Google Scholar as replacement for systematic literature searches: good relative recall and precision are not enough
Department of Medical Biometry and Medical Informatics, University Medical Center Freiburg, Stefan-Meier-Str. 26, Freiburg i. Br. 79104, Germany
BMC Medical Research Methodology 2013, 13:131 doi:10.1186/1471-2288-13-131Published: 26 October 2013
Recent research indicates a high recall in Google Scholar searches for systematic reviews. These reports raised high expectations of Google Scholar as a unified and easy to use search interface. However, studies on the coverage of Google Scholar rarely used the search interface in a realistic approach but instead merely checked for the existence of gold standard references. In addition, the severe limitations of the Google Search interface must be taken into consideration when comparing with professional literature retrieval tools.
The objectives of this work are to measure the relative recall and precision of searches with Google Scholar under conditions which are derived from structured search procedures conventional in scientific literature retrieval; and to provide an overview of current advantages and disadvantages of the Google Scholar search interface in scientific literature retrieval.
General and MEDLINE-specific search strategies were retrieved from 14 Cochrane systematic reviews. Cochrane systematic review search strategies were translated to Google Scholar search expression as good as possible under consideration of the original search semantics. The references of the included studies from the Cochrane reviews were checked for their inclusion in the result sets of the Google Scholar searches. Relative recall and precision were calculated.
We investigated Cochrane reviews with a number of included references between 11 and 70 with a total of 396 references. The Google Scholar searches resulted in sets between 4,320 and 67,800 and a total of 291,190 hits. The relative recall of the Google Scholar searches had a minimum of 76.2% and a maximum of 100% (7 searches). The precision of the Google Scholar searches had a minimum of 0.05% and a maximum of 0.92%. The overall relative recall for all searches was 92.9%, the overall precision was 0.13%.
The reported relative recall must be interpreted with care. It is a quality indicator of Google Scholar confined to an experimental setting which is unavailable in systematic retrieval due to the severe limitations of the Google Scholar search interface. Currently, Google Scholar does not provide necessary elements for systematic scientific literature retrieval such as tools for incremental query optimization, export of a large number of references, a visual search builder or a history function. Google Scholar is not ready as a professional searching tool for tasks where structured retrieval methodology is necessary.