Google and the scholar: the role
of Google in scientists’
Hamid R. Jamali
Faculty of Psychology and Education, Tarbiat Moellem University, Tehran,
Department of Library and Information Science, Faculty of Humanities,
Shahed University, Tehran, Iran
Purpose – This paper aims to demonstrate the role that the Google general search engine plays in the
information-seeking behaviour of scientists, particularly physicists and astronomers.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper is based on a mixed-methods study including 56
semi-structured interviews, a questionnaire survey of 114 respondents (47 per cent response rate) and
the use of information-event cards to collect critical incident data. The study was conducted at the
Department of Physics and Astronomy at University College, London.
Findings – The results show that Google is the tool most used for problem-specific information
seeking. The results also show the growing reliance of scientists on general search engines,
particularly Google, for finding scholarly articles. Initially, finding scholarly articles was a by-product
of general searching for information rather than focused searches for papers. However, a growing
number of articles read by scientists are identified through the Google general search engine and, as
scientists are becoming more aware of the quantity of scholarly papers searchable by Google, they are
increasingly relying on Google for finding scholarly literature.
Research limitations/implications – As the only fields covered in the study were physics and
astronomy, and the research participants were sourced from just one department of one institution,
caution should be taken in generalising the findings.
Originality/value – The data are based on a mixed-methods in-depth study of scientists’
information-seeking behaviour which sheds some light on a question raised in past studies relating to
the reason for the high number of articles identified through Google.
Keywords Sciences, Search engines, Information retrieval, United Kingdom
Paper type Research paper
Web search engines are probably the most important means of retrieving information
for web-based information systems. Among the major search companies, Google has
gained a reputation as one of the leading and most popular search engines. In 2006 in
the USA there were 91 million queries searched daily on Google alone. The total
number of queries searched daily on all search engineswas 200 million (Sullivan, 2006).
Besides being fast and user-friendly, Google’s popularity is mostly due to the
relevance of the retrieval results for a typical query. In other words, recall and precision
are often high for Google’s search results. By implementing the PageRank algorithm
(Brin and Page, 1998), Google introduced citation models in web search in order to
improve the quality of search results. Tracking web citations became possible because
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Refereed article received
26 May 2009
Approved for publication
22 November 2009
Online Information Review
Vol. 34 No. 2, 2010
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of the hyperlink structure of the web resources. The rich structure of the web link
graph has enabled the estimation of the global as well as local popularity of the
documents on the web (Asadi et al., 2009).
Google has been constantly creating new services such as Google Books and Google
Scholar to cover special contents. Among these search facilities, Google Scholar is
important because it is designed specifically to retrieve scholarly literature on the web.
Almost all types of scholarly publications available on the web are covered by Google
Scholar including full-text papers from conferences and scholarly journals, citations,
of Science, Google Scholar has shown more success in reflecting the quantity of citations
in published papers and scholarly publications (Noruzi, 2005; Harzing and Wal, 2008).
Google search engine has gained increasing popularity among academic
communities and studentsand it
information-seeking behaviour. In addition to its dominance in general searching on
the web, past research (see literature review, which follows) has also demonstrated the
impact of Google within research and educational fields. To serve academics’ and
scientists’ information needs it is necessary to have a better understanding of Google’s
role in their information-seeking behaviour and the impact it has had on their
information-seeking habits. This paper aims to contribute to this understanding. It
focuses on the role of Google’s general web search engine in physicists’ and
astronomers’ information-seeking behaviour. More precisely, the paper aims to identify
how and why scientists use Google to locate journal articles and what other
applications it has in their information-seeking needs. Information-seeking behaviour
is defined as the process or activity of attempting to obtain information. Web searching
is a subset of information seeking, particularly concerned with the interactions
between the information user and the web using general web search engines.
now playsa crucialrolein their
Google has elicited much controversy and debate within the field of library and
information science. Librarians, information scientists and academics have written
both in praise and contempt of Google (e.g. Janes, 2002; Pomerantz, 2006; Crane, 2007;
Miksa, 2007; Carr, 2008; Nichols and Rowlands, 2008). Librarians have criticised
Google for what they believe is a negative effect on students’ and academics’
information-seeking behaviour (Sorensen and Dahl, 2008). Bell (2004) summarised this
situation by stating that “Google has become the symbol of competition to the
academic library” (p. 15). Pennavaria (2003) maintained that Google is “a bad place to
start an academic research paper” (p. 11). Yi (2005) highlighted the need to “fight
against research by Googling” (p. 51). Referring to the massive impact of search
engines on people’s information-seeking behaviour, Mostafa (2005) stated that
“Googling has become synonymous with doing research” (p. 51). However, this type of
attitude seems to be partly based on anecdotal observations by librarians and
academics rather than on robust research evidence.
Although there is wide recognition thatGoogle is a research toolfrequently used both
by students (OCLC, 2002; Becker, 2003; Griffiths and Brophy, 2005) and academic
scientists (Hemminger et al., 2007); there is no consensus on the negative or positive
influences of Google on academics’ information-seeking behaviour. But there is no doubt
that Google has had considerable impact on the information seeking habits of people.
Google and the
One aspect of Google’s impact seems to be the increasing desire among users for
simplicity. Fast and Campbell (2004) found that students admired the organisation of
an online public access catalogue (OPAC), but preferred to use the web in spite of its
disorganised state. Griffiths and Brophy’s (2005) study of student searching behaviour
in the UK showed that 45 per cent of students used Google as their first port of call
when locating information, while the university library catalogue was used by just 10
per cent of the sample. They described this situation as the “age of information
satisfying”, whereby users are satisfied with a few relevant hits. Brophy and Bawden
(2005) compared Google and library databases and showed that the main
discriminating factors seem to be quality (favouring library systems), accessibility
and coverage (favouring Google). They concluded that accessibility is likely (rightly or
wrongly) to be favoured over quality as a determinant of choice by the student users
considered. Brophy and Bawden (2005) also referred to Zipf’s “principle of least effort”
and Simon’s concept of “satisficing”, which they identified as natural human impulses
to accept convenient access to information that is considered “good enough”. A wide
review of literature relating to the information-seeking behaviour of the Google
generation (Rowlands et al., 2008) also showed that “many young people do not find
library-sponsored resources intuitive and therefore prefer to use Google or Yahoo!
Instead, these offer a familiar, if simplistic solution, for their study needs” (p. 296). This
is in line with the earlier findings by Bell (2004) indicating that libraries can no longer
cater for people who want fast easy access to unlimited full-text content using
interfaces that require no critical thought or evaluation.
The popularity of Google is not limited to students. Academics are also heavy users
of Google for research purposes. The results of a survey of physicists by CIBER
demonstrated Google’s importance. In CIBER’s survey, after “visiting a journals’ web
site”, Google was the second most frequently used method for identifying research
articles (Nicholas et al., 2005). This posed a question about Google: whether scientists
intentionally use Google for finding journal articles or whether they use it to look for
any kind of information and as a consequence are presented with journal articles
among the results.
Fry (2006) claimed that researchers avoid traditional information sources and use
search engines instead. She stated that search engines are used in some disciplines as a
way of bypassing traditional gatekeepers such as publishers and libraries. An example
of this type of use would be where researchers use bibliographic databases to identify
interesting material and then use Google to see if the paper is available on the author’s
homepage as a free download. According to Fry (2006) there are indications that
researchers prefer to locate material using internet search engines rather than digital
libraries or subject portals. A study of graduate students’ information-seeking
behaviour in different fields by George et al. (2006) showed that students in all fields
use Google to search for articles. However, the amount of use varies from one field to
another, for example, from 35 per cent in Humanities to 65 per cent in Computer
Sciences. On average, 50 per cent of the students who participated in the study used
Google to search for papers and articles.
An observational study at three universities in Sweden by Haglund and Olsson
(2008) showed that most of the researchers used Google for everything, that they were
confident that they could manage on their own and that they relied heavily on
immediate access to electronic information. They concluded that librarians have to put
some thought into the fact that library use is considered complicated, but Google (etc.)
is easy. They not only found that the use of Google (and other search engines) was
widespread, but also discovered the almost complete dominance of Google as a starting
point for searching for scientific information.
But what is the reason for the Google’s popularity within academia? Based on
findings from several research projects, in a viewpoint article entitled “In praise of
Google”, Nichols and Rowlands (2008) listed seven reasons for Google’s popularity:
(1) It offers the ultimate one-stop information shop.
(2) It has very, very high visibility in a relatively anonymous information
(3) It is convenient and universally accessible.
(4) It opens the information horizon and encourages greater use of information
(5) It attracts trust and is held to be authoritative.
(6) It is fast.
(7) It is free.
The previous review of the literature shows Google’s considerable popularity and
academics’ and students’ increasing reliance on it, not only for general web searching
but also for research-related purposes. It is known that scientists increasingly find the
articles they read through Google, but it is not known whether or not they intentionally
use the Google general search engine to search for scientific papers. There is still need
for further study on the use of Google by scholars, the role it plays in their
information-seeking habits and the impact it has had on their behaviour. This is the
area in which this article aims to contribute.
This article draws on a mixed-methods study of the information-seeking behaviour of
physicists and astronomers (Jamali, 2008a). In the original study the following steps
First, 26 PhD students and 30 faculty members and research staff of the Department
of Physics and Astronomy at University College London were interviewed between
October 2005 and April 2006. In total, 56 interviews were conducted, which represented
23 per cent of the population of the department of 242 staff and PhD students. The
interviews, lasting on average about 44 minutes, were digitally recorded with the
agreement of the interviewees and were fully transcribed and analysed using
categories that enabled the researchers to code and retrieve. The sampling method was
purposive stratified non-random sampling. In this method, a case or cases were
selected non-randomly (volunteer, available, and so on) from each subgroup of the
population under investigation (Tashakkori and Teddlie, 1998). All data in the study
were anonymised for ethical reasons. The interviews included questions about
information-seeking behaviour (such as methods used for finding articles and keeping
up-to-date) and some aspects of scholarly communication (such as depositing papers in
e-print archives, publishing articles and so on).
Parallel with conducting interviews, information-event cards (see Figure 1), a tool
designed to collect critical incident information, were given to the volunteer
Google and the
interviewees. Each participant was given four cards to complete regarding their first
four information-seeking events, preferably within the first week after having been
given the cards. A total of 82 cards, were completed by, 24 participants.
Once the preliminary analysis of the interviews was finished, an online
questionnaire survey of the same population was conducted in May 2006, with a
47.1 per cent response rate (114 respondents out of 242 survey recipients). This was a
good response rate given that academic web-based survey participation rates range
from 3 per cent to 62 per cent for electronic surveys (Hemminger et al., 2007). The
results of the survey were analysed using SPSS. Both the interview protocol and the
survey questionnaire were piloted.
Although the original research explored several aspects of the information-seeking
behaviour of the population, for this article only the data relating to the role of search
engines and web searching in the scholars’ information-seeking behaviour were
extracted from the data collected through the three methods described previously. For
details of these methods and other results of the study, see Jamali (2008a) and Jamali
and Nicholas (2008).
Use of Google for identifying articles
One of the questions in the questionnaire asked the respondents how frequently they
used a range of information-seeking methods for identifying articles, such as searching
Google, searching general databases, searching specific databases, tracking references,
using ToC e-mail alerts, and browsing or searching e-journal web sites. Regarding the
frequency with which different methods were used for identifying research articles,
Google emerged on top with 18 per cent of respondents declaring they used it on a daily
basis (see Figure 2). Searching subject databases (11 per cent), browsing or searching
e-journal web sites (9 per cent) and tracking references at the end of articles (8 per cent)
were the other methods used on a daily basis. The respondents were also asked what
their most used method was for finding articles. Tracking references at the end of
papers turned out to be the most popular method of finding articles, with 61 per cent of
respondents using it daily or two to three times a week, followed by Google (58 per
cent). A total of 46 percent of respondents never used Google Scholar for identifying
research articles. The figure was 35 per cent for ToC e-mail alerts.
This is in line with the findings of some past studies such as Nicholas et al. (2005)
that showed that scientists find a considerable number of articles they read through
Google. But the question here is whether scientists intentionally search Google when
they know they are looking for articles. To cast some light on this issue, the
interviewees were specifically asked if they used Google for finding articles. The
majority (all except two interviewees) answered that they did not. When they knew
that they were looking for journal articles, they used scientific databases such as
Inspec or ADS to find the necessary literature. Often they did not have a clear idea of
which format or from what source they might find the information they were seeking.
It should be noted that the participants did not choose Google intentionally as a search
tool for identifying articles – finding articles was a by-product of Google searching as
the following interviewee response illustrates:
No. Although I do find that increasingly when I Google for other things it does increasingly
lead me to papers, which the first time it happened I was very surprised.
This seems to explain why the results of CIBER’s survey (Nicholas et al., 2005) and the
survey in this study showed that a high percentage of the articles used by scientists
were identified through Google.
The reliance on Google is somewhatdifferent inthe different subfields ofphysics. For
Frequency of the use of
Google for identifying
Google and the
were more likely to rely on subject searching in general databases to find background
information and scientific papers relating to their projects. Interestingly, they tended to
rely somewhat on Google for this purpose too. This is because their research has several
facets including astronomy (as optical devices are made for telescopes), physics,
engineering and some technical aspects. Finding technical information, especially if they
are held by commercial companies, can be difficult. Moreover, academic libraries cannot
afford to subscribe to all of the relevant journals that these groups of physicists wish to
access. Therefore, they resort to Google knowing that it may enable them to find the
information whether it is in scientific papers or on an author’s web site. A member of
staff in the Optical Laboratory explained that Google is considered a good tool for
finding information in their field because the scientific information, even papers, is
stored in locations such as personal webpages and open access repositories as well as in
journals to which a user may not have access:
What I do like to use if I’m looking for more the astronomy side I use ADS which is the NASA
database. And then sometimes I just search on Google. I just noticed this, well especially in
optics, people tend to, because some of the journals you have to pay for, there’s a subscription
and you can’t just download them for free, but you normally have the personal web sites, so a
lot of people will put the paper on their web site. Sometimes that’s the best way of finding the
paper if you just type in Google, especially if you know an author or a group that are doing a
particular research, you sometimes just go to their web site and just see their recent papers.
Researchers in High Energy Physics (HEP) relied mostly on searches in subject
databases for identifying articles they read. HEP section of arXiv and Spires databases
were the two specialised databases most used by HEP physicists. The second most used
method was searching in Google. This might be because of the high availability of open
access material in HEP, which are searchable by general search engines such as Google.
Use of Google for problem-specific information seeking
In the information-event card study participants were given booklets to record their
information-seeking events over the period of one week. The information-seeking
events were not restricted to specific types and they could include any active seeking of
information from any source. In total, 88 information-seeking events were recorded by
27 participants. More than half (56 per cent) of the information-seeking events were
fully successful as participants found all the information they sought. A further 20.5
per cent were partially successful as the participants found some of the information
The information-seeking events can be classified into two broad categories based on
the type of the information sought:
(1) Unspecified information on a specific subject: participants looked for general
information (in any format) on a particular topic, for example, looking for
scholarly papers on a theory to gather background information in order to
prepare for a presentation. Of the 88 events, 56 (64 percent) were of this type, of
which 22 ended with success.
(2) Specific information items: participants knew exactly what piece of information
they were looking for. These tended to be very specific, small pieces of
information such as bibliographic information to ensure a reference at the end
of a paper is written correctly, or the definition of a word or expression to ensure
correct usage. Of the 88 events 32 (36 percent) were of this type. Out of 32 cases
(87.5 per cent) of information-seeking events in this category, 28 ended with
Table I gives the list of sources used for information seeking and the number of
information-seeking events in each case, together with some examples. The total is not
based on a 100 per cent because more than one source or method might have been used
for each information-seeking event. As we can see, Google for general searching on the
web was used the most, followed by e-journals and then asking colleagues or friends.
There was no incidence of users using Google to conduct a literature search or to
search for a paper. Rather it was largely used for finding specific pieces of information.
However, as mentioned, Google increasingly presents scholarly information (such as
books and articles) within its search results. This trend has meant that Google is
increasingly becoming the tool used to identify a considerable number of papers that
It is worth noting that all those who used printed journals and printed books, used
these from their own collections and did not go to the library for that purpose. This is a
concern for libraries, which may need to rethink their relationship with their clients.
Resources used Examples of information soughtNo. (%)
Google E-mail address of a colleague; fine information about
molecular vibrational spectrum; Cost724; allowed
electronic states for CrH; meaning of “admixture”;
information about a new instrument
Degenerate electron conductivity data and any papers
relating to the collection of these data; to look for a paper
where the author and the argument were known from the
references in another paper
State-of-the-art of dissociative attachment calculations;
calculation on tantalum; who is working in wave packet
treatment of the TDSE, pump probe spectroscopy theory;
background information for a talk; compressibility figure
for hydrogen gas
Citations of a specific paper; publication of a recent paper
by self and colleagues
Expression for density distribution; background
information for a talk; quantum chemistry information
about numerical solution for Harper-fock
Information on some code for changing existing equation
(where the relevant paper was already known);
information on computer code
A paper on a particular observation
Papers or documents about buoyancy corrections for
Data on energies and electron status of HrC
General search of latest pre-prints in high energy physics
Melting and boiling points of potassium
Articles appearing in the month of January 2006
Exact citation of a reference
Asking a colleague or friend
Web of Science8 9.1
Checking print books
ADS abstract service
Distribution of resources
and methods used in
Google and the
Reasons for preference for Google
Several reasons for the preference for Google has emerged in the interviews, namely:
. A good point to start. Google is good as a starting point and for getting a quick
overview. Several interviewees stressed that Google is a good tool to start
looking for information in an area about which not much is known as Google can
give a quick overview of the search area and lead to key items or information
sources that can be explored subsequently:
Things like Google give you a sort of a quick and nasty way of getting into something.
. A popular brand. Three of the interviewees, all students, said that they just like
the Google brand. These students started their academic life after Google had
been launched (in 1998) and may have become familiar with it during the early
days of their student life. The following quotation is from a student:
I also kind of like the brand Google because it’s very easy and cool and that’s why I
might use Google first.
. A handy tool. Google has a simple interface and homepage, and nowadays its
search box is often part of users’ web browsers, for example, the FireFox web
browser is normally installed with a Google search box integrated in it. An
interviewee mentioned that he had set Google as the homepage of his browser.
. A variety of functions. Google has other functions and applications that could be
used by scientists. For example, calculations and conversions can be done using
Google. It also can be used for equations. These calculation functions were
especially popular among students and five of the interviewees mentioned using
this aspect of Google.
. Finding PowerPoint files. Google finds PowerPoint presentations and therefore
has wide applications for teaching, for example, as well as in preparation for
giving a talk or making a presentation.
. A source of change. When the interviewees were asked about changes in their
information-seeking behaviour over their careers, Google was mentioned by
seven interviewees as one of the main sources of changes in their
information-seeking habits over time.
Criticisms of Google
The interviewees, however, were also critical of their use of Google in that they were
aware of the issues concerning the credibility and accuracy of information. They
mentioned that Google presents too many hits for a search and users need to be able to
filter through the results to find what suits them:
... I find Google a bit, a bit annoying because no matter what you put in, you get 20,000
answers back. Half of them are referring to the same thing, linked through different ways and
you’ve got to be very, very careful what sort of search words you use. You either get too little
or too many.
Google is just the world library. The important thing is to be able to discriminate between
rubbish, because you know Google will give you a lot of rubbish and things that are not
As a major search engine, Google has become one of the most essential tools for
searching information for both academic and non-academic purposes. The findings of
this study support those of past studies (e.g. Nicholas et al., 2005) in that a considerable
number of articles read by scientists are identified using Google. It also revealed that as
yet scientists do not intentionally use Google to find articles unless they know what
paper they are looking for and want to find a free version of it. We must also consider
the information literacy skills of users in their use of Google. Those without formal
information-retrieval training might naturally gravitate towards a search engine they
were already familiar with in their non-academic lives, while others might use Google
in the full knowledge of other search strategies available because they feel it is most
likely to satisfy their particular search needs.
The study also lends support to Haglund and Olsson (2008) in that for many
researchers, especially in the sciences, Google is the first choice for searching and
retrieving information of all kinds. Researchers use Google for scientific information,
looking for everything from methodological information to ISSNs, some even moving
from subject specific databases to Google (and Google Scholar). The role that Google
plays in scientists’ information-seeking behaviour becomes potentially even more
important when it is looked at in the context of the increasing trend of scientists’
extensive reliance on online material. Some scientists now consider that what is not
online is not worth the effort to obtain and hence to read (Jamali, 2008b), so it is
important to ensure that what is available online can easily be found.
As mentioned, this increasing trend of reliance on and use of Google may be a cause
for concern for librarians and information professionals. It should be noted that
although Google still does not search much of the hidden web (Hagedorn and Santelli,
2008), it is now becoming a popular replacement for or at least supplement to scientific
It must be noted that due to the limitations of the research fields covered in this
study (physics and astronomy) and the fact that the research population belonged to
just one department of one institution, caution should be exercised in generalising the
This study revealed the increasing use of Google by scientists for finding scholarly
articles. The findings showed that currently scientists do not intentionally use Google
to search for articles, although this seems to be changing as they become more awareof
the inclusion of scholarly articles in Google search results. Although at the time of the
data collection for this study Google Scholar was not yet very popular, this may have
changed since and scholars may now have turned their attention to Google Scholar for
finding articles instead of Google’s general search engine. This is an area that should
be investigated further. The study also demonstrated the importance of Google in
scholars’ problem-specific information-seeking behaviour. Google seems to be a
popular starting point for this type of activity.
Information literacy skills may play a role in this type of information-seeking
behaviour. Improving the information-seeking skills of users may change this
behaviour to the advantage of specialised information systems. The preference of users
for Google-type search tools might also encourage information service and database
Google and the
providers to implement some of the characteristics of Google, such as simplicity, into
There are some areas that merit further exploration. A well-designed study needs to
be conducted to examine the increasing role of Google as a research tool and not just a
general web-searching tool. Given the new generation of researchers who have grown
up with easy access to online information and simple-to-use tools and who may
therefore have a preference for Google-type search tools (Rowlands et al., 2008), more
research is also needed to further investigate the impact of Google on scholars’
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About the authors Download full-text
Hamid Jamali is an Assistant Professor at Tarbiat Moallem University (Iran) and is also a
research associate of CIBER research group at University College London. He graduated with a
PhD in Information Science from the Department of Information Studies at UCL in 2008. He also
holds a BSc in Medical Library and Information Studies and an MA in Library and Information
Studies from the University of Tehran. His current research interests include human-computer
interaction, user studies, information behaviour and scientometrics. Hamid Jamali is the
corresponding author and can be contacted at: email@example.com
Saeid Asadi is an Assistant Professor at Shahed University in Tehran, Iran. Recently he
finished his PhD in Information Technology at the School of Information Technology and
Electrical Engineering, University of Queensland, Australia. He also holds an MA in Library and
Information Studies from Iran University of Medical Sciences. His current research interests
include web search, geographic information retrieval and scientometrics.
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