Review of Don MacLeod’s How to Find Out Anything

The book is How to Find Out Anything: From Extreme Google Searches to Scouring Government Documents, a Guide to Uncovering Anything About Everyone and Everything by Don MacLeod. The problem? Google Scholar.

Personally, I think that many researchers could benefit from reading this book, albeit not to the extent that the general reader might. As one whose work centers around finding information for companies, labs, researchers, students, etc., I can’t say that there was much in the book that I didn’t know of, but that isn’t a criticism of the book (I wasn’t the target audience). It contains what I’m sure are a number of tips, tricks, and resources that most are not aware of, from how typical Google searches are largely inadequate to information on public records. As a general guide to finding information it is superior to many a book devoted to market research or private investigation. Yet the only reason for this post is an error in the book that
1) relates directly to academic research
2) is a serious issue.

MacLeod states that “[f]or scholarly research, better resources [than Google Scholar] are to be had at an academic library or from a large municipal library collection…In my opinion, Google Scholar is a good idea that hasn’t yet matured into a service that researchers can use reliably.” He notes (accurately) that one must be cautious using Google Scholar for “any in-depth research”, but this is true of any database. I have access to ScienceDirect, Springerlinks, Academic Search Complete, JSTOR, ProQuest, IntgentaConnect, Wiley Online, AAAS, Nature, etc., and I still almost always start with Google Scholar. First, for those with such access to specialized databases through their University it is often possible to synch Google Scholar with your library resources. Second, for those without such resources there is no comparable site that provides not only results from academic and similar databases, but also routinely crawls through .edu and other sites to find freely accessible versions of journal papers, chapters from technical volumes, and much more. Any specialized database will have numerous limitations. JSTOR, for example, is largely useless for most scientists, while the American Physical Society’s online database isn’t going to help a social psychologist, linguist, clinical psychologist, etc. Google Scholar, however, finds papers not only from free sources and from online databases like Oxford Journals or SAGE journals but from broader databases like ScienceDirect and JSTOR. It is ideally suited for literature reviews, undergraduate and graduate level research for coursework, and even for the interested amateur who wants something more than Wikipedia. Of course it has limitations, but so do libraries. The power Google Scholar provides is how wide the net it casts is and the incredible amount of free research material one can find for virtually any topic. Researchers who are at the stage in their project when only a library or specialized database can serve are no longer really searching. They are retrieving sources they know exist (usually specific papers, but at least something as specific as a journal title or monograph series).

In short, I certainly recommend the book, but given my focus on how research is done, how it can be improved, and what resources exist, I would be remiss if I did not address how thoroughly potential readers could be misled by the treatment of such an invaluable tool.

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