Help with Undergraduate Research: Why Google isn’t a good place to look for scholarly articles

We’ve been covering L’Année Philologique over the last two posts, but you might wonder why you should bother to use a bibliographical database at all. Why can’t you just Google when you’re looking for sources? The short answer is that Google is primarily a search engine for the web. Google is not, and does not claim to be, a database of scholarly articles.  Sure, Google Books and Google Scholar are specialized search engines designed to limit search results to articles and books, but they are not the same as an article database.

Your Basic Google Search

First, when you use Google to search the internet, it searches for everything (and I mean everything) that it can find anywhere online. Google, by itself, does not privilege scholarly articles over other information sources. If I did a search for Scipio Africanus (just because we might as well make it a pattern, and because that is something I spend a lot of time reading about in eBooks and articles when I’m logged in to Google – this will be important soon), this is what I would get:

Google search.png

Wikipedia is the first hit (not surprising) and is certainly not the site you’d want to click on if you were looking for a scholarly article. In fact, none of the first page results are.  Midway down the second page was my very first book hit (Gabriel’s Scipio Africanus: Rome’s Greatest General). While Gabriel’ is an academic and his book is very well researched, the book presents Scipio and his military victories to a more general audience, making it a more popular read than say Scullard’s 1933 monograph (which is the standard text on the early life of Scipio). The book’s appeal to a popular audience is what ranks it so high in the results. The top of the third page brought me some more book results, these ones from Amazon (and none of them peer-reviewed scholarly sources). Google is not picking its results based on how useful the source would be in an academic assignment; it’s instead using complex algorithms that look for the number of times the search terms are found on the page and the number of visitors that the page gets.  Scholarly sources are not going to be the more popular hits on Google.

As I already said, Scipio Africanus is someone I read a lot about. I use the internet to access loads of university and academic press websites about Scipio Africanus while I’m logged into my Google account. Why is this important? Google tracks you while you’re online and uses that data to help return better search results. That means Google is watching me and knows what kinds of sites I like to visit while I’m reading about Scipio Africanus, then returning results that are tailored to me. Even so, books and scholarly articles do not figure prominently in my search results (and they probably should, since that’s what I spend most of my time looking at online).

Google Books

But what about Google Books?  Surely a Google Books search will return exceptionally valuable sources on Scipio Africanus.  Let’s take a look:

google books.png

Google says “Book Search works just like web search.” To me, that isn’t a surprise. Again, the top search result is a history aimed at a more general audience. Alarmingly, however, there is a small problem with the second search result. Liddell-Hart’s Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon, seems to have been reprinted in 2004 (and thus this particular edition has a publication date of 2004), but the original monograph was published in 1928. If you hadn’t already read extensively on Scipio Africanus, you might not know that and you might read the text and cite it as though it was a new, up-to date monograph (which it is not). Just like the basic Google search above, there’s no way to sort the results.

It is also important to note that Google Books searches all the books it knows about, not just books that you might find in your university library.  You can see from the second half of the first-page results below, that in 1998 “the second installment of an epic trilogy” about the Second Punic War was published by an author named Ross Leckie.  While I haven’t read the trilogy myself, I’m certain it would be unacceptable as a scholarly source in a bibliography!

google books 2.png

Google Scholar

Lastly, let’s take a look at Google Scholar and see what kinds of results it returns:

Google Scholar.png

Google says “Google Scholar aims to rank documents the way researchers do, weighing the full text of each document, where it was published, who it was written by, as well as how often and how recently it has been cited in other scholarly literature.” Now, the results are all scholarly sources, but they aren’t all necessarily recent. And while Google Scholar is a standard in some fields, in many humanities disciplines (including Classics), it’s not – which means that a lot of journals get left out, and some non-Classics journals sneak in. For example, the second hit has nothing to do with Scipio Africanus at all.

There is nothing wrong with what Google claims to do while searching for articles, buta lot of Classics journals aren’t indexed in it, and so you get results from nonspecialists or specialists in unrelated fields. For example, The Journal of Roman Studies is a Classics journal while the Journal of the American Political Science Association isn’t. While that might seem trivial, those disciplinary differences matter in how the author approaches a question, his/her familiarity with the ancient evidence, and a number of other ways. That’s why a database like APh that is curated and maintained by people with a knowledge of the field is so useful (it’s almost as good as having someone give you their top 10 sources I’d say). Google bases the results not on how useful they might be to your project (because how could Google know that?), but (among other things) on how many times the article was cited. Just because an article is cited a lot doesn’t make it good. In fact, there are two problems with this type of prioritizing. First, people tend to stop looking after the first page of their search results, meaning that appearing on the first page gets you more hits (having a circular effect of course). Second, newer articles won’t feature as prominently because they have fewer sources by virtue of them being new.

If we look at the search results again, there are only two hits on the first half of the first page that are published after 2000. If we want more recent results, we can always sort by date. On the left-hand sidebar there are some sort options based on year of publication.  If we select “Since 2013“, it changes the results:

Google Scholar since 2013.png

While the new sorting makes all of our articles published after 2013 (four years ago now), in some ways the results are a little worse. Notice that the first and fifth hits are not even about Scipio Africanus. More unsettling is the bottom result. The hit is from academia.edu, where lots of scholars post their articles (and many of them are published elsewhere in reputable sources). But anyone can make an academia.edu account and post anything they want to their public profile. This particular paper on the Roman Republican army links to a download for a word document that appears to be an essay for an undergraduate history class. In fact, of our new set of results only Ridley’s “The Arch of Scipio Africanus” would help anyone trying to write about Scipio Africanus in Republican Rome.

Summary

I’m not saying that Google searches in any forms are completely useless for finding sources. What I will say is that while it might seem at first glance like Googling is easier than learning a new database interface, you will have to scroll through many more irrelevant results and you will have to be extra-careful to make sure that your sources have been published by reputable peer-reviewed presses. Once you learn how to use bibliographic databases, it will then be very quick to get access to relevant and high-quality sources, saving you time in the end.


~m

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