When I grade my students’ paper proposals, I make a point of doing a brief Google Scholar search for each student’s proposal, which a) helps me evaluate how thorough they have been; b) helps me help them find additional material (I then give them the sources I found, but also the keywords I used to find them). One of my students in my introductory linguistic anthropology course this term is doing a paper on linguistic aspects of laughter and humor. During my search, I encountered the following citation (direct from Google Scholar to you):
Embuggerance, E., and H. Feisty. 2008. The linguistics of laughter. English Today 1, no. 04: 47-47.
After I stopped laughing, I set to figuring out what was going on.
1) I quickly discarded the theory that an unlikely duo of scholars actually had this pair of names – although that would have been too awesome for words. In fact, no other article listed in Google Scholar has an author named ‘Embuggerance’ (although there are a couple other Feistys).
2) I also considered the possibility that this was one of the many metadata errors in Google Scholar; for instance, there are thousands of articles whose purported authors are named Citations or Introduction or Methods, due to errors where it interprets headings like “IV. Methods” as a name “Dr. I.V. Methods”. But this seemed unlikely in the extreme in this case.
3) This left the possibility that these were pseudonyms adopted by particularly amusing authors as part of a parody article.
In this case the article is in fact a book review (which I could tell because it’s all on one page), so I didn’t recommend it to the student, but I did request it for my own edification. Lo and behold, it arrived today as a PDF.
‘The linguistics of laughter’ is a book review of a The Language of Humour by Walter Nash. It’s perfectly ordinary and non-satirical, and it does not contain the words Embuggerance or Feisty. But next to it is another book review, entitled ‘Concise and human’ which contains the following passage (emphasis added):
Silverlight’s concise and human reports cover a surprising range of curious items, from Acid Rain through Bottom Line, Catch 22, Dinner/Supper, Embuggerance, Escalate, Feisty, Holistic, Krasis, Ms, Naff, Quorate, Shambles and Viable to Yomping.
The four bolded words appear on a single line, and the fact that the Google Scholar metadata thinks that the initials of the ‘authors’ are Dr. E. Embuggerance and Dr. H. Feisty seals the deal. This is the source, and so something like option 2 above is correct. But this is really weird. Not only do the pseudo-authors appear in the middle of a contextualized sentence (not in headings), but the sentence is in the wrong review – a review that itself is found (mostly correctly) in Google Scholar!
To make matters even worse, at the end of the reviews section the phrase ‘Reviews by Tom McArthur’ appears – an attribution which is found in the metadata for ‘Concise and human’ but not for ‘The linguistics of laughter’. And, as if this were not bad enough, even though both reviews are listed as being from 2008, the PDF clearly shows them as being from 1985. If I were a gambling man, I’d wager that 2008 is the year when the metadata was added and/or the file was scanned.
Now, mostly this is just a humorous anecdote; I don’t mean this as an indictment of Google Scholar, which I consider to be the most useful way for most scholars to find academic literature, and which I use virtually every day. But one has to wonder at the process (automated or otherwise) that leads to this comedy of errors. A great deal of virtual ink has been spilled over at Language Log (here and here, for instance) on the metadata problems with Google Books / Google Scholar and its implications for linguistic research, for tenure cases that rest on faulty citation records, and other potential problems. Until there is a way for these sorts of errors to be corrected by end users, we may all be well and truly embuggered.