Questia: Some Issues

T. G. McFadden, the Director @ Schaffer Library, Union College in Schenectady, NY has written this look at Questia.


And while we\'re on the subject, a couple people have asked what happened to the Questia interview. I spoke with someone at the company who said they would rather not answer so many important questions in that format, and would rather answer each person individually.Read on for T.G.\'s look at Questia.

\"The following observations and findings are based on a limited, but perhaps not unrepresentative, trial of how Questia handles certain authors and subjects in areas familiar to me. Naturally, any conclusions or results should be independently verified.

Author Searching


There is a small, but important, design flaw in the search-and-retrieval interface: When search results are displayed, there is no longer any indication of what kind of search has been performed and yielded the displayed results. For instance, after a search on John Locke is performed, whether on Locke as author, title, or subject, the hit list does not indicate which type of search has been done. This is confusing to the searcher, and potentially misleading if the user forgets what kind of search he or she has requested.


Questia makes substantial use of anthologies and collections in its indexing of individual authors. Moreover, when a given author appears more than once in an anthology or collection, the hit list often contains that particular title repeatedly. This has the unfortunate effect of making an author hit list appear to represent that author more broadly (and deeply) than is perhaps strictly appropriate. It does not appear to be the case, however, that the individual essays or contributions to an anthology or collection can be retrieved by title (although the title can be retrieved by an exact phrase search, not in title, but in the full-text mode of \'power search\'. For example, an exact phrase search in full-text on \'free man\'s worship\' yields 110 hits, some of which contain the essay by Bertrand Russell in full, while most contain simply a reference to the essay (a title search on the exact phrase yields no results). This is certainly counterintuitive, producing not only the work itself but every mention of it in a secondary source. In addition, there is no indication in the retrieved bibliographic record why a particular author (or any other kind of) search has identified a particular anthology or collection. The reader must call up the full text and search for the connection.

Examples:


An author search on Bertrand Russell yields, among others, the following results:


1. Clifton Fadiman, Reading I\'ve Liked (1941). This collection of essays that Fadiman happened to have liked was first published in 1941 and reprinted several times. There is no connection among the contributions other than Fadiman\'s personal interest. Russell\'s contribution is \"A Free Man\'s Worship\". Most of the other authors represented in the collection are also cataloged by Questia as authors for the purposes of an author search. Incidentally, while most of the authors in anthologies are indexed for author searching by Questia, this is not a consistent practice.
2. Otto Nathan. Einstein on Peace. Published in 1960, this collection of essays by Einstein has a two-page preface by Russell.
3. Philip P. Wiener. Readings in the Philosophy of Science (1953). This collection includes a short preface to another work and a short essay by Russell.
4. Ideas and Beliefs of the Victorians (1949). This collection includes two contributions by Russell, for a total of about 15 pages.
5. Alfred Korzybski. Science and Sanity (1933). I cannot find that Russell had anything to do with this title, other than being a topic for discussion within the text. It is true that his name appears in the Dedication, however.
6. Alec Craig. Suppressed Books (1963). I cannot find that Russell had anything to do with this title, other than being a topic for discussion within the text.
7. Mark Leone. Contemporary Archaeology (1972). This one is a mystery, although Whitehead and Russell are cited in the bibliography (but not in the index).

An author search on Aristotle yields, among others, the following results:

1. Wallace Mendelson. Justices Black and Frankfurter (1961). The only connection with Aristotle this title apparently has is that the \"Introduction\" is prefaced by a short quotation from that philosopher. His name is not in the index.
2. William Wightman. The Growth of Scientific Ideas (1953). This title is not by Aristotle, of course, although he is naturally discussed as part of the history of science.
3. A.K. Rogers. Morals in Review (1927). This title is not by Aristotle, of course, although he is naturally discussed as part of the history of Greek ethical theory. Many of the other philosophers discussed by Rogers are also cataloged by Questia as \'authors\'.

An author search on Plato yields, among others, the following results:

1. Morris Kline. Mathematics: A Cultural Approach (1962). Plato is not, of course, the author, although he is discussed often enough.
2. Wallace Rice. Infidels and Heretics (1929). It hardly seems fair to include this title in the result of an author search on Plato, when there is only a two-paragraph selection from the Apology represented.
3. A.K. Rogers. Morals in Review (1927). This title is not by Plato, of course, although he is naturally discussed as part of the history of Greek ethical theory. Many of the other philosophers discussed by Rogers are also cataloged by Questia as \'authors\'.

It is also important to notice that the collected works of Plato, ed. by Hamilton and Cairns, does not appear in an author search for Plato, but rather in a subject search-a highly misleading result.

John Locke and Questia: A More Detailed Example

Questia Subject Search on \"John Locke\": 20

Questia Subject Search on Locke, John, 1632-1704: 9

PROBLEM

When Questia uses the simple authority heading (Locke, John, 1632-1704) in a search, only records are retrieved that have no subheadings after the main heading. Anyone searching on just the main heading as provided by Questia would not find any of the other relevant titles. This is in sharp contrast to the authority record display that is typical of most online catalogs.

Moreover, none of the titles listed in Books for College Libraries (3rd ed.) for Locke (B1253-1298) are available in the Questia library, a serious omission.

Of the 20 subject titles about Locke in Questia, only 6 (by my count) are exclusively about Locke; the others are about Locke and other philosophers. Of these 6, only 3 are entirely or largely about his epistemology-the primary concern of many undergraduates studying this philosopher. One of the 6, the general study by Thomas Fowler, was published in 1880. Among the 20 titles, and not counted by me as being about Locke, are two entries for his correspondence.

There are no full secondary works on Locke by Yolton (except one, which is not retrievable by author\'s name), Ayers, Woolhouse, Mackie, or Aaron-just to name a few. This is also a serious omission for undergraduates trying to understand the founding British Empiricist.

Questia Author Search on \"John Locke\": 15

PROBLEM

The only Questia edition of Locke\'s main philosophical work (Essay Concerning Human Understanding) is none of the standard, critical editions. In fact, it appears to be an edition that does not exist at all. Nor does the bibliographic entry created by the citation feature match the information contained in the text of the work as presented. It is impossible to verify the actual bibliographic information contained in the work, because no page image is available. Questia provides the following bibliography entry for this title:

Locke, John Gent. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. New York: Dover Publications, 1904.

But the actual text presented in the Questia database appears to match the edition published by Routledge (and Dutton in New York), without imprint date in many versions. In fact, this is so stated in the text of the work as it is transcribed by Questia in the online version. The only edition of Locke, so far as I can determine, published by Dover was the famous edition of Alexander Campbell Fraser. I have no idea where the \"Gent\" comes from in the citation; it does not appear in the printed text I have examined. So a student using the bibliography generator supplied in Questia, it appears, would end up with an incorrect citation.

Finally, Locke\'s most important political tract (The Second Treatise of Government) is represented in two editions, only one of which can be considered critically valuable (ed. J. W. Gough). The important edition edited by Peter Laslett is not available.

T. G. McFadden, Director
Schaffer Library
Union College
Schenectady, NY 12308
8 March 2001

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