Physical Sciences Searching Best Practices

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The Physical Sciences encompass a wide variety of sciences which study the properties of energy and nonliving matter. Included in the physical sciences are physics, chemistry, as well as the earth sciences such as geology and atmospheric sciences. Patent searchers in the physical sciences must be comfortable with a multitude of technologies such as circuits, semiconductors, optics and optical systems, fuel cells, electrical connectors, and nanotechnology. Most searches in this discipline are performed using a combination of keyword searching and image searching. In contrast, classification searching is used less in physical sciences searching due to the overwhelming number of documents contained in many of the subclasses.

Obstacles Facing the Searcher

One obstacle facing the physical science searcher is the identification of the optimum search resource. In many cases, it can be difficult to determine whether patent or non-patent literature will be the optimum source of pertinent prior art. While patents are more typically focused on the applications of a newly discovered physical effects (i.e. negative refraction) or newly discovered materials (i.e. carbon nanotubes) the basic research behind such new physical effects or materials can often be found in abundance within the scientific literature but with sparse mention in the patent literature. Therefore, for relatively new and emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology, non-patent literature may be more heavily relied upon as the patent documentation in those fields may not be as developed as in older fields.

In cases where a patent searcher is uncertain as to whether patent or non-patent literature is the optimum source it is useful to query a database which covers both sources, such as Thomson Innovation (for example), using keywords associated with the material or physical effect of interest and do a quick survey to see whether patents or non-patent sources appear more frequently. Alternately, a hit comparison may be performed using common keywords in a patent exclusive database versus a non-patent exclusive database. Time for patent versus non-patent searching can be distributed in accordance with the results of such comparisons.

The physical sciences searcher may also find it worthwhile to become familiar with the periodic table of the elements as well as the two letter abbreviations for the elements. It can be important while searching for claimed elements to search for both the abbreviation and the full word. Because of this, many searchers keep a printed version of the periodic table near their desk as a reference. A black and white printable PDF version of the periodic table is available at the Los Alamos National Laboratory Website.

Searching Patent Documents

Patent searching in the art of physical sciences is normally done with a combination of keyword text searching and image-based searching. Search tools that can perform both of these types of searches well are often preferred by searchers in this field.

Searching Non-Patent Literature

For non-patent literature searching, Google Scholar is preferred by many searchers because of its easy-to-use interface and ability to search a large number of journals simultaneously. It is also the easiest source from which to retrieve articles in PDF (Portable Document Format). Additionally, Google Scholar’s “cited by” citation indexing has been cheered as a powerful feature similar to those previously only available in subscription-based tools such as Elsevier's Scopus and Thomson ISI Web of Science.

IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) tools such as IEEE Xplore are also a popular non-patent literature resource in this field. The IEEE databases contain thousands of articles covering all facets of electrical engineering and computer science. Note that IEEE publications are indexed within Google Scholar and will appear in results in that system as well.

Besides IEEE, there are several non-patent databases that are relevant to the physical science searcher. These include Inspec, ISI Web of Science, and Compendex. These databases can be accessed through several sources, a few of the major ones being Dialog, Engineering Village, and Questel products such as Qweb and QPAT. Another valuable and free source for finding open access physics and math related scholarly articles is the Cornell University Library.

A lesser-known but very valuable reference when searching in the field of optics or lasers is the Encyclopedia of Laser Physics and Technology produced by RP Photonics. Although not a source of prior art per se, this encyclopedia can be helpful for searchers looking to define a term or learn more about a particular technology. This online encyclopedia features over 540 articles detailing the terms and principles of laser physics and technology. The reference also makes available a searchable index as well as an RSS feed.

Specific Search Strategies

These search strategies are examples of specific best practices that can be applied during the course of a search in the area of Physical Sciences. These are steps to be taken in addition to accepted search practices that apply to all searches. For a more general progression of search steps, please see the Best Practices for General Searching article.

  • Look up any element abbreviations so that both the abbreviation and the full word can be searched. For example, in a search that involves silicon, one should also search for its abbreviation, Si. This also goes for chemical compounds, such as Silicon Dioxide, abbreviated SiO2.
  • If the searcher desires clarification of terms or features, a good resource for quickly gaining knowledge of a physical science related technology is Wikipedia. More specifically, if the search contains laser or other optical technology and clarification is needed, look up the terms in the online Encyclopedia of Laser Physics and Technology.
  • For newer technological arts such as nanotechnology, the patent literature will likely have fewer teachings than non-patent literature sources. NPL resources such as those available from IEEE, Inspec, Knovel, and Google Scholar can be especially useful when searching newer technologies, due to the relative lack of patent documentation available.
  • Keyword searching combined with citation-based relevancy ranking such as that in Google Patent Search or FreePatentsOnline (for example) can be valuable to the Physical Science Searcher when the goal of the search is to find a handful of highly relevant prior art, rather than an exhaustive list of every piece of prior art.

Key Classification Areas

250 Radiant Energy
257 Active Solid-State Devices
359 Optical Systems and Elements
361 Electrical Systems and Devices
367 Acoustic Wave Systems and Devices
381 Electrical Audio Signal Processing Systems and Devices
385 Optical Waveguides
429 Batteries and Fuel Cells
438 Semiconductor Device Making
439 Electrical Connectors
977 Nanotechnology

H01L Semiconductor Devices
G02B Optical Elements and Systems
G02F Optical Devices and Arrangements
H02H Emergency Protective Circuits
H01M Batteries
H01R Electrical Connectors
H04R Acoustic Electromechanical Transducers
H04H Broadcast Communication

Japanese F-Terms
5H012 Apparatuses that Exhaust Gases from Batteries
5H029 Secondary Cells (other accumulators)
5H030 Maintaining Secondary Cells (e.g., charging and discharging, detecting condition)
2H050 Emergency Protective Circuits
2H150 Optical Fibres or Wire Cores of Optical Fibres
2H137 Coupling Light Guides
2H038 Light Guides in General and Applications Therefor
5F172 Lasers


For further reading, searchers should reference the corresponding best practices articles covering electrical engineering, electrical communications, and mechanical engineering. Due to some overlap in the fields, the best practices and sources disclosed in those articles may also be applicable to Physical Sciences searches.

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