Searcher's Voice on the Edge

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Serendipity is a wonderful thing. It is defined, by our beloved Wikipedia, as "an unsought, unintended, or unexpected discovery or occurrence, made by accident and sagacity." So, when you discover something wonderful while looking for something else, you no longer need to attribute it to luck alone and certainly not to dumb luck. The accident may have come from fate, but the sagacity was all you. Now isn't that serendipitous?

By the way--and hats off to Wikipedia again--the origin of the term comes from a Persian fairy tale entitled the Three Princesses of Serendip via Horace Walpole, the English writer and fourth Earl of Oxford. Apparently Walpole once read the "silly fairy tale," as he described it in a 1754 letter to Sir Horace Mann, and was charmed by how the three royal ladies kept discovering things they were not seeking, mainly by sagacious observation. So he started calling this kind of occurence serendipity.

Of course, when you get paid for your sagacity, as professional searchers do, you'd better find some way to minimize the need for lucky accidents to produce the best results. You'd better find some way to put serendipity on a leash or teach it to come when you whistle.

Most of us might consider web search engines as cornucopias for serendipitous discoveries. Drawing on the ocean of web content, Google and other web search engines seem to find things we never knew existed. Of course, finding the things we do know exist gets a little trickier. Relevance ranking does its best, but nightmare terrors can arise--956 of 1,247,854; 14,581 of 1,247,854; 145,902 of 1,247,854; 1,247,850 of 1,247,854.

The need for finding "outliers" permeates many research situations. Sometimes it can affect sales or customer satisfaction. For example, I subscribe to Netflix for renting DVDs. As an experienced--some might say, obsessive--fan of old movies, I would seem to be Netflix' natural prey, but its recommendation engine has failed almost completely to find me items to order. The problem is that it apparently lacks an "outlier" function. For example, I am a long-standing fan of Westerns and continue to challenge Netflix's distribution system, as I order every ancient "oater" for which it has probably only one or two copies in the system. But every time it follows up on one of my Western orders with recommendations, the DVDs chosen are always for major Western classics (The Searchers, Shane, Red River, etc.). Who hasn't seen each of those a dozen or more times? Sheesh!! (You haven't??!! Run! Do not walk!!) The Netflix system can't seem to grasp that someone who wants movies starring Hoot Gibson, Johnny Mack Brown, Ken Maynard, Col. Tim McCoy, et al. must have already seen all the movies with John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, and so forth.

Looking for the outer edges of research, the unexpected, even the unimagined is not just trying to win a research lottery. Finding unusual, provocative research can often give clients the edge in attracting funding, winning contracts or grants, getting published in prestigious sources, making a splash. Searching for the orthodox, the conventional, the established literature is necessary, particularly for avoiding embarrassment at having missed the obvious. However, you don't lead the field by running away from mistakes.

So how do you find useful outlier research? Sometimes by being traditional, even retro, in your searching. Frankly, the line of thought for this column came to me after working on a couple of Infotoday.com NewsBreaks covering the ProQuest takeover of Dialog [http://newsbreaks. …