Monday, July 19, 2021

Challenge - Introduce Students to Academic Search Engines and Databases

In the minds of many students yelling “Hey Siri, tell me about Martin Luther King, Jr.” or “Hey Google, when did the Soviet Union collapse?” is conducting research. As teachers we know that research is a process that goes far beyond telling a machine to give us some information. The challenge is to get students to understand that research is a process and is not just typing a question into a search box or speaking a query aloud in the hopes that some AI-powered machine spits out new, useful information.

To move students past entering simple queries into Google and onto conducting research, we should show them that Google.com is not the only search engine they can use. There’s a good chance that your school library and or local public library pays for a subscription to a database of academic articles. A few examples of those include JSTOR, Academic Search Premier, and ScienceDirect. The librarians in your school and public libraries will be happy, perhaps thrilled that you asked, to show your students how to access those databases through a library login.

In addition to the aforementioned subscription-required databases, there are free databases that your students can use in their research processes. Some popular choices include ERIC, Semantic Scholar, and Get The Research.

History teachers should also be sure to point their students toward digital archives such as those housed by The Library of Congress, The World Digital Library, and The Commons hosted by Flickr. Additionally, most countries, states, and provinces have digital archives of their own that can be freely searched. Some of the records in these databases may appear in Google search results and some may not. In either case, the records within the archives aren’t likely to rank highly in a Google.com search result and it’s therefore worthwhile to compile a list of the digital archive databases that you think will be helpful to your students. Somewhat ironically, the easiest way to find these archives is to type into Google.com the name of the country, state, or province followed by “digital archive,” “national archive,” “state archive,” “provincial archive,” or simply “archive.”

Another good source of information for student researchers is in the digital archives of libraries, museums and historical preservation societies. The largest of these, like The British Museum and The New York Public Library are well organized and relatively easy to search. Smaller ones like those of small-town historical societies may not have a search function at all. In that case students will have to browse through archives in hopes of finding a useful piece of information.

One of the primary differences between searching for information through Google.com compared to searching through academic databases and digital archives is found in the organization and presentation of search results. Google.com ranks search results based on five key factors; meaning of your query, relevance of webpages, quality of content, usability of webpages, and context and settings. In short, Google is trying to predict what you’re searching for and serve up what its algorithm predicts is the best thing for you to read or watch. The results are therefore a ranking based on that combination of factors and some lesser factors that Google doesn’t always publicly acknowledge. With few exceptions, academic databases and digital archives are not in the prediction game. Their search results pages are based on matching your query to the content of items in their databases.

The difference between how search results are organized and presented matters to students for two reasons. First, in a quest to appear at the top of Google search results website owners often publish material in a quest to satisfy Google’s algorithm which leads to lots of superficial or basic content rather than in-depth academic content. Deep, academic content is rarely written to satisfy Google’s algorithm and therefore rarely appears in the first pages of Google search results if at all. Second, the predictive text or suggested search terms provided by Google can lead students into searches that distract them from their original search strategies.

Finally, many academic papers are not indexed by Google at all because they are behind the paywall or login of a database and or the owners of those databases have requested that Google not index their content. Students who rely solely on Google.com for their research needs are missing out on valuable information.

This writing and image originally appeared on FreeTech4teachers.com. If you see it elsewhere, it has been used without permission. Writing and feature image created by Richard Byrne.