Google-Trained Minds Can't Deal with Terrible Research Database UI

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Students of all ages can have a good deal of trouble doing research online. (And not just students, we'll admit, if we're honest.) The obvious answer to this problem is to train people to do better searches. But the most obvious answer may not be the best one.

College and university librarians are concerned about students' search skills, and no wonder:

At Illinois Wesleyan University, "The majority of students -- of all levels -- exhibited significant difficulties that ranged across nearly every aspect of the search process," according to researchers there. They tended to overuse Google and misuse scholarly databases. They preferred simple database searches to other methods of discovery, but generally exhibited "a lack of understanding of search logic" that often foiled their attempts to find good sources.

The librarians quoted here understand most of the key problems, and are especially sharp about "the myth of the digital native" -- about which see also this deeply sobering Metafilter thread -- but there's one vital issue they're neglecting: research databases have the worst user interfaces in the whole world.

Librarians want students to specify their search terms, but that rarely happens: "Regardless of the advanced-search capabilities of the database they were querying, 'Students generally treated all search boxes as the equivalent of a Google search box,'" simply clicking into a text field and typing away. Problematic, yes -- but why shouldn't they be able to do that? Why shouldn't the software be able to help them out?

Not long ago I was using a research database to try to get a PDF of an article published in a journal to which my college's library has a digital subscription. I knew the title of the article, the author's name, the title of the journal, and the issue date. I plugged all those in to the appropriate text boxes, clicked "search" . . . and got hundreds of results. But the one that I wanted wasn't on the first several pages.

I sent an email to a reference librarian describing this event, and he wrote back saying, "Oh, see, you should have entered the journal's ISSN." Really? Exact title of article and journal, exact name of author, exact date of publication -- that's not enough?

There's no question that students' search skills are generally quite poor, and need to get better, but to some extent we've all had our search habits trained by Google's algorithms, which in most cases -- though by no means all -- are quite effective. And a Google search does some things that the research databases don't: for instance, when I'm searching for an article in the enormous JSTOR academic journal database, I don't use their search box, but instead go to Google using the "site" delimiter: site:jstor.org my-search-term. Why? Because if I spell a name wrong Google knows the correct spelling and asks me if I meant that. On JSTOR itself I just get inferior results.

So maybe our greater emphasis shouldn't be on training users to work with bad search tools, but to improve the search tools. Especially since serious research questions aren't as afflicted by spammy SEO as many other queries, by this point in the development of online life we ought to be doing a lot better than we are.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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