Engineering a good search

R&D Magazine offers a worthwhile article on information literacy for the engineering profession. “Information literacy” is the technical term for “really good search and evaluation skills” and for “engineering” you could read “anyone wanting to carry out academic research at work”.

“Yeah, yeah, we all know how to search the internet” is often the resulting comment, perhaps accompanied by a leisurely yawn. But to search effectively, without wasting hours of precious (and often fee-earning) time, does require a level of know-how, even in these days of hefty search engines.

Key advice includes (and I’ve added a few of my own here too):

– Having an understanding of how to search for what you’re looking for before you even start out: do you know the terminology? What keywords will be best? What are you really hoping to find?
– Check what you know already: for example, particular expert authors, the most relevant date range, some relevant sources
– Knowing the best sources to use, sites to go to – this may include premium sources too, not just the web freebies.
– Using a general web search engine can prove overwhelming, so it’s worth knowing about the best free academic searching sources – have a look at a Useful update on free science resources and you might want to try out Udini too.
– And in using them do you make use of the Advanced Search option?
– Evaluating what you find: keep on eye on what the results list contains: check for the proper source  (it can sometimes be hidden), the actual published date (not the web-page date which might make the info. look more recent than it is), the authority of the source and author/s.
– Use a good result to improve your search strategy: finding one really relevant article can often help you revise your search terms
– Use the abstract to assess relevance, is there a free first page viewing option to help with this?
– Have you a budget to purchase papers? Tip: it’s always worth entering a journal title into a search engine in case it pops up for free somewhere – it’s surprising how often this works
– And yes, Boolean logic (AND, OR, NOT) still lives on and is useful, despite continual talk of its demise! Along with truncation, and “exact phrase” searching too
– ever used Verbatim on Google? Well, that’s the command to stop Google reinterpreting your search. It’s worth checking out Google’s search commands.

Finally, I noted that the article begins with the interesting point that searchers can be reluctant, or find it hard, to seek out someone to talk to. This is a pity because if you can find someone with expert knowledge of your topic, be it a university professor, colleague or scientific journalist, this can prove highly effective. They tend to be both enthusiastic and pleased that someone’s shown an interest in their specialist area! So I’d keep that technique on the list.

The advice in the R&D Mag. article and the above examples of search techniques may sound somewhat traditional and quite undisruptive, but they still hold good, and will add strength and precision to your search which should save you several hours too.
A librarian colleague used to have an email signature that always made me smile:
“A month in the laboratory can often save an hour in the library.” F. H. Westheimer


This entry was posted in About Google, Featured sites, Information literacy, Scientific sites, Search engines and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Engineering a good search

  1. Pingback: Engineering a good search | Strategy and Compet...

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