Google for research: If it’s wrong, why does it feel so right?

In the uni library world we encourage students to use the library’s discovery layers and database interfaces to search for information. We tell first-years over and over again not to use Google. Is this the right thing to do?

Here’s an information retrieval story from today when I was looking for journal articles on a certain topic:

  1. Used library discovery layer. Didn’t like my results.
  2. Used most recommended database #1, which is small but specialised. Simple 2-term search connected by AND. Some success, but not exactly a jackpot of relevant articles, but a few that were of interest.
  3. Added some synomyms to my search strategy to broaden. Results were the same.
  4. Used most recommended database #2. Large, but multidisciplinary. Had to add more terms to refine the search and experiment with my keywords a bit more. Not much success.
  5. Went back to discovery layer and fiddled with my keywords a bit more. Still not satisfied.
  6. Went to Google. Put in my 2 keywords, no syntax or synonyms or anything. Based on the nature of my search terms, suggestions from Google scholar appeared at the top of the results list. It suggested two articles that were basically my ~dream articles~ in terms of relevance, and highly cited.
  7. Clicked on them. Paywall.
  8. Copied and pasted the article titles into library search. There they were, in databases I hadn’t looked at in steps 3 or 5. Clicked through to full text, and downloaded the pdfs in all their glory.

Now, Google was by far the most helpful tool in terms of discovery (step 6). It was very simple. I didn’t even intentionally go to Google Scholar, just plain old Google. The Scholar results were presented right in my face, there was no effort on my part in doing this. But in terms of access, Google let me down (step 7). I happened to know there was a good chance that the library would have access, so I went looking there, once I had the article titles.

The databases and library search tool were not as good at discovery. It was trickier and more frustrating to find stuff,  I had to use some advanced search strategies, and common techniques like broadening my terms didn’t always work (steps 2-5). The few relevant results that I did get were not as good as what I later found on Google. Of course this is not always my experience.  It depends on the amount of literature available on your topic, how well your search terms match the vocabulary of the databases and the literature, and endless other factors. My topic happened to be a little bit niche on this occasion, which is the kind of situation when I think Google provides a better search experience. The real value in the library search and library-subscribed databases was the access itself (step 8).

I know this is just one anecdote. But c’mon, Google can be a life saver sometimes. Let’s not demonise it. Maybe next time a student is stuck in a rut not finding relevant information in databases, rather than complicate the search strategy, just use the Google workaround!

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