The real reason students like Google better than our databases

For academic librarians:

We think that our undergrads go to Google because it’s easier to search than our databases, with their powerful syntaxes and fields, and we’re plowing ahead with federated searching to give our resources “Google appeal” based on this idea. But we’re mistaken. Our databases can be searched with keywords pretty easily, and students who want to keep it simple can just go to the general databases like Academic Search Premier and Expanded Academic Index. But they still tend to prefer using Google. Why?

The real reason undergrads like Google is that it gives them more reading material that they are actually able to understand. And this is not a reflection on our students’ intelligence or general preparedness – it goes for the brightest of our undergrads. We tell our students to go to our databases for articles that are “scholarly and reliable,” but we don’t often tell them that most of the articles they will find there, in addition to being scholarly and reliable, are not really intended for an undergraduate audience. These journal articles are mostly narrowly defined studies intended for an audience of scholars who are advancing their fields at the highest levels of learning. Our students can’t even understand the titles of half of these articles. It’s not our students’ fault; many of the articles in our databases require a high level of disciplinary background knowledge. But what does it say to them when they are not able to comprehend the materials that we tell them are “scholarly and reliable?” If they are unaware that these articles are intended for an audience of professors and graduate students, it probably makes them feel dumb and somewhat resentful toward the library.

Often our undergrads need to read articles that present more of an overview of a topic (even if it’s a relatively narrow topic), something that gives them a little bit of depth about it, a bit of background, and in some areas a bit of a picture of the scholarly discourse. Books are usually better than doing this than journal articles, but electronic resources are preferred and tend to be more promoted (I believe this has to do with political issues related to academic library funding). There are some articles in scholarly journals here and there that offer a broader treatment of a topic (often they’re literature reviews), but they are not always easy to find, especially for undergrads left to their own devices.

It would be helpful if our databases included a field that estimated the level of disciplinary background knowledge required to understand an article, on, say, a scale of one to five. Working with a sophomore student just beginning a biology major, we could search Biological Abstracts with the limit on this field set to two, and have a much more useful and less intimidating result set. Maybe it wouldn’t work in Biological Abstracts, because everything in it would count as a four or a five; maybe the place to start using such a system would be in one of our general databases, with coverage of magazines like Science and The New Scientist.

This difficulty rating could be determined by an indexer, or possibly automatically. Software could analyze the full text of the articles against a dictionary of discipline-specific terms rated for obscurity and difficulty, or count the frequency of obscure terms, and rate the articles for difficulty this way. Maybe some databases already do something like this and I’m not aware of it.

You know what I’m talking about, right? What is to be done?

9 comments on “The real reason students like Google better than our databases

  1. As usual, this is an interesting post. Here are my thoughts:

    I also think they like Google because of the speed. In library databases, it takes a little longer, if even it is just a click to an SFX linker.

    I have also noticed (while working at instutitions as different as Illinois State and Swarthmore) that professors are requiring more and more students to use scholarly sources, whether it is a freshman gen ed class or a senior thesis course. Although this is only anecdotal evidence, it seems that the students I teach are more bored than resentful or intimidated. And of course, there is the minority, usually headed to grad school or law school, that find the articles intellectually stimulating and useful.

    I like the idea of number rating to the articles. It would be a another way to organize information for the faculty and students. But would students also feel dumb looking for “only” a “1” article instead of a “4” or “5”?

    I also think we are missing the intellectually curious students who want to move beyond Time and Newsweek but who also aren’t interested in scholarly journals. Other than building up browsing sections, how can we introduce them to The New York Review of Books, Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, The New Yorker, Dissent, etc.? I know most databases allow you to select only scholarly journals. Perhaps there could be a third category set up for these titles.

    Finally, for several gen ed classes, I created a political opinion guide for the “War on Terror”. I encouraged the students to go and even browse the TNR, The Nation, and National Review. They seemed receptive and some did use the political opinion weeklies instead of CQ Researcher for their pro/con papers and debates.

    I know this goes beyond the question, but I think this is a way to engage students at a third level.


  2. Good points, Erik. Maybe instead of a number rating system, it could be “lower division undergrad,” “upper division undergrad,” “graduate level and scholarly research.”

  3. Good discussion!

    The bone I’ve had to pick with the database vendors (without any luck so far) is that “more” isn’t the same as “better.” For undergrads, I’d rather have a well-chosen but not huge selection of general magazines and major journals in the disciplines, but not every obscure and specialized title that is being included in the general databases such as Academic Search Premier and Expanded Academic Index. They seem to be in a race to include more titles but the additions aren’t improving access, they’re just cluttering up results with more stuff to sort through.

    I would love to have more filters than just “scholarly” or “peer-reviewed” and have either ones that limit a search to the 20 most important journals in the disciplines (I know, that would be hard to agree on, and a database vendor would never want to risk alienating the side of their customer base that is publishers by making such a call) or by disicipline (also a little tricky, but less diplomatically fraught).

    I like the levels of specialization idea as well. Will it happen? Not while the two big players both compete to sign on more publications. Is this what libraries really want?

    When I raised the idea of “less is more” with a database company VP he said that’s what our print collection was for.

    Well, nice thought – only our students would much rather print off five not-so-great full text articles than try to find five in our print collection that they have to photocopy.

    Obviously a huge disconnect between the end user and the corporate idea of what they need.

  4. I would argue that one of the things that students are learning when they access those of scholarly articles is how to understand them. Yes, I agree that it would be nice to find an easier way to get access to the layman’s answer to our questions, but part of what undergraduates learn is how to read and understand information which initially is over their heads. If I were a faculty member and I discovered that the librarians were only routing my students to simple articles and not to peer-reviewed articles in the graduate students, I would be very upset.

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