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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