This post is an ode to Google Scholar (GS). GS has a major advantage against expensive institution only academic search engines in that is free, which makes services indispensable to independent scholars wishing to get some access to research literature when they don’t have an institutional subscription. However, even though I personally have institutional access to indexing services like Web of Science and Scopus, I still prefer GS for the majority of my searches, and in this post I will explain why.
GS is not alone if offering free academic article indexing for a wide range of sources. This post lists a bunch of free and paid services. Microsoft live academic has a very similar system, using a slick interface, which has the advantage of providing paper abstracts where available upfront, and before both these appeared, Citesteer provided something similar. I prefer GS over these and other systems I have tried. In my limited testing, I found the MS live search and Citesteer to give a much smaller set of results to GS. For ease and speed of use I prefer the simplicity of the Google design over the paid alternatives.
GS is largely disliked by librarians, as Google is very cagey about what there index consists and their citation index is probably not to be trusted for serious reporting. GS gives citation counts, which might not always be exactly accurate, for most purposes an exact total isn’t necessary, as it serves as good measure of the importance and influence of a book or paper, and allows easy access to those references that cite it. By default, when you click to see articles that cite a particular article, the index is presented with the most highly cited articles first, which makes it very easy to see the important and influential articles in a field.
As Jose suggested in a previous post, one way to assess the productivitveness of reference managers is by how many clicks it takes to get what you want. GS is about as productive in this regard as I could imagine any reference indexer to be. Because it is free, there is no login and you don’t have to be on a university network to access search results or enter in passwords, or have your session time out like some other services. This means GS is always available. If you set up the preferences on GS you can setup a link to your reference manager of choice for an instant export. As I now use Zotero, this means it’s a one click operation to get a reference into my database, with no dialog prompts.
GS has the advantage that it often indexes PDF’s for the article, which may not be available by other means. If there is a link for your search result of “View as HTML” you know the link GS provides is for the PDF, otherwise it normally links to the abstract via various publishers websites or other indexing services. If there is a link at the side “all X versions”, this means there are various other places in which that article is indexed. If that X is a high number, it is likely that one of the other links will be the PDF, which is useful to check if the frontpage GS link doesn’t link to a PDF, or if the PDF that GS links to is missing. If the reference is a book, it will often link to the Google Book site entry for that book, which is handy.
For easier access to full text articles which GS doesn’t index, I use the OpenURL referrer firefox extension, which can work out your OpenURL referrer for your institution, and adds a link to GS search results. Google offers this service itself for many American libraries – just check the GS preferences page. If you click the link this service adds, it will use the OpenURL system to work out if your library has access to the full text version of the article on the publishers website or other indexing service, and take you to it. It also should show if you have the reference in your library.
One advantage and disadvantage of GS is that it includes many articles that wouldn’t get included in other indexing services. One nice advantage is that it gives you access to books and articles in a single search. The articles GS indexes includes manuscripts in preparation and working papers. This means you can access articles not accessible by other means. However, this means you don’t get the benefits of peer review, but I think the benefits of getting recent papers outweighs this disadvantage. Another problem is that GS will sometimes export reference data which isn’t properly formatted, or missing fields. This will unsurprisingly occur for unpublished papers, but for regular papers it doesn’t happen regularly enough to be a major problem for me. GS gives the index source underneath the link to the reference, so you can figure out whether the exported reference will have the full information, and you can check other sources if GS shows them to be available.
While GS is useful for the reasons outlined above, the best feature of GS is the search. GS uses the Google simplicity of search principle. There is a just one search box, with no fields. There is a link to an advanced search field which allows you to limit searches by year, by publication, and author. This may seem very limited compared to other services. For further information on these options see the GS help page. However, with GS I don’t use advanced searches, apart from the occasion “author:”, as the power of GS is that you don’t need to. I typically put a few uncommon words from the title and the most uncommon author name, and the vast majority of the time I get what I am looking for. One feature of Google search syntax that you might not know is that if you string words together by dashes it is equivalent to a search string. e.g. “war is peace” is the same as war-is-peace. Doing this for a few words from the title of the reference you are looking for ensures a high success rate.
The ease and speed of searching is enhanced for me with other tools that make instant search easier. I use a keyboard launcher, Slickrun, which means I can execute searches from a command line accessible via a hotkey. Other keyboard launchers can provide a similar service, or you can use the keyword feature of Firefox. The means that whenever I see a reference, such as in a PDF article, I copy the reference, type my GS keyword, paste the search term, and a second later my GS search term is loading. An alternative method is to use the firefox extension Conquery . This means I can select text in the browser (e.g. name of an article) and send the text as a search term to google scholar. I also have an AutoHotKey command which will instantly launch selected text as a GS search.
The speed and ease of which I can access to references has changed the way I work. Its quicker for me to get a reference via a GS search then it is to find a stored copy in my own reference manager, and I can’t ask for much more that that from a reference indexing service.