How reliable is Google Scholar

When is Google Scholar and when not?

Google Scholar is often the first point of contact when entering a topic. It is popular with students, but is also sometimes used by researchers. The application has many advantages and some disadvantages. Whether it is the right tool depends on the circumstances and the objective of the research. If you can use this tool correctly and know when it can keep up with the subject-specific, mostly fee-based databases, you can achieve your goal efficiently with it.

It's worth keeping the pros and cons in mind.

The benefits of Google Scholar

  • It is not limited to any subject area. If you want to find out more about the economic effects of different forest management systems, Google Scholar is more likely to find the right food for thought than if a scientific database is used or one that is exclusively focused on economics.
  • The repertoire is enormous. Not only published articles that have gone through the peer review process are indexed. Books, conference papers, dissertations, white papers, reviews and other materials are also available. Basically everything that is academic in the broadest sense can find its way into the hit list.
  • Google knows a thing or two about search engines. As a result, the interface is designed to be user-friendly and intuitive, which unfortunately does not apply to all scientific databases. The sorting of the hit list is more likely than some competing algorithms to bring relevant hits to the top. However, the system cannot offer the quality guarantee and relevance that tags placed by humans can achieve. Links to articles that cite a given text, as well as to "similar articles" allow you to "loop through" to the central works of the subject. In addition, access is free and possible from anywhere.

The disadvantages compared to other databases

  • However, the free access and the large amount of material that can be searched are also the most serious drawbacks. In many cases, only abstracts are available. In order to be able to see the full text, access via the university library or its channels is necessary.
  • In contrast to the Internet search engine, library catalogs give you the certainty that articles are actually available, that they belong to the specialist field, meet scientific standards and have been published by reputable publishers after thorough examination.
  • Keywords set by librarians or database specialists can make research much easier and significantly reduce the number of hits. However, learning how to use this technique and knowing the best keywords takes some practice. Keywords set by humans are completely absent from Google Scholar. Those who rely too heavily on this application deprive themselves of the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the alternative approach.
  • Google does not disclose the sources that are considered scientific and that are consequently searched by Google Scholar. The sorting algorithm is also a company secret. Under these conditions, the relevance of the hits can only be assessed anecdotally. One cannot be sure about the completeness of the search results.

Various studies have tried to have Google Scholar on the one hand and library catalogs or academic databases on the other hand compete against each other in reality. Although there are outliers, the majority of studies conclude that Google Scholar provides a less complete and less relevant output. At least when it is used by trained university library staff. If, on the other hand, students are allowed to work, the results of both search strategies are of comparable quality. The intuition is confirmed: Students who, for example, have to research a seminar paper and only know their subject matter superficially, can quickly and easily find suitable material via Google Scholar. For professionals who are already familiar with the literature in their field, the relevant search terms, the most important sources and the most influential authors, for whom the advantages of a more structured search process outweigh the advantages.

Regardless of which tool is used, it always makes sense to familiarize yourself with the respective “tips and tricks”. Like any search application, Google Scholar delivers significantly better results if the options of the advanced search, the search operators and the links are used wisely.

Tags: databases, Google Scholar, disadvantages, research, search engines, advantages