Google Scholar: Inconsistent year

These days the majority of publishers will make accepted articles available on their website well before they are published in print, using terms such as “online first”, “early view” or “advance online publication”. Unfortunately, this leads to some inconsistency in the way the publication is reported in Google Scholar and Publish or Perish.

Using online publication provides up-to-date research record

Especially in the Social Sciences, journals often have long backlogs and articles can be available online 6-24 months before they appear in print. Google Scholar parses articles as soon as they are available online (typically within a week of the article being listed) and can thus record both the publication and its citations to them well before they appear in print. Google Scholar thus presents a much more up to date record of an academic's research performance than for instance the Web of Science, which only enters publications after they have been published in print (and sometimes with substantive delays even then).

Difference in online and print publication year creates confusion

Unfortunately, this also creates some confusion as to when articles are published, as even when they have appeared in print, the publisher’s website will normally list the online publication date as well [see below].

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Google Scholar does not parse publication years consistently

A problem arises when Google Scholar parses the online publication date as the publication year for some articles, but not others. For the journal above, we looked at all 19 articles that were included in the journal’s 2013 h-index.

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Out of al these articles, fourteen were in online first and published in the same year (2013), four were in online first in 2012, published in 2013, and parsed as 2013. This is as expected. However, two articles (Tenzer, Pudelko & Harzing, 2014 and Hinds, Neeley & Cramton, 2014) were in online first in 2013 (19 and 12 December respectively), published in 2014, but parsed as 2013.

Accurate record of journal publications in a particular year not possible

This is a little problematic as it means that one cannot get an accurate record of what is published in a particular journal in a particular year. At the same time one cannot simply compare online publication years either, as some articles have different online and print publication years in Google Scholar. As we saw above, four of the top 19 articles in 2013 were online in 2012. For 2014, the most cited article (Teece, 2014) was online in 2013, but was still parsed as 2014.

Authors cannot accurately compare the impact of their articles

This also creates problems for authors who want to compare citations to their paper with citations to other articles in the same journal in the same year. The 2014 Tenzer et al. and Hinds et al. papers – that were part of a special issue on language - compare well with 2013 papers (ranked 9th and 13th with 34 and 23 citations respectively), but if they had been compared to articles published in 2014, they would have ranked 2nd and 5th (see screenshot below). Now other articles in the special issue appear to be more highly cited on a cites per year basis. Chidow et al. for instance was published online on the 2nd of January, a mere two weeks after Tenzer et al., and thus is parsed as a 2014 article.

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My recommendation for Google Scholar parsing

Ideally, we would want Google Scholar to parse a publication with its online publication year as soon as it is published, but revert to the in-print publication year once this is effective. This is indeed what Google Scholar seems to do for most, but unfortunately not all, publications.

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