Algorithms, part 2: impact on searching and finding academic information

Algorithms are literally everywhere in the digital environment. The databases, sources, and systems you use at a college or university or high school are not immune. They use algorithms as well.

At a basic level, algorithms can help with searching, sorting, pattern matching, and more. An algorithm impacts how the search is done/interpreted and what records from a database are brought forward in response and in what order.

The effect of the algorithm can make for a better, more productive search or, at least, the impact can be benign.

However, even in an environment where money is not made through advertising or direct retail, the algorithms that lie behind academic databases and systems can still be impacted by corporate rivalries, ideology, and more.

At the very least, algorithms lead to differences in the information you see. For example, the same search of the Medline database through ProQuest (a for-profit corporation) and the National Library of Medicine (a U.S. government agency) results in this:

The ProQuest algorithm brings up some 1,700 more database records (representing articles and other publications) and the records that appear higher in the list are different.

This will have an impact on people searching Medline for information; they will see different results and may not find certain information depending on the interface/algorithm they use.

So, even in an academic environment where you may have thought you were relatively removed from the algorithm-driven thought bubbles of social media, algorithms are still used and can impact your search for information in ways you may not envision. You need to be aware, you need to understand, and you need to pursue information skeptically and thoughtfully.

Questions? Please let me know (

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