On Google Scholar and Information Literacy

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the merits of Google Scholar on campus this past week.  Assignment due dates are inching closer and I’m getting the feeling that students are more than ever turning to Google Scholar as their first or as their main research tool. Many complaints I’m hearing from students who visit me at the desk are about not being able to locate sources for their assignments with Google or seemingly finding links but hitting a pay wall when they try to click through to the source; the majority of complaints are of the “I’ve searched everywhere but couldn’t find anything” variety, when the extent of their search is maybe Google’s advanced search screens.  These are teaching moments we know all too well.

There was a time when I used these teaching moments to caution students against using Google Scholar.  I’d rather see a student access our print and electronic sources than rely on whatever Google can offer them with its clean-looking search bar.  But somewhere along the way I realized that in spite of its warts (and it does have them, like privileging newer items and popular links), Google Scholar is a valuable tool and that by choosing not to teach it, librarians are willfully ignoring (if not creating) some of the poor search skills seen on campus today.

But ignoring a student’s poorly designed search skills won’t improve her research methods, and neither will a short lecture on why students shouldn’t use Google Scholar at all.  Instead of ignoring these methods, we need to be more proactive and think about why people use Google Scholar and what it can actually do well for them.  As Brad Matthies succinctly wrote, the predisposition among students to use Google Schools as their first research tool:

causes many professors and academic librarians to gasp in horror. Moreover, it also causes some of them to purposely make students use certain resources, while banning others. I’m not of the banning mentality. I see Google as just another tool, and, like any other tool it has positive and negative points.

You can use Google to find quality information that worthy of inclusion in research papers, presentations and other projects. Will it find all the needed information? Probably not. However, it’s a good place to start preliminary research and often leads to using subscription resources that the university or library offers. [link]

This librarian doesn't want to talk about Google Scholar

Our problem doesn’t lie so much with Google and Google Scholar so much as it does with our students’ information literacy levels.  Do they have a sense of their subject matter?  Do they have an understanding of the different places in which they can research?  Do they know how to brainstorm, how to tie loose ends together into an argument, and how and where to find evidence to support it?  If we decide to focus only on the students’ poor use of Google Scholar, then we’re treating the symptom as opposed to its cause, which are information seeking skills and research methods that haven’t been fully developed.  We shouldn’t blame the student if the only search strategy she’s ever known is to type a few key words into a Google search bar and then troll through results, because the difference between research and good research is instruction, practice, and experience.

Cutting Google Scholar shouldn’t be an option.  If a resource is being used poorly (instead of being used rarely), then it’s up to librarians to help students improve their skills with that tool.  If a student is misinterpreting socio-economic statistical data, then we help them locate the proper tables and learn how to analyze its survey methods.  And if a student is only skimming the surface with company reports in Lexis, then we show them how to dig deeper to locate the mergers and acquisitions they are looking for.  In these instances, we help our students learn how to use resources properly and efficiently, and the same should be said with Google Scholar.

I know I’m being rather general in this post, but most blog posts are.  My point is that like any other resource, Google Scholar requires instruction on how to use it well.  Of course we should promote our subject-specific resources to students, but we can’t pretend that they will never use Google again when researching a topic.  If there is ever a reason to teach Google Scholar, it is that this search engine will by and large become the best research tool most of our students will have access to when they graduate.  If “developing lifelong learners is central to the mission of higher education institutions” and if information literacy and the development of strong research skills are critical to this mission [cf. Standard Two], then we owe it to our students to show them how to research well with the tools available to them now and later.

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10 thoughts on “On Google Scholar and Information Literacy”

  1. Great post, Michael. I very much agree that education is essential to effective use of Google Scholar–and indeed that students need to have higher skills to use it and make sense of the citations than with other tools. However, I've had a different experience than you describe: more often that not, I point out the tool to them rather than vice versa. For example, when we're having difficulties finding articles on their topic during a one-on-one appointment or reference interaction, I sometimes ask if they've tried Google Scholar. Sometimes they say yes, but more often I hear that a) they don't know about it, b) they tried and got frustrated, or c) they think that it's somehow "wrong" to use it. Often, though, I find it incredibly useful when we're stuck on finding the appropriate vocabulary for use in an index, or if they're looking for something very specific, or when the "cited by" feature can help them chain from one useful article. We can then talk about how different search strategies are needed in full-text tools like Google Scholar or their beloved JSTOR than in bibliographic indexes. The teaching moments abound. So yes: let's teach Google Scholar!

  2. An interesting post, and one I've grappled with first-hand. I was asked to do an IL session for a first-year English class that focuses on effective essay writing (a requirement that every first-year student at UofO has to take). As a business librarian, this meant lots of brushing up on resources used in the arts for research and essay writing, including Google Scholar. As you might remember, I put out this call on Twitter: "I'm teaching an English class on Mon. Can someone explain why I don't just tell them to use Google Scholar? Because I really don't know." Terrible, I know, but I needed some answers in case I got that question from a student! And the feedback — every 140 character response — was really useful.
    The overall consensus from librarians was that Google Scholar should be taught as a starting point. Most of the librarians might start with Google Scholar, but point out some shortcomings of the articles results, and move into the traditional library databases from there. Google Scholar is horribly lacking in many, many publications that are key to academic disciplines, and is particularly short on Canadian content. Obscure journals that might have the perfect article for your argument won't be indexed either, which is why libraries continue to subscribe to those small (admittedly difficult-to-use) journal indexes. Plus, resources like JSTOR or (in Ontario) the Scholar's Portal eJournals database make searching for articles pretttttty easy. These databases are catching up to Google's slick look — gone are the days of ugly user interfaces and too much clicking.
    But does that mean Google Scholar should be banned? Goodness, no. Google Scholar is a healthy part of a balanced research diet, and should be used in conjunction with other resources to create a top-notch essay.

  3. Right on! When a professor recently asked me to do a session for his class to help with their assignment that required them to find articles on a short list of topics using only three discipline-specific journals, I realized that Google Scholar was going to be the best tool to show the class. It turned out that each of the journals were indexed in different databases. I thought of going the journal by title route for instruction, only to find that the publisher platform that housed two of them was absolutely one of the most user-unfriendly environments I'd seen. Given these options, Google Scholar seemed the only sensible choice.

    The only hiccups that I cam across was the mysterious omission of one of the titles all together in the search results and having to explain to the professor that, in fact, I was not ignoring our subscribed content in favour of showing them how to search the web (i.e. having to explain how Google Scholar worked). In the case of the former hiccup, I used that as an opportunity to demonstrate to the class that it is in an imperfect research tool, and that given it's brought to us by our Google overlords, we have no concrete way of knowing why said journal was not appearing in our search results, and if you are interested in doing a more thorough job of researching, you may want to use these tools on the library website, and hey – come have a chat with me about it!

    All in all, I think the session went well! I often encourage the use of this tool, and delight in showing students how to customize it so that they can use their Refworks accounts and Ryerson's resolver links for the results. Some faculty still express hesitation, but once I explain it to them a bit more thoroughly, they tend to come around.

    I'm going to stop talking now.

  4. Great post, Michael. I very much agree that education is essential to effective use of Google Scholar–and indeed that students need to have higher skills to use it and make sense of the citations than with other tools. However, I’ve had a different experience than you describe: more often that not, I point out the tool to them rather than vice versa. For example, when we’re having difficulties finding articles on their topic during a one-on-one appointment or reference interaction, I sometimes ask if they’ve tried Google Scholar. Sometimes they say yes, but more often I hear that a) they don’t know about it, b) they tried and got frustrated, or c) they think that it’s somehow “wrong” to use it. Often, though, I find it incredibly useful when we’re stuck on finding the appropriate vocabulary for use in an index, or if they’re looking for something very specific, or when the “cited by” feature can help them chain from one useful article. We can then talk about how different search strategies are needed in full-text tools like Google Scholar or their beloved JSTOR than in bibliographic indexes. The teaching moments abound. So yes: let’s teach Google Scholar!

  5. An interesting post, and one I’ve grappled with first-hand. I was asked to do an IL session for a first-year English class that focuses on effective essay writing (a requirement that every first-year student at UofO has to take). As a business librarian, this meant lots of brushing up on resources used in the arts for research and essay writing, including Google Scholar. As you might remember, I put out this call on Twitter: “I’m teaching an English class on Mon. Can someone explain why I don’t just tell them to use Google Scholar? Because I really don’t know.” Terrible, I know, but I needed some answers in case I got that question from a student! And the feedback — every 140 character response — was really useful.
    The overall consensus from librarians was that Google Scholar should be taught as a starting point. Most of the librarians might start with Google Scholar, but point out some shortcomings of the articles results, and move into the traditional library databases from there. Google Scholar is horribly lacking in many, many publications that are key to academic disciplines, and is particularly short on Canadian content. Obscure journals that might have the perfect article for your argument won’t be indexed either, which is why libraries continue to subscribe to those small (admittedly difficult-to-use) journal indexes. Plus, resources like JSTOR or (in Ontario) the Scholar’s Portal eJournals database make searching for articles pretttttty easy. These databases are catching up to Google’s slick look — gone are the days of ugly user interfaces and too much clicking.
    But does that mean Google Scholar should be banned? Goodness, no. Google Scholar is a healthy part of a balanced research diet, and should be used in conjunction with other resources to create a top-notch essay.

  6. Right on! When a professor recently asked me to do a session for his class to help with their assignment that required them to find articles on a short list of topics using only three discipline-specific journals, I realized that Google Scholar was going to be the best tool to show the class. It turned out that each of the journals were indexed in different databases. I thought of going the journal by title route for instruction, only to find that the publisher platform that housed two of them was absolutely one of the most user-unfriendly environments I’d seen. Given these options, Google Scholar seemed the only sensible choice.

    The only hiccups that I cam across was the mysterious omission of one of the titles all together in the search results and having to explain to the professor that, in fact, I was not ignoring our subscribed content in favour of showing them how to search the web (i.e. having to explain how Google Scholar worked). In the case of the former hiccup, I used that as an opportunity to demonstrate to the class that it is in an imperfect research tool, and that given it’s brought to us by our Google overlords, we have no concrete way of knowing why said journal was not appearing in our search results, and if you are interested in doing a more thorough job of researching, you may want to use these tools on the library website, and hey – come have a chat with me about it!

    All in all, I think the session went well! I often encourage the use of this tool, and delight in showing students how to customize it so that they can use their Refworks accounts and Ryerson’s resolver links for the results. Some faculty still express hesitation, but once I explain it to them a bit more thoroughly, they tend to come around.

    I’m going to stop talking now.

  7. @ Megan, mjecclestone, and Jane – All well said! I try to reply to comments with great follow-ups but on this one I think we may all be one another cheerleaders. Maybe we can take the "Google Scholar is a healthy part of a balanced research diet" line to heart in the future.

    -m

  8. @ Megan, mjecclestone, and Jane – All well said! I try to reply to comments with great follow-ups but on this one I think we may all be one another cheerleaders. Maybe we can take the “Google Scholar is a healthy part of a balanced research diet” line to heart in the future.

    -m

  9. And check this out – apparently Schoogle is improving!
    Google Scholar's Dramatic Coverage Improvement Five Years after Debut. Serials Review, Volume 36, Issue 4, December 2010, Pages 221-226 Xiaotian Chen
    doi:10.1016/j.serrev.2010.08.002

    Abstract
    This article reports a 2010 empirical study using a 2005 study as a base to compare Google Scholar's coverage of scholarly journals with commercial services. Through random samples of eight databases, the author finds that, as of 2010, Google Scholar covers 98 to 100 percent of scholarly journals from both publicly accessible Web contents and from subscription-based databases that Google Scholar partners with. In 2005 the coverage of the same databases ranged from 30 to 88 percent. The author explores de-duplication of search results by Google Scholar and discusses its impacts on searches and library resources. With the dramatic improvement of Google Scholar, the uniqueness and effectiveness of subscription-based abstracts and indexes have dramatically changed.

  10. And check this out – apparently Schoogle is improving!
    Google Scholar’s Dramatic Coverage Improvement Five Years after Debut. Serials Review, Volume 36, Issue 4, December 2010, Pages 221-226 Xiaotian Chen
    doi:10.1016/j.serrev.2010.08.002

    Abstract
    This article reports a 2010 empirical study using a 2005 study as a base to compare Google Scholar’s coverage of scholarly journals with commercial services. Through random samples of eight databases, the author finds that, as of 2010, Google Scholar covers 98 to 100 percent of scholarly journals from both publicly accessible Web contents and from subscription-based databases that Google Scholar partners with. In 2005 the coverage of the same databases ranged from 30 to 88 percent. The author explores de-duplication of search results by Google Scholar and discusses its impacts on searches and library resources. With the dramatic improvement of Google Scholar, the uniqueness and effectiveness of subscription-based abstracts and indexes have dramatically changed.

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