Friday, 20 August 2010

Suffering from Information Overload... BING.

The Microsoft advert for it's Bing search engine has been stuck in my head for the past few weeks now. Do you like mustaches? As someone that fell head over heels in love with Apple products about a year ago I was slightly reluctant to go back and try something that Microsoft has created. The persistent marketing tells me that, Bing promises to make search results easier to read by being 'visually organised' - I am presuming that is a fancy term for 'uses pictures', but I wouldn't know, I haven't used the system yet. I generally use Google and Pubmed to search (along with a few other sciency search engines).

This morning I have been dealing with/suffering from information overload (apparently soon to become a medical term, 'information fatigue syndrome'). I am trying to figure out a puzzle in my PhD project and I am attempting to do this by going through the literature. It's tough going. A search produces 1000s of results and the information thrown back at you can vary from being relevant to being useless. Trawling through endless papers to try and decide a) if it makes sense b)if the paper is actually talking about what you want c) if it's credible and useful. I just did a quick google search just now about 'searching for scientific papers' helpfully it threw up this result from the New Scientist stating 'most scientific papers are probably wrong', they most certainly nearly all are out of date - see my last post on e-lab books for my thoughts on making scientific information available instantly.

So, is a simple search on Bing going to change my life? Will I find all the information from the search clearly laid out and will it be obvious which site/sites I need to visit? I am going to try Bing with a search for 'number of scientific publications per year'.... here goes..... HMM, disappointing. The results page looks similar to a google search... I won't go through what results I did get, let's just say I didn't get what I was hoping for, which was a nice graph showing the number of papers published yearly per journal/country/region. Maybe this information doesn't exist, but I am sure it does. I would try searching for images, but I can't seem to find this option on Bing. Maybe I am being simple, but I can't see why I should use this over Google. I did the same search on Google, for comparison purposes didn't find a graph there either, however I did find this, from

Showing that the number of publications per year is increasing (up until 1998). I presume that the same trend is going on (I will look further into this).

If the amount of information just keeps going up and up and up how on earth are we supposed to find out what we need and prevent duplicating work that someone has already done?! I really can't see what solutions there are to this, other than spending increased amount of time researching topics and trying to keep on top of what is going on in the world. For now, here are a few tips that might help:

1) Start big, if researching a new topic perform general searches with a couple of key words to get an overview of what is current/popular about the topic at that time. DO NOT STOP THERE THOUGH!

2) Learn how to use search engines properly, especially scientific ones, then you can use advance search options and narrow down the number of results you get and you get results that are more specific to your needs.

3) Learn to scan read scientific papers so you can quickly identify if the paper will be useful or not.

4) File properly, save files/links appropriately in a system you can use simply, this will save a lot of time and effort later when you suddenly think 'ah I read that somewhere, I think, now how did I find that... where will it be'

5) Make notes on things you have read and link to where you read it, this helps and can help you prevent doing dupicate information searches six months down the line

6) STAY UP TO DATE. Make sure you sign up for updates from pubmed etc and regularly (weekly) do searches on your topic so you are sure that the information you have is the most current.

By the way, I am dubious about 'information fatigue syndrome' as a medical term. All I know that trying to find information is increasingly becoming a pain in the bum due to the the fact that the amount of information we have is increasing. It makes the mind boggle. 

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