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Online research warning: Your results may vary

By Trudy Dunham

How do you search for research-based information? How do you find out about the topics you need to know as a professional? How well do you know the tools you use to search? Perhaps not as well as you think you do.

If you are like most people today, you rely in part on the Internet as a research tool. More specifically, you rely on a search engine such as Google, Yahoo or Bing. What are your expectations of these tools?

We know to carefully check out our online sources. Anyone can publish online, so we check that the source is identified, credible and current. But we assume that the most relevant and representative of what is known is going to show up on page one of the search results. And we assume that the search I conduct will result in the same resources as yours, as long as we use the same search terms. And that the computer or mobile device used is irrelevant to the research results.

We can no longer make these assumptions. The algorithms used today by search engines are filtering the information we are exposed to based upon our own past behavior (and that of our computer). So the results that I get will be different from the ones that you get. And the results that I get on my home computer may be different from those I get at the office. In fact, the search engine may be limiting search results to those that agree with what I already know -- just the opposite of what a researcher wants!

So what are our options? Many of us use Google Scholar to locate scholarly information. It is free, and as convenient and as easy to use as the other search engines. There are just two problems: we don't know what resources are searched or excluded, and the algorithm for ranking them is unknown.

Google Scholar does include many peer reviewed journals, other periodicals, and scholarly books. Studies comparing it to subscription or fee-based research databases have sometimes found it competitive, sometimes not. We know that "free" resources (those that do not require a subscription), and those with more citations are (or were) ranked higher. But we won't know when or if the ranking algorithm or what is searched, changes.

Does that mean we shouldn't use Google Scholar? No, it is probably the best free tool for locating research-based information online. But I recommend that you augment your search with other search strategies.
  • If you have access, conduct the online search on the Web of Science (many universities subscribe, and if you log in to your university account you can access it online).
  • Change your search terms to synonyms or to other aspects of the topic. If you know who conducts research in the area, search on author name.
  • Scan beyond the first couple pages of results
  • Remember, just because you didn't find it online doesn't mean that there isn't research on the topic.
  • Consult a librarian for more options.

What concerns do you have (or not have) about using Google or Google Scholar to conduct a research literature review online?

-- Trudy Dunham, former research fellow

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