Friday, February 17, 2012

jargon proliferation and literature search

If you have an idea and want to find out what has been done on the subject already, the biggest barrier is knowing what to google. Every discipline comes up with their own terminology, and six academics in the same field working independently will also come up with six different terminologies and then refuse to merge them (stubborn pride, obliviousness, habits, who knows why.)

For example, my research has to do with how people behave morally in part because they want to signal that they are good people. There are so many studies relating to different aspects of this motivation, in economics and psychology and sociology and anthropology and even biology, and they call it everything from "social image" "social pressure" and "social signaling" to "prestige" "self image" "guilt" "shame" "pride" and "reputation" (and probably others I haven't heard of; please clue me in). You can certainly break these categories down into well-defined non-redundant subgroups* but the literature doesn't adhere strictly to any particular such breakdown. And anyway, papers using any of that terminology are of interest, so you want to know it all.

So it goes like this. I start off knowing that "social image" is a term used by economists. I google-scholar that, read a bunch of papers about it, and learn about social pressure and social image and social signaling. My previous reading on models of social preferences informed me of a paper on prestige. I talk to a professor about my research, and he mentions a paper by Benabou and Tirole, and through there I learn about self image and self-signaling models. A footnoted reference there leads to a paper in a sociology journal, and by following another long tree of citations, I learn about guilt, shame, and pride. At some point, the word 'reputation' randomly occurs to me, so I google-scholar that and find another branch of literature.

This is hardly a systematic or reliably comprehensive way to learn something.

I don't suppose that a movement towards terminological standardization is going to be successful, and that won't help with the bootstrap problem of knowing where to start in the first place (sometimes the eclectic terminology is helpful there, since no matter what you google, you'll find something...)

But how about we at least make an effort to mention the alternative terminologies in the introductions to our papers? If even a percentage of papers did this somewhat comprehensively, it would be vastly easier to track down the full literature, because one in five (say) papers we randomly stumbled on would tell us where to look.

It would also be really nice if there were a better visualization for relationships and timelines in the literature. Even simply based on citations. It should be really easy for Mendeley to show you a timeline slash citation web for everything in a library, and suggest related articles... if only the non-standards didn't suck so much that even extracting basic metadata wasn't a Herculean task...

I don't even want to know what people did before google. I guess they didn't have lists of papers in the thousands. Either that or grad school was a horrific tree slaughtering madness...

*I propose the following, for the record: Social image motivates people to be nice in order to avoid shame or gain prestige. Self image motivates people to be nice in order to avoid guilt or gain pride. Social pressure is the welfare-reducing altruism that results from avoiding shame. Reputation is the thing you control strategically during repeated interactions.

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