Some maze of twisty little blogpassages led me to this study of Student Searching Behavior. It's really long and wordy, but the soundbite is that when students are asked to look up something relevant to their academic work, 45% of them go to Google, 10% of them go to the local library catalog, and the rest scatter among other search engines. I like Google as much as the next person, but I still find this really disturbing, especially that 10% figure.

Scholarship by Example · When I was working on the New Oxford English Dictionary project at the University of Waterloo back in the Eighties, I got to know some of the editors pretty well, and one thing they explained was the notion of “scholarship.” The OED is a scholarly work, which means that it makes no unsupported assertions. If it says that one of the other meanings of “scholarship” is a financial subsidy given a student, it provides several supporting quotations taken from a variety of publications to illustrate that usage.

Another example: if I assert “Case-folding in Java is horribly expensive”, then that's just an assertion and you should probably exercise skepticism. On the other hand, if I accompany that same assertion with quantitative test results that demonstrate the problem, the assertion becomes scholarly.

We live in an uncertain, tricksy world and the truth is always hard to come by. Thus, I think this notion of scholarship is terribly important. To quote Ronald Reagan (someone I usually disagreed with): “Trust, yes. Trust but verify.” If a University education isn't about scholarship, is it about anything?

And this is the difference between Google and the University Library's catalog. A high proportion of the library holdings are built around the notion of scholarship, and the whole process of building that catalog is a scholarly activity. Scholarship doesn't prevent disgreement, or even establish the One Truth about anything; but it cuts down the level of specious bullshit in discourse amazingly well.

Google · Now, Google is not entirely unscholarly. The PageRank algorithm essentially captures the sum of the number of independent assertions that “this is worth looking at.” But it would quite likely have pointed to my claim about Java casefolding performance whether or not I chose to provide the supporting evidence.

The Tragedy of the OPAC, Again · A couple of weeks ago I wrote at length on the tragic under-utilization of WorldCat, an information repository about the same size as Google, only built around notions of scholarship and verification and information science.

But at that time I had no idea that 90% of the student body had already abandoned the OPAC in favor of Web Search.

I'm not against Web search; I use Google several times per day myself. But I think somebody really needs to get out there and exercise some leadership and dress up the world's scholarly information sources, including by the way most of our intellectual history, so that ordinary people will use them. Among other things, they might make a lot of money in the process.


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May 22, 2003
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