Google Scholar has tremendous potential to aide academics, students and lifelong learners because it is fast, easy to use and always accessible. But how well does it does it work?

I’ve noticed a distinct apprehension of the service by librarians – perhaps because it’s proponents claim it does most of what their libraries pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for in annual subscriptions to publisher data bases of scholarly articles. To try to determine its utility for undergraduate students, three faculty from the University of Toronto developed an interesting test – Helms-Park, R.; Radia, P. & Stapleton, P. (2007) A preliminary assessment of Google Scholar as a source of EAP students’ research materials. The Internet and Higher Education 10 (1) 65-76.

Three independent judges used a tool to evaluate resources submitted by students as an annotated bibliography in an English for Academic Purposes course. The instrument measured authority, objectivity, rigour, and transparency of each resource, with the judges being unaware of its source. The three sources were a general Google search, Google Scholar or the University library’s academic journal data bases. As expected, the study found that a general Google search returned resources that were significantly lower on all four quality indicators than those retrieved via Google Scholar and were also lower on all but transparency between general Goggle and the library databases. This indicating that general Google returns resources that are most the popular and sometimes influenced by advertisers- not usually the best referents to quality academic resources.

But most interesting was the finding that “for all practical purposes, Google Scholar equaled library e-searches in its capacity to yield high-quality sources in response to queries made by relatively inexperienced writers in an introductory EAP course”. This result is great news for distance education students and lifelong learners who may not have ready access to University libraries. Unfortunately, Google Scholar doesn’t always link to the full text, (oh- for more Open Access!) but it is very easy to use and can be used to find citations and references that can then be requested from online libraries or interlibrary retrieval.

The article also makes brief reference to Microsofts site – a recent, late competetor to the Google Scholar site. I did a quick test using the (admittedly self promoting) terms – “community of inquiry” distance anderson- and  had return 19 references, 17 of which were to my work. By comparison Google scholar returned 449 references  with at least the first 40 all being references to my work. So again Google Scholar seems hot (or at least ego boosting!).

I’m usually reluctant to review or comment on articles published in closed (not open access) venues, but I making an exception in this case. Interesting that this article itself does not yet appear in Google Scholar, while articles published at about the same time this year in the open Access Journal that I edit (IRRODL) are fully referenced in Google Scholar and links are provided directly to PDF, and HTML versions. This leads me to wonder, if we have freely accessible, high quality indexing, a growing number of high quality peer reviewed journals and ubiquitous networking- do we really need commercial publishers anymore?

Nonetheless the study demonstrates the scholarly contribution made by Google scholar and underscores this value added resource for distance and lifelong learners.