July 16, 2002

Google: It's Superfreaky

I've found yet another situation in which Google is worth its weight in gold...

I have always been lazy about keeping track of my bibliographies when I am writing. My drafts are filled with cryptic references like "Blanchard and coauthor (1996)," "Stiglitz (read sometime in the late 80s)," "Taylor (2000, discretionary fiscal policy) or "Vishny and Shleifer (198?)." Then comes the day when it is time to turn these cryptic references into references in a proper bibliography like:

John Taylor (2000), "Reassessing Discretionary Fiscal Policy," Journal of Economic Perspectives 14:3 (Summer), pp. 21-36.

Back in the really old days, before-the-web, before 1995 or so, fixing up the bibliography always required spending the better part of a day in the library stacks, looking up articles one by one in the archive copies of journals, hunting for books, and cursing that of the three copies of the key 1960 volume of the American Economic Review, two were out and one was lost. Yet this task of fixing up the bibliography was very worth doing, and was worth doing "thickly" with lots of references. First of fall, providing a thick reference trail is a way of helping those (few) people who will read one's scholarly work figure out where it belongs in the literature, and what they should read next. Second, failing to cite an academic in a context in which they think that they ought to have been cited generates huge--in my experience, in fact, unbelievable--amounts of annoyance. So before-the-web it was a long, tedious, boring job, but one definitely worth doing.

Then came the age of the web, and the availability of the online EconLit database and of the University of California's library catalogs. All of a sudden the task could be peformed in my office, and required not a whole day but at most two hours. It involved a lot of typing and retyping--somehow the references the databases spit out were never in the form that I wanted. But it was a vast improvement. Life was good.

Then when it came time to assemble the bibliography for my most recent paper, I thought: Let's try an experiment. Instead of searching a database for au="Taylor, John" yr="2000" jl="Journal of Economic Perspectives," instead use Google to do a free-form search: "John Taylor 2000 fiscal economic perspectives references." Lo and behold, among the first three hits was somebody else's bibliography--where they had already typed out: "John Taylor (2000), 'Reassessing Discretionary Fiscal Policy,' Journal of Economic Perspectives 14:3 (Summer), pp. 21-36." Half an hour later I was done.

This struck me as very interesting. Almost invariably, including "references" in the keyword list would direct Google to people's reference sections and only their reference sections. And including the first and last names of an economist and the year would do the rest--except in the case of the most prolific, in which case remembering one word from the title would almost invariably zero in. Then simply cut and paste.

It's somewhat scary: Google's database knows so much, both in terms of content and in terms of the overlay provided by the system of links and references. What thoughts would it think if it could?

But meanwhile, it looks to me like I have gained 5 x 1 1/2 = 7 1/2 hours--effectively a full working day a year to add to my life, because I'm no longer spending as much time hunting down references.

Life was good. Life is better. Thank you, Google!

Posted by DeLong at July 16, 2002 05:27 PM | TrackBack



Just as a quick note, do you ever use Endnote or Reference Manager--or for that matter, any of the really nice bibliography management programs? They solve this precise problem much more elegantly, and are worth their weight in gold. Especially given the use of programmable export filters, allowing you to avoid retyping a reference.

Google, of course, is well on it's way to deification. I only wish google could search and index various bulletin board programs.


Posted by: Brennan Peterson on July 16, 2002 10:08 PM

It does search, index AND cache web-based bulletin boards, doing especially well on UBB (Ultimate Bulletin Board) based boards, such as EZBoard.

Posted by: Adam on July 17, 2002 03:36 PM

Truly, Google is as close as we have gotten to the Omega Point itself...

Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on July 17, 2002 09:36 PM
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