Web Search Engines - Not Yet a Reliable Replacement for Bibliographic Databases


  • Emma Hughes




A Review of:

Bates, J., Best, P., McQuilkin, J., & Taylor, B. (2017) Will web search engines replace bibliographic databases in the systematic identification of research? The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 43(1), 8-17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2016.11.003


Objective - To explore whether web search engines could replace bibliographic databases in retrieving research.

Design - Systematic review.

Setting - English language articles in health and social care; comparing bibliographic databases and web search engines for retrieving research published between January 2005 and August 2015, in peer-reviewed journals and available in full-text.

Subjects - Eight bibliographic databases: ASSIA (Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts), CINAHL Plus (Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature), LISA (Library and Information Science Abstracts), Medline, PsycInfo, Scopus, SSA (Social Services Abstracts), and SSCI (Social Sciences Citation Index) and five web search engines: Ask, Bing, Google, Google Scholar, Yahoo.

Methods - A literature search via the above bibliographic databases and web search engines. The retrieved results were independently appraised by two researchers, using a combination of tools and checklists, including the PRESS checklist (McGowan et al., 2016) and took guidance on developing search strategies from the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (2009).

Main Results - Sixteen papers met the appraisal requirements. Each paper compared at least one bibliographic database against one web-search engine. The authors also discuss findings from their own search process. Precision and sensitivity scores from each paper were compared. The results highlighted that web search engines do not necessarily use Boolean logic and in general have limited functionality compared to bibliographic databases. There were variances in the way precision scores were calculated between papers, but when based on the first 100 results, web search engines were similar to some databases. However, their sensitivity scores were much weaker.

Conclusion - Whilst precision scores were strong for web search engines, sensitivity was lacking; therefore web search engines cannot be seen as a replacement for bibliographic databases at this time. The authors recommend improving the quality of reporting in studies regarding literature searching in academia in order for reliable comparisons to be made.


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Author Biography

Emma Hughes

Freelance Information Professional




How to Cite

Hughes, E. (2018). Web Search Engines - Not Yet a Reliable Replacement for Bibliographic Databases. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 13(3), 85–87. https://doi.org/10.18438/eblip29378



Evidence Summaries