Using Google Scholar vs. Ngram Viewer to Determine Field-Specific Conventions

  • Both Google Scholar and Google Ngram Viewer can help provide direction on which field specific terms are relevant
  • The tools vary in the number of phrases that can be searched for at the same time
  • They also differ in how recent the literature they search through is

Updated on August 5, 2014

Google Scholar homepage

We previously discussed the use of Google Scholar to determine field-specific conventions, including by employing advanced search techniques. In this article, we will compare the utility of Google Scholar and Google Ngram Viewer for the same purpose.

Google Scholar

Google Scholar is effectively a searchable database of the scholarly literature to present, including journal articles and academic books. This tool can be used to identify the most common usage of a word or phrase, whether across the entire literature or with certain limitations (such as within a date range). A search specifically reveals the context in which the word or phrase was written in each publication, allowing you to check whether the usage is appropriate in your own case. You can also determine the most standard usage by comparing the numbers of hits for different search terms. However, these search results reflect cumulative usage across the literature, so a recent change in convention might not be apparent unless you limit the time frame to recent years.

Google Ngram Viewer

Google Ngram Viewer is a tool that graphs the frequency of word or phrase usage over time, allowing you to examine changes in convention. Potential disadvantages relative to Google Scholar are that the viewer only draws from a set of published books up to 2008 (albeit billions) and that context cannot be immediately viewed (instead, you have to follow links to the original context). However, several features of the viewer provide advantages over Google Scholar. For example, multiple options can be easily compared at the same time by entering all terms of interest, separated by commas. Additional useful functions that are perhaps most relevant to determining field-specific conventions are

  • The default case sensitivity of the search
  • Wildcard searches, which use an asterisk to find the 10 most common substitutions, as for “predictive factor *” in the example below:
Google search predictive factors
  • Part-of-speech tags, which can be applied to weed out irrelevant usage. For example, “predictive factor *_ADP” will only show usage of “predictive factor” with a preposition:
Google Books Ngram viewer

You can learn more about these functions, including the nomenclature for the part-of-speech tags, here.

Therefore, Google Scholar may be preferable if you would like to search a broader range of scholarly literature, if you wish to quickly view context, and/or if you already know which terms or phrases you would like to compare. In contrast, Google Ngram Viewer may be most worthwhile if your field is book centric, if you are less familiar with potential usage or have many options to compare, and/or if you feel that norms may have changed in recent years.

You may also want to consider starting with the Ngram Viewer to determine the most likely usage options and then searching Google Scholar to determine which is most frequently cited in recent journal articles. In any case, these are both useful tools with greater relevance to the academic community than Google alone.

Please email us with any questions or comments. Best wishes as you continue to research and write!

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