It’s intuitive that a graduate student (that’s me) should be very aware of the research related to his area of focus.
What’s less intuitive is the process of finding related research, labyrinthine despite modern search technology. There are the (un?)lucky students who’s project is just a small spur off of a well established field. In this case, they can depend interpersonal connections, which despite the sometimes blinding glitter of new technology are still the oldest and most dependable of resources. For the rest of us though, figuring out who is doing similar work is quite the gamble, and a lot falls through the gaps.
Two events today highlighted this problem for me: I discovered a paper published at the end of last year proposing a concept very similar to my research, but conceived entirely independently. Until now, I didn’t know about them and they still don’t know about me. On a more depressing note, a friend found a thirty-year-old paper showing the same results as the brand-new paper he’s preparing to submit.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with idea and research duplication. In fact, it’s essential to the scientific process. However, I think that it is much more beneficial if all parties are aware of the overlap.
One big problem is that modern search algorithms are built around terms, not ideas. And two fields can use the same ideas, but have ENTIRELY different terms for them.
In addition to the differences across (and sometimes even within) fields, this diversity of terms for the same thing is just a byproduct of newness. Think of any new concept that comes along: before settling down there is a great roiling mass of different names as everybody jockeys to have theirs be the one that sticks.
There’s a lot of room for improvement in the communication of knowledge. It feels like simple things like memes and news-nuggets travel across the Internet like a flash, but the more complicated a thought, the more friction it encounters.