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Why Would Undergraduates Need Those Clunky Databases Anyway?

Google Scholar has made great strides in the 6 years I’ve been a librarian. It’s great. I use it all the time. And now interesting new research by Xiaotian Chen shows that Google Scholar contains nearly all of the articles held in several standard library databases, which is also great. Chen’s article finishes with a flourish, declaring, “The conclusion cannot be clearer: libraries can seriously consider cancelling a large number of subscription-based abstracts and indexes since their unique contents and value are rapidly evaporating” (Chen 226).

This would probably be true if the unique content and value of subscription databases were housed solely in the citation, abstract, and potential for full text access, but in fact it misses the point for many researchers. And it misses the point particularly for undergraduates.

Search is all about term matching, and terms are often the hardest thing for undergraduates to harness. So one key value of a database or search engine is the way that it introduces students to helpful information such as terms that might be important to their topics, genres of publication that are relevant to the scholars in the field that study the topic, and ways of judging the source’s relative weight by providing clues about other things the author has written or about how often the source is cited by other sources. These are not things that undergraduates are able to do just by looking at a citation and abstract.

Google Scholar is very forgiving of bad searching. It will nearly always give you something, even if you enter “impact of cell phones on globalization” into the search box. (Two of my big goals for this last term were to get students to stop searching for “impact on” and “globalization.” I was only minimally successful.) Because it’s so forgiving, it can be a great place to start. However, it’s pretty bad at leading you to new search strategies once you’ve found the one article where the author uses your phrase in her abstract.

Disciplinary databases are not nearly as forgiving of bad searching, so they may be pretty intimidating places to start. Where they excel, however, is in foregrounding those elusive, mysterious, and powerful terms that students need so badly if they’re going to revise their searches and gather more disciplinarily relevant material. The vocabulary, controlled and otherwise, is one of the two key advantages of disciplinary databases. These databases also help students make decisions about the relative worth of a source by (usually) giving links to other things by that author, other things published in that journal, citation counts, bibliographies, indications about peer review, and so on. And sure, these aren’t things that students are used to looking at when they enter college. But in my experience, these are tools that students very quickly come to rely on.

For the totally at-sea undergraduate, the most powerful research process will probably look something like this: take a citation found using a messy search in Google Scholar, plunk that citation into a library database, mine the resulting record for terms and other useful information, read a couple of articles “instrumentally,” and then repeat the process as needed with better and better terms each time.

So is Google Scholar a database killer? Like Steve, I think not. I think it’s a great tool that complements our other tools. And hey! It’s free!

Chen, Xiaotian. “Google Scholar’s Dramatic Coverage Improvement Fiver Years after Debut.” Serials Review 36, no. 4 (2010): 221-26. [Available via ScienceDirect]

4 thoughts on “Why Would Undergraduates Need Those Clunky Databases Anyway?

  1. Go Iris! You rock! For example, “Google Scholar is very forgiving of bad searching. It will nearly always give you something, even if you enter “impact of cell phones on globalization” into the search box.”

    I’m biased by my passionate love of the MeSH, but the other obvious thing that Google Scholar doesn’t provide is subject headings. Depending on the index or database and the quality of the indexing and thesaurus, identifying and using good subject headings to search can be a huge time saver and increase retrieval of relevant citations. Especially in indexes such as MEDLINE or PsycINFO, I still maintain that it can be much harder to construct a good keyword search strategy than a good search strategy based on subject headings.

  2. Yes, our link resolver works with Google Scholar. And it does direct students back to library resources, which is great. For those databases that have full text (which will be the ones students land in), students may possibly look about and see the terms associated with the source there. And this is part of the reason we’ve so far kept all available full text options visible in our SFX menu, hoping that students will see a likely database and explore that one more fully.

    But that’s a bit of a separate issue from what I was talking about. I was talking about the value of databases even if they don’t have full text in them (and often the disciplinary databases don’t while the generic databases do, so often relying on a link resolver as a funnel into the library’s resources means that you’ll end up with students knowing you have Academic Search Premier, JSTOR, and ProQuest Research Library but completely unaware of the MLA International Bibliography). My argument is that if people want to get rid of A&I databases because their function can be duplicated by Google Scholar, then those people should know they’re getting rid of more than just access to a citation. They’re also getting rid of the disciplinary indexing and specialized search options that might guide them toward more sophisticated searches.

    And again, I’m not saying Google Scholar shouldn’t be popular. I’m glad it’s useful, and I use it all the time. I’m saying that the unique value of the index doesn’t lie solely in access to citation information, and that both Google Scholar and the disciplinary databases each have unique strengths that we can capitalize on when working with undergraduate researchers.

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