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Sunday, November 21, 2004

Google Scholar as Academic Metasearch: Political not Algorithmic

As with many who have dared to hastily critique Google products, I've been proven wrong on my lukewarm assessment of Google Scholar. Already.

Taking slightly more time to check it out, I'm beginning to understand the power of the service. The real problem -- analogous to the problem with a world with 2,000 channels and nothing on, and a world where I can set up a wireless network for $50 and check email on my laptop while feeding the neighbour's beagle, but instead, I watch NFL football while posting to my blog -- is that the power of the tools is comically underutilized.

But just as it might take Howard Stern to rapidly increase the uptake of Sirius satellite radio, if it takes Google releasing a better way of searching for academic materials to improve the chances that students and professors might adopt a more systematic approach to research, so be it.

In any case. The "library search" feature of Google Scholar is already powerful, and as it improves, could ultimately make the whole world into a big "interuniversity loan" system. Obviously, many libraries have reciprocal agreements to share materials. But the more easily researchers are able to pinpoint the availability of these materials, the more likely they are to initiate a request for them. Of course it probably won't be too much longer before 95% of those materials are scanned and available on-demand, which will pose a separate set of problems for authors, but these are nothing new to academic authors who have seen an evolution from informal, unauthorized copying to a more consistent practice of putting together course kits with permissions. (For some students seeking wider access to materials for free, bootleg distribution services will no doubt crop up to spur innovation in the "legit" publishing world.)

This time around my example search was for Peter deLeon's Thinking About Political Corruption, an original and insightful study, though it might read a little stiffly for those who get their information from Wolf Blitzer. The Google Scholar search tool allows you to enter a zip code or other jurisdiction (I entered "ontario") to determine the material's availability in libraries. Pretty good result. I saw that the book was available at York University, Ryerson University, The University of Western Ontario, the University of Windsor, etc. The handy tables already seem useful in that they offer a quick link to library hours and basic info for each institution cited.

To continue extending on this kind of unification of disparate data, Google will need to engage in a process of ongoing cooperation with library systems. It won't be able to automate everything, and probably won't be able to fall back on some easy, ready-made metadata protocol. In short, the process is as much "political" (requiring detail work and talking to people who have traditions of their own) as it is algorithmic. (For the uninitiated, the title of my blog entry today is a tribute to an important expository article, "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical," by the most-cited contemporary Anglo-American philosopher John Rawls. Rawls ultimately situated liberal notions of economic justice and rights in American traditions, responding to interpretations that viewed him as an 'abstract' neo-Kantian rights theorist. As this article is one of the most-cited philosophy papers of all time, it does, incidentally, underscore the incompleteness of Google's beta effort thus far. Google Scholar shows only 85 citations of this article.)

The other interesting and quite Googlish feature of the library search results is the "regional libraries" results, which seem to be a list of libraries slightly farther afield which have the material you've searched for. Google Scholar brings up available copies of the de Leon book at dozens of libraries in Michigan, New York state, and as far away as Minnesota. Google is good at geography. :)

Given the strong start for Google Scholar, then, it's possible to imagine it getting much better. Part of this scenario must involve cooperation from research professionals.

As for de Leon's fine book, York University library (York U., Toronto, is Canada's second-largest university behind the University of Toronto, which does not seem well-connected to Google Scholar at this juncture) keeps only one copy on the shelves. Further investigation quickly shows that the book is available. Political corruption has been a pivotal theme in North American politics of late. Armchair analyses in the media are proffered daily. In Canada, press accounts of advertising spending scandals dominated the debate in the recent election in which the ruling Liberal Party was reduced to a minority government. In this context, de Leon's analysis stands up as one of the only systematic studies of the phenomenon of political corruption in the context of developed democracies. Published in 1993, Thinking About Political Corruption put forward a bold but far from proven hypothesis: that the decentralized nature of U.S. political institutions directly correlates with ongoing misappropriation of government monies and failure to uphold federal standards. This analysis descends from Theodore Lowi's vaguely similar argument in The End of Liberalism (1969). For all I know, only a handful of students (other than my seminar of 20 upper-year undergrads at Trent University six years ago) have ever debated de Leon's thesis. Needless to say, it hasn't made its way into news coverage of politics.

According to Google Scholar, de Leon's book is "cited by 6" other sources. (This obviously is an incomplete list; we assume that this tool will work much better in a year's time.) One of those citations is a 1994 article by Mark E. Warren in the American Journal of Political Science (48:2, 328-343), "What Does Corruption Mean in a Democracy?" In the abstract we learn that Warren argues: "Despite a growing interest in corruption, the topic has been absent from democratic theory." Warren finds that most incidences of political corruption in a democracy indicate a "deficit in democracy." Back to you, Peter de Leon.

Actually, back to my alma mater (Phase II), York University. York prides itself as the home of one of the only research institutions -- The Centre for Practical Ethics -- which studies political ethics in a systematic way. In spite of this, in the height of the academic year, de Leon's groundbreaking study of political corruption sits lonely on the shelves of Scott Library, waiting for a taker. To explain why would be a much longer discussion. Perhaps it's best to change the subject and summarize it with a joke that used to be told by snobby University of Toronto students: "Trent University library burned to the ground last Wednesday. Luckily there were no casualties as no one was in there at the time."

As much as this might surprise us given the magnitude of the social utility that would arise from making progress in this area, the study of political corruption -- much like Google Scholar itself -- is just getting off the starting line. I wish both well. Now, back to football.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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