A quick study of Scholar-ly Citation

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Google recently unveiled Citations, its extension to Google Scholar that helps people to organize the papers and patents they wrote and to keep track of citations to them. You can edit metadata that wasn’t parsed correctly, merge or split references, connect to co-authors’ citation pages, etc. Cool stuff. When it comes to using this tool for information seeking, however, we’re back to that ol’ Google command line. Sigh.

You can search Google Scholar as before, and as before, you get a list of articles that can be filtered by setting the earliest year of publication, and by selecting the kind of publication. The list is sorted by the number of citations, in descending order. You cannot change that.

You don’t get any links to the citations pages of the authors of the retrieved papers, even when the search is for the author’s last name. (I tried mine–it’s always good for these sorts of things.)

Neither do you get access to the metadata that was visible in the Citations page.

Only when you go to advanced search and fill in the ‘author’ field, do you get results that also include the author’s citation page. Filling in the form generates a fielded query (e.g., using the term ‘golovchinsky’ in the author field generates the query [author:golovchinsky]), which then returns a link to the author’s citations page,  in addition to the normal search results. But if you provide two names (e.g., [author:golovchinsky AND author:schilit]) no citation link is generated for either author, although both are present in the Google Scholar Citations database.

On that form, you can also restrict the publication year to a range, specify a subject area, specify more precise term occurrence patterns, including terms that describe the publication venue.

There are several usability problems with this approach:

  1. Metadata facets are not discoverable from the initial search. You cannot start with a few keywords (as people often do) and transition smoothly to more elaborate queries.
  2. Metadata facets are not available for interactive filtering and sorting of the results. There is no hint from the search results page about which topics, authors, date ranges, etc. are present in the results set, and no facility to filter on them. Hell, you cannot even change the sort order to be in chronological or reverse-chronological order!
  3. The citation information is not linked into the results, and not all the authors’ names are shown in the snippet. So you cannot even know who some of the authors were, or find out what other papers they had written, despite the fact that the information is stored explicitly by Google!
  4. The snippet doesn’t show the full name of the venue either, so conference names appear in such useful formulations as ‘Proceedings of the eighth ACM conference on…’ or ‘Proceedings of the 13th …’ Google’s attempt at keeping the citation metadata to one line makes the whole thing largely useless.

It’s amazing to me that Google’s matra of keeping the UI simple has actually made the user’s task more complicated! Rather than trying to understand what the users want to do with the tool (or looking at the last 30 years’ worth of publications on information seeking!), the designers of this tool tried to inject the bare minimum of extra query fields, and nothing else. While the minimalist approach might be useful for searching the general web, it is much less likely to be successful for this collection. After all, searching the academic literature is one of the canonical recall-oriented, exploratory search tasks, a veritable poster-child for HCIR!

Here is what I think they need to do to:

  1. Read Marcia Bates‘ work on berry-picking.
  2. Link the metadata from Citations to the search results. When you click on an author’s name, show that author’s papers, and make them sortable not only by the documents’ metadata (publication year, venue, etc.) but also by relevance to the query that brought the searcher there.
  3. In addition to showing the search results, show a list of authors of the retrieved documents, ordered (at least) by the number of papers in the search results.
  4. Add facets for the most frequent venues and for subject areas of the retrieved documents.
  5. Make the results sortable and filterable by year, citation count, etc., without having to switch to any other page.
  6. Make it possible to follow the citation graph in both directions: not only finding the documents that cite a give paper, but also using its references to move backward in time.
  7. Integrate a query history into Google Scholar. Think about supporting session search in the interface.

In short, Google seems to have taken the lessons from general web search, and applied them to Google Scholar, with predictable results. Instead, they should look at Google Scholar as an opportunity to learn about HCIR, about exploratory search with long-running, evolving information needs, and to apply those lessons to the web search interface.

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  1. […] A quick study of Scholar-ly Citation by Gene Golovchinsky. […]

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