Navigating the Murky Waters of “Free” Online Scholarly Information

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While the age of the Internet has made information access easier than ever, researchers need to be even more vigilant in their search efforts to ensure that the information they discover is authoritative and trustworthy before incorporating it into their research.

Shortcomings of Commercial Search Engines

Today, researchers can utilize any number of commercial search engines to quickly access a seemingly endless quantity of information on the free web. However, the highest-quality, most valuable information typically lies outside the reach of commercial search engines. This isn’t to say that valuable information can’t be found on the free web, it certainly can to some degree. The problem is that with every search, researchers have to wade through a torrent of potentially irrelevant search results in order to locate the few valuable content “gems” that may be available.

Commercial search engines typically cannot:

  • Guarantee the authority or reliability of provided content
  • Differentiate between promotional and factual content (just about anyone can publish  anything online)
  • Demonstrate neutrality
  • Guarantee the origin of content and avoid plagiarism (by providing detailed citation information)
  • Keep up with the latest findings in fast-moving areas of research

Trawling the free web will capture a large quantity of “information”, but it will be of varying relevance, and a lot of high quality information will slip the net completely. To search the full range of information, researchers need to turn to professionally curated collections/databases that are not publicly available on the open web.

The Hidden Costs of “Free” Information

The old adage “You get what you pay for” could not be more true when it comes to the world of scholarly information. Scholarly information costs money to produce and publish, so it is no surprise that publishers are not likely to give it away for free.

Now there are certainly search engines that claim to provide access to scholarly information on the free web, but researchers need to remain vigilant in their use of such resources. Much of the freely available “scholarly” information is apt to suffer from one or more of the following shortcomings:

  • Due to the ease of online publication, the source of such data is often questionable
  • “Free” information is less likely to have undergone a peer-review process
  • Many free websites are crowded with ads, which can be distracting and may call into question the neutrality of the information provided
  • As free websites are not often supported by a staff of full-time information professionals, the currency of available information typically lags behind that of other well-funded and fully-staffed resources
  • Commercial search engines force their own search algorithms on users with little control over the parameters of one’s search query

Even with all their shortcomings for scholarly research, free search engines do uncover a measure of quality content and should not be abandoned altogether. The key is to use them in conjunction with premium information resources to ensure a successful and comprehensive research experience.

Advantages of the Deep Web

Quality information is readily available through any number of proprietary resources designed with scholarly researchers in mind.

Authoritative online resources are typically produced by nonprofit organizations, educational research institutions, or government agencies. This information is then made available (usually for a fee) directly from the information provider and/or through a third-party commercial vendor that works in close partnership with the information provider to ensure proper access to the information for researchers. There are advantages to each delivery method that should be considered.

Choosing a premium search engine/database yields a number of key benefits for researchers including (but not limited to):

  • Access to fully peer-reviewed research content
  • Comprehensive information derived from global sources
  • Information provided by specialists in their respective fields
  • Detailed citation information crucial to research
  • A higher-degree of currency compared to free information
  • A user experience designed with the professional, subject-specific researcher in mind
  • Direct access to the full text of relevant information (when available)

Optimizing Your Research Experience

Accessing information directly via the original provider, such as The IET’s comprehensive Inspec database, often features a wider range of applicable search tools and limiters designed for effective retrieval of relevant data.

However, access through a third-party provider, such as EBSCO, can provide a fully integrated search and discovery experience. EBSCO’s research solution optimizes discovery by harvesting high quality research content from partners such as The IET, and combines it with a unified, customized index on their platform. The end result allows researchers and other end-users to search across the entire range of their institution’s collection of subject-related information resources all at once.

Learn More

To read a more detailed comparison of the differences between premium scholarly resources and the free web, download the recent whitepaper created by The IET and co-sponsored by EBSCO.