Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

An Evidence-Based Review of Academic Web Search Engines, 2014-2016: Implications for Librarians' Practice and Research Agenda

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

An Evidence-Based Review of Academic Web Search Engines, 2014-2016: Implications for Librarians' Practice and Research Agenda

Article excerpt


Academic web search engines have become central to scholarly research. While the fitness of Google Scholar for research purposes has been examined repeatedly, Microsoft Academic and Google Books have not received much attention. Recent studies have much to tell us about Google Scholar's coverage of the sciences and its utility for evaluating researcher impact. But other aspects have been understudied, such as coverage of the arts and humanities, books, and non-Western, non-English publications. User research has also tapered off. A small number of articles hint at the opportunity for librarians to become expert advisors concerning scholarly communication made possible or enhanced by these platforms. This article seeks to summarize research concerning Google Scholar, Google Books, and Microsoft Academic from the past three years with a mind to informing practice and setting a research agenda. Selected literature from earlier time periods is included to illuminate key findings and to help shape the proposed research agenda, especially in understudied areas.


Recent Pew Internet surveys indicate an overwhelming majority of American adults see themselves as lifelong learners who like to "gather as much information as [they] can" when they encounter something unfamiliar (Horrigan 2016). Although significant barriers to access remain, the open access movement and search engine giants have made full text more available than ever. (1) The general public may not begin with an academic search engine, but Google may direct them to Google Scholar or Google Books. Within academia, students and faculty rely heavily on academic web search engines (especially Google Scholar) for research; among academic researchers in high-income areas, academic search engines recently surpassed abstracts & indexes as a starting place for research (Inger and Gardner 2016, 85, Fig. 4). Given these trends, academic librarians have a professional obligation to understand the role of academic web search engines as part of the research process.

Two recent events also point to the need for a review of research. Legal decisions in 2016 confirmed Google's right to make copies of books for its index without paying or even obtaining permission from copyright holders, solidifying the company's opportunity to shape the online experience with respect to books. Meanwhile, Microsoft rebooted their academic web search engine, now called Microsoft Academic. At the same time, information scientists, librarians, and other academics conducted research into the performance and utility of academic web search engines. This article seeks to review the last three years of research concerning academic web search engines, make recommendations related to the practice of librarianship, and propose a research agenda.


A literature review was conducted to find articles, conference presentations, and books about the use or utility of Google Books, Google Scholar, and Microsoft Academic for scholarly use, including comparisons with other search tools. Because of the pace of technological change, the focus was on recent studies (2014 through 2016, inclusive).

A search was conducted on "Google Books" in EBSCO's Library and Information Science and Technology Abstracts (LISTA) on December 19, 2016, limited to 2014-2016. Of the 46 results found, most were related to legal activity. Only four items related to the tool's use for research. These four titles were entered into Google Scholar to look for citing references, but no additional relevant citations were found. In the relevant articles found, the literature reviews testified to the general lack of studies of Google Books as a research tool (Abrizah and Thelwall 2014; Weiss 2016) with a few exceptions concerning early reviews of metadata, scanning, and coverage problems (Weiss 2016). A search on "Google Books" in combination with "evaluation OR review OR comparison" was also submitted to JMU's discovery service, (2) limited to 2014-2016 in combination with the terms. …

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