Google Scholar simplifies my life (again)

July 1st, 2010

Google Scholar has largely replaced PubMed as the literature search engine of choice for my generation. It’s more intuitive, requires less futzing around with keywords, and generally seems to produce better results with less hassle. Today, Google Scholar got a little bit better, adding the ability to search within articles that cite a specific article. Sound confusing? Then let me explain:

When researching a particular gene or reading up on a technique, you’ll eventually stumble upon a great paper. It’s clearly a seminal paper in the field and is perfectly related to what you’re looking for, but it’s a little out of date. Surely, you think, other people have been working on this problem over the last decade!

The old way to find out was to click on the “Cited By” link and then scroll through all the papers that appeared, looking for relevant titles, then skimming their abstracts. (Being able to get even this much information was a major breakthrough not so long ago). On really solid papers, though, that cited-by list might number into the hundreds. Now, Google has made this step easier by allowing you to do full-text search within that list, effectively narrowing your search to a specific lineage of scientific discovery.

In the future, I’d love to see this expanded to second or third-degree neighbors. I’d also like the ability to go the opposite direction, and search within all the papers that a specific paper cites. I can’t gripe too much about lack of features, though. Only a couple of decades ago, people were still following citation trails manually, by pulling the relevant journals off the shelf and making photocopies. It’s amazing that anything got done at all back then.

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