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Dutch twaddle-prof lambasts Google Scholar

Not very scholarly to rank academic articles by popularity...

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A Dutch prof says that search engines - in particular Google's academic-paper search function, Google Scholar - have become "significant co-producers of academic knowledge", and that this is a Bad Thing because nobody knows how they work.

"Automated search systems developed by commercial Internet giants like Google tap into public values scaffolding the library system and yet, when looking beneath this surface, core values such as transparency and openness are hard to find," says Professor Doctor José van Dijck. Van Dijck is professor of Media and Culture and Dean of Humanities at Amsterdam uni.

The prof bemoans Google's refusal to reveal just which databases Scholar does or doesn't have access to. She also doesn't much care for its ranking system:

Ranking information through Google Scholar is quite similar to a Google Search: it ranks sources on the basis of popularity rather than truth-value or relevance. Articles with more links to them will beat higher quality research that is not picked up by the Google Scholar algorithm. This issue is further complicated because certain institutions refuse access to their databases. Google will not reveal a full list of databases it does cover, or the frequency of its updates to indicate a timescale. Users are left in the dark about the search's scope and timeliness.

This is very important, seemingly, as today's students tend to rely on Google Scholar rather than trawling through library stacks as of old. Van Dijck says that surveys indicate that students "overwhelmingly" favour search engines over traditional research methods.

According to the prof, students need to be taught how search engines work as part of their education. This might, of course, be a little difficult as Google et al typically refuse to provide the necessary information – and in any case the underlying machinery is regularly tweaked.

Nonetheless, Van Dijck insists that the kids must be taught "a basic understanding of the economic, political and socio-cultural dimensions of search engines ..."

She added: "To ensure future generations of critical and knowledgeable scholars, we need to teach information literacy enriched with analytical skills and critical judgement. The production of scientific knowledge is way too important to leave to companies and intelligent machines."

Her paper Search engines and the production of academic knowledge is published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies. ®

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