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Opinion: Pros and Cons of Google vs. Subscription Databases

While Google remains the go-to resource for most student research, libraries are trying to provide curated subscription databases that have more advanced filters and peer-reviewed sources that are easy to identify.

Since the early days of the Internet and the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), a federally funded digital library, the web has provided students with access to important research sources through online databases. One example of these is subscription databases, which are typically purchased by public, school or college libraries to provide students with curated full-text versions of publications often difficult to find elsewhere. But much has changed in the age of Google, including the company’s development of its own research-focused Google Scholar search engine, and with tight budgets and rising costs, schools at all levels are reconsidering their subscription options.

During my time overseeing the library services department of a large school district, we found our subscription databases were generally a well-kept secret. The lack of trained school librarians available to teach these resources was part of the issue. But Google was ubiquitous, as was Wikipedia, and they became de facto research sources for students, despite their limitations for such a role.

Google has its place for students and researchers (I used it for this article), as does Google Scholar (which I also used). But for students, subscription databases should also play a central research role, beginning with age-appropriate sources for elementary kids – like National Geographic – and moving up to "Gale in Context" for middle school students, and more scholarly articles for high schoolers from sources like ABC-CLIO.

Students’ media literacy is dependent upon their ability to evaluate published sources, which isn’t always easy with search engine results. Google prioritizes its results independent of author biases or factual legitimacy, leaving students to evaluate which sources are best.

But research from Stanford University has shown that most students don’t look beyond Google’s top hits on any given topic. This leaves users susceptible to specious information, wrongly believing Google is somehow designed to work in the interest of veracity.

Based on a helpful chart from UC Merced, here’s a quick comparison of the three research sources most used by students.


  • Free.
  • Searches the entire indexed web.
  • Its algorithm bases hits on their relevance to the user's search terms.
  • Good for basic searches and for access to government websites and other official sources.

  • Difficult to evaluate credibility of sources.
  • Search results contain both free and sponsored links that often appear as top hits.
  • Content isn’t organized or curated by experts.
  • Hard to find and identify scholarly sources.

Summary: Google is a good source for general information, and for students it can be a reasonable starting place to focus in on a research topic. But users must have some good fact-checking skills to effectively evaluate Google-cited sources.


  • Indexes a wide range of scholarly literature.
  • Searching is free.
  • User-friendly, for those familiar with Google.
  • Its search algorithm bases hits on their relevancy to users’ search terms.

  • Can’t search by subject area or material type.
  • No full-text access for most articles.
  • Very limited search filters.
  • Content not organized or curated by experts.
  • Doesn’t allow search for only peer-reviewed articles.

Summary: Though not all cited articles are “scholarly” or full text, Google Scholar can be a helpful tool for those without access to subscription databases, or for a deeper dive into more-nuanced information on a particular topic.


  • Searches specialized academic databases.
  • Full-text articles are often free to students and faculty through their schools, or to the public through their local libraries.
  • Content organized and maintained by experts.
  • Can limit searches by a variety of criteria.
  • Easy to identify peer-reviewed articles.
  • Many databases include a citation tool that automatically generates article citations for students’ papers.

  • Not easy to navigate for new users.
  • Databases may not share a common interface.
  • User must determine which database is best for a particular search.
  • User must learn to use search limiters for best results.

Summary: Though not as familiar and easy to use for those accustomed to the Google search interface, subscription databases are worth the effort for finding scholarly, fact-based, peer-reviewed and generally reliable articles and information.

The “you get what you pay for” maxim is true when comparing subscription databases to the free Internet and Google Scholar. And many states, municipalities, and public and school libraries are working together to cover the subscription costs for their users.

However, as we found in my former school district, both students and teachers need to be trained on how to effectively use subscription databases, as well as Google and Google Scholar. But due to a growing lack of teacher librarians, students often receive little or no guidance in how to use search tools and subscription databases in their research.

Given the fact that millions of Americans claim to believe that Donald Trump didn’t actually lose the 2020 presidential election, as well as the polarizing debates over COVID-19 vaccines and climate change, the need for media literacy instruction in schools is greater than ever. Students must know how to assess the information they’re bombarded with on a daily basis, and to make informed and fact-based decisions on what to believe.

Young people's media evaluation skills have never been more important, and subscription databases play a valuable role in providing students access to unbiased information. They’re not perfect, but the demand for more freely accessible research articles is growing.

To that end, in recognition of the fact that publishers often put publicly funded research articles behind a paywall, many universities are encouraging, if not requiring, their faculty to publish university-sponsored research in open-access repositories. But for the time being, age-appropriate subscription databases will continue as a worthwhile investment for K-12 libraries, and schools at all levels need to ensure their users know how to best leverage these tools.