Errol Morris talks patent searching

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A few days ago famed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris started a great series of articles on his blog over at the New York Times.   He’s calling his series “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma,” which hooked me right away because I had no idea what an “anosognosic” is, and I had to click the link to find out more.

Anosognosia a neurological disorder where patients who lack a certain ability refuse to acknowledge their condition.   Although the term originates in neurology, Morris’ interview subject, Cornell professor David Dunning, is especially interested in “the anosognosia of everyday life,” or the condition we all face when we are so unaware of a subject that we don’t even realize how much we don’t know.

Of course, on the face of it, Morris’s piece has nothing to do with patent searching.  However, at its core, it encapsulates the fundamental dilemma faced by all researchers.  To illustrate the point, suppose a completely untrained layperson is given a search assignment on a simple  invention, and he immediately understands the purpose and function of the invention.  Armed with the belief that because the concept is simple, the search will be simple, this person confidently begins with keyword queries in Google, maybe moving on to putting a couple of search terms in a free patent search engine he comes across.  After a few hours of trying, he reports that there doesn’t really seem to be much out there on the topic.  When questioned about whether he tried searching by IPC or ECLA classifications, he just blinks – he’s never heard of a patent classification before.

Now, obviously I’ve picked an extreme example of ignorance here. But I wanted to illustrate the point that this untrained layperson isn’t necessarily stupid, per say.  The intelligence of the person in question isn’t even an issue – after all, he understood the invention perfectly, and since Google has always given him quick results before he can’t be blamed for starting out with the search source he knows.  However, it’s his ignorance of the tools he might have used – the special tools known to trained patent searchers – that prevents him from conducting a competent search.

I think this imaginary scenario is useful to searchers.  I think as we begin new research projects, we should see ourselves in a similar state of ignorance about the project at hand.  We have, as Donald Rumsfeld famously put it, our “known unknowns” to work on – what search tools should we select, what patent classifications should we focus on, what  keywords should we use to retrieve the information we need, etc.    But there are also the “unknown unknowns” which keep us up at night, especially if the project must be exhaustively researched, and our results comprehensive.  Is there a search service somewhere offering an obscure database on this very topic?  Is the perfect piece of prior art sitting on a dusty shelf, in some far off library? Did we use the best tools to probe literature published in a language we don’t speak?

Sometimes when we fall into routines and start using the sources that feel comfortable to us, we stop worrying about these things.  And then one day we bump into the perfect solution for a problem that’s been bugging us forever – in my case, it’s always the Microsoft Excel command that could have saved me hours of work if only I had known in time.  Sure, it hurts when my confidence in my Excel wizardry is cruelly punctured, but if it makes me spend a little more time looking at the help files next time, it’s worth it in the end.

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Patent Resources Group

This post was contributed by Intellogist team member Kristin Whitman.

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