Google Docs Research Tool Needs Work

Amanda French wrote a guest post for the Prof. Hacker column in the Chronicle of Higher Education describing her experience with Google Doc's new research tool, subtly and accurately called Research Tool.

I'm not going to rehash what she wrote as the whole thing is very much worth reading in its entirety, but one bit about the tool's apparently schizophrenic treatment of citations caught my eye:

Anything that encourages people to cite their sources properly is inarguably a Good Thing, in my professorial opinion, so I’m a fan of this feature and plan to make sure that all my students know about it. Users of Zotero or other bibliographic software (and every single student or faculty member who writes research papers should be a user of some kind of bibliographic software) will know the insane glee that comes from being able to insert a properly formatted citation with just a click or two instead of having to type the whole thing in, so I do think that having this feature in Google Docs will increase students’ willingness to cite.

However, there are a few equally inarguable limitations on this Good Thing. By far the most worrying such limitation is that what Google calls “Research” is what we professors call “a Google search.” Not the same thing, from our point of view. The search will bring up maps and images, but, if you’ll pardon my French, big freaking deal: many of the results are not good sources for “research” at all. I wish very much that Google had seen fit to allow users to choose to confine their search to Google Scholar and/or Google Books results — so much do I wish it that I asked for this feature on the Google Docs forums. The only ways to “narrow your search” currently available are to “Everything,” “Images,” and “Quotes,” none of which are very useful for academic purposes.

I like citations; we all do. Hell, librarians, writers, and researches need their citations if they expect to be taken seriously. Including a citation feature is therefore (as she notes) A Very Big Deal. It's rather less of one when those citations can't conform to any recognizable style. You'd do just as well to type the whole thing out, a slog that this feature is clearly meant to alleviate the need for. 

I think French's criticism of Google's non-differentiation between scholarly (or at least academic) sources in Google Books and Google Scholar and everything else is a good one. If Google's wizards can't figure out that academics make use of their product and point millions of students all over the world to it, then, sorry, Google, but what is the point of us using you? None.

So, Google's Research Tool has promise, but like all works in progress needs  . . . work.


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