In my answer to this question, another user was adamant that Google is not a citable source and that that is a policy of ELU.

The link given as evidence for that was Is TFD a RTFM online source? - a footnote to an answer to a different question so I am not satisfied with that as an authoritative answer to this question.


Note that this and many other similar questions/answers were not just LMGTFY. The answer was the word (I didn't Google it to get it). The Google links are just convenient definitions of the word. This question is not about LMGTFY questions and answers. It is only about whether Google Dictionary is a valid reference.


I have searched on Help and Meta and cannot find anything that explicitly says it is or isn't.

There is the list of recommended dictionaries but it is only a list of recommendations not an approved list where anything else is forbidden. Google isn't on that list but neither is Collins for example.

What's up with all these dictionary reference edits? comes closest but there is a disagreement of opinions there.

There is speculation about where Google gets their definitions: some suggest they get them from various other online dictionaries (from leeching the definition from the first dictionary link). This doesn't seem to be supported by the wikipedia article on Google Dictionary

Google Dictionary was an online dictionary service of Google, originating in its Google Translate service.

The Google Dictionary website was terminated on August 5, 2011 after part of its functionality was integrated into Google Search using the define: operator.

...the content now came from another Oxford dictionary, the Oxford American College Dictionary. As of 5 August 2011, Google Dictionary was discontinued as a separate service, although similar results have been incorporated into the Google search sidebar.

So it seems that Google have their own dictionary, copied from one or more other dictionaries perhaps but, if so, they undoubtedly have the intellectual rights to do so. They provide this as part of a search (much like searching for "the time now" shows the current time) rather than as a separate URL as they did before. There is of course no plagiarism on their part. They cite no references and don't need to (just like other dictionaries).

Personally, I see no reason that Google Dictionary (now incorporated into Google Search) shouldn't be cited as a reference. So long as the definition it gives is copied into the answer (as all such references should) then any volatility of Google's dictionary is hardly an issue (the definition at the time of writing was shown). The source of the definition was Google and was cited. I see no problem with that.

There is a potential problem with Google search links in that many users copy a lot of unnecessary junk in the URL but this question only relates to properly sanitised Google search links: e.g. https://www.google.com/search?q=stack+exchange

So the question is in two parts:

1) Is there a policy on ELU that Google Dictionary is not acceptable for providing the definitions of words? (If so, please provide the link to where that is explicitly stated. Someone's opinion buried within a question on another subject on meta will not do.)

2) If not, should there be? (And why?)


Conclusion

I expect everyone who has an opinion has voted and the consensus is quite clear: Google dictionary is not to be referenced.

The down votes to the question are curious. Does that mean people feel it shouldn't have been asked or just that it was asked badly? I am glad it has been and I now know where ELU community stands on the question. I don't think it was clear before. People can say Google is not a citable source with a lot more confidence and authority now.

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    There's no approved/forbidden list. There is more vs less respected. Urban Dictionary has a lot of crap in it but sometimes has some good suggestions for slang that don't exist anywhere else. TFD is quick and easy and sources a lot of dictionaries including wiktionary which is still in its infancy. OED, best in the world, still doesn't give every nuance. Google dictionary I'm sure is just fine; everything is up for discussion. – Mitch Aug 11 '15 at 16:26
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    Realted (possible dupe): meta.english.stackexchange.com/q/2267/8019. – TimLymington Aug 11 '15 at 17:27
  • @TimLymington I don't think it is a dupe because this is specifically about Google: whether Google is a special case for whatever reason. If not then that question does provide a general answer. Do I take it from this that you think Google Dictionary isn't a special case? – Avon Aug 11 '15 at 17:44
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    You are still eliding 'Google' and 'Google dictionary', which appears to have caused much of the confusion in the original question. Far too often, alas, we get posts saying "'if not then that' [as in your comment] gets 20000 hits on Google, so it must be a recognised phrase; what does it mean?". For that reason Google itself is not citable here as any sort of authority. Google Dictionary can be quoted for what it may be worth: not as much as a properly researched, independent dictionary but more than a random individual's view. And why should it be a special case? – TimLymington Aug 11 '15 at 19:22
  • @TimLymington Google obviously do have a dictionary (cached - like all searches only a lot more static). Google and its dictionary are not the same thing. That they bought it off someone else without exclusive rights seems to be true but it is not withstanding of the fact that they do have a dictionary. If they are quoting a "a properly researched, independent dictionary" as their own (with the permission of that dictionary) then... what is the difference? I don't think its dictionary should be a special case. – Avon Aug 11 '15 at 20:16
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    Just yesterday I edited an answer in which the answerer seemed to be quoting a dictionary (or two) for two listed definitions, but didn't provide any credit or link at all. A Google search for the quoted wording yielded one match to Dictionary.com and one match to Free Dictionary, but closer inspection of those two matches revealed that both definitions were actually from Collins Dictionary. In my view, the appropriate links were to Collins, so that's the source I linked to. It doesn't make sense to me to cite a content aggregator when you can cite an original source instead. – Sven Yargs Aug 12 '15 at 10:27
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    Citable is one thing; valid is another, and this parallels the whole Wikipedia thing in academic writing. Only primary sources are citable, and neither a Google definition nor Wikipedia is a primary source and hence are not citable. They are, however, as valid (in the sense of being trustworthy) as the sources they use. – Roaring Fish Aug 22 '15 at 5:19
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Meta posts and votes on them define policy, in that (insofar as Stack Exchange allows) the community decides how it should operate. Some aspects of ELU are mandated by the company; one such is the attribution policy.

In the absence of anything better, then the footnote on this answer with its upvotes is part of site policy.

However, I’ll state it explicitly so it can be voted upon.

[The attribution policy] does make for problems when answers simply reproduce the content Google supplies from a define query. Presumably Google have an agreement with their sources where they can omit any reference. I don't think we should endorse that, particularly when it's easy to provide cited references from original dictionary websites.

Google is a directory. They have recently taken to providing answers directly on their site, but do so without any attribution.

We would not accept a link provided by Google as an answer: an answer should be more than a link and should reference source material. Similarly, we would not accept a Google search link and text from the search results, which is arguably close to providing a dictionary search link and data from the dictionary results.

If this site were one where the questions lent themselves to Google’s calculator, we would not accept a bald figure as an answer: the method of calculation would have to be shown.

Consequently, no, we should not accept Google’s dictionary definitions at face value either. Google does not acknowledge its sources, despite simply reproducing content†; Stack Exchange policy does not allow unacknowledged material. The work is not Google’s: they have reproduced the work of others, and Stack Exchange policy is that that work should be acknowledged.

A side issue, but related, is that answers which reference Google definitions tend — often, but not always — to include only Google’s content. If there is anything which is original at all, it is very little. Stack Exchange answers are supposed to be complete, and are expected to show some originality of thought. Regurgitating Google’s summary of another site is short-changing the asker and providing a bad example to follow. The quality of answers generally goes down, and if saying “No Google” is a way to stem that progress [regress?] then to do so is useful.

As I said in my original footnote, it’s easy to provide cited references from original dictionary websites.


† This is easily demonstrated by using Google’s own search engine to find the real source of their text.

  • You have said quite a lot here so bear with me: In the absence of anything better, then the footnote on this answer with its up-votes is part of site policy. Is that really how it works? A few up-votes and everything it says, even on a point tangential to the answer it is giving, is policy? – Avon Aug 11 '15 at 20:28
  • If we knew the source of Google's dictionary (oxforddictionaries.com as far as I can tell - 100% on the few words I've tried) then would that change matters in your opinion? – Avon Aug 11 '15 at 20:40
  • @Avon: It's obvious you don't agree. Write your own answer with your point of view (rather than simply attempting to rebut mine). Thank you. Specifically, no: we do know that their source is Oxford, but that doesn't change what I wrote here. – Andrew Leach Aug 11 '15 at 20:42
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    I am asking questions about your answer. I don't think it would be appropriate to put those in a separate answer. – Avon Aug 11 '15 at 20:44
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    To answer your other supplementary: Yes, in the absence of anything better (like this question on specifics) that really is how the site works. But Stack Exchange corporation's views override everything, whether people here upvote them or not. – Andrew Leach Aug 11 '15 at 21:18
  • Unfortunately, this issue highlights the bigger problem in that many answers don't contain any citation or supporting text whatsoever, yet they often have large numbers of up-votes and are accepted by the OPs. I have seen answers given that are incorrect, that is, if you take any notice whatsoever of a dictionary definition, but when they receive in excess of 50 up-votes, one has to assume that dictionaries are not a significant factor! Of course, language is constantly evolving, but I'm not sure what Stack Exchange feels about actively being part of that? – Julie Carter Aug 12 '15 at 23:08
  • @Julie Carter: I'd be interested to see one or two examples of ELU answers with 50+ upvotes which you feel are completely at odds with dictionary definitions. But I would just say there are plenty of neologisms familiar to tens of millions of native speakers which haven't yet made it into the OED (some never will, but we don't know which). No other dictionary comes close to the comprehensiveness of OED in any language, but it certainly ain't (and doesn't list) the last word in English! :) – FumbleFingers Aug 13 '15 at 0:10
  • @FumbleFingers example – Julie Carter Aug 13 '15 at 0:15
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    @Julie Carter: OED novice a person who is new to the circumstances in which he or she is placed. I don't see how the answerer's brand new beginning-beginner conflicts with that. But unless other users have the paid-for subscription (or it happens to be the randomly-chosen day of the month when they allow free access) they might not be able to access that definition. (Though they still might, because the free online oxforddictionaries site copies some definitions verbatim.) – FumbleFingers Aug 13 '15 at 0:31
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    ...actually, I just tried googling that definition for you. It's not been replicated by oxforddictionariesonline, but you might wish to note that of several citations I did find, this one clearly has novice as the most basic category, below a person inexperienced or unskilled in a particular activity (amateur). That usage seems fine to me, but your comments on the linked ELU question suggest you have a problem with it. – FumbleFingers Aug 13 '15 at 0:37
  • @FumbleFingers this site has problems in maintaining its aims and I'm not wasting any more of my energy over the matter. Not seeing the wood for the trees comes to mind. – Julie Carter Aug 13 '15 at 6:17
  • Google is a lexicon. Google Dictionary is one of the Oxford Dictionaries. oxforddictionaries.com/licensing/google – Jesse Ivy Jan 13 at 1:16
  • @AndrewLeach Google owns a massive amount of data (about you and me and all the trees) and they specialize in indexing. And navigation. Correct. – Jesse Ivy Jan 13 at 3:48
  • @AndrewLeach What makes you think they would own an inept dictionary? – Jesse Ivy Jan 13 at 3:50

Don't cite Google as a dictionary.


Google has licensed two of the dictionaries from Oxford Dictionaries for their search product:

  • The Oxford Dictionary of English
  • The New Oxford American Dictionary

These aren't bad dictionaries, mind you. The ODE is a large single-volume dictionary which gives very good coverage of Present-Day English, including many examples taken from the corpus Oxford used to assemble the dictionary. The NOAD is a version of this dictionary, not quite as good, which focuses on American English. The ODE and NOAD are not called by these names online; instead, they've been rebranded as Oxford Dictionaries, or Oxford Living Dictionaries.

Whatever you call them, it's confusing. The OED is a very different dictionary – a large multi-volume historical dictionary, not specifically focused on Present-Day English – but the acronym is very similar to ODE, so they're easily confused. And the "Oxford Dictionaries" name is likewise confusing, as the OED is the most well-known Oxford dictionary, but it isn't available at the Oxford Dictionaries website.

So it's a bit of a mess. But referring to these as the "Google dictionary" just adds to the confusion. Although Google has the license to present these search results without attribution, they haven't compiled their own dictionaries, and if you don't name the actual source, it's difficult for people to learn about the dictionaries themselves – their advantages and disadvantages, how they were compiled, what their purpose and coverage is, and so forth.

What's worse, Google doesn't return these results to all users. Many users on this site use Google in languages other than English, but the English dictionary results are not shown to all of these users. If someone cites the "Google dictionary" with a link to a Google search, the link simply won't work for many of the users on this site. That means the link is not a proper citation, and it should not be used on this site.

Even worse, imagine Google licensing another dictionary in the future. Apple did this with the Japanese language dictionaries included with its operating system a few years back, dumping one set of dictionaries and replacing them with another when it made financial sense to do so. Since Google doesn't name their sources, you can imagine this could turn out to be terribly confusing!

Linking to a Google search is just a bad idea. If you want to link to the ODE or NOAD, please link directly to the Oxford Dictionaries website.

  • Can you comment on the other dictionaries that come up -after- the 'official' google definition (TFD, MW, Collins, etc) and how they relate to ODE and OED? Can you comment on how one -should- reference all these? – Mitch Jun 15 at 13:29

I think it should be at least as valid as the dictionary that it reproduces: oxforddictionaries.com (an ELU recommended dictionary) it appears.

If Google have been given the right to call it their own then it is not unattributed on any meaningful level (morally or legally) - it is attributed to Google as is their right. OED, for example, have a right to publish 'their' definitions because of intellectual property contracts between the company and its staff that produce them. Google has rights by a different route to the works of oxforddictionaries.com's staff. I see no difference.

Any other feelings about Google as evidence depends on the subject. This is specifically and solely about definitions of words in Google. The validity of Google for other references or evidence is irrelevant.

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    "It appears" and "If" are the problem here. Google has very many sources, some good and others bad. Merely citing 'Google' says nothing about the source, so is not a valid citation. If it is from a good source, it is worth finding the origin. – TimLymington Aug 11 '15 at 21:32

Yes. And no. In my opinion Google Dictionary is a citable source. However, this site requires that all sources be cited with an internet link. As ironic as that in and of itself may be, with regards to the credibility of google I have a link that OED UK emailed me personally upon inquiry. Turns out my suspicion was correct and Google Dictionary is one of the Oxford Dictionaries. It is a great one, which is under the control of nerds, and edited by Oxford. Google and Oxford are partners. Unfortunately we can't use it here because google doesn't appear to provide links to their dictionary directly. I suppose the search results link technically does however satisfy the requirement. I'm very disappointed by the rejection.

https://www.oxforddictionaries.com/licensing/google

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    It is inaccurate to state that this site strictly requires a link. This is not true. What it — and the entire network — strictly requires is attribution duly provided that can be used to find the actual source when you copy in others’ text. Think of it as an entry in a bibliography. "I found this by Googling it up" is not a valid citation, and because Googling a definition does not say whom it derived its text from, it is impossible to verify. Moreover, the same lookup produces different answers for different people at different times. Define pasta – tchrist Jan 13 at 2:22
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    Please stop using “OED” to mean Oxford Living Dictionaries or Oxford Dictionaries Online. That is not what OED means. OED means this; please do not continue to conflate the two. – tchrist Jan 13 at 2:28
  • @tchrist I am neither referring to OED nor ODO, I am referring to Google Dictionary which is a Lexicon. This is the "real" world. They are maintaining a valuable source. Google Dictionary is one of the Oxford Dictionaries. So too are OED, and ODO, as confusing as that is. I guess in some of my writing one might replace the term "OED" Which refers to the difinitive source for English Language Reference with Oxford University Press, it's publisher. Citing "Source: Google Dictionary" is descriptive, refers to an Oxford Dictionary, and I've never had anyone complain about it. It's a good source. – Jesse Ivy Jan 13 at 3:32
  • @tchrist And yes. That is who I emailed personally. They replied. They own oxforddictionaries.com and they are scholars. – Jesse Ivy Jan 13 at 3:35
  • @tchrist I have provided a link, and I am pleased that it has become meta. – Jesse Ivy Jan 13 at 3:44

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