Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Google Scholar

As fodder for future discussion, BMB Librarian Dean Giustini suggested that I read Neuhaus, et al.’s “The Depth and Breadth of Google Scholar: An Empirical Study.” The authors ask a series of questions, (1) How often is this database updated? (2) Does Google Scholar have particular disciplinary strengths and weaknesses? (3) How does the content of Google Scholar compare with that of other databases. To do this, the study compared the contents of 47 databases to Google Scholar. Here are the points which I found most germane to the discussion.

(1) Time – Despite it’s vast net of coverage, the drawback of Google Scholar is that it is slow. As the authors discover in one example, there is at least a three-month time lag existed for uploading the information that appeared in BioMed Central Scholar into Google.

(2) Subject coverage – Google Scholar’s “short comings” is that its coverage is biased towards the sciences while its coverage of databases in other areas is somewhat poor. Thus, as a researcher in the humanities, education, business, and social sciences, using Google Scholar might not be as advantageous.

(3) No content collection statement – If Google Scholar had a detailed description of its content collection methodology, it would certainly allow users greater insight into the capabilities and limitations of the inner workings of Google Scholar. Because it doesn’t, researchers are basically grasping at straws.

(1) Coverage - Despite its short comings on certain subjects, Google Scholar nonetheless has an expansive cast of open access journals, freely accessible databases, and single publisher databases – at the core strength of what Google Scholar offers is free content. Not just any free content, but scholarly-type information (both books and journals), which is immensely useful for information-seekers.

Interestingly, Based on the work that I am currently doing at the SFU Faculty of Health Sciences’ Centre for Applied Research on Mental Health and Addictions, I have had the serendipitous opportunity to do a lot of research from a user's point of view, particularly with health-related topics and issues.

My supervisor, Matthew Queree, a Researcher at SFU's Faculty Health Sciences who is particularly adept and quite experienced in mental health and addictions-related research in the areas of psychiatry and psychology, is an avid supporter of Google and particularly Google Scholar, arguing that they have revolutionized the way that research is done by scholars. With his enthusiastic backing, and insight from a "user’s" perspective, I was curious to do my own comparisons.

Key words used: (1) mental health; (2) primary care; (3) health care reform

Thoughts and Reflections:
(1) Commercial Websites – Although there is wide assortment of sources that is available onGoogle Scholar, I noticed that a great deal of these are "commercial" sites, and not articles like those I'd find in a journal. Thus, there is still a "search engine" element that slips through in Google Scholar, which may or may not be of benefit to the user. (It all depends on the objective of the user, I suppose...)

(2) Search Results – If not carefully limited, the search results can go into the tens of thousands of hits. As a result, it can be a rather frustrating experience for the user to sort through the diverse array of materials. For example, what is most frustrating about Google Scholar (based on my own experimenting) is the lack of chronological ordering. Articles that date as far back as the 1970's can be found together with recent materials in the 2000's. This results in hodge-podge combinations of results which the user must sort through him or herself in the end. In most electronic databases (such as PsycINFO), results can be sorted chronologically, thus allowing the user to find materials which are most current.

(3) Bibliographic Control - As the scholar Patrick Wilson said, the ultimate bibliographic instrument is one that can procure the "best textual mean's" to one's ends (i.e. finding as much information in as little time and as little effort as possible). If such is the case, then Google Scholar is only half-successful. However, like Neuhaus et al. argues, without a clear collection statement, it is somewhat teleological to argue that Google Scholar comes up short when compared to electronic databases. Perhaps that is not the primary function of Google Scholar; perhaps there it exists to serve other purposes. If so, I'd like to know!

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