. but you should still be able to find some good information if you read multiple abstracts and identify the main points. If you cannot find anythinr relevant then move on and try another topic.


P.S. In my opinion, when you are comfortable enough to have scholarly searches as a part of your arsenal you will rarely have days when there is nothing to check for. If you are doing 1 scholarly search per month for example you are most probably not fully utilizing this skill.


1. By googleable I mean that the search terms are google friendly - you can relatively easily and quickly find relevant and accurate information.
2. If the people in question have developed a sense for what type of information is more accessible by google then they might not even try to google the less accessible-type things.
3. If you want to get a better and more accurate view on the topic in question you should read the full paper. The heuristic of mainly focusing on abstracts is cost-effective but it invariably results in a loss of information.