Sunday, April 21, 2013

Google Scholar

I was reading a 2010 article from Brian D. Edgar and John Willinsky surveying journals published on the Open Journals System. These in many ways are the sorts of journals that the new, digital, OA order makes possible: small, non-commercial, run by dedicated scholars, international, interdisciplinary, investigating new areas of inquiry. It was interesting stuff, but one quote, basically made offhandedly, stuck out to me:
These journals owe a debt, if perhaps more so than other journals, to the indirect support of Google Scholar for indexing the contents of these journals on publication, making them open to discovery on the same grounds as other journals, while providing readers with a degree of quality control, through Google’s page ranking and the citation counts it provides in its search results.
This is not the first time I've seen this sentiment come up. Actually, over the course of my scholarly communications class, it has been brought up in article after article how OA journals and IRs get most of their traffic from GS. This...may not be a good thing. First, is GS really going to be around in a few years? GS is currently not providing ads, and I'm presuming that the information Google learns about its users from GS are not really helping it all that much with its main money-makers, ads for the finance & insurance industries, retail, and tourism. Perhaps it's not surprising that after they announced Google Reader was dead, there was a fair amount of speculation that Google Scholar was next.

Still, let's assume that Google feels like keeping GS around for a while. Should the scholarly community, from scholars to librarians, really be content with reliance on GS? I do not think so, and I think why is well summed up by Charles Potter (2008): "We should not be fooled that any technology used by Google (or any search technology, really) is a neutral force in the information seeking process." (10)

Potter then goes on to lay out multiple ways in which Google Scholar is influencing the search process in ways that we, as librarians, generally do not approve of. Google is, of course, an advertising company, not an information company (that Venture Beat article linked above notes that Google makes 96% of its revenue from ads). To sell these ads, Google data mines, and then it keeps its information about you basically forever. Librarians would probably consider many of Google's practices to be in violation of our Core Value of Privacy/Confidentiality if we were doing them, and yet so many of our libraries link to GS. Google, whether through the main page or GS, is also dependent on a mass-model view of information in order to mass advertise. The single search bar is built on the idea that our information needs are homogeneous, that you can just passively put in a couple keywords, and that Google, through its algorithm, can find your information for you (Go ahead, try to find the Advanced Search). This is anathema to what librarians do: we try to meet the specific needs of our users, and we empower them to control and adjust their search results. 

In addition to Potter's reasons, there is also, of course, the infamous filter bubble. For those unaware, the filter bubble is the idea that Google (and other online services) are personalizing the information they deliver to you by your biases, so that potentially a searcher would never find information that they disagree with. The actual extent of Google's personalization is debated, but that actually helps the argument: Google is a black box. Nobody knows what they are doing, what they are planning to do, and what they could do in the future. Do we really trust them to do the right thing? 

I don't think so. We need a DPLA for Open Access materials. The White House OA memo is going to put a lot more OA material out there. Let's not make it a trade from the monopoly of the current scholarly commercial giants to a monopoly of Google.

Edgar, B. D., & Willinsky, J. (2010). A survey of scholarly journals using open journal systems. Scholarly and Research Communication, 1(2). Retrieved from

Potter, C. (2008). Standing on the shoulders of libraries: A holistic and rhetorical approach to teaching Google Scholar. Journal of Library Administration, 47(1/2), 5-28. doi:10.1080/01930820802110563

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