With Google dominating the search engine market, a recent study by UCT’s Laura Czerniewicz has demonstrated that researchers in Africa are unlikely to ever uncover the information they need. Czerniewicz set out to discover how people locate information on ‘poverty alleviation in South Africa’ using Google’s search engine. The study used individuals across multiple organisations and countries in order to allow for the variations in Google’s algorithms. These account for interaction on social media, personalisation and geolocation.

It was found that a researcher in France had a better chance of finding the relevant information than one in South Africa, for whom no search results were available. Furthermore, researchers who worked constantly in a particular field were prone to personalise their Google search results to the extent that they were locked into that field, and would not find anything outside of it.

One of the biggest obstacles to finding important information was that most of it was not easily accessible, and when it could be found, was locked behind paid subscription services. Only recent innovations in ‘green’ publishing allowed for self-archiving of articles in personal and university databases. Czerniewicz observed that while northern publishers had been leading the field in this area, the downside was that sources of information would become dominated by the ‘Global North’.

She stressed that locally produced research was of vital importance to counter this. However, national policy was needed to ensure this was done in open access formats and made easily accessible to all.

by Nic Botha