Automating Research with Google Scholar Alerts

fire_alarmThis post is something of a public service announcement. Two weeks ago the Google Scholar team announced that users could now create alerts for their favorite queries.

I would explain how to set up a Google Scholar Alert, but both Google and Resource Shelf have already done so. Instead, I’ll discuss how this new featuer might be useful to the ProfHacker community.

Google Alerts have been around for awhile. Users can set up a Google Alert for any query, and Google will automatically email them a digest of all new hits for that query. Users can set how many results they’d like included in the emails, how often the emails should be sent, and what email address(es) different alerts should be sent to. Google Alerts can help you stay abreast of a particular topic, such as a developing news story. Many folks also set up Google Alerts for their name, their company, or a particular project, so they can track how those topics are being discussed across the net.

Google Alerts pull from Google’s entire index, however, which is not always useful for research questions. I could set up a Google Alert for an author I write on—say, Nathaniel Hawthorne—but I’d likely have to wade through many high schoolers complaining about reading The Scarlet Letter before finding any new scholarly work on the author. Google Scholar Alerts pull results only from scholarly literature—”articles, theses, books, abstracts,” and other other resources from “academic publishers, professional societies, “online repositories, universities,” and other scholarly websites. In other words, Google Scholar Alerts provide scholars automatic updates when new material is published on research topics they’re interested in. A Google Scholar Alert for “Nathaniel Hawthorne” would email me whenever a book or article about Hawthorne was added to Google Scholar’s index.

I worded that last sentence carefully in order to point to some problems with Google Scholar, and by extension with the new Google Scholar Alerts. Peter Jacso wrote last September about serious errors in Google Scholar’s metadata, particularly with article attribution. What counts as “new” in Google Scholar is also problematic. An article will appear in a Google Scholar Alert when it’s indexed—that is, when it’s new to Google Scholar, even if it’s actually an older article.

As Jacso points out, however, Google Scholar remains valuable for “topical keyword searches,” which is what most folks will set up Alerts to track. No one should set up a Google Scholar Alert and consider their research complete‐but Alerts can be a good way to keep abreast of new scholarship on a variety of topics, or on the wider context of a particular research interest. I work on nineteenth-century apocalyptic literature, for example, and I’ve set up a Google Scholar Alert for several variations on the word “apocalyptic.” The emails I’ve received comprise work on apocalypticism from a variety of periods and geographical areas. Even if I can’t read most of these works in full, I’ve found it useful to get this larger overview of scholarship on the topic.

Do you use Google Scholar, either for research or teaching stuents how to research? Will you make use of the new Alerts? Let us hear about it in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user comedy_nose.]

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