Revised and updated Sept 9, 2019.

Over the last few years, the usefulness of Google Scholar has really improved.  But, is it as credible as other databases?  Unfortunately it’s not that simple: Google Scholar’s purpose and function are just different from other databases.  Google Scholar intends to be a place for researchers to start.  As their “About” page says: Google Scholar provides a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature.

The way Google Scholar indexes or collects its information is different from other databases. “Scholarly” databases usually index articles on specific disciplines or topics, with certain journals being included on purpose.  Basically, they’re created by people.  Google Scholar’s results, like regular Google, are created by a computer: Google scans different webpages for scholarly material, with less care going into the journals that publish these articles.

What you’re probably looking for is a straight answer: Should I, or should I not use Google Scholar?  If I had to give you one, I’d say go ahead and use Google Scholar.  It can be helpful when you’re starting the research process on a topic, it finds credible journal articles, and it often turns up stuff you wouldn’t find elsewhere.  However, you should make sure to use it in combination with other subject-specific databases.

One more thing: if you’re wondering whether you should use Google Scholar over Omni, which is on our library homepage, I would recommend sticking with Omni.  While Google Scholar has great benefits, Omni will only bring up articles that you have access to.  This means you won’t have to do as much poking around to find the full-text of articles as you would with Google Scholar.

For more information, I’ve put together a pros and cons list for Google Scholar.

Pros:

  • Only credible, scholarly material is included in Google Scholar, according to the inclusion criteria: “content such as news or magazine articles, book reviews, and editorials is not appropriate for Google Scholar.”  Technical reports, conference presentations, and journal articles are included, as are links to Google Books.
  • In particular, Google has good coverage of non-English sources, as well as Open Access articles and those contained in institutional repositories! Some databases may not carry these, and this was a benefit found across articles published from 2012-2017 on Google Scholar’s coverage (Dewan, 2012; Halevi, Moed, & Bar-Ilan, 2017; Quint, 2015). If you want to learn more about Open Access, aka OA, you can read more here.
  • An early criticism was that Google Scholar did not have the same coverage as other databases, but a 2017 study showed that this was no longer as much of an issue (Halevi, Moed, & Bar-Ilan, 2017).
  • This database is a citation index, meaning you can search the number of times an article has been cited by other people.  This is a function of many credible databases.
  • Google Scholar ranks the results by number of citations, which can mean that influential studies or results get bumped closer to the top of the list (see the cons list for the flip side of this point)
  • Google Scholar is interdisciplinary, meaning you are searching a huge range of topics all at once.  You get different search results this way than you’d find in subject-specific databases, as a result.
  • You can find A LOT more material using Google Scholar than some other databases (not all).
  • It’s easy to use because it’s familiar!
  • It is also free to use, meaning you’ll also have access after graduation.

Cons:

  • It rarely finds all of the reliable material that “scholarly” databases do, and it sometimes misses really important articles: studies comparing Google Scholar with PsycINFO, PubMed, Web of Science, Scopus, and more found that Google Scholar was unable to produce all of the articles listed in the scholarly databases (Asher, Duke, & Wilson, 2013; Howland, Wright, Boughan, & Roberts, 2009; Ruppel, 2009; Schultz, 2007).  This means you can’t rely on Google Scholar alone.
  • Computer errors are more common with Google Scholar because it isn’t maintained by people: broken links, repetitive or duplicate results, and other issues are more likely.
  • A key issue noted in recent studies is that Google Scholar has a huge problem with a lack of transparency about how they collect what they give access to (Herther, 2017). This also means that outside researchers cannot say for certain how high-quality Google Scholar’s sources are (or are not).
  • Because Google Scholar ranks by number of citation / relevancy, the ranking list can be easily manipulated – this means that the results that show up at the top of the list might not be the best sources, or even the most correct ones. You will have to evaluate the sources carefully and use critical thinking, as always!
  • The content in Google Scholar is changing constantly, making it less suitable for literature reviews or systematic reviews.
  • Google Scholar does not note which version of a particular material is being shown, meaning you might end up seeing pre-print materials or ones that haven’t gone through a peer-review process.
  • You’re limited in what fields will be searched through Google Scholar, and cannot use some search functions like truncation.
  • It may not offer any more benefits than Omni does, through Brescia and Western Libraries.

Sources:

Asher, A. D., Duke, L. M., and Wilson, S. (2013). Paths of discovery: Comparing the search effectiveness of EBSCO Discovery Service, Summon, Google Scholar, and conventional library resources. College & Research Libraries, 74(5), 464-488.

Chen, X., O’Kelly, K., Antell, K., & Strothmann, M. (2013). Cross-examining Google Scholar. Reference and User Services Quarterly, 52(4), 279-282.

Dewan, P. (2012). Making the Most of Google Scholar in Academic Libraries. Feliciter (CLA), 58(6), 41-42.

Halevi, G., Moed, H., and Bar-Ilan, J. (2017). Suitability of Google Scholar as a source of scientific information and as a source of data for scientific evaluation – Review of the Literature. Journal of Infometrics, 11, 823-834.

Herther, N. K. (2017). Google Scholar: library partner or database competitor? onlinesearcher.net, Sept/Oct 2017, p 30-34.

Howland, J., Wright, T. C., Boughan, R. A., and Roberts, B. C. (2009). How Scholarly is Google Scholar? A comparison to library databases. College and Research Libraries, 70(3), 227-234.

Jacso, P. (2005). Google Scholar: the pros and cons. Online Information Review, 29(2), 208‐214. 

Quint, B. (2015). Google Scholar: the world’s best discovery service? Information Today, p. 17.

Ruppel, M. (2009, January). Google Scholar, Social Work Abstracts (EBSCO), and PsycINFO (EBSCO). The Charleston Advisor, 5‐11.

Shultz, M. (2007). Comparing test searches in PubMed and Google Scholar. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 95(4), 442‐445.