Typos, acronyms and authors’ names all present issues when trawling the literature. Can next-generation search engines do better?
As snails go, the rosy wolfsnail (Euglandina rosea) is a perfect predator. An invasive species in Hawaii, French Polynesia and a number of other islands in the Pacific and Indian Ocean, the wolfsnail has hunted at least eight other snail species to extinction in Hawaii alone. It has probably caused many more extinctions in places where it has been introduced; one study1 suggested it was “highly probable” that it was responsible for more than 100 extinctions of mollusc species in the wider Pacific.
The proliferation of ‘smart’ tools that search the internet for information and published analyses without a commonsense understanding of the world comes with obvious dangers. This well-written piece uses the 31/kmh rosy wolfsnail to illustrate the point. The point being, we need to be sceptical of, and not overly reliant on, these tools.
Most scientists — and probably most of the general public — would be able to spot the error, but mistakes such as these are examples of a wider phenomenon, one that researchers warn could severely affect efforts to improve the trawling of scientific literature. “Search engines don’t understand context,” says Jevin West, an information scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Instead, they rely on a simple free text search to find relevant material: whatever text is typed into the search bar is what the engine looks for.
It’s a problem that any scientist should be wary of, especially given the rapid increase in research output. “Everyone searches,” says West. “You might be a gravitational scientist; you might be an epidemiologist. No matter what field, we all use the same search tools.”