Thursday, March 14, 2013

Google Ditched the Wrong Product

Let me start by reporting that it has been a very good week for the Twitter. Between the Pope, political news, Pi day (holla CM mathies!), and the horrifying/hilarious stream of retweets from @CollegeMisery, something happened that might have threatened to singlehandedly break the Internet had it occurred on a slower news day: Google Reader will be phased out.

Gentle readers, I don’t use Google Reader. Frankly, I don’t even really understand what it does. The only reason I am aware of it at all is because yesterday my Twitter feed let out a collective yelp at its imminent passing. While my Tweeps pour one out for their departed Reader, for Google's next trick, I want them to consider eliminating our truest frenemy—I speak, dear CMers, of Google Scholar.

Oh, Google Scholar, you shine with a veneer of seriousness that our flakes just can’t resist. Your menu icon shows an old-school model of an atom. The lowercase g in my browser tab sports a jaunty little mortarboard. Your motto, “Stand on the shoulders of giants” beckons in go-ahead green below the eager, blinking search-box cursor.

It's such a shame that the flakes don’t have a clue how to use you.

My heart has broken no less than three times this week as students who started out with quite brilliant research topics each abruptly changed their minds.

“But why?” I said, each time. “That was such a fantastic topic!”

“I searched for it on Google Scholar, and nothing came up. I don’t think I can do it.”

“There are definitely sources out there for you. Did you talk to a librarian about your topic?”

[Blank stare.]

“OK, did you at least check the journal databases online? They must include journals that deal with this field. Or maybe a related subfield, but anyhow I'm sure there are relevant publications you can find.”

“But nothing came up on Google Scholar. This topic will be too hard. I am going to look at representations of hamsters instead.”

[Head + desk]

Google Scholar, you have cultivated the dangerous illusion that you can contain and regurgitate All Human Knowledge, slicing and dicing it on command for even the most hapless undergraduate. You are squelching the dreams of our youth by making them think that this place called a “library” staffed with so-called “librarians” can be replicated with a persnickety algorithm and the click of a mouse. You convince these flakes that they are checking a discipline-specific database when what they actually end up with is a ridiculously broad list of intermittently applicable material where the only truly useful study doesn’t pop up until at least page 14.

You may do some good for non-humanists. (If so, I’m sure I’ll hear about it in the comments.) But until you can actually hold a candle to what those horrendously overpriced databases can dig up, and do this in a way that even flakes can comprehend, Google Scholar, I will consider you about as scholarly as all of Wikipedia run three times through an Internet translator and printed vertically in 6-point Comic Sans.

Cuts are coming, Google Scholar. They already came for Reader, and I can only hope they’re coming next for you.


  1. No no no no no. Google Scholar is great. It's the easiest way to find copies of journal articles that people post on their academic websites. This avoids me having to deal with my library's inane journal database system or interlibrary loan.

    But I can see how it's not so great if you don't know how to use it.

    1. Completely agree.

      The problem here isn't Google Scholar; it's students who simply aren't interested in doing the research for themselves. Even when I do half the work for them, they still want to take short cuts.

      Every semester, in one of my classes, I give my students a research assignment, a paper to be based mainly on historical primary sources. I give them a bunch of topics areas, and for each topic area I link to a half-dozen or so scholarly websites, each of which functions as a large repository of digitized primary sources.

      While I give them the broad, general topics to choose from, once they choose a general topic, they are required to narrow it down to something more manageable in order to write their paper. So, as a hypothetical example, the general topic might be The Boer War in South Africa, and the sites I provide might allow them to do papers on, say, the British use of concentration camps, or maybe patterns of involvement in the war among South African native tribes.

      They are required to do some reading in their chosen area, present a one-page proposal to me, containing their proposed topic and a list of primary and secondary sources. I then help them refine their topic, offering suggestions for more sources, and directions for approaching the topic.

      This is the sort of good, college-level task that the internet was made for. So many universities, government departments, and other organizations have digitized primary source materials that the students have access to fascinating stuff that I never could have used when I was an undergraduate. And, between the websites I provide for them, and more general scholarly databases like JSTOR and ProQuest and Lexis/Nexis, they can do the whole damn thing without ever getting out of their pajamas.

      And yet, instead of reading and analyzing and synthesizing primary sources in order to construct a narrative and an argument of their own, many of them read a couple of really short secondary source articles (often the introductory essays on the webpages I've given them), summarize the main points, and hand that over as a proposal, as if it complied with the instructions. And they whine and pule and roll their eyes and harrumph when I point out that they have not used a single primary source, and that, as proposed, this paper, which is worth 20-25% of their course grade, will take them about an hour and will completely fail to address the requirements.

      Eliminating a useful tool like Google Scholar because it confuses our students would be like getting rid of a powerful program like Photoshop because some people only use it for making sophomoric blog graphics.

  2. BUT! My God, has it surprisingly saved my ass a few times when something I mis-transcribed from some fecking obscure Old Church Slavonic-language Hamster Hagiographical Studies journal produced on a side street in Bratislava in 1837 that I saw once twelve years ago as a grad student in an now-burned-down archive in Luxembourg showed up on there as a PDF.

    Oh, and Feedly is working on an easy transition from Reader. Or else I'd have to throw myself in front of a subway train.

  3. ^ What da Beaksta said. Google Scholar is pretty great, and it's saved me, many times, from the horror of searching via my state's creaky online library system.

  4. Perhaps I should be chagrined by this, but I've never used it - not even once. My discipline maintains its own database of our journal articles. I just use that.

  5. I do think it's partially a humanities/science thing. I've found google scholar very useful for my own research sometimes, and sometimes I've found it completely useless. Proprietary databases are much more reliable, at least once you find the right database to search, which of course is the rub (and is one of the places the librarians often come to the rescue, for my students and sometimes for me). The other problem is that, at least on the humanities (and social sciences) side, google scholar seems to be picking up more and more stuff that isn't really scholarly, at least not peer-reviewed, publishable scholarly (e.g. papers written for various Army War College programs, most of which, at least the ones I've seen, are mediocre to decent advanced-undergrad-to-M.A.-level papers, but not something you'd find in a journal. Also lots of undergrad honors projects and M.A. theses, usually of similar quality. And pretty much anything on google books seems to get included. I know those books are mostly scanned from university libraries, but that doesn't make them all scholarly books). These days, for both my own work and when working with students, I find the most useful part of google scholar to be the "cited by" feature, which can be handy for following a scholarly conversation forward from a relevant source (just as notes and bibliographies work for following it backward). I realize citation indexes have been out there for a while, but they're not as common, or at least as commonly used, in the humanities, so that feature is handy.

    And Ben, don't even get me started on students who feel as you do, and insist that they "can't find" an article because they clicked on a link in google scholar and hit a paywall. Our library has a really good, step-by-step set of instructions for finding full text of an article when you have the citation. I'd say it's idiot-proof, except that it's not proof against the idiocy of refusing to use it to retrieve a copy of an article for which the student has already paid via tuition and taxes (well, there's still a bit of tax money floating around our uni, though increasingly little).

    Mind you, I'm no fan of proprietary databases (at least not the ones that allow some middleperson not associated with a university press to make a profit off the articles we're not paid -- at least not directly -- to write, and sometimes, in some fields, even pay to publish). I'd prefer to see much more open access. But even if/when we move to that model, I suspect there's still going to be a place for high-quality, human-created indices that help people search and select among the openly-available content.

  6. 100% agree with Cassandra on spotty usefulness, and on the likelihood that many fields will need humans to sort this stuff out for the foreseeable future if this method of searching is going to be useful. Paywalls totally suck, and this kind of search very much should be free, but until Google can suss out the differences between the disciplines, it's gonna be a crapshoot for a lot of people. Still, I can see the appeal if some fields have a decent cache of primary sources online, like what Defunct Adjunct describes. (Mine, unfortunately, does not...or at least nothing that actually appears on Google Scholar.) And Dr. Lemurpants, it sounds like you just got l-u-c-k-y!

    Maybe what Google Scholar needs is some kind of super duper secret access code. Anyone with a graduate degree is assigned one of those scannable square things inked on the back, and this gets you into Google Scholar. It would be a concrete example of those mysterious "rights and privileges" that invariably pop up in the fine print on the PhD degree. Then, at least, the undergraduates can't readily convince themselves that typing some random words into Google actually counts as legitimate academic research just because the word "scholar" appears on the search page.


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