Worth a(nother) look

Yes, I know I spend way too much time thinking about note-taking. What of it?

While reading some online discussions of software-based textual analysis, I came across a link to this excellent article summarizing the weaknesses of full-text search: Jeffrey Beall, “The Weaknesses of Full-Text Searching,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 34, no. 5 (September 2008): 438-444. Abstract:

This paper provides a theoretical critique of the deficiencies of full-text searching in academic library databases. Because full-text searching relies on matching words in a search query with words in online resources, it is an inefficient method of finding information in a database. This matching fails to retrieve synonyms, and it also retrieves unwanted homonyms. Numerous other problems also make full-text searching an ineffective information retrieval tool. Academic libraries purchase and subscribe to numerous proprietary databases, many of which rely on full-text searching for access and discovery. An understanding of the weaknesses of full-text searching is needed to evaluate the search and discovery capabilities of academic library databases.

If you ever need to explain to your students why keywords and subject headings and indices (indexes) are useful tools, this article is a good place to start.

Full-text search is certainly better than nothing – particularly if you can use fuzzy searching, wildcards, and proximity – but I sometimes wonder if a keyword-only database (a digital index) would still be more helpful than a full-text database, everything else being equal.

Repeat after me: full-text searching must be combined with meta-data in order to search subsets and sort results.


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