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Thursday, November 18, 2004

Google Scholar vs. Real Scholarship

Today's release of Google Scholar, an academic search tool developed by a Google engineer in his "20% time," is an interesting and noble but less-than-groundbreaking contribution to research.

Professors (and librarians) will worry that time-strapped students will carry the trend towards sloppy Internet-based research even further. Pulling an all-nighter and strapped for time? Enter something into a search box. Students, take note: the stuff you pull up on Google Scholar will be a fairly random, incomplete selection of materials, including many abstracts. The best way to write your paper is still to identify the key readings you need to consult to put together a coherent argument, and plop your butt down in the library and actually read through them.

Typing a few queries myself, I discovered just how radically incomplete the results are. In my favorite field, political philosophy, memorable journal articles such as "Communitarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed," "Communitarianism: The Good, the Bad, and the Muddly," and the mindbending "The Foucauldian impasse: no sex, no self, no revolution," are not actually available -- only various citations or mentions of them. Most of the available citations lead only to abstracts at various subscriber-only services. In a few cases, actual journal articles are offered (usually in PDF form), but it's hit-and-miss. One doesn't blame Google Scholar for this, but the very presence of the tempting search box might lull some users into believing that this is a powerful search tool. Many more powerful tools are currently available in the public domain, particularly to students enrolled at accredited institutions.

The nice thing about better educational institutions -- and this is part of the ranking methodology used by third parties -- is that when you access their library systems, you can get just about anything you need, no matter how rarefied or rare. Sometimes, you can get a whole pile of that material and actually work on it in a relatively quiet space -- handy when the only space to call "your own" is half a dorm room.

Distance education has much to recommend it. But as nothing truly replaces face-to-face contact in the business world, it doesn't hurt to spend actual time on a campus soaking up wisdom and tracking down journals and books. As this stage, it still makes a lot of sense to be in the physical presence of professors, fellow students, libraries and library people, if only to familiarize oneself with the notion that there really are people doing serious research.

No doubt the introduction of tools like Google Scholar will push the various academic subscription services and libraries to standardize their protocols for making obscure information available to students (particularly grad students) and researchers. But for the foreseeable future, you're going to get a lot farther, faster, by talking to a professor or librarian who can help you figure out where to look for the actual material you need.

What is interesting is the embryonic categorization that's being built into Google Scholar. The top result for the Gad Horowitz "Foucauldian impasse" article is an entry called [citations] -- confusingly, the system only sees two citations of this piece although there are likely dozens or hundreds in the academic literature. In green letters you also see what amounts to a "meta categorization" statement: "Michel Foucault, critical assessments, 1995." Better than nothing, but again, librarians are likely wincing watching Google reinvent the wheel. We'll be watching this space.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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