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Valuable information wants to be for-a-fee and not easy-to-find
Comfort is no synonym to a good search

Sorry : good, reliable results when you search come at a price and not without efforts

[NB : this post was written in 2018. With ChatGPT and other generative pre-trained AI chatbots, it may seem like I was wrong and comfort and everything-at-our-fingertips is now reality. But sorry, no again. The reliability of generative AI’s answers is highly dependent on the quality of the content used for its training, and even when such content is fed to the AI, it still "hallucinates" and doesn’t cite its sources. See Intelligence artificielle en droit : derrière la "hype", la réalité (in French).]

I recently had a discussion with the owners of the Twitter account of the blog Not just Google Scholar’s Digest. A Spanish guys’ blog (they’re based in Granada) [1]. Those guys seem well versed in bibliometrics.

According to an article [2] they cite, « Google Scholar and Scopus are the most used bibliometric tools by 27 librarians [3] and 10 research managers or administrators (mainly UK & USA) » and « users would clearly prefer some kind of ’open Google Scholar’ ».

More precisely, « they [users] want :

  • greater coverage (preferably for free !), but if we can’t have that, please be honest about coverage limits
  • better quality data (or at least be honest about its limitations)
  • enable us to export, use and repurpose data. »

Here is what I answered/added :

[a little bit exaggerating but not so much] they (the users, mainly the young students and professionals) also want :

  • a no brainer, effortless search
  • everything free, regardless of the efforts of writing and/or selecting/editing etc..

They don’t want :

  • to learn how to search
  • to *think*, i.e. use their own mind instead of copy-paste [end of rant]

To which my Spanish colleagues’ answer was :
« Strongly agree : COMFORT, first of all. Everything at your fingertips. That is our world ... of every day ... Those tools will arrive. »

Well, no, sorry. Not exactly. That’s the GAFAM song. In fact, there is no guarantee these tools will arrive — and, if they arrive, that the majority will be able to get their hands on them. The opinion that everything will be at our fingertips is both true (and only in the long run) and wrong.

True because search engines (Google but also Algolia etc.), servers and web technologies (REST etc.) get better every year. True because content keeps moving to digital format. But ...

But as most databases get bigger and bigger, low quality content also enters them, is not updated, and lots of users can’t detect it and don’t know how to get rid of it. More and more scientific articles have to be retracted. Plagiarism is a plague. Low quality open access journals flourish. Much high quality content remain unread and unused.

For-a-fee content is not free from influence — it depends on ads and newspaper bosses are sensitive to political agendas. But free content is also prone to influence — it relies on ads and/or subsidies/taxes — and probably more prone.

Each time more knowledge is made available (be it free or not), the best content moves to another frontier. Free content can be made payable and each year Wikipedia is eagerly looking for money and voluntary, unpaid contributors.

There is *no scientific rule* saying that free content will forever grow. Cost is a major factor — and isn’t always solved with ads.

The conclusion is obvious but often ignored :

  • relevant, high value, up to date, reliable information is not *that* easy to find
  • if you don’t train in searching, you won’t get anywhere fast
  • it takes money and information specialists’ hard work to gather, maintain and make available that information.

In other words : "Information wants to be free" does *not* mean information is meant to be nor will be available without paying. Free here means "without ties", it means "true believers in the power of information do not want to keep important facts secret". Pay close attention to the exact words of the author of this phrase, Stewart Brand. The full citation goes : « Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. ...That tension will not go away. » I would have added : « Information wants to be easy to find. (Reliable) information also wants to be hard to search for. That tension will not go away either. »

Emmanuel Barthe
librarian researcher
teacher, Ecole de Bibliothécaires Documentalistes, Paris

"I-dont-wanna-do-a-real-search" people : lemmings in migration


[2How can bibliometric and altmetric suppliers improve ? Messages from the end-user community, by Elizabeth Gadd and Ian Rowlands, Insights, 31, 38. DOI : Apart from my own remarks, the conclusions of this article face a major problem : the article’s stats are based on only 42 respondents.

[3Well, not me. If I used mainly Google Scholar to search for up to date, reliable comments on French law, I wouldn’t be a law librarian researcher and I wouldn’t be working for a law firm.