Friday, January 13, 2023

Answer: How can I find latest updates on topics of interest?


Staying on top of an emerging topic...  

P/C MidJourney. Prompt: "unanticipated consequences, realistic"

... is a continual issue for professional researchers. 

Often, your work can't be answered and "solved" in a single search session, or even a single day, but must be compiled over a longer period.  This is one of the defining characteristics of complex and sophisticated research problems--they take time.  (See some nice work from Microsoft Research on this: Slow search: Information retrieval without time constraints.)   

But for us, the Challenge is having some way to track emerging results and new insights in a field.  How do we do that?  

As I mentioned, the obvious way is to subscribe to blogs and newsletters that monitor the topic for you.  That's good, but suppose you'd like to get a bit more from the news directly?  

Let me frame this as an SRS Challenge for you: 

1. Can you find a way to limited search over a small number (say, 3 - 7) of high quality periodical sources of information for a particular topic for the past year?  (In my case, I want to search for articles on "unanticipated consequences" during 2022. Your topic of interest might be something different.)  How can I do that? 

I quite liked SRS Regular Reader Krossbow's post, so I'm going to borrow much of his response here.  In particular, he focused on setting up multiple and different kinds of regular alerts from alert services...  

My initial thoughts went to Google Alerts as that's my normal tool when I want get updates on a subject. As you know, it runs your query of choice repeatedly and emails you the results.  Here's the official source for how to set up a repeating alert:  Google Alerts

I also thought about searching social media feeds. Feedly is an RSS reader I've used since Google Reader was shut down. They allow you to set up regular feeds based on search terms, but that capability is in the paid tier.  {Dan: I haven't tried this. If anyone does let us know how well it works out.}

My thinking then went to my old favorite standbys of library research: EBSCO and ProQuest. My library gives access to current periodical corpora as well as Login through your university (or public library access point), and you too can create Proquest alerts

 {Interesting side-note: Clarivate acquired ProQuest in 2021--they also run Web of Science and services like EndNote, so things might change in the future. General SRS point: Things change. Stay up-to-date.}  

Another set of resources your library might have access to is EBSCO Search which also allows you to set up alerts.   Creating a Search Alert in EBSCOhost - Tutorial

I searched for [gale books alerts] to find Gale Alerts and RSS Feeds for Gale Books and Authors.  {Looks like paid subscription is required, but this alert stream notifies you when a book with a title matching your query is added.}  

My library uses Libby for some periodicals. If your interest is broad enough, you can set alerts when a new issue of a magazine becomes available.  Set a Libby alert when new magazine issues are available.  

Same for JSTOR (another aggregator indexing service like Proquest).  See JSTOR alerts.  (Again, you need to login here--check our your library for access.)  

I went to SimilarSites (an easy way to find other web sites that are similar to one that you specify) and searched for sites similar to  This led me to several sites, the most useful of which is probably ScienceDirect has open access papers, journal articles with this tutorial for setting up alerts. ScienceDirect alerts tutorial.

As I read through Krossbow's post, it reminded me that the SemanticScholar website also has an alerts system.  Here is SemanticScholar's alert service.  In practice, it seems very similar to Google Scholar's alert service; both index the scholarly literature, but they have somewhat different feeds and indexing times, so you'll see somewhat different results.  

When setting up alerts with these services, it's important to get your queries right.  For my original topic of interest, "unanticipated consequences" the trick is to find other expressions that will get you the insights you're looking for.  

When I just brainstorm a bit, I came up with these other expressions: 

Original: unanticipated consequences 

Next ideas, search for these phrases as well:  

unexpected consequences
boomerang effect
didn't expect
unanticipated effect

And then I ran out of good ideas.  Is there some guide to help me broaden the search?

Sure!  I did a search for each of these phrases and read a bit in the hits on each search. For example, the search for [boomerang effect] took me to the Wikipedia article on that topic.  A quick scan of this article told me that the phrases "backfire effect" and "Barbara Streisand effect" might be useful as synonyms.  Setting up an alert for each of these (rather than using an OR in a long query) lets me figure out which of these will be productive.  I'll let them run for a few days and turn off the alerts for phrases that don't work out well.  

When I step back to think about what I just did, I realize that I could mine Wikipedia for other phrases just by searching like this: 

     [ "unexpected" ] 

(Or, do the same thing with "boomerang effect" "Streisand effect" etc.)  

When I did that query, I ALSO found that the query terms "paradox" "unexpected discovery" or "paradoxical effect" could also be useful synonyms.  You can play this synonym expansion game forever, but don't.  I suggest you get a few, run a test search to see if the results are what you need, and then set up an alert with them, one at a time.  After a week, keep those alerts that are useful; prune the rest.  

One other idea... When I'm doing research like this, I often find it useful to search for the opposite of what I seek.   What would that mean in this context?  I might try setting up alerts for: 

     [ unanticipated benefits ] or
     [ unexpected good outcome ]

It's a trick, but one that's immensely useful.  

2. (Extra credit) Can you figure out a way to have this limited search run once / month?  (In this case, you'd probably want to have the search extend over the past month, not the entire year.)  

I'm going to save this part of the answer (it was extra credit!) for next week.  Look for my comments then.  Hint: this will center on Google's Programmable Search Engine (formerly the Custom Search Engine, CSE.) Programmable Search Engine and will show how to search for those small number of quality sources.  

SearchResearch Lessons 

1. There are a number of services that provide regular alert services.  Try them all!  You'll find that they cover very different information feeds and will give a broader coverage of ongoing news reports and research in your topic area.  

2. Once you've set up your alert feeds, prune them as necessary.  If you need to, set up a reminder to yourself to cut back on the alert feeds that aren't high quality.  Be sure to do this, or you'll end up polluting your personal information feed! 

3. To search for synonym phrases, look at other articles containing the phrases you use.  Often, these articles will have synonyms for the concept you seek. (Writers typically hate reusing a stock phrase over and over, so they look for other ways to say the same thing.)  

4. Another way to find synonymous phrases is to search on Wikipedia for the phrase you know, then read around finding other expressions.  That's the point of using the SITE: search. 

Search on! 


  1. Thanks, Dr. Russell!

    I used Feedly for a while. Not anymore since it was not helpful to me. Lots of unread waiting to be read.

    I was thinking that maybe Chrome following section could be helpful as it works like RSS feed.

    Also, I know it's not possible and kind of stupid now but hopefully in the future we could have a way to search phrases like yours (unintended consequences) I'm every language with some kind of translator.

    I know most knowledge is in English but maybe there are many great cases in other languages that we can't find at the moment. At least not in a easy, quick and helpful way.

    1. a couple thoughts…
      SERP in Spanish - used: [consecuencias no deseadas]
      translate, then search in language?

      re terms: Barbara "Babs" Streisand effect — Reactance…
      wiki - reactance
      NIH - more depth
      on a side note… has anyone gotten any alerts about this Black Plague thingy? kinda mum here in Venice…
      harder & harder to stay topical.

    2. Thanks Remmij. My idea is that we don't translate first.

      Imagine that in Japan, as an example, there is a great case of united consequences. We don't know that, and we don't speak Japanese (but even if we do.) How can we find those cases going one by one with language.

      How amazing could be that we search with any language and find that phrase used in all languages. That is, something translates and find in every language the desired information. Not sure if I am explaining myself. Hopefully yes

  2. Typo, I think, in the third search lesson: “Writer typically hate reusing…” should be “Writers… ”.

  3. “Things change. Stay up-to-date.”

    One aspect of keeping up with events seems to rely on keeping up with changes in the services and tools we use. Is there a systematic way to do this, some sort of meta-alert to let us know when our research tools or services change?

    1. I don't know of anything like that.. .other than the SRS blog. Think of us as your meta-search information stream.

  4. The Wikipedia article on the boomerang effect reminded me of a sign I saw at a hotel in another country: “POLITE NOTICE Garden use is for hotel and bar patrons only”. According to Wikipedia, that sign would be less likely to lead to reactance.

    I thought that one possible opposite of “unanticipated consequences” could be “anticipated consequences”. I know that is not where this quest is going, but is it possible that the contrast with what was anticipated, whether attained or not, could shed light on ….. something?

    According to the OED, the word “consequence” is about effects, results, and inferences, in a seemingly neutral sense. However, the examples given of the use of the word are mostly negative; e.g., “Death is the consequence of Adam’s Sin” and “sad consequences of War”.

    1. One of the chapters of my forthcoming book is entitled "Unanticipated Benefits," which is this point exactly.

    2. That isn’t what I meant; I didn’t state the question very well. One way to get the opposite of “unanticipated consequences” is to use the antonym of the second word to get “unanticipated benefits”. Serendipity! (Can't wait.) Another possible opposite is by using the antonym of the first word to get “anticipated consequences”. What were they thinking? I tried to think about this in relation to the rabbit problem, a well-known example of undamped exponential growth. Then I realized that this concept probably doesn’t make sense, or at least is not a productive approach. It made sense to me representationally, but I’m afraid it’s what my mother used to call a false analogy.

      For National Geographic subscribers, here is an example of unintended ambiguity:

  5. Thanks for the unexpected answer. I honestly thought when I finished writing my response that I had missed the original challenge.

    I found myself questioning the choice of "other phrases" you listed above. It's probably because in my personal experience I have come across this using "unintended". remmij used it on the previous post and both Ramón and Mathlady refer to this term in their comments above. Do you see a difference in unexpected vs unintended?

    1. Spurred by my own question, I decided to do quick comparison search. At my school we used to teach about NASA Spinoffs. These are innovations NASA has used in their missions that have been applied to everyday problems. I searched [ nasa spinoffs "unintended" ] and then [ nasa spinoffs "unexpected" ]. Unintended appeared to correlated to negative consequences and unexpected resulted in more positive results.

    2. Your comment about NASA spinoffs reminded me that I worked at NASA in the last millennium and a colleague who had worked there forever told me that NASA had invented Teflon. I believed him and probably passed on that tidbit. And of course everyone knows that NASA developed Tang for the astronauts’ breakfasts.

      I did a little checking and here is a disclaimer from NASA regarding those two products:

      Here is a presumably correct presentation of their spinoffs:

      I stand corrected.

  6. Check also to receive updates when specific webpages change their content.

  7. Thanks for the information. There’s a slight typo in the link; it should be