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I thought it would be good to have a meta question that we can direct people to in order to give advice about how to research an answer to a question. Such information would be relevant to:

  • Users asking questions: If a user asks a question and doesn't get a good answer, it would be great if they took the time to do the research to find an answer and then report back on what they found.
  • Users providing answers that show limited research: There are a few answers on this site along the lines of "from my experience, I think this", or just "I think this". Better answers mention the empirical evidence supporting or not supporting a claim; or provide links to the theoretical literature.

Question

  • What is a good research strategy for writing an answer on this site?
  • For example, if you decided to provide a scientific answer to a question you knew little about, what strategies would you recommend?
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    If you want to have an expert site, then it is best to avoid the point in Question 2. If I don't know much about a question, I shouldn't try to do hasty research to answer it. I should leave it open and wait for an expert. If the question is good, then the asker should have already looked at the obvious sources. – Artem Kaznatcheev Feb 5 '12 at 19:46
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    @ArtemKaznatcheev I take your point and there are degrees of not knowing. That said, I think a decent student at say the level of a psych or cog sci major should be able spend an hour doing a literature research on Google Scholar, wikipedia, and so on, and be able generate a useful answer. I think back to my answer on leg jiggling. I hadn't read a single scientific article about leg jiggling before I read that question. I'm not saying that it's the definitive word on leg jiggling, but I still think that the answer is useful. – Jeromy Anglim Feb 5 '12 at 22:50
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    You may find this helpful as a starting point for what makes a good SE answer in the first place, before science comes into the picture. – Adam Lear Feb 6 '12 at 2:24
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The best answers are easily absorbed (succinct and well-formatted) and support any generalizations with links to more information. This means

  • Readably-formatted key ideas (bullet points, bolded, etc) so that the big idea can be grasped easily
  • Images where helpful
  • References to more information (citations are key!)

If an answer states that reading is not possible in dreams because of a lack of synchronization between hemispheres in the dream state (I made that up and it is very unlikely to be true), where did that information come from? If I were skeptical about that statement, how do I find information on how that generalization was arrived at? If I believed that statement and wanted to be able to argue that it was true, what information supports it?

Good answers. . .
On how masking works
On the incubation effect in problem-solving
On perception of pitch differences

  • Thank you for citing my answer here! I'm flattered – AliceD Dec 30 '14 at 12:52
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I think back to my answer on leg jiggling. I hadn't read a single scientific article about leg jiggling before I read that question. I'm not saying that it's the definitive word on leg jiggling, but I still think that the answer is useful. – Jeromy

In my view, this is the right approach: our emphasis needs to be on providing useful answers, not only exhaustive answers. In fact, a large part of why I come here is exactly to get out of my little corner of the literature. These are some thoughts on making efficient literature searches, in no particular order.

10 tips for researching an answer

  1. Use multiple search engines. Simultaneous cursory searches over Google Scholar, Web of Science, SCOPUS, etc. can be an effective way to gain an initial overview of a topic.
  2. Search non-academic sources. Besides Wikipedia, many researchers now maintain blogs, tweet and contribute to the public media. Can be an effective first step.
  3. Search in descending chronological order. More recently published literature incorporates information from previous literature, but not the other way around.
  4. Chunk your search. Many topics have decades upon decades of literature using the same terms in subtly evolving ways. Condense your searches into five- or ten-year chunks.
  5. Emphasize reviews and meta-analyses. Reviews and meta-analysis are often written by field leaders, and are almost always a perfect way to get an overview.
  6. Use forward search/"Cited By" features. Many search engines, such as Google Scholar, offer forward searches on articles that reveals who has later cited them. Use this!
  7. Read strategically, not narratively. Don't start from A and move towards Z. Don't read beyond the abstracts until you have a specific idea of what you're looking for in a paper, and then read accordingly. I almost always start with the methods and adjust my subsequent reading depending on goals.
  8. Read the question closely. Constraining your interpretation of the question to what is actually written can be the difference between a question getting an answer or not. Many of my accepted and/or highest voted answers are short to-the-point reviews for empirical questions. (This is actually something I'm fairly bad at, though. I guess I just love the sound of my own internal monologue.)
  9. Incubate! Don't answer the question right after you've read it. You can, but it's much, much easier to read/favorite ten-fifteen questions and wait until a relevant idea pops up for one of them, than to focus on one question that seems interesting at first glance.
  10. Practice makes perfect. Besides (and because of) making you more knowledgeable in general, it's worth noting that the more literature you search, the faster you become at searching the literature! A literature search a day keeps the doctor away.

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