Academia's big guns fight 'Google effect'Academic search engines may be more discriminating than their commercial counterparts, but they often lack user-friendliness Wendy WallaceEducationGuardian.co.uk
A digital treasure trove of information is out there for the taking, but only if students have a means of discovering the way to find it - a search engine that is both academic and user-friendly.
Scores of academic search engines provide a heavyweight alternative to the commercial ones and work against what Brighton University's professor of media- Tara Brabazon has termed "the Google effect" - a tendency towards mediocrity.The challenge they face is to make themselves sufficiently user-friendly to attract and retain a generation of students reared on commercial search engines.The Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc) funds several. The Archives Hub provides descriptions of archive collections from 140 UK universities and colleges; the Copac academic and national library catalogue offers access to the catalogues of 24 university libraries, plus the national libraries, and can indicate the availability of books. Jstor is a comprehensive collection of archived journals; and Zetoc, the British Library catalogue, gives details of its 20,000 current journals as well as offering some 16,000 conference proceedings per year and an email alert service.Intute, part of the Mimas national data centre at Manchester University, is an interesting service that has tried to address students' lack of information literacy by providing access to a quality controlled set of free resources and virtual training courses - a kind of training lane in the information highway. Begun in 2006, it has recently launched a new UK university research papers service.The host website is getting 2m searches a month, says director Caroline Williams. "Commercial search engines are not discriminating.
We tackle that by making sure our information is of sufficient quality for academic work. Whatever you're studying, you can come to one place and find what you need."Intute, which is also Jisc-funded, is now looking at how it can make itself commercially viable.Edina, the UK's other national data centre, based at Edinburgh University, both hosts data - scholarly publications, documentary films, and images and maps - and is easier to use. Edina's forte is in adding value to information and finding new ways of using it - its "digimap" service was a world first, says director Peter Burnhill.Some sites are discipline-specific. Cornell University's well-regarded science site, arXiv, contains an extensive collection of quality-controlled papers on physics, maths and computer science. Eric is a free index of subscription articles on education, sponsored by the US department of education.There is, increasingly, a crossover between the academic and commercial worlds. Google's Google Scholar site is welcomed by some academics as a pragmatic option for students already loyal to the brand. Google Scholar is "a tremendously valuable tool", says Sheffield University's Sheila Webber.
Its international dimension is commended by Tara Brabazon, although results can be too broad . The "advanced search" option discriminates better.Publishers onlineAcademic publishers are launching their own online journals sites. Blackwells, for example, publishes 850 journals on the web in disciplines ranging from business to veterinary medicine. Oxford University Press has created Oxford Scholarship online, providing access by subscription to its titles. Meanwhile, Bloomsbury is behind Bloomsbury Magazine, a database of its own reference books, a rich source of material on myth, art and literature.University libraries' online catalogues have been criticised for being non-intuitive and difficult to navigate. UCL's Ian Rowlands says they have much to learn from supermarkets about setting out their contents in accessible and logical ways. "Stores are laid out by type - fresh fruit, wines, cheese.
Library catalogues offer jars, cartons, loose stuff," he says, referring to the way material is grouped according to its form rather than its content.But library computer software is not a mass market proposition, says Webber, and so its development has not attracted the same commercial interest. "Librarians do what they can to make links easier for students but it's a little bit clunky."Those working on making high quality information accessible to students recognise they have lessons to learn from sites like Amazon - where people will be invited to look inside books, offered reader reviews and informed of what other people with similar interests have bought, as well as being notified of new publications in areas where they have shown interest.Caroline Williams, of Intute, describes this process as "aggregated personalisation ... These are the things we're testing out behind the scenes."
Bloomsbury magazine: www.bloomsbury magazine.com/arc/arc_home_asp
Google Scholar: www.scholar.google.co.uk
Oxford University Press:www.oxfordscholarship.comRIC:www.eric.ed.gov