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I am wondering why we should keep on answering questions related to Google Scholar (GS). This is a product from a well known advertising company (Alphabet) which is poorly documented, absolutely obscure in its working mechanisms. GS is a tool that simply exploits other providers of information, without giving proper credits or without even explaining where the information is coming from. It is not hosting copyrighted documents, like other similar tools did (academia.edu is one that comes to my mind), but it has some similarities with them.

The questions are in general not shopping questions, but they ask for "how to do" things with GS.

In the past, there were "similar" questions in Academia.SE for example for academia.edu (how do I upload, how do I find something, etc.). Nowadays, questions about academia.edu are off-topic, while GS questions have a tag and are considered acceptable.

Should we change this?

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  • 8
    Tags do not indicate what is on and off topic, they are only for categorization (this doesn't affect the legitimacy of this question, but it's a common misconception that I don't want to propagate).
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Nov 1, 2023 at 13:01
  • 6
    Why would being owned by an advertising company or "GS is a tool that simply exploits other providers of information, without giving proper credits or without even explaining where the informations are coming." [sic] make it off-topic? I can understand somewhat the point about its internal bits, but practically any site on the web relies on ad revenue. Nov 5, 2023 at 1:35
  • 3
    @AzorAhai-him- I would say what makes the questions off-topic is that we simply cannot answer them in most cases as we don't know how the underlying mechanisms of the site work.
    – Sursula
    Nov 6, 2023 at 7:37
  • @Sursula I conceded that point. I asked about Earl's other two points. Nov 6, 2023 at 14:00
  • @AzorAhai-him- practically any publisher relies on publishing fees, but we still do not support predatory publishers ...
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 7, 2023 at 6:36
  • 5
    And what is predatory about Google Scholar? It's a service, opaque, sure, but I can't really consider it to be "predatory." Nov 8, 2023 at 0:54
  • @AzorAhai-him- Since the tool is based on unreliable filtering, opaque engine, and the goal is evidently to benefit the reputation of the products of the parent company and not the scientists, it is on the same level as predatory journals and their publishers. Additionally, it helped and it helps questionable research to be spread library.gannon.edu/c.php?g=834368&p=6443882 as well as forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2016/12/16/… Enough for me.
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 8, 2023 at 7:27
  • 3
    "benefit the reputation of the products of the parent company and not the scientists" Is it? Academics are tiny slice of society and Google would be just fine without Google Scholar. It is my primary way of looking up articles, I find it quite useful. But I would conceded many of the points in the Gannon article don't apply to me (not in humanities, don't use ArXiV or law). Nov 8, 2023 at 14:27
  • 3
    Yet, when I talk to graduate students today, many of them talk of heading over to Google Scholar, typing in a few keywords and copy-pasting the citation information of the first paper that shows up - This is not GS' problem. We don't have space to go around and around here, so I will agree to disagree on this point about GS. Nov 8, 2023 at 14:28
  • "Nowadays, questions about academia.edu are off-topic". Why? I can't find anything on meta to indicate this is the case.
    – Laurel
    Jan 19 at 17:58
  • @Laurel not on meta, on Academia:SE
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 22 at 8:04
  • The main site doesn't say academia.edu questions are off topic either. The tag was merely merged into another tag. Why are you saying it's off topic?
    – Laurel
    Jan 22 at 12:26
  • @Laurel Never said that having (or not having) a tag means on- (or off-topic). See comment academia.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5376/… . My observation is that the rate open to closed question regarding academia edu is quite high in the recent times.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 22 at 16:50

6 Answers 6

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Im with you - also because when you look at the questions, most of the ones that actually ask about the workings of google scholar don't have a useful answer because, well, we can't answer them, as we don't know what algorithm is behind their search etc.

But: there are some questions that are kind of about google scholar, e.g. this one or this one that are more about general workings of academia with google scholar being a part of it.

So my suggestion would be to make questions about the functionality and search optimization etc. of google scholar off-topic, yet either keep the tag for the questions that are not about google scholar only. Or we create a new tag like e.g. that google scholar is a synonym of for these types of questions.

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  • Indeed, I usually vote to close based on not being within scope - we are not Google's help desk. There are a few questions that use Google Scholar as one example that might be OK. But then the correct answer is usually to either use a real publication database or talk to a friendly local research librarian.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 1, 2023 at 14:36
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    I agree. I think a general consensus that questions along the lines of "how do I add my paper to GS", "how do I find X in GS", "how do I use GS for Y" are out of scope would be useful and consistent. Not because GS is a bad tool, just because we are also not doing tech support for any other tool.
    – xLeitix
    Nov 2, 2023 at 9:09
  • (of course that doesn't mean that questions or answers aren't allowed to talk about GS, just that the question should be a little bit more "meta" than that)
    – xLeitix
    Nov 2, 2023 at 9:09
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    It might be worth noting that the tags literature-search and indexing exist. The description of the former reads "Questions about finding specific papers, books, etc. pertaining to a topic. This includes the use of online databases such as Google Scholar or PubMed to find relevant articles." and so seems to cover the "search" part of a search-engines tag. The questions you link could conceivably fall under indexing. I also think that having a tag named search-engines might encourage questions about non-academic search engines.
    – Anyon
    Nov 4, 2023 at 17:49
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An alternative would be a canonical question covering answers to the common questions. It could point to whatever formal documentation is available as well as answer many of the "how do I" questions.

Let me clarify that I'm not suggesting providing GS documentation. The system can change in any case. But, advice to the questioner about the general difficulties of dealing with the system, such as is currently offered in answers, might be valuable to capture.

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  • That is one of the option I was thinking, so any question regarding GS can be forwarded there without being too rude (and to make people realize they are facing a common problem)
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 7, 2023 at 6:36
  • This seems against the ethos of SE to me. A giant repo of technical how-to is otherwise known as "documentation," and writing Google's documentation for them is not really our role. This would also introduce a maintenance burden if we need to keep this canonical question up to date as Google changes. Finally: even if approved, who would write this canonical Q? I suspect there would be few volunteers.
    – cag51 Mod
    Nov 9, 2023 at 5:00
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    @cag51, OTOH, a canonical answer needn't be that documentation, but something that points the user back to Google and says that the docs there are insufficient, etc, etc. The sort of things that people now say in answer to the questions. But I, certainly, can't write that question.
    – Buffy
    Nov 9, 2023 at 10:44
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GS is a tool that simply exploits other providers of information

That sounds like many academic publishers, who exploits other providers of information (namely, researchers). At least, GS is not paywalled, and it is widely used across researchers. Therefore, I don't think a question about GS should be made off-topic because it is about GS.

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  • I agree in general, but one at a time. Diamond open access is the only safe way.
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 14, 2023 at 17:38
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I would use the following questions to determine whether tool-related question should be on-topic:

  1. Is the tool primarily used by academics?
  2. Is the tool very much obscure?
  3. Is the tool used across disciplines?
  4. Is there a clearly better-suited sister-site to ask about the tool?

If the answers are YES - NO - YES - NO, I think we should consider questions about that tool on-topic here. For Google Scholar, this is the case. I agree that we don't seem to have the expertise to answer many of the questions about Google Scholar, but this could easily change if Google ever provides a decent documentation about it, or if an insider joins us and provides the answers.

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  • Thanks for formalizing a line of thinking. I think there is one question missing, i.e. "is the tool harmful to science?", but this is my opinion. Back to your list, I got to the interesting result that if I make the same questions about the publishing process with major publishers, I should consider them as off-topic as the one from GS :) .
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 22 at 8:14
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I guess I think the point about this site is academics helping each other. Those who don't want to help others use a particular tool are under no obligation to do so. In fact a rule banning discussion of tools would create obligations e.g. to police deletions. So I think we should just let academics ask and answer questions that help each other if they want to.

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  • I see your point. I am personally worried about tools that are harmful to the development of science and progrees. But then, we regularly answer questions about the hidden mechanics of opaque mechanisms like the publication process of the major publishers, so GS is not really different.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 22 at 8:08
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    IMO Google Scholar is immensely helpful for surfacing recent publications, and unearthing false citations (people pretending you are an author of something you are not.) Feb 3 at 14:56
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Some of the ideas expressed here seem to be predicated on the notions that:

  1. Google ought to provide some support for people who use Google Scholar
  2. Banning questions about Google Scholar will put pressure on Google to provide the support that they ought provide

Together, the notions seem misconceived. While the issue of point 1 is arguable, I would suggest that all the evidence is against the idea that a boycott would influence Google in any way at all.

More particularly, I think that a boycott would mean that all those academics who rely on Google Scholar will be robbed of the (entirely voluntary and uncompelled) support that some users of SE are willing to provide. And the academics who rely on Google Scholar are legion ... and mostly in developing countries where institutions are less likely to be able to pay for access to a platform like Scopus.

In conclusion: let those of us who don't mind answering questions about Google Scholar continue to do so.

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