Tutorial: Google Scholar

Google Scholar Search

The Internet is an incredible source of a wide variety of information, and there are some excellent search engines available to help us find this information. Google is one of the most popular and effective, yet professors don't seem to want you to use it. Where do these search engines fit into the research process?

There's a difference between websites and published scholarly articles. Websites can be anything: a sales tool, a personal blog, promotion of a cause, etc. Google was designed to find websites. Lots of websites provide valuable information. Very few websites provide access to scholarly research.

  • If you're looking for general information online, Google is a great place to start.
  • See our tutorial on Evaluating Websites for help with using websites.

But Google's ability to provide the scholarly articles you need for University research is limited.   

  • Use Google Scholar to find scholarly resources.
  • Change the settings so that it knows what resources you can access.

To understand when to use Google, it's helpful to understand the relationship between scholarly publishing and the Internet.

Publishers, Online Journals, and Authentication

Scholarly publishing has existed in print for decades. It's easy to understand who has access to printed journals because a copy of each journal issue is delivered to your door - even if your door is a library door. It makes sense that to get them delivered, you must subscribe to them. Many of these subscriptions cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year.

Publishers can also create online versions of their journals. There are advantages and disadvantages to this "digitization" of print materials. Although costs associated with physically delivering these journals to customers are saved, it's expensive to mount the documents on servers and maintain systems that provide access. And since publishers still need to be reimbursed for the cost of producing journals, they charge for access.

Authentication is used to ensure that only those who have paid for access get access to these journal sites. Subscriptions are required, and when an institution subscribes to a journal, it registers a list of IP addresses for campus computers. The providers ensure that only those computers can access the journals.

Most often, online publications are a duplication of what has been published in print. To publishers and the scholars who use the information, the web is simply the delivery method.

There are publishers and scholars who believe that regardless of the cost of publication, the information should be available free to anyone. These journals (and other publications) are often known as open-access and they're freely available online. Although there are many of these free journals, they are still rare among publishers. In some cases, older volumes of the journal are freely available, but not recent ones. Newer issues are "embargoed" (unavailable for a time period) without a subscription.

Keep in mind that any individual can publish on the web, and these individuals may or may not be scholars.

  • If an online article is not part of an official scholarly publication, you need to use your own judgment to decide if what they've published is legitimate and scholarly.
  • See our webpages tutorials on Evaluating Websites and Scholarly Resources for help with this.

Internet Search Engines

Internet search engines find out what's available on the web by sending out "crawlers". Like little insects, they crawl all over the web looking for new information and websites. They gather what information they can about these sites and send the data back to their home base. They don't have the ability to consider the information or to appraise its value - they only gather and send.

If access to a website is restricted, these crawlers can't get in to find out what's there. Since most scholarly sites have restricted access, these crawlers can only get in if they're given permission. Even if they get permission to have a peek inside and report back, they still can't grant you permission to access what they found. The authentication process prevents access to anyone who doesn't have a paid subscription.

This is why Google can't always find or provide access to the scholarly publications that your Library can.

Google Scholar

Google created Google Scholar to locate scholarly information on the web. To do this, they receive permission from some scholarly publishers to allow their crawlers into databases, to gather information. The crawlers report back on what they've found and provide citation information. Google doesn't tell you which publishers it searches or what is left out, so you don't know where you're searching.

Link to Google Scholar.

  • Always use a link from our website to search Google Scholar, if you want it to recognize you and connect you to our resources.
  • Find a link in Databases A-Z, from the homepage.
  • Use these instructions to authenticate yourself when you're working from off-campus: Google Scholar Settings

As a Google Scholar user, you can search the site, read the citations and click on the links to articles.  

  • If Trent has purchased access to the article, and the provider recognizes you as a Trent person, you will be able to access the document. If the document is publicly available for free, you will be permitted to access it.
    • If not, you will be denied access to the article.
  • Don't pay for articles you find on Google Scholar.  You should be able to obtain them for free through the Trent Library, either through our existing subscriptions or Interlibrary Loan. 
  • Use these instructions to authenticate yourself when you're working from off-campus: Google Scholar Settings

Google Scholar Pros

  • Useful when searching for obscure or very new topics.
  • Useful at the beginning of your research to identify important keywords, journals and authors connected to a particular subject.
  • Useful for verifying a citation or finding a known article (i.e. an article for which you have a citation or at least some bibliographic information like the title).
  • Results can be linked to Trent's library collecting using the Google Scholar setting Library Links.
  • Use for for finding pre-print articles, open access articles, and grey literature (e.g. conference proceedings, PhD dissertations), which may not appear in a library database.
  • It shows you how many times an article has been cited.

Google Scholar Cons

  • Doesn't tell you which publishers it searches or what is left out, so you don't know where you're searching.
  • Items retrieved are not necessarily peer-reviewed.  It is unclear what Google's definition of "scholarly" is. Sometimes a Google Scholar search will find fake articles or articles from predatory journals.
  • Does not clearly indicate what type of material is in the results list.
  • Lacks search control and has limited search features. It does not permit sorting or filtering by:
    • Title
    • Author
    • Publication type
    • Study type
    • Disciplinary filed or subject headings

Library Indexes and Databases

The Trent library already subscribes to several services that do what Google Scholar is doing.

  • Omni is a search tool designed to find scholarly material of all kinds, and connect you through the Trent Library. It's easy to search and offers filters to limit your results.
  • Our indexes provide citations to articles and offer specialized search tools and filters.

To Google or Not to Google?

There's no right or wrong answer to this question. Google is an excellent search engine and the web is full of useful information. What's important is your ability to distinguish appropriate sources from inappropriate sources, since the library isn't doing any sorting for you when you're on the web.

For help in evaluating the quality of a website, see our  tutorial on Evaluating Websites.

It's also important that you know how and when to put Google aside and use the scholarly indexes that our library pays hundreds of thousands of dollars for each year. This is where the majority of the best research material can be found, and if you graduate from University without knowing how to use them, you've done yourself a true injustice that will probably cost you down the road.

If you want help understanding these concepts, please don't hesitate to contact us at library@trentu.ca.