To Google or Not to Google

Last night I held a library workshop for a group of 10 students who are taking a team leadership course at the technical college I work at.  This is the same group I mentioned in a previous post, the one that struggled with their research assignment but weren’t exactly motivated to do something about it.  I had contacted their instructor and suggested a workshop, and was surprised that she was willing to collaborate.  We discussed briefly what she wanted her class to get out of the workshop, and there were a lot of concerns mentioned, but it basically boiled down to one thing.  The students are turning to Google for everything, including research papers that require citations and references to academic articles.  They don’t seem to know the difference between academic articles, and all the other kinds that Google finds (blogs, magazine/newspaper articles, etc.).  They don’t care.  How do I make them stop googling everything?!?

Here’s the thing…I like Google.  I google many, many, many times a day.  I love all the apps Google has, and how my Android phone recommends restaurants and area activities based on an address that I had google-mapped on my desktop.  (Seriously, how does it know?)

But as much as I love Google for everyday, quick-reference questions, I know it has its proper place, and that place is not in academic research.  I will say that sometimes it’s a great place to start if you were assigned a topic you are not familiar with.  In this case, you might want to do a quick Google search to see what kind of keywords or subject terms you might be able to use.  You might need to broaden or narrow your topic…again, googling might give you an idea of what directions you could go with your topic.

You might be tempted, now that you have the appropriate keywords, to just google it.  Sure, Google will return many results — too many, in fact.  In my demo, I selected the topic “Customer Service and Its Effects on Profitability”.  When I googled “customer service and profitability” (two pretty good keywords), I got 32 million hits.  Now, obviously, no one ever browses all the hits that Google returns…I don’t know about you, but if I can’t find my answer within the first two pages of Google search results, I start over.  So, let’s say most of us browse only up to two pages of results.  The good news is, when I typed in my query (“customer service and profitability”), the first results (out of the 32 million) seem like they might work, but a closer look shows that most of those articles are either short blurbs in marketing magazines/blogs, or editorial pieces on sites such as Forbes.com.  I am sure they are interesting reads, but these are probably not the type of articles that the instructor is looking for.  There were two articles that look more “academic” (they are posted on .edu websites) and these are promising, but as you can see later, even those need to be further evaluated.

Here’s a good place to pause and talk about CRAAP.  This is a test designed by some cheeky librarians at the Meriam Library at California State University, Chico to help information seekers critically evaluate search results.  (By the way, if you are offended by the name of the test, rest assured that it has since then been renamed as the CAARP test.)  Basically, CRAAP is a list of questions you should ask about the information on hand (taken and revised from the Meriam Library website):

Currency:

  • When was the information published or written?
  • When was the information updated or revised?
  • Does your topic require current information, or will older sources work as well?
  • Note that website that contains lots of outdated links probably haven’t been updated in a while.  You might want to consider an alternate source.

Relevance:

  • Does the information answer your research questions?
  • Is the information written at an appropriate level (not too advanced or elementary)?
  • Is this the best resource out of all the other resources you have found?
  • Could this resource be cited in your paper?

Authority:

  • Who is the author or publisher for the article?
  • Does the author have the credentials or qualifications to write on the topic?
    • Think about the recent controversy over vaccinations.  One of the biggest and loudest opponents of vaccines is actress Jenny McCarthy, and she appears numerous times on the results list when someone googles “autism and vaccines”.  She might have an interesting point of view, but think about whether she has the credentials/qualifications to write on this particular topic.  What might be a better source for this kind of information?  (Doctors?  Medical Researchers?)
  • Is there a way to contact the author or publisher? (accountability)
  • Does the URL reveal anything about the author or source? (e.g. .com, .edu, .gov, .org, .net)
  • Note that even articles found at a .edu/.org need to be evaluated closely.  Schools will sometimes provide web space to students to post their papers or homework assignments, but unless it’s been published/reviewed or cited by other credible sources, consider an alternate source.  Similarly, while you might find some interesting articles on .org sites, many might present a biased/one-sided view on the topic, depending on their agendas and various affiliations.  Be critical of those sources as well.

Accuracy:

  • Is the information truthful, reliable, and correct?
  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Has the information been reviewed or cited by others?
  • Can you verify the information using another source, or from prior knowledge?
  • Does the language or tone seem unbiased?
  • Are there spelling, grammar, or typographical errors?

Purpose:

  • What is the purpose for the information?  Is it to teach, inform, persuade, or entertain?
  • Is the information fact, opinion, or propaganda? Is the point of view objective or subjective?
  • Are there biases that you might need to be aware of (e.g. political, ideological, cultural, religious, personal, institutional)?

As you can guess, this evaluation process will take some time, but it is also a very necessary step in the research process.  Do Google search results pass the CRAAP test?  Some might, but some might not.  And this is where Google’s advantage (ease of access, speed, number of results) is often offset by the time you have to spend in evaluating the search results.  For many websites, it might be easy to find the author and determine his/her affiliations, point of view, and purpose for the article.  For many others, however, this information will be harder to figure out (another red flag to go another way!).

So truly, Google is great for many things, but when it comes to academic research, get into the habit of using your school’s recommended research options — be it a virtual library or professional/academic databases.  You will still have to run the CRAAP test on the information you come across, but you will find that much of the work has already been done for you, since articles found in these databases have been published, peer-reviewed, etc.  Some schools, like the one I work at, have also curated/organized the available resources by the various schools of study, so students don’t have to guess which database would be most useful to them.  It might take a few more clicks to get to the right search page, but once you are in, your chances of finding appropriate resources will be better.

You will also see that once you have some strong keywords, databases (e.g. ERIC, Ebisco, Proquest, etc.) offer many powerful search options.  For example, strategic use of Boolean operators can increase the precision and relevancy of your search, or broaden it as needed.  Some databases can generate additional subject terms or keywords for you to add, based on your initial search.  Similarly, when you have found a good article, you can usually see what subject terms it is associated with, and add those to your search.  I also love citation chasing — that is, looking through the author’s citations/references and “chasing” after ones that might also be of interest to your research.  Some databases will do the work for you, listing the cited references and providing direct links to the articles that you have access to in the database.

All these strategies will take practice, but as you get more comfortable with databases and what they can do, your searches will get better and the research process will seem a lot less intimidating.  I can still remember what it was like to do research for my first Masters, back in 1998…looking for articles in dark, stuffy stacks, having to copy 10, 20 of them not knowing whether any of them would work, but you had to because you couldn’t take them out of the library.  Most of the time, they didn’t work, or maybe you found more articles during your readings, so you’d have to go back to the stacks and repeat.  Even then, the geek (and maybe the masochist) in me enjoyed it, but I admit, I absolutely love it now.

So, I am not asking you to break up with Google (I wouldn’t), but when it comes to academic research, give databases a chance!  You might just fall in love with it yourself.

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