Thursday, 7 August 2014

The "Filter Problem" in locating relevant research in the on-line records

 DrugMonkey posted the following question under the title "There is no filter problem in science"
It is your job as a scientist to read the literature, keep abreast of findings of interest and integrate this knowledge with your own work.
We have amazing tools for doing so that were not available in times past, everything gets fantastically better all the time.
If you are a PI you even have minions to help you! And colleagues! And manuscripts and grants to review which catch you up.
So I ask you, people who spout off about the "filter" problem.....
What IS the nature of this problem? How does it affect your working day?
I have posted the following comment in reply:
The problem depends on the kind of research and how narrow the specialization. When I started doing my Ph.D. studies in 1959 it was the old fashioned way, in a comparatively narrow field of chemistry. I then worked as an Information Scientist (still no computers) providing an information searching and indexing service for an international company in the veterinary field. I later moved to Computer Science Research, Sinced retiring I am interested in how the brain processes information. 
If you are working in a comparatively well defines field and digging in a narrow specialist area the current online facilities are very good - and infinitely better than anything I had available 50 years ago. However if you need to stand back and get an overview covering several different disciplines you run into more and more problems the more you try to stand back from the detail as different disciplines use language in different specialist ways.
One of the pressing modern interdisciplinary research problems is how information is processed by the human brain. Effectively there is no published model which at one end is compatible with what we know of the neurons and at the other explain the way we look at the works of Shakespeare - with educational theory, psychology, philosophy, mental illness,evolutionary pathways, the appeal of religion, etc., all having possible relevance. Such research requires "out of the box" thinking - and there is no adequate tool which lets you ask relevant questions about novel interdisciplinary links. The problem is that (1) you are not sure what terminology the authors of any similar "out of the box" research will have used (2) the field is full of wild speculation unsupported by good evidence - which you don't really want but the searches turn up, and (3) there are millions of very specialised papers and statistically a lot of these will contain the search terms you are using. 
I am currently trying to stand as far back from the details of the problem to try and allow for the fact that we, as humans, are not objective observers of "human intelligence". Where the current facilities help is when you get a lead - as the web allow you to contact authors, follow up links, etc., although pay walls can be a problem. The problem is in finding the right leads. (If you doubt me try to construct a set of search terms which will reliably come up with the answer.)

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