Database versus search engine

Specialist databases yield results that are less easily found through Google, reveals research by energy-information database ETDEWEB

There is plenty of enthusiasm for search engines like Google from researchers and the general public alike. Google and Google Scholar are well-known for the wide breadth of the information they search. Google brings in news, factual and opinion-related information, and Google Scholar also emphasises scientific content across many disciplines. But do these search tools give as comprehensive a picture of a particular research field as a specialist database?

This is the question that the team behind the specialised scientific database on energy-related information, ETDEWEB (the Energy Technology Data Exchange – World Energy Base) set out to answer by studying user search results.

ETDEWEB is the online database of the Energy Technology Data Exchange (ETDE), an information exchange agreement formed in 1987 under the framework of the International Energy Agency. ETDE’s mission is to provide governments, industry and the research community in the member countries with access to the information collected and to increase dissemination to developing countries.

More than 110 countries have free access to ETDEWEB. ETDE member countries and partners contribute database records/documents representing worldwide energy research, science and technology R&D results, including policy, environmental and economic aspects.

As of early 2010, the ETDEWEB database had more than 4.3 million citations to world-wide energy literature. There are more than 300,000 documents in PDF available for viewing from the ETDE site and more than a million additional links to where the documents can be found at research organisations and major publishers globally.

The study

The ETDE team compared the results of 15 energy-related queries performed on all three systems – ETDEWEB, Google and Google Scholar – using identical words/phrases. A variety of subjects were chosen, although the topics were mostly in renewable energy areas, due to broad international interest in this area.

More than 40,000 search result records from the three sources were evaluated. The study concluded that ETDEWEB is a significant resource to energy experts for discovering relevant energy information. In the 15 searches, nearly 90 per cent of the results in ETDEWEB were not shown by Google or Google Scholar, although many of these relevant results could be found in the search engines if the exact article titles were entered as the search terms.

Much was learned from the study beyond just metric comparisons. Observations about the strengths of each system and factors impacting the search results are also shared, along with tables of the results.

If a user knows the title of a document, all three systems are helpful in finding the user a source for the document. But if the user is looking to discover relevant documents on a specific topic, each of the three systems will bring back a considerable volume of data, but quite different in focus. Google is certainly a highly-used and valuable tool to find significant ‘non-specialist’ information, and Google Scholar does focus on scientific disciplines. If a user’s interest is scientific and energy-specific, ETDEWEB continues to hold a strong position in the energy research, technology and development (RTD) information field and adds considerable value in knowledge discovery.

Debbie Cutler is the Energy Technology Data Exchange operating agent at DOE/OSTI in the USA. The full study results are available at www.etde.org/ETDEOA237.pdf


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