Wednesday, March 7, 2012


I was reading this post at the Atlantic over the weekend, in which Alan Jacobs complains about the terrible user-interfaces of scholarly databases:

Librarians want students to specify their search terms, but that rarely happens: "Regardless of the advanced-search capabilities of the database they were querying, 'Students generally treated all search boxes as the equivalent of a Google search box,'" simply clicking into a text field and typing away. Problematic, yes -- but why shouldn't they be able to do that? Why shouldn't the software be able to help them out?

Not long ago I was using a research database to try to get a PDF of an article published in a journal to which my college's library has a digital subscription. I knew the title of the article, the author's name, the title of the journal, and the issue date. I plugged all those in to the appropriate text boxes, clicked "search" . . . and got hundreds of results. But the one that I wanted wasn't on the first several pages.

I sent an email to a reference librarian describing this event, and he wrote back saying, "Oh, see, you should have entered the journal's ISSN." Really? Exact title of article and journal, exact name of author, exact date of publication -- that's not enough?

I guess I think that's somewhat of a fair criticism. Jacobs goes on:

...And a Google search does some things that the research databases don't: for instance, when I'm searching for an article in the enormous JSTOR academic journal database, I don't use their search box, but instead go to Google using the "site" delimiter: my-search-term. Why? Because if I spell a name wrong Google knows the correct spelling and asks me if I meant that. On JSTOR itself I just get inferior results.

So maybe our greater emphasis shouldn't be on training users to work with bad search tools, but to improve the search tools. Especially since serious research questions aren't as afflicted by spammy SEO as many other queries, by this point in the development of online life we ought to be doing a lot better than we are.

This seems right to me. When I was first in grad school, I spent a lot of time on the Philosopher's Index. But I never really got the hang of it, and if I'm honest, I'll admit that I haven't looked at it in years. I haven't checked to see if my current institution subscribes to it. And I can't remember the last time I tried to use the search utility on JSTOR. With either of them, if I'm looking for something specific, I can never find it; and if I don't have anything specific in mind, I'm not going to find anything I can use.

Jacobs alludes, on behalf of the Index/JSTOR search utilities, to the argument that this is because I don't know how to use them, and that if I understood the logic of these search engines I would get better results. But I guess I don't see that as a criticism of me, and I definitely don't see it as a suggestion of a way to improve myself. I see that as a fairly conclusive criticism of the logic of the search engines. If the search engines employed better logic, it would be possible to use them effectively without having to go out of your way to learn a complicated and unintuitive way of thinking.

The research database I make most use of is Google Scholar, and the two features I find come in handiest are the "Related Articles" and the "Cited By" tools. If you, like Jacobs, know the title of the article and the author's name, your search will be successful. It will work. And if you spell something wrong, it will be Google and help you spell it right. And if you want to see how other people have responded to the article, the "Cited By" results will tell you. You'll have to sift through the results to sort the articles that mention it in passing from those that mention it more prominently, but you'll know. And it helps you to see which articles made a big splash and which ones have had a more modest impact. And then it links you to the paper on JSTOR or Springer or whatever. I'm open to the possibility that I'm being really irresponsible with my research, but I sort of doubt it. Google Scholar works really well. If I'm using it to look for something I find it, and it has helped me discover I-don't-know-how-many papers I would never have found otherwise.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

First thought was "scholar as a research tool?" Crazy! You'll never find anything new that way.

Then I tried it. I did not know that someone had written an article replying to me until I did.

Anonymous said...

I love Google Scholar, because nothing else makes it as easy to find the articles I want. If I am using Google from a computer logged into my school's system, it gives a "Get it at MYSCHOOL" option. Just have to click that link, and it shows what online databases my library has available, with a link (usually) to the exact article I want. It's so nice.

The only thing that I'm not so sure how to control in GoogleScholar is the discipline. What I DO like about JSTOR is the ability to limit what it searches to only philosophy journals. With Google, I'm usually sifting through anything in any discipline that uses the same search terms. It gets annoying. Any suggestions for that?

Anonymous said...

Click on "Advanced Scholar Search". On the advanced page you can limit the search to the "Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities." This helps.

Anonymous said...

My thought is that being a professional scholar requires learning to use professional tools. I worked in libraries before I was a philosopher and probably had more exposure to how librarians think than the average person, but I don't think databases are that hard to learn how to use. I'm a big fan of the Philosophers' Index. I occasionally use Google Scholar, but just as one tool out of many. Once you learn how to use library databases, it's actually faster because you get better results the first time. And reference librarians love to help. That's their job.

zombie said...

I concur. Google Scholar is far superior to anything I've used at any University library. When I'm logged in at school, GoogleS shows the "________Fetch" icon which I can click to link to the article via my U library.

The Philosopher's Index was crap last time I used it.

zombie said... is also pretty neat. And they have a "Try it on Scholar" link if you don't find what you want.

Rob said...

Google Scholar rocks, especially for philosophy research. Just off the cuff, the primary downsides compared to subscription database interfaces, from my vantage as a librarian, are the lack of controlled vocabulary (subject headings), no filtering for specifically peer-reviewed articles (instead drafts, conference papers, Google Book references, etc.), inability to limit by discipline, and frequent glitches in the chronology of results (even after limiting date ranges). (The growing schema of edited categories at the great Philpapers web site is of course worth exploring, too.)

Two other features perhaps worth mentioning are the GS Alerts (the best way I know to keep up with the very latest cool stuff on Nietzsche) and the recent Google Scholar Authors pages (see, for example, those of Leiter and Haidt: []). I find that material appears in my Google Alerts earlier, sometimes quite considerably earlier, than in the subscription databases, especially if an author has posted a draft or copy at her web page.

Also, Anonymous #2: be sure when accessing GS or Philpapers that you are using your institution's proxy server, so you can use the "Get it at..." feature from off-campus, too. (Easiest way with GS is to access it through the GS link on your school library's web page).

Anonymous said...

"With Google, I'm usually sifting through anything in any discipline that uses the same search terms. It gets annoying. Any suggestions for that?"

Learn to enjoy reading more widely outside the discipline? :)

Anonymous said...

I literally could not live were it not for Phil Papers and Google Scholar. I was stunned to find out recently that very few if any of my fellow grad students use these platforms regularly. When I talk to someone in the depart who's never heard of Phil papers, to me it is like meeting someone who still churns their own butter (you can kind of imagine doing it but you can't fathom why anyone would want to do it). Two tremendous bonuses on Phil Papers are the professional-level oversight/curatorship of the search results, and the email notification of new work in your area(s) of interest. Really, Bourget and Chalmers have done us all a great service.

Prof. Kate said...

I like Google Scholar, but I love my university's "Citation Linker," via the library website; not everyone with a university affiliation knows that their library offers this, so look for the "GetIt" "Powered by SFX" logos. When I enter a specific author/article title/journal or date on that, it offers multiple online full text sources, including JSTOR. I turn to the uni library site more than Google for such rich resources (and free downloads of pdfs).

Anonymous said...

I had completely forgotten about Philosophers Index until it was mentioned here. I don't think I've used it in over 3 years. And I'm continually doing research. Most of my awareness of new material comes by PhilPapers and Google Scholar, but, more importantly, through references from works found that way, from checking out the websites of people who have written papers I've read, where I find more of their papers, etc. I suppose I would go back to Philosophers Index if I were beginning research in a whole new sub-discipline in Philosophy. But more likely I would start with a Oxford/Routledge/Cambridge companion/handbook and start following up citations in those articles. I'm several years past my dissertation, so that may explain things. I did use it quite a bit when doing initial research for the dissertation. But then Google scholar was just coming on the scene and PhilPapers wasn't in existence yet.

Anonymous said...

I use all three of the big ones mentioned here--Phil Papers, Google Scholar, and Phil Index. I never used Phil Index, though, until I came to my present institution, since prior institutions had a better search engine. If I'm writing on a new topic, I will usually check all three; lately, I've been finding Phil Index more useful though (although I still LOVE the "cited by" feature in Google Scholar).