What are your best tips and tricks when researching a topic in 2021?
August 7, 2021 9:05 AM   Subscribe

I’ve recently realised that I’ve never really thought about the way I perform research the internet. For example, if I want to research a topic like the effect of lithium ion batteries on the environment., I will just type the phrase “lithium ion batteries environment” into Google.

Or, if I want to get an academic paper on the topic, I might preface the search term with “.pdf”. Or, sometimes I will use a site like ScienceDirect. And from there, use Sci-Hub. However, I’m sure there are way more smarter ways to perform research on any topic using the internet. For example, podcasts are becoming an increasingly rich source of information on topics across a broad range of disciplines. But these rarely appear in the results of a Google search.

What are your best tips and tricks when it comes to researching a topic whether it be from science, humanities or any other discipline?
posted by jacobean to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on the topic, I've had a lot of luck adding a specific site to my search.

For instance, to research nurses opinions of working for a hospital, I know you can add "allnurses" (a nursing forum) to the search query. For science/vague terms, adding "quora" can find some well thought answers. (What's more common, 1 hump camels or two?)

For almost any recommendations on local things to do, Reddit is a great source. You can add site:reddit.com to "things to do in Boston", and the knowledge is way better than without.

For maps, books, or manuals, adding filetype:pdf to the Google search is a great way to cut through a ton of BS. "Lost mines of phandover filetype:PDF".

For how to do house maintenance, starting on YouTube is the best bet. You'll get way better results for "fixing siding gaps" on YouTube than on Google.
posted by bbqturtle at 9:34 AM on August 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

I would not consider podcasts, broadly, to be credible sources of information, if that information is remotely politicized or in any kind of debate. There are definitely credible podcasts, but there are also awful podcasts. Same thing with Reddit or Quora or Youtube. There's a LOT of misinfo/disinfo ops out there. Granted, that's more important if you're looking for something related to climate change or COVID or smoking than if you're trying to figure out how to install a new toilet.

As a former academic and someone who still works with current academic research in my discipline, Google Scholar is my jam. I can often find pre-prints on Arxiv.org and friends without paying for journals.
posted by Alterscape at 9:36 AM on August 7, 2021 [10 favorites]

Libgen, or Library Genesis. Libgen.li or one of its many mirrors (search for Libgen and see what is available in your country). Libgen is a library of PDFs (mostly, also some ebooks) of scientific literature. It is managed by a Russian team, and they know their stuff. The interface is basic, but there is rarely a text they will not have. Depending on your country of residence and your service provider you might need to use Tor browser / VPN to access libgen, also you can usually find a mirror site that is not blocked. To clarify, I do not condone downloading copyrighted material, but it is still possible to use libgen as a library catalogue for research purposes.
posted by slimeline at 9:52 AM on August 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I actually find Wikipedia very useful! The trick is using it as a starting point, not an ending point. Reading the Wikipedia article on something can give you better terms to use for a deeper search, plus the footnotes can often point you towards primary or authoritative sources. You obviously have to employ critical thinking but I've used Wikipedia as my jumping-off place for a fair amount of serious research.
posted by babelfish at 9:59 AM on August 7, 2021 [20 favorites]

Searching in Google Scholar (scholar.google.com) will mostly limit to academic publications. You can even set it up so that it will tell you if your employer/university/medical center/etc. has access to full-text.
posted by mareli at 10:04 AM on August 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

scholar.google.com works for me too: it contains conference papers and abstracts that wouldn't make it through peer-review [the gold standard for science publications] to . . .

PubMed primarily stem from the biomedicine and health fields, and related disciplines such as life sciences, behavioral sciences, chemical sciences, and bioengineering.
or chemistry's equiv:

PubChem mostly contains small molecules, but also larger molecules such as nucleotides, carbohydrates, lipids, peptides, and chemically-modified macromolecules. We collect information on chemical structures, identifiers, chemical and physical properties, biological activities, patents, health, safety, toxicity data, and many others.
SciHub you know about; although it is being hunted through the long grass by Elsevier and its commercial minions: Wiley; Springer Nature; Taylor Francis; and Sage.
Researchgate will sometimes yield free full-texts, graphs and pictures but also works-in-progress by groups/people who seem to know what they are talking about.
"predatory publishing" will give some side-eye at the credibility of scientific papers; likewise

Red Face: we published a paper [on lithium] in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which is condemned in the beware-academics citation above. Not a very good paper, true, but not utter bollix either.
posted by BobTheScientist at 10:04 AM on August 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Take the results with a grain of salt, but if I’m looking for things happening at the present moment (and I’m defining that broadly - anything from “what’s the score of the high school football game in my hometown six states away?” to “why are there a bunch of police cars on the other side of the highway?”, this is where Twitter really excels.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:41 AM on August 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

I definitely start with Wikipedia. Not because it will provide a lot of in-depth analysis, but because it gives you the building blocks of how to research anything - specifically terms and concepts. If you try to read a complicated study but you don't actually know what half the words in it mean, you're going to infer your own incorrect definitions. This will also make it even more difficult to understand or discuss things going forward.

Along the same lines, if you don't understand the abstract/summary of a paper, don't try to read the full paper. It's not going to help, and often the detail makes it even more confusing.

Most things are complicated, if they weren't then people wouldn't be discussing and researching it.
posted by meowzilla at 10:48 AM on August 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Google Scholar is a good tool for academic works for a few reasons: it includes a wide range of academic content from databases, journals, and institutional repositories; it will link to freely-available content when it can find it, but will also give you results even if you don’t have access (so you can see what’s out there); it generally ranks higher works with more citations, so your results will be things other academics have referred to heavily. As an academic librarian, it’s one of my best tools that isn’t through libraries.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:28 AM on August 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

If you want to research the effect of lithium ion batteries on the environment, try searching it as the question What effect do lithium ion batteries have on the environment? I find that pretty effective, and Google parses questions pretty well. If you want to get better at research, visit a library, online if they're not fully open, and ask a reference librarian for help.
posted by theora55 at 11:52 AM on August 7, 2021

Quora is a terrible place to ask questions related to my field (linguistics) because it's full of all sorts of nonsense.

If it's an academic question in a field I'm not familiar with, I usually start with Wikipedia. I use it exactly as babelfish says: To get enough of an understanding of the topic and the terms used to discuss the topic so that I can do further research. Although, for some questions this is really enough ("what is Suzhou's average climate like") or ("what is the largest known black hole"). The trick is knowing when it's enough and when you should dig deeper because there are potential controversies/perspectives/quesitons that are not obvious from the entry.

If I want to look into it more deeply, I'll use Google Scholar to try to find reputable, recent academic sources addressing the question.

I do not in general trust pop science reporting/writing, knowing how terrible it is from my own field. I am more likely to refer to it if it is a science writer that is also an expert, or at least has a long history of writing on this particular topic.

I'm a Reddit regular as well. There are well-moderated subreddits where there is less nonsense than places like Quora because the nonsense gets removed. The trick is knowing how to tell. Often this means lurking for a while and observing. Like, I know r/AskHistorians moderation is very strict and surviving answers will at least look credible to other historians, and r/AskAnthropology moderation is not very strict and a lot of nonsense remains up for a long time - this despite them having similar rules about sourcing, etc.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:42 PM on August 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

If I am looking entirely outside of my expertise I will also start with Wikipedia, drop down to the citations and see who is authoritative about the topic. If I want to find some deep dives on something that is likely to be academic, I'll add "thesis" to my search query first (can be good for historical stuff). And, as a librarian, I realize that generalist takes are usually not super helpful except for the most basic things so I'll try to figure out who DOES publish useful takes on this

- for medicine maybe National Library of Medicine or PubMed or for some personal health thing I'll look on Mayo Clinc (with some caveats but they are usually ok) or looking up pills via Google images can help answer "what's that pill?" questions and/or get me to a place where I can learn more about the medicine.
- for Science, Science Direct isn't always great but they tend to link to sources and can sometimes summarize scientific papers enough so that I can understand them. Or point out who the people are who are publishing so I can track down their papers or blogs. And, like medicine, sometimes I will look for other bloggy posts that cite a particular study so I can read takes about the study.
- for mechanical things I can browse through YouTube to help me do something mechanical I do NOT think it's good for complicated stuff or fraught topics because the algos will point you towards popular takes and not good ones. But for "How can I do this thing in my car?" (replacing cabin air filters, or flipping up my backseats) it's a good place to start.
- there are a few "Ask A..." sites like "Ask A Scientist" or "Ask A Mathematician" (I think?) which are often written for children but that's okay with me. Kutsuwamushi mentions the subreddits and they are also good, or AMAs if it's by someone who you want to know more about, or know about their field or hobby.
- you will learn a lot about people who are dead if you track down their obituary but sometimes you have to take them with a grain of salt. If it's a person who is in a marginalized group I try very hard to find writing by someone who is a member of the same group if possible.
- art/humanities stuff is often best searched for in places that have good, useful, content online. NYPL, British Library, The Met, a few other really good art museums. Academic libraries often have a lot of stuff that isn't really surfaced in search engines well. I'll go to the school or university's website and try to find their special collections or other digital repository.
- there are a lot of really huge archives that are good for big ranges of things: Europeana (for Europe), Trove (for Australia), Flickr Commons (a little of everything, mostly western), DPLA, Libraries and Archives Canada. I hope people from places which have content not in English can chime in with some other ones.

Most importantly, I think is to view searches as iterative. That is, assume the first search is just to make sure you know the right words or are in generally the right place. Then either find a better archive or term and search again.
posted by jessamyn at 8:04 PM on August 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

Nthing Wikipedia for references and terminology for topics outside my domain... and also within it.
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 6:05 AM on August 8, 2021

Best answer: You'll like this book (I assume.... I found it super helpful and assigned a chapter to one of my classes)! The Joy of Search: A Google Insider's Guide to Going Beyond the Basics by Daniel Russell. I borrowed my copy from the library, so definitely request a copy if your local branch doesn't already have it available.
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:23 PM on August 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone.

Those resources are fantastic.

I've now upgraded the internet search feature of my brain to the 2021 version instead of 2012!
posted by jacobean at 3:43 AM on August 10, 2021

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