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
- 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.
- Search non-academic sources. Besides Wikipedia, many researchers now maintain blogs, tweet and contribute to the public media. Can be an effective first step.
- Search in descending chronological order. More recently published literature incorporates information from previous literature, but not the other way around.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.