Secondary data analysis is essential to many areas of science and policy research, but it is often impeded by difficulties with data discovery – finding the most appropriate variables with which to answer a given research question. Anecdotally, following ‘Web Search’ interface design (expressed by ‘Google’, ‘Bing’, ‘Ask’, etc.) would seem like best practice, but there is little empirical evidence to support such a claim. The MethodBox project investigated whether Web Search interface can provide better support for variable data discovery than a Classical Information Retrieval (IR) interface. We found that Web Search interfaces fit variable data discovery needs and expectations better than Classical IR interfaces, because they are consistent with standard search interfaces such as Google (and therefore familiar), and allow queries to be refined as the search proceeds. The results provide strong evidence that the Web Search interface should be adopted for variable search supporting in particular: query reformulation; data browsing; faceted search; surrogates; relevance feedback; summarisation, analytics and visual presentation.

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