Q. How does Google Scholar work?

Answered By: Andrew Greenman
Last Updated: Apr 27, 2022     Views: 9

What is Google Scholar?

Google Scholar, beloved by students and professional researchers alike, works a little differently than traditional library databases. Rather than having all of the papers published in specific scholarly journals loaded into it, it uses Google's web crawler technology to find, identify, and index scholarly works.

Strengths of Google Scholar

Google Scholar is great!

  • It has broader coverage than any singular database, and is good for catching "gray literature" like conference presentations.
  • While the search system is simple, it handles search constructions with Booleans (AND/OR/NOT) and phrases ("quotation marks" force the database to find it as a phrase) reasonably well. 
  • It also has an easy to use "Cited by" feature that makes forward citation-chaining easy (see also Web of Science and Scopus for library databases to use for this purpose).
  • The web crawler does an excellent job of finding "open access" versions of articles that AU may not pay for access to. If you're looking for an article that the library doesn't have, try searching the title in Google Scholar to see if it can find a free copy!
  • You can set Google Scholar to direct you to AU's access to article full texts - see the FAQ on this process.

Where does Google Scholar get these open access PDF links from?

Many of these open access copies will be pulled from institutional repositories, like AU's AUDRA. Open access is a movement in scholarly communication to make research outputs freely available to all, and depositing in-progress "preprint" copies of articles that haven't been published yet into repositories is one mechanism that enables this. Preprints are typically deposited before peer review, but not always, and usually lack journal formatting and branding. It's preferable to find the published "version of record" when possible, but preprints are great when you can't get access. Look for messages in the PDF saying that it's a preprint or if it's been published in a journal when Google Scholar links you to a PDF that's not in an AU library database.

Things to be aware of

This isn't at all intended to scare you away from using Google Scholar, just to inform users of the potential downsides.

  • Searches in Google Scholar are sometimes non-replicable. You may not get the same search results on two different devices, or repeating the same search a month later. 
  • Google Scholar is more or less a "black box", as it runs on proprietary Google tech. There's no list of what's included or criteria for inclusion, so there's no quality barrier beyond that of the publisher.
  • Other databases make it much easier to filter items or search within specific fields beyond author, journal, and title, which are what can be used in Google Scholar's advanced search. Google Scholar's filter options for search results are very minimal, and you may wind up having to sort through more irrelevant items.
  • Some of the articles Google Scholar finds may not have been uploaded by the author, for example some items on ResearchGate, or may have been accidentally exposed to the web crawler when uploaded for teaching use.

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