Google Scholar: Neglected Corridors of the Interwebs

Welcome to my first post here on the Scholars’ Lab blog. My name is Jason Kirby and I’m a third-year Ph.D. student in the Music department at UVa. I’m in the “Critical and Comparative Studies” track of my program, which means I look at musical sound and musicians through a cultural studies lens. I’m planning a dissertation on intersections between country and rock music over the past thirty years, and when considering the wide spectrum of academic musicology, I’m squarely a pop music studies guy. I’ve written about artists ranging from Lucinda Williams to Throbbing Gristle—artists about whom there’s a fair amount of popular-press ink spilled, but not necessarily much scholarly writing (yet). This brings me to the subject of today’s post.

Google Scholar: I enjoy it, and not for reasons which are necessarily immediately apparent. As anyone who’s used it with the serious intention of finding real scholarship knows, as a search engine it can be a bit scattershot. Google Scholar “Bob Dylan,” for instance, and in the top results one gets the mistaken impression that his hit song “Like A Rolling Stone” is a book. But on the other hand, click through a few more pages of results and you’ll find a an excellent recent article, written by Albin Zak and published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, which discusses musical, intertextual dialogue between Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. Zak writes about song structure, and even works in Mikhail Bakhtin—what more could a pop musicologist want? Plus, if you’re on Grounds, click the link and you’ve got the PDF saved on your desktop; all in less time than it would take to find the same article in AMS’s database (and certainly less time than it takes to page through a hard copy in the stacks).

If the transition of scholarship online is like the Internet version of a large research library, then Google Scholar for me resembles something like the shelves of a used book store that’s cluttered and random, but stuffed with useful finds (sort of like the Strand in New York City). Or perhaps a better analogy would be a used music shop where they have the CD cases on display, but the discs themselves are kept behind the counter. In other words, especially if you’re not associated with a large research institution, you may well not be able to access the PDF file Scholar points you toward—not without subscribing to an online journal or purchasing the article. This problem underscores a larger issue; as the Internet expands and ostensibly increases public access to knowledge, this free access to information isn’t always “free”. There’s always a market interest in there somewhere, and Google Scholar reveals this more obviously than other digital research tools.

Speaking of freedom and openness, one of the recurrent critiques of Google Scholar is that it does not allow users to see how search results are determined. Though Google recently updated its Scholar search algorithm, as information standards bloggers have noted, we still know frustratingly little about the algorithm itself. To be fair, other search engines, scholarly and not, have the same problem—it just becomes more high-profile in Google’s case. At this juncture, it’s unclear how the recent Google Books settlement (see Dan Cohen’s analysis) or changes in PDF access through Google will impact the issue.

Regardless, whatever tweaks Google has made to its search algorithm, it clearly still needs some work! As librarians such as Péter Jascó have noted, the number of “hits” one gets through Scholar are often ridiculously overinflated (witness 11,100 for “Bob Dylan”), sorting options for those results are poor, and the search engine often has difficulty distinguishing an author’s name from the rest of an article’s text. [1]

Given disappointments such as these, it’s not surprising that some librarians are concerned about the changes Google Scholar may bring to the world of academic inquiry. The current generation of undergraduates is the first to grow up with the Internet a standard part of everyday life, and I think the anxiety some folks feel is that in a world of online-everything, what if speed and ease of use will eventually trump depth and breadth of inquiry? Certainly, teachers and librarians can and will continue to orient students to the fact that there’s a whole world of research resources out there beyond a one-stop web search. But it surely doesn’t help matters when Google publishes web ads appealing to the uber-procrastinator: “Need six authoritative, relevant sources? Before sunrise? Google Scholar.”

So, seeing as I’m a teaching assistant here at the University, would I encourage my students to Google Scholar their entire way through their next paper? Given what I’ve covered here, no. However, as you may have noticed, this a blog post about why I like Scholar. So what keeps drawing me back? I think it all returns to the fact that it’s an outstanding starting place for research inquiries. What’s more, I find this particularly true for popular music studies inquiries. Take, for instance, a paper I’m working on this semester about the “Bakersfield Sound” and genre boundaries in 1960s country music. A preliminary search in RILM of the term “Bakersfield Sound” only got me a 2006 obituary of Buck Owens. Similarly, a JSTOR search of the same term pulled only five results, a 1970s article on “urban cowboys” the only somewhat relevant one. But when I Google Scholar’d “Bakersfield Sound,” mixed among some random debris I found an excellent 2005 article on identity and place in California country music by GH Lewis, an article whose bibliography in turn led me to other great sources on the topic.

My point here? Google Scholar, just like other search methods, seems to be better suited for some disciplines than others. Popular music studies, my field, is noted for its hybridity, its tendency to skillfully poach from the methodologies of other disciplines while simultaneously rejecting some of their strictures. It’s also known as a relatively recent field, with its basic antecedents in 1960s popular-press rock criticism. It’s still an up-and-comer as fields go, still working toward full scholarly respectability. As such, is it really that surprising that pop music research queries (like those I mentioned above) might fall through the cracks of more traditional scholarly search engines? From the vantage point of my particular niche, Google Scholar’s biggest advantage is the “wide net” it casts, giving less established fields a better shot. More traditional discipline-bound search engines might learn something from this, or risk irrelevancy.

Jascó, Péter. “Savvy Searching: Google Scholar Revisited.” Online Information Review Vol. 32, No. 1 (2008), pp. 102-114.

Jason Kirby is a Ph.D. student in the Critical & Comparative program of the McIntire Department of Music at UVa. His research interests include genre in popular music, American "roots" music, sound and music in cinema, and the relationship of popular music to regional identity.

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