Friday, 30 March 2007

Too much information!

We hear so much these days about information overload. There are frightening statistics about the huge numbers of papers in health journals that appear every single day. We don’t have time to read everything that’s out there. “Can I have that in three bullet points?” we ask, “is there an executive summary?”

It’s just as bad when we search for information. You’re after one or two recent review papers to bring you up to speed and what you get is an avalanche of stuff. Worse, half of it isn’t even relevant stuff.

Looking for information is rather like screening for disease. You want to find everything out there that is relevant and as little as possible of what isn’t relevant.

There are various ways to ensure you find the right things. The first is to look in the right place. Wonderful as Google is it covers everything. Sometimes it’s better to look in a place that offers you less, but more relevant, stuff. Broadly speaking this means using targeted academic and scholarly search engines, using health gateways and portal or using specific bibliographic databases.

For academic and scholarly papers try Google Scholar or Scirus. The Google product looks like Google but limits its searches to journals articles. Scirus focuses on scientific information from web pages and journals. When you search it looks at results and offers likely terms you might want to use to narrow and refine your search. You can restrict your search to journals if you wish. Just to give you an idea of the difference in amount of stuff retrieved I typed “diabetes mellitus” into Google and got 4.89 million hits. Google Scholar and Scirus gave me around 550,000 each. Much more manageable, but still too much to trawl through.

The next step, then, is to look further than the basic search box on your search engine. Look closely at both Google products and you’ll see a link to “advanced search” to the right of the main search box. These offer you a variety of ways to narrow your search – words you do want, words you don’t want, language, publication dates and author names (in Scholar). Both advanced search pages give you a link to further tips on advanced searching. Neither is a perfect solution, but it’s a start.

Rather than add to your information overload I’ll cover health gateways and bibliographic databases in a future posting.

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