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UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 9 | Sep. 4, 2008

The Google Factor: Does It Help or Harm Academic Research?

By Glenn Drexhage

Call it the Google gaggle.

“In my workshops, I usually start by asking how many people are using Google for their research. Almost always I get at least 70 per cent,” says Eugene Barsky, a reference librarian with UBC Library’s Science and Engineering division.

Barsky’s experience is echoed by a recent study in The Journal of Academic Librarianship. It involved observing eight post-doctoral researchers at three universities in Stockholm, Sweden.

The results may strike fear -- or at least concern -- in the hearts of academic librarians.

Findings indicated that “most of the researchers used Google for everything” and “they were confident that they could manage on their own.” Perhaps most ominously, the researchers “had very little contact with the library, and little knowledge about the value librarian competence could add.”

“Google offers the most well-known one-stop shopping venue that most people are accustomed to using,” says Jo Anne Newyear-Ramirez, Associate University Librarian for Collections and Scholarly Communication at UBC Library.

However, Google may just highlight the tip of the information iceberg. “Even the best search engines can access only about 25 per cent of the available information on the Internet,” adds Newyear-Ramirez. “Therefore 75 per cent of the information is excluded. That ‘invisible Web’ includes licensed, subject-specific resources the Library subscribes to.

“The value the Library has is, in part, providing access to these special resources and helping students and faculty develop Web-searching skills.”

Dean Giustini, a reference librarian at UBC’s Biomedical Branch Library, acknowledges the search tool’s impact. “Google has captured the attention of a generation of university students, from undergraduates to post-docs who appreciate the range of services the search giant offers, its speed and seemingly intuitive way of providing what users want.” (Giustini also runs a blog about Google Scholar, Google’s scholarly search engine, at http://weblogs.elearning.ubc.ca/googlescholar.)

Chats with UBC Library users add credence to these views. Rachel Tseng, a UBC forestry undergraduate, says she uses Google to research information online due to its ease of use. Patrick Conner, an undergraduate physics student, also lauds the ubiquitous search engine. “It gives you a lot of information quickly.”

Not everyone is wedded to Google. Matthew Mellamphy, a UBC undergraduate history student, notes that he uses research databases available via the Library website (www.library.ubc.ca) for his studies. He’ll use Google, for example, if he has to find an answer to a nagging question, such as a specific historical date. He sometimes uses Google Scholar as well.

The students all agree that they would like additional training in using Library resources. “I would say most students are confused by what post-secondary level research entails,” says Newyear-Ramirez, noting that there’s no single search engine that can find everything at UBC Library. “How do you narrow down a topic or select one or two databases out of the 200 UBC offers?”

The good news is that there’s plenty of help. Barsky, for example, helps run a workshop entitled “Mastering Google for Science and Engineering,” which has waiting lists due to its popularity. The session showcases Google, but also compares it with other databases offered by UBC Library, “which makes a huge difference in how [the students] view their research.”

Giustini, meanwhile, is also busy working with students. “Every single day I work at it. I blog. I write. I present at conferences. I try to speak to small groups. I also maintain a wiki to help other health librarians in their efforts at teaching better research methods….Courses, workshops and teaching sessions are going on all the time [at UBC Library],” he says.

PULL: “Even the best search engines can access only about 25 per cent of the available information on the Internet.”

B.C. Residents Get UBC Library Cards

As part of UBC’s Centenary celebrations, UBC Library is offering B.C. residents a free community borrower card (a $40 value) through December 2008.

This special offer is UBC Library’s way of thanking the community for its support of the University throughout its 100-year journey. It’s also a gesture to celebrate the opening of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre (www.ikebarberlearningcentre.ubc.ca), a world-class facility at the heart of UBC Vancouver’s campus supporting students, researchers and programs for lifelong learning.

The community borrower card allows you to borrow books in person from any UBC Library branch. Some limits on types of materials and number of borrowed items apply. Due to licensing restrictions, the community card does not provide access to UBC’s online databases and journals.

To obtain the free community card, apply in person at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre or Walter C. Koerner Library on the UBC Vancouver campus; at UBC Okanagan Library in Kelowna; or at the UBC Library at Robson Square. You can also use the online application form, found at www.library.ubc.ca/communitycard.

When applying, you will need to present one piece of government-issued photo ID and proof of your current B.C. address.

The free cards expire on December 31, 2008.

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Last reviewed 04-Sep-2008

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