What if Google killed Scholar?

Ever since Google demoted Scholar from the products bar, people have become anxious as to whether this is a sign that it will be discontinued. This feeling has only strengthened since the demise of Google Reader, which proved that Google is not afraid to discontinue services with (pretty) large and devoted audiences. Why would Google discontinue Scholar, and what would be the consequences?

Why killing Scholar might make sense

I see two reasons why discontinuing Google Scholar might make sense. First, consider Google is trying to focus on fewer products for more users (as evident from the closure of Reader); Scholar serves an academic niche. Indeed, many scholarly publications are already discoverable through the main Google Search. Other user groups in search of scholarly publications such as journalists prefer to use Google Search instead of Scholar [1]. Scholars themselves are also heavy users of Search (see the figure below), and also find papers with it [2]. Second, the academic landscape is moving from publishing to a wider range of online information. Researchers write and publish preprints, papers on their own webpages or social network profiles, datasets, programming code, software tools, lab notes, tweets and blogposts. The question of what is academic information is no longer trivial.

Mean and  mode responses to “Which  of the  following search engines,  websites or databases do you use?”, ordered by mean score (N=288), taken from [3JustGoogleIt]
Mean and mode responses to “Which of the following search engines,
websites or databases do you use?”, ordered by mean score (N=288), taken from [3]

Disadvantages for searchers

The biggest disadvantage is the increasing burden upon researchers to decide which search results can be deemed of academic value and which not (a matter I previously raised in another blog post). Search engines already de-contextualize information [3]; academic information is not presented within its academic context, but within the context of the search environment. Replacing Scholar with Search would severely increase this de-contextualization, as publications are presented together with blogs, general websites, and so forth. However, this de-contextualization is already taking place as papers are decreasingly evaluated by the journal that published them [4]. Moreover, with proposals such as altmetrics to complement the existing journal-based metrics or perhaps even replace them, one can wonder whether publications will remain a necessary or even sufficient context for academic information. Whether information found is valuable appears to become less dependent of its format, and more of its inherent value, making the aforementioned preprints, programming code, blog posts, etc. valuable academic assets.

Scholar versus Search

Will this lead to overcrowded search results, making it difficult to find publications? This is also true within Scholar, which can easily retrieve thousands of search results, even though Scholar’s precision matches that of specialized databases such as PubMed with scores around 8% (i.e. 8 out of 100 search results being relevant) [5]. Thousands of publications is not necessarily easier to navigate than tens of thousands of mixed search results. In either case the searcher is dependent on the relevance ranking of the search algorithm [6] and has to assume that not all thousands of search results need to be considered. As such, doing an extensive and systematic literature search within Scholar is already ill-advised; although known-item searches work fairly well, discovery of all related papers should not be assumed [7]. This is mainly due to the keyword-only search [8] employed by Scholar as well as Search, rendering it difficult to find related papers that employ terms different from the keywords in the query. In short, does Scholar solve a search scenario that cannot be done in Search?

Should online research be limited to publications, or will much broader content of academic material become available? If the latter is true, broadening searches to Search instead of Scholar might actually become preferable. Searching for publications will remain possible within Search, but will be complemented with the wealth of online academic output in other formats.

Cited by and related articles

Update 20-09-2013 13:30 One of the most mentioned features in the comments and on Twitter is the added value of “cited by” and “related articles” functionalities in Google Scholar. There is some confusion about whether this is available in Search or not. I’ve tried this in several Search domains (.com, .nl, .ca & .co.uk) with one of the papers referred below and got the same results every time: these functionalities are already available in Search. See this screenshot and notice the first three results. These features are powered by Google Scholar though; the question would be whether Search could be updated to incorporate these features natively.

“Cited by” and “Related articles” in Search on google.com

Indexing deep web articles

Update 09-10-2013 12:00 One important difference between Search and Scholar is their treatment of deep web material. Where Search only indexes material that is directly accessible, Scholar does full-text indexing of journal articles that are behind pay-walls; a matter Robert Schonfeld raised in the comments. If this distinction is fundamental, this might answer my question about what search scenario solved by Scholar cannot be done in Search. However, what if Google changes their treatment of deep web material in Search? Since this blogpost, Robert Schonfeld has learned that Google might start indexing ScienceDirect (tweet1, tweet2). Thus, Google might actually already be taking the first steps to solve the issue of indexing journals in Search. This would appear to be a fundamental change for Search, but it might be a necessary step if Google wants to merge Scholar into Search.

Update 18-11-2014: Google is not killing Scholar any time soon

To celebrate the tenth birthday of Google Scholar, Nature has done a wonderful interview with Anurag Acharya that addresses a lot of the points made in this blog post. To read the interview, click here. I have summarized the interview as a response in the following blog post: A Decade of Google Scholar.


[1] Kemman, M., Kleppe, M., Nieman, B., & Beunders, H. (2013). Dutch Journalism in the Digital Age. Icono 14, 11(2), 163–181. 

[3] Kemman, M., Kleppe, M., & Scagliola, S. (2013). Just Google It – Digital Research Practices of Humanities ScholarsarXiv:1309.2434v1 [cs.DL] 

[2] Jamali, H. R., & Asadi, S. (2010). Google and the scholar: the role of Google in scientists’ information-seeking behaviour. Online Information Review, 34(2), 282–294. 

[4] Lozano, G. A., Lariviere, V., & Gingras, Y. (2012). The weakening relationship between the Impact Factor and papers’ citations in the digital age. arXiv:1205.4328v1 [cs.DL]. 

[5] Shariff, S. Z., Bejaimal, S. A., Sontrop, J. M., Iansavichus, A. V., Haynes, R. B., Weir, M. A., & Garg, A. X. (2013). Retrieving Clinical Evidence: A Comparison of PubMed and Google Scholar for Quick Clinical SearchesJournal of medical Internet research15(8). 

[6] Pan, B., Hembrooke, H., Joachims, T., Lorigo, L., Gay, G., & Granka, L. (2007). In Google we trust: Users’ decisions on rank, position, and relevanceJournal of Computer‐Mediated Communication12(3), 801-823. 

[7] Giustini, D., & Boulos, M. N. K. (2013). Google Scholar is not enough to be used alone for systematic reviewsOnline journal of public health informatics,5(2), 214. 

[8] Mann, T. (2008). Will Google’s Keyword Searching Eliminate the Need for LC Cataloging and Classification?Journal of Library Metadata8(2), 159-168. 

*Google Scholar was heavily used in the creation of this list of references

22 thoughts on “What if Google killed Scholar?

  1. I use Google scholar extensively for science writing/communication purposes, but almost never in the same way I use Google as a search engine. So while I hadn’t even noticed that scholar had been demoted from the products bar, it would be disastrous if they removed it entirely as a product.

    Sometimes the functionality of products which Google has killed off, such as Wave, has found its way into other products, like Google Docs. This is exactly the model I hope Google will pursue – that scholar remains a part of the “research” function within Docs and Search, but not necessarily as a product in its own right.

    1. Hi Ed, thanks for the reply! That’s pretty what I think might happen: that the Google Scholar technology would simply become a part of Drive and Search. You might debate whether it counts as ‘shutting down’ when a product is killed but its technology gets reused in other products.

  2. Another big advantage of Google Scholar is the ability to do Web of Science type searches, using “cited by” and “related articles” searches. To my knowledge, these are not available within normal Search.

      1. I couldn’t replicate this…it may be the way I have it displayed, but I couldn’t find any explicit “cited by” or “related article” results (other than the string of sort of related articles, web pages, and the occasional crank missive) when searching for various academic articles. Am I missing something? As Nicole mentioned, the loss of an easy “cited by” and “related article” search is exceptionally worrisome, because there are no equivalent services available for scholars at institutions without expensive databases such as Web of Science (or independent researchers).

        If Google uses Scholar in other search products, that may be OK, but I worry that it will get swamped by all of the junk that appears in regular search results. Perhaps if there is an option to limit it to just scholarly results?

  3. I just hope that the extremely useful h-index feature will survive in some form. It is very helpful to be able to quickly get a rough idea of a researcher’s impact, and Google Scholar does a good job here.

  4. Just some remarks:

    1) There are many free databases that offer citation information: Citeseer, Inspire (high energy physics)! RepEC (economics), Adsabs (astronomy, physics) and not least Microsoft Academic Search (multidisciplinary, just as Scholar).
    2) In itself there is no problem in using general search for scholarly pubs, if only you could see them seperately. And I see no reason why that should not be implemented, just as with books, blogs or news right now.
    3) If scholarly pubs were only traceable through the general web search in Google that would be a problem not so much for known item searches but it would be for subject searches. In a way it is of course good to be able to cast the net wider and find more than just scholarly papers. But in many other cases it would render Google useless because it would mean that you could not restrict to scholarly papers anymore, as often required by professors. Especially for searches in the social sciences and humanities scholarly and non-scholarly stuff would be mixed and difficult to discern by undergrads.
    4) The scholar databases is more or less structured, allowing field restrictions on author, journal and pubyear. That would be lost in general search.

  5. Google may kill Google Scholar, and I suspect your speculation as to the business imperative is sound. If we’ve learned anything from other shuttered services, it’s that the future of Scholar depends on the internal politics: if the problems aren’t sexy and/or management isn’t interested/paying attention, it’s going to get axed.

    I have some quibbles (some mentioned above) with the arguments that Scholar doesn’t offer much more utility than Search. Yes, search could be augmented to include Scholar’s features but I can’t think of many instances where that has happened. Google tends to bury/strip things out of Search rather than add bells (ie. “Advanced Search” still exists but is hidden, and it’s been stripped of the “What links here” feature).

    “(O)ne can wonder whether publications will remain a necessary or even sufficient context for academic information.”

    Publications will remain necessary for academics as long as they are required by tenure review committees. I see no evidence that blogs, tweets, newspaper articles or other alt metrics are replacing the traditional tenure committee focus on peer-reviewed journal articles and monographs.

    “(D)oes Scholar solve a search scenario that cannot be done in Search?”

    Yes. Google search does not report “cited by” but Google Scholar does.

    “This is mainly due to the keyword-only search [8] employed by Scholar as well as Search, rendering it difficult to find related papers that employ terms different from the keywords in the query.”

    Unlike Search, Google Scholar is not limited to keyword-only results. As I stated above, the “cited by” results are similar to Web of Science but much (much!) broader. There are entire disciplines excluded by WoS but indexed by Google Scholar.

    Google Scholar is generally superior for “known-item searches”, especially for articles long out of print or housed in smaller databases. Google Search may tell you that an article exists, but Google Scholar will tell you a half dozen databases which claim to host it (your institution will only have a subscription to one of them).

  6. I confess I am a little confused by some of the comments.

    “Cited by” links show up on regular Google searches for me – whether I am accessing from my institution or at home, so I am not sure why others are not seeing these. The same applies to the “Related articles” links.
    As far as I am aware, neither Scholar nor regular Google restrict themselves to keyword-only results – Google definitely uses some level of synonym search when returning results (often to my annoyance, as I wanted the keyword to be matched).
    Also, Google are already embedding Scholar results in ordinary search – if the search terms get ‘scholarly’ hits, I get “Scholarly articles for…” listed at the top of the search results – and have done for a considerable period of time.

  7. Google Search can also be filtered for academic materials. For instance, I’ve spent the last four years using Google’s CSE to build the JURN search-engine – this searches open journal articles in the arts and humanities. JURN now indexes, with the help of Google, over 4,000 titles.

  8. One key difference between Search and Scholar is their treatment of “deep web” content, especially licensed resources. For example, searching an author/title combination for a known ScienceDirect article produces a direct link to the article as the first result on Scholar; but only a series of pages that link to that article in Search. More dramatically, searching for a known string of full text from that article produces nothing in Search; but the article itself in Scholar. My understanding is that this reflect Google’s willingness to index licensed resources much more robustly in Scholar than it does in Search. I would welcome any further clarification on this matter that anyone can provide.

  9. Your statement below:

    “Replacing Scholar with Search would severely increase this de-contextualization, as publications are presented together with blogs, general websites, and so forth. However, this de-contextualization is already taking place as papers are decreasingly evaluated by the journal that published them [4].”

    is not accurate. The reference you cite talks about Impact Factors and citation rates. being decoupled. Your statement implies that journals are not evaluating (most academics would read this as “peer review”) papers as much. Simply not true and not what your citation speaks to.

    1. Hi Paul, I’m afraid this is a simple misunderstanding by ambiguity in my writing. I did not intent to state that papers are not evaluated by journals by means of peer review, that obviously still happens! What I meant to state was that when readers evaluate the importance of a paper, this increasingly is done on the basis of the paper itself, rather than the journal it was published in. Therefore, papers are less evaluated by their context (i.e. the journal). Specifically this quote from [4] makes my point (perhaps much clearer): “papers now can be read and cited based on their own merits, independently of the journal’s physical availability, reputation, or Impact Factor.”
      I hope this clears things up, thanks for the comment.

  10. Ugh… A discontinuation would be hard news for wikipedians as myself. We have become quite addicted to the service over the years, as it’s an easy way to find reliable sources on any topic. Scholar was for instance widely used in deletion process, as a way to prove the if a given article is relevant within an encyclopedia.

  11. I totally believe that Google is contemplating closing Google Scholar. The reason is simple: They have not figured any way to sell users anything over Google Scholar, nor have they figured out a way to sell Google Scholar users to advertisers. Example: When I search for a product using Google Search, the products I search for and the sellers displayed on Google Search show up in the advertising column on my Facebook page. The problem is that no one wants to pay for subscription services over the internet. We expect everything to be “free.” But nothing is free. We, the users, are the product. And if they cannot sell us, the services will be dropped.

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