Scholarship: How to Do It Efficiently

Schol­ar­ship is an im­por­tant virtue of ra­tio­nal­ity, but it can be costly. Its ma­jor costs are time and effort. Thus, if you can re­duce the time and effort re­quired for schol­ar­ship—if you can learn to do schol­ar­ship more effi­ciently—then schol­ar­ship will be worth your effort more of­ten than it pre­vi­ously was.

As an au­to­di­dact who now con­sumes whole fields of knowl­edge in mere weeks, I’ve de­vel­oped effi­cient habits that al­low me to re­search top­ics quickly. I’ll share my re­search habits with you now.

Re­view ar­ti­cles and text­books are king

My first task is to find schol­arly re­view (or ‘sur­vey’) ar­ti­cles on my cho­sen topic from the past five years (the more re­cent, the bet­ter). A good re­view ar­ti­cle pro­vides:

  1. An overview of the sub­ject mat­ter of the field and the terms be­ing used (for schol­arly googling later).

  2. An overview of the open and solved prob­lems in the field, and which re­searchers are work­ing on them.

  3. Poin­t­ers to the key stud­ies that give re­searchers their cur­rent un­der­stand­ing of the topic.

If you can find a re­cent schol­arly ed­ited vol­ume of re­view ar­ti­cles on the topic, then you’ve hit the jack­pot. (Edited vol­umes are bet­ter than sin­gle-au­thor vol­umes, be­cause when start­ing out you want to avoid read­ing only one par­tic­u­lar re­searcher’s per­spec­tive.) Ex­am­ples from my own re­search of just this year in­clude:

If the field is large enough, there may ex­ist an ed­ited ‘Hand­book’ on the sub­ject, which is ba­si­cally just a very large schol­arly ed­ited vol­ume of re­view ar­ti­cles. Ex­am­ples: Oxford Hand­book of Evolu­tion­ary Psy­chol­ogy (2007), Oxford Hand­book of Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­ogy (2009), Oxford Hand­book of Philos­o­phy and Neu­ro­science (2009), Hand­book of Devel­op­men­tal Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science (2008), Oxford Hand­book of Neu­roethics (2011), Hand­book of Re­la­tion­ship In­ti­ti­a­tion (2008), and Hand­book of Im­plicit So­cial Cog­ni­tion (2010). For the hu­man­i­ties, see the Black­well Com­pan­ions and Cam­bridge Com­pan­ions.

If your ques­tions are ba­sic enough, a re­cent en­try-level text­book on the sub­ject may be just as good. Text­books are ba­si­cally book-length re­view ar­ti­cles writ­ten for un­der­grads. Text­books I pur­chased this year in­clude:

Use Google Books and Ama­zon’s ‘Look In­side’ fea­ture to see if the books ap­pear to be of high qual­ity, and likely to an­swer the ques­tions you have. Also check the text­book recom­men­da­tions here. You can save money by check­ing Library Ge­n­e­sis and library.nu for a PDF copy first, or by buy­ing used books, or by buy­ing ebook ver­sions from Ama­zon, B&N, or Google.

Keep in mind that if you take the virtue of schol­ar­ship se­ri­ously, you may need to change how you think about the cost of ob­tain­ing knowl­edge. Pur­chas­ing the right book can save you dozens of hours of re­search. Be­cause a huge part of my life these days is de­voted to schol­ar­ship, a sig­nifi­cant por­tion of my monthly bud­get is set aside for pur­chas­ing knowl­edge. So far this year I’ve av­er­aged over $150/​mo spent on text­books and schol­arly ed­ited vol­umes.

Re­cent schol­arly re­view ar­ti­cles can also be found on Google scholar. Search for key terms, and re­view ar­ti­cles will of­ten be listed near the top of the re­sults be­cause re­view ar­ti­cles are cited widely. For ex­am­ple, re­sult #9 on Google scholar for pro­cras­ti­na­tion is “The na­ture of pro­cras­ti­na­tion” (2007) by Piers Steel, the first half of which is a re­view ar­ti­cle, while the sec­ond half is a meta-anal­y­sis. Bingo.

You can also search Ama­zon for key terms. I re­cently searched Ama­zon for ‘at­ten­tion neu­ro­science.’ Re­sult #2 was a 2004 schol­arly ed­ited vol­ume on the sub­ject. A bit old, but not bad for my first search! I found the PDF on library.nu.

In or­der to find good re­view ar­ti­cles, text­books, and schol­arly ed­ited vol­umes you may first need to figure out what the ter­minol­ogy is. When I wanted to un­der­stand the neu­ro­science of plea­sure and de­sire, it took me a while to figure out that the neu­ro­science of emo­tions is called af­fec­tive neu­ro­science. After con­sum­ing that field, I had learned a lot about plea­sure but not much about de­sire. I then re­al­ized that I didn’t care about de­sire as an emo­tion but in­stead as a driver of ac­tion un­der un­cer­tainty. That as­pect of de­sire, it turns out, is stud­ied not un­der the field of af­fec­tive neu­ro­science but in­stead neu­roe­co­nomics.

Similarly, when I was origi­nally look­ing for ‘sci­en­tific self-help’, I had trou­ble find­ing re­view ar­ti­cles or text­books on the sub­ject. It took me months to dis­cover that pro­fes­sion­als call this the psy­chol­ogy of ad­just­ment. Who would have guessed that? But once I knew the term, I quickly found two text­books on the sub­ject, which were good start­ing points for un­der­stand­ing the field.

Note that not ev­ery schol­arly ed­ited vol­ume is a vol­ume of re­view ar­ti­cles. New Waves in Philos­o­phy of Ac­tion is a col­lec­tion of new re­search ar­ti­cles, not a col­lec­tion of re­view ar­ti­cles. It is a poor en­try point into the field. Some ed­ited vol­umes are okay en­try points into the field be­cause they are a mix of re­view ar­ti­cles and origi­nal re­search, for ex­am­ple Ma­chine Ethics (2011). But re­mem­ber that a ‘good’ ed­ited vol­ume on a sub­ject does not pro­tect you from the en­tire field be­ing mostly mis­guided, like ma­chine ethics or main­stream philos­o­phy.

Also note that if you can’t find an ed­ited vol­ume on your sub­ject, one may be just around the cor­ner. In 2007 there was no de­cent ed­ited vol­ume on neu­roe­co­nomics, but there were three re­view ar­ti­cles. Then in 2008, De­ci­sion Mak­ing and the Brain was re­leased.

Go­ing granular

Once text­books and re­view ar­ti­cles have given you a good overview of the key con­cepts and terms, open and closed prob­lems, stud­ies and re­searchers on your cho­sen topic, it’s time to go gran­u­lar.

Text­books and re­view ar­ti­cles will point you to the ar­ti­cles most di­rectly rele­vant for an­swer­ing the ques­tions you have, and the re­searchers work­ing on the prob­lems you care about. Visit re­searchers’ home pages and check their ‘re­cent pub­li­ca­tions’ lists. Find the pa­pers on Google Scholar and read the ab­stracts. Make a list of the ones you need to read more closely. You’ll be able to down­load many of them di­rectly from links found on Google Scholar. For oth­ers, you’ll need to visit a uni­ver­sity library’s com­puter lab to down­load the pa­pers. The uni­ver­sity will have sub­scribed to many of the databases that carry the pa­pers, and uni­ver­sity com­put­ers will let you past the pay­wall (but on-cam­pus wifi will not). To get ac­cess to a pa­per you can’t get at a nearby uni­ver­sity, you can:

  1. Con­tact the au­thor via email and re­quest a copy (or a preprint), ex­plain­ing that you can’t get it el­se­where.

  2. Ask your friends at other uni­ver­si­ties to check if their uni­ver­sity has ac­cess to it.

  3. Look to see if the ar­ti­cle has been pub­lished in a book that is available at your library or on­line.

I’ve never pur­chased an ar­ti­cle from an on­line database be­cause the prices are out­ra­geous: $15-$40 for a 20-page ar­ti­cle, usu­ally. If I ab­solutely can’t get ac­cess to an ar­ti­cle, I make a judge­ment as to how much weight to give the study’s con­clu­sions, in­fer­ring this from the re­searcher’s his­tory and the ab­stract and re­sponses to the ar­ti­cle I can read and other fac­tors.

Skim through promis­ing re­search ar­ti­cles for the in­for­ma­tion you want, watch­ing for ob­vi­ous prob­lems in ex­per­i­men­tal de­sign or qual­ity of ar­gu­ment. This is where your time in­vest­ment in schol­ar­ship can ex­plode, so be con­scious of the trade­offs in­volved when read­ing 100 ab­stracts vs. read­ing 100 pa­pers.

You can also try con­tact­ing in­di­vi­d­ual re­searchers. This works best when the sub­ject line of your email is very de­scrip­tive, and is ob­vi­ously about a de­tail in their re­cent work. The con­tent of your email should ask a very spe­cific ques­tion or two, quot­ing di­rectly from their pa­per(s). Re­searchers are of­ten ex­cited to hear that some­body is ac­tu­ally read­ing their work closely, though philoso­phers get more ex­cited than neu­ro­scien­tists (for ex­am­ple). Neu­ro­scien­tists are called for com­ment by the me­dia some­what reg­u­larly. This doesn’t hap­pen to philoso­phers.

Fi­nally, if you’ve done all this work already and you’re feel­ing gen­er­ous, per­haps you could take a lit­tle time to write up the re­sults of your re­search for the rest of us! Or, help make Wikipe­dia bet­ter.