The ‘Google effect’: A trend toward mediocrity, or away from it?

Today, there is a special section of the Guardian on digital academic libraries. It covers a wide range of perspectives, and is probably worth a read if you’re interested in academic libraries, digitization, digital preservation, or student habits.

I have to take issue, though, with ‘Academia’s big guns fight the ‘Google Effect”’. The definition of ‘Google effect’ given in this article, and apparently coined by one Tara Brabazon, is ‘a tendency towards mediocrity’. The article goes on to accuse students of information illiteracy, and point out that they like to use Google for everything, which gives them less-than-academic results. Attempts to provide good academic-resource search engines are touched upon, as is Google Scholar (which is ‘acceptable’, but ‘too broad’ according to Professor Brabazon).

There is actually an excellent study (see ‘British library and JISC’ on this page) about information literacy skills of the current generation of university students which is the basis for much of another article in the series. That study found that undergraduates are not necessarily as information literate as they are perceived to be, and that they use ‘shallow’ searching and don’t really read online (but neither, necessarily, do their older counterparts).

I’m not arguing with the results of that study — it seems pretty sound to me. I suspect, however, that the thing that has changed with the ‘Google generation’, though, is not actually their information literacy, but their ability access information without strong information literacy skills and/or the help of a librarian. Google, having a very simple user interface, and great results ranking, has made it easy for the average person to find answers to their questions on the internet. It has also shown users that it isn’t necessary to jump through hoops, understand boolean search, or wade through pages of results to find information.

The mediocrity Professor Brabazon has termed ‘the Google effect’ arguably does not apply so much to her students, who I suspect are much the same as always, but to the information interfaces they are forced to use to locate scholarly materials. It is understandable, I think, that students prefer to spend time on their assignments reading and writing, and now they have tools which to them appear to let them bypass the cumbersome, splintered interfaces of academic journals. There is an information literacy problem here, but it is far from “whippersnappers these days not knowing how to use our journal databases”; it is the twofold problem of the proliferation of self-published non-authoritative easily accessible material that is the internet, and the vastly superior search technologies available to sift through that material.

If Professor Brabazon and her colleagues want to encourage young people to use scholarly resources the answer is not to lambast them for being mediorce (when likely they are no different to those who have come before them), nor to throw up their hands in disgust; the answer is to improve search interfaces and online access to academic materials so they can compete with Google, or (in my opinion the more likely solution) encourage widespread use of Google Scholar.

The ‘Google effect’ as I see it is not ‘a tendency toward mediocrity’ in students, it is an exposure of the dire mediocrity of the interfaces and search process for academic material. Google has democratized information searching, and made it possible for the average untrained adult to find information — academic publishers and other information providers need to catch up by providing seamless, well-ranked searches (again most likely through Google Scholar), and at least for those who are subscribers to their resources (either individually or through their institution)* make the results available with a single click. The alternative to this will not be improved information literacy skills, people are not going to learn something more difficult if they believe the tools they have will do an adequate job. I hope the end result of the Google effect will be a trend away from mediocrity–the mediocrity of academic information interfaces–and toward usable information search interfaces for all kinds of materials.

*Agruably, these results should be more widely available than that, but this post is not about the merits of open access, and academic publishers are not likely to change their access model so radically any time soon.


3 Responses to “The ‘Google effect’: A trend toward mediocrity, or away from it?”

  1. 1 tony Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 9:58 am

    hey Dana, I agree about improving search interfaces, and also bringing all the content together so it can be searched in one place, but I think the ability of people to evaluate what they find will still be crucial. Search interfaces can help with this and I think that’s starting to happen in a couple of examples.

    I remember a few years back we noticed a huge number of hits on an obscure US newspaper we have in one of our big databases. Turns out if you searched for [dairy industry] some articles in that newspaper came up first. We had a big marketing assignment on at that time on the dairy industry, although we suspect the assignment had nothing to do with Arkansas! People were just taking the results that came up first. And this was an academic database, not Google.

    So, as well as easier search interfaces, we also need ways for the interfaces to organise and present results so that the searchers can make an informed choice about what to use, and also provide easy ways to focus their results to a more manageable set. Eg, I think facets can be great for this, and interfaces that distinguish between say books, websites and journal articles or which allow you to just get scholarly/peer-reviewed articles if that’s what you want.

  2. 2 Sara Jervis Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    The academic determines the acceptability of a reference. Scholars find information the way they wish or they can. Excellent interfaces will assist the scholarly. But the excellence will still be wasted on the lazy, slapdash and “last minute” essay/ report/thesis writer.

    Each time I reflect on academics ruing the standards of the students, I think that they are the ones who mark the students’ work. Research is essential for senior students and I am sure the references to the research are still mandatory for students’ submissions for marks.

    Is it the academics who are dropping the standards?

  3. 3 anonymous Tuesday, May 13, 2008 at 8:01 am


    Very well said. I just graduated from a research heavy field (International Relations) and now am employed as an university web designer. It is quite scary how many teachers will preach against Google and Wikipedia but have no idea how to actually find the electronic information they are asking students to seek. University web search applications are usually horrible, and Google is a much better alternative. I think irrational fear and bureaucracy are holding many schools back.

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