How Q&A systems based on large language models (eg GPT4) will change things if they become the dominant search paradigm — 9 implications for libraries

Aaron Tay
25 min readMar 28, 2023

Warning : Speculative piece!

I recently did a keynote at the IATUL 2023 conference where I talked about the possible impact of large language models (LLMs) on academic libraries.

Transformer based language models whether encoder-based ones like BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) or auto-regressive decoder-based ones like GPT (Generative Pretrained Transformers) brings near human level capabilities in NLP (Natural Language Processing) and (particularly for encoder based GPT models) NLG (Natural Language Generation).

This capability can be leveraged in almost unlimited ways — as libraries can leverage capabilities like Text sentiment analysis, Text classification, Q&A, code completion, text generation for a wide variety of tasks, particularly since such LLMs are so general, they need minimal finetuning (which “realistically be used by researchers with relatively little programming experience”) to get them to work well.

This article in ACRL provides a brief but hardly comprehensive series of possible uses — for example, it does not include uses such as OCR correction for digitalization work and other collections related work. Neither does it talk about copyright issues, the role libraries may play in supporting data curation and open source Large Language Models.

Yes, I don’t think it takes a futurist to say that the impact of LLMs and workable Machine Learning, Deep Learning is going to be staggering.

But for this article I’m going to focus on one specific area I have some expertise in, the implications of large language models (LLMs) on information retrieval and Q&A (Question and answer tasks) where LLMs are used in search engines to extract and summarise answers from top ranked documents.

I argue this new class of search engines represents a brand-new search paradigm that will catch on and change the way we search, obtain, and verify answers.

We have essentially the long promised Semantic Search over documents, where instead of the old search paradigm of showing ten blue links to possible relevant documents, we can now extract answers directly from webpages and even journal articles, particularly Open Access papers.

What implications will this have for library services like reference and information literacy? Will this give an additional impetus to the push for Open Access? How will this new search paradigm affect relationships between content owners like Publishers and discovery and web search vendors?

1. The future of search or information retrieval is not using ChatGPT or any LLM alone but one that is combined with a search engine.

ChatGPT by OpenAI was made open to all with no waitlist in Nov 2022 and it quickly went viral.

As a result, most of the current thinking is based on the idea that the future will be ChatGPT or one of its future versions.

Here are three general papers I know of on academic libraries impacts on ChatGPT

and this is well and good.

But while large language models will certainly be used in many of the ways described in these articles, in the long run they will not I believe be used for information retrieval, or in the library context reference services.

Instead, the future belongs to tools like the New Bing,, Google’s Bard which combine search engines with Large Language Models.

Technically speaking many search engines, you use today like Google, might already be using Large Language Models under the hood to improve query interpretation and relevancy ranking. For example, Google already uses BERT models to better understand your search query, but this is not visible to you and is not the LLM use I am referring to. This type of search where queries and documents are converted into vector embeddings using the latest transformer-based models (BERT or GPT-type models) and are matched using something like cosine similarity is often called Semantic Search . Unlike mostly keyword-based techniques they can match documents with queries that are relevant even if the keywords are very different. But at the end of the day, they still revert to the two-decade old paradigm of showing the most relevant documents and not the answer.

See a simple explanation.

These tools work in a variety of ways but speaking, they do the following

1. User query is interpreted and searched

How this is done is not important, but more advanced systems like OpenAI’s unreleased WebGPT, hooks up a LLM with a Search API and trains it to learn what keywords to use (and even whether to search!), by “training the model to copy human demonstrations” but this is not necessary, and this step could be accomplished with as simple as a standard keyword search

2. Search engine ranks top N documents

Results might be ranked using traditional search ranking algo like BM25,TF-IDF or it might be using “semantic search” using transformer based embeddings (see above). or some hybrid-multiple stage ranking system with more computational expensive methods in later stages.

3. Of the top ranked documents, it will try to find the most relevant text sentences or passages that might answer the question

Again, this usually involves using embeddings (this time at sentence level) and similarity matches to determine the most relevant passage. Given that GPT-4 has a much bigger context window, one can possibly even just use the whole page or article for this step instead of passages.

4. The most relevant text sentences or passages will then be passed over to the LLM with a prompt like “Answer the question in view of the following text”.

Why is this better for information retrieval than just using a LLM like ChatGPT alone?

There are two reasons.

Firstly, it is known that LLMs like ChatGPT may “hallucinate” or make things up. One way to counter this is to ask it to give references.

Unfortunately, it is well known by now ChatGPT tends to make references up as well! Depends on your luck you may get references that are mostly real , but most likely you will get mostly fake references.

In the example above, all three references are fake. Interestingly a lot of them are pretty pausible.

For example, there really is a paper in 2014, PLOSONE that does estimate the size of Google Scholar.
The authors are wrong though, but the authors are plausible, e.g. Anne-Wil Harzing (of software Hazing Publish or Perish Software) does publish papers on size of Google Scholar vs Scopus but has not to my knowledge published papers that directly estimate size of Google Scholar etc. This is the actual paper that does answer the question in PLOSONE by Madian Khabsa and C. Lee Giles published in 2014.

There’s a similar pattern for the second paper included — the actual paper is here but the author is different.

My non-scientific way of thinking about this is like if you asked a human with his memory alone unaided with tools to cite papers, he most likely would get things wrong. But what happens if he could search and “look through” top results and cite those documents?

This is what the new Bing and does. (See also academic versions like,’s ask a question, Consensus etc).

Let’s try the same question again .

Here’s the same search for

Notice it cites papers or at least URLs

The same applies for the new Bing,

Both Bing and Perplexity use OpenAI’s GPT models via APIs and as such work similarly.

Perplexity even shows the sentence passage used to help generate the answer

Compare ChatGPT to these search engines. Because these new search engines link to actual papers or webpages it doesn’t ever makeup references by definition. It can still “misinterprete” the citations of course.

For example, I’ve found such systems may confuse the findings of other papers mentioned in the literature review portion with what the paper actually found.

Still, this seems better than having no references for checking or fake references that don’t exist.

As I write this GPT-4 was released and it seems to generate a lot less fake references. This is quite impressive since it is not using search.

Secondly, even if LLMs used alone without search can generate mostly real citations, I still wouldn’t use it for information retrieval.

Consider a common question — that you might ask the system. What are the opening hours of <insert library>.

ChatGPT got the answer wrong. But more importantly without real-time access to the actual webpage, even if it was right the best it can do is to reproduce the website it saw during training and this could be months ago!

Retraining LLMs completely is extremely expensive and as such the data it is trained is always going to be months behind. Even if you simply finetune the full model and not retrain it from the scratch it will still not update as quickly as a real time search.

Adding search to a LLM solves the issue trivially, as it could find the page with the information and extract the answer.

Technically speaking these systems will match documents based on the cached copy the search engine sees, so this can be hours or days out of date. But my tests shows they will actually scrape the live page of these documents for answers, so the answers are based on real-time or at least the information on the page at the time of the user query.

I did notice that Bing+Chat works similarly to ChatGPT and GPT in that it’s answers are not deterministic, ie there is some randomness to the answers (technically this is adjusted via a “temperature” variable via the API and is technically set to 0.7, 0 = no randomness)

In fact, most of the time it gets the answer wrong. My suspicion is it’s confused by tables…..

2. Search+LLM will catch on quickly even if it is initially not very accurate

As I write this, most people are still not familiar with search enhanced with LLMs. But with Microsoft lifting the waitlist now on the new Bing+chat things might change very quickly.

My prediction is that these new search tools, including Google’s soon to be released Bard, will gain popularity very quickly and going forward this new search paradigm will become the default.

Why? Simple. Convenience!

Google and Web search engines were a great advancement to information retrieval. You entered a keyword, scanned the top few results, which hopefully had the answer you wanted.

This new advancement goes even further. You no longer even have to scan the documents for results. The system scans and extracts the answer for you!

This was always the limiting factor of traditional search engines.

As a librarian, one article of faith I was told is users don’t read FAQs. Google Search helped because users could be dropped on those FAQs with the answers but I still find many questions from users via our chat services that can trivially be answered by a google search and reading the information on the top ranked page.

Occasionally, Google would extract answers and display them — via “featured snippet” , see the example below about opening hours, but this was the exception not the rule.

With the new class of search engines this would be the norm for every search not just selected ones!

Of course, the reason people still ask questions that can be found on a webpage is that sometimes the user would even be on the page or document with the answer but would be daunted due to the length of the document/page or the jargon used. This is certainly true for academic works!

These new systems bypass all these issues.

Of course, these systems are not without issues. The main one off the bat is that even though they may refer to real articles or pages, they may extract or summarize the answers wrongly. How accurate are these systems? I am unaware of any study on this issue, but I have heard that (an academic system searching only academic papers using Semantic Scholar but using similar LLMs) is around 70% accurate at extracting information.

I know librarians and educators are going to say 70% isn’t good enough and maybe it isn’t. But this technology is going to improve and the irony is the better it becomes; the more people will not bother to check the citations.

But if I were to guess, based on the history of librarianship and ideas from books like the Innovator’s dilemma this technology is going to win out.

Convenience is king. Web search engines when first introduced weren’t very good and did not give as reliable answers as printed books, but despite that they were preferred by everyone and today the main way to learn things is via web search.

The same story repeated with Google Scholar. It wasn’t very good when first introduced, didn’t have a large coverage of most journals, had (and still does) inferior search and browse features than our traditional databases and yet again the convenience of searching large numbers of articles reliably and quickly (something federated search engines of the day could not do) instead of using individual databases won out again. Today most researchers start at Google Scholar.

3. Decent chat bots for libraries are practical now

Like many industries, Libraries have tried to create chatbots. I have never been impressed with them, they were either simple minded “Select from limited x options” systems that hardly deserved the name bot, or extremely hard to train systems that you would need to specially train for individual questions and would do well only for an exceedingly small, limited set of questions.

I believe chatbots are now practical. In the earlier part of my career, I spent time thinking about and implementing chat services for libraries. In general chat services questions relate to the following major classes of questions

1. Queries about details of library services

2. APA questions

3. General Research Questions.

Another category of questions is troubleshooting questions which I did not test. This depends mostly on how good your faqs are on this class of questions. But I have not tried how it reacts to error messages being relayed to it,

Using just the new Bing+Chat which was not optimized for the library chatbot use case, the results are amazing.

I start off asking Bing about the opening hours of my library.

It knows I’m from Singapore and it correctly points out it depends on which library I am talking about.

When I state I am from Singapore Management University, it correctly finds the right webpage with the answer and extracts the answer. In this case it extracts the answer wrongly…. I suspect it is confused by the table format….

Notice how it doesn’t just answer the question, but also acts very much like a librarian, asking follow-up questions like “what else I would like to know about the library”. There’s also a list of options at the bottom you can follow up with.

Next, I try yet another basic question on borrowing privileges.

Notice how it knows to search for “SMU Libraries borrowing books” even though my query did not include the word SMU. This is a very “human” ability in that it “knows” that because I was earlier asking for the SMU opening hours, here I am likely asking about the same library!

Again, it finds the right page but misinterprets the table on the page.

Of course, you might think, this isn’t a big deal, your library bot can answer this correctly too. But the difference is here we have a bot that isn’t specifically trained at all! All it did was read your webpage and it found the answers. It even has a conversational, librarian-like demeanor!

I know from past tests, chatGPT is pretty good at APA citing, if you give it the right information.

I was curious to see given that Bing+GPT can “see” the page you are referring to, it might be able to give you the right citation when you pass it a URL.

The results are disappointing. It is unable to spot the author of the piece. Even when I prompted it to summarise the URL which triggered it to search and “See” the page, when I asked it for APA 7th it couldn’t spot the author. But of course, when I supplied the author it took that into account.

In general, while it is possible with some work to anticipate many non-research questions and train the bot for it, research questions can be pretty much anything under the sun and is impossible to anticipate.

So, it was the performance on the third class of question, research questions that shocked me.

In my last blog post, I talked about how it could be used to find seminal works and even compare and constrast works.

One common question we get via chat service is dataset questions

While the answers are not specific to my institution resources, I am very amazed at how human-like the responses are, probing questions like “What kind of analysis are you planning to do with these dataset”, “What Industry or time period are you interested in”, are the sorts of things up to now only real human librarians would ask!

Trying the same query in Perplexity but limiting it to results from, gets even better and more specific answers, because it can “see” into the Open Access PDF, available on our institutional repository and from there it can figure out the right datasets/databases typically used by our researchers! More on that later.

Btw this barely scratches the surface on what these new search systems can do for research questions (see also later).

4. Reference desk and general chat usage will continue to decline

Reference desk queries have been falling for over a decade. Mostly due to the impact of Google and search engines. These new class of search engines may be the final nail in the coffin.

Don’t get me wrong, this does not mean — Reference is dead, it just means the general reference desk or even general chat will be in further decline.

The problem with the general reference query is this. Even if you are the most capable reference librarian in the world, there is no way you can know or be familiar with every subject under the sun.

The nature of general reference is that when a question is asked, unless it is a question or topic you are somewhat familiar already (unlikely if you are in a University that spans many disciplines), if you try to answer the question (and you usually do as a stop gap), you will typically be googling and skimming frantically to find something that might somewhat help before you pass it on to a specialist who might have a better chance of helping.

But with this new search tool, it is doing what you are doing but faster! Look at the query below.

It was basically looking at the appropriate webpages for answers and is the penultimate answer it was still smart enough to suggest alternative sources and when I asked how to do it in Bloomberg it even gave me the command directly.

And more amusingly, the answer came from a FAQ written by my librarian colleague. I would have found same but nowhere has fast.

Of course, for in-depth research queries, a specialist in the area would probably outdo the new Bing, as the answers to questions asked tends to require nuanced understanding beyond current chatbots.

That is why it is well known that the toughest, “highest tier” research questions go directly to specialists not via general reference or chat.

For example, some of the toughest questions I get relate to very detailed questions on bibliometrics, search functionality etc that I get direct from faculty who are aware of my expertise. These are unlikely to be affected.

But asking such questions to a random library staff at general reference or chat is futile because the chance it reaches someone who has a realistic chance of answering the specific research question is extremely low. In such a case, the average librarian isn’t likely to outperform the new Bing.

5. Information needs to be discoverable even more (in Bing!) and a possible new Open Citation Advantage?

When I first tried Bing as a makeshift chatbot. I tried asking it another common question — access to resources.

It naturally could tell what databases we had access to (A-Z lists are open), but it struggled to figure out what books we had. The obvious reason is for us, our catalog records are not indexed in Bing (but they are in Google).

In the example below, it did not realize my University did have access to the book “The book of why”. Even so, I was impressed by how it didn’t stop there, but pointed out you could “Suggest SMU Libraries to purchase through their website” and if you asked it do so, it would point you to the form.

Just to show you that it CAN find records if it is indexed, I asked it about the National Library Board and it could find the overdrive record.

It is well known fact that if something is not indexed by the major search engines such as Google etc it is effectively invisible. With this class of new search engines, this becomes even more important because your webpage or information needs to be indexed to be found and found for its information to be extracted and displayed!

And this doesn’t just apply to webpages but also scholarly content like journal articles in pdf that are indexed by the search engines.

If you ask the new Bing, who coined the term bronze OA, it is able to come up with the answer, but the source it obtained the result from is not an academic paper.

If you only want the result to come from papers, you can prompt it accordingly and ask it to restrict results only to peer reviewed papers. By the way, asking it to filter to specific domains works too.

Indeed, when you do it, it points to an open access paper indexed and stored on .

The answer here btw isn’t quite correct. Most people do give credit to Piwowar but the paper was published in either 2017 or 2018 (depending on which version preprint or published version) but it wasn’t from 2013!

Looking at the full-text of the citation we see this section.

Bing appears to be crediting Piwowar but in the reference for this is the 2018 published version, but I notice the reference for [9] says “[cited 2018 Dec 13]”, which is where the 2013 comes from. So it’s misinterpreting the paper.

This also shows a slight issue for Bing, in that while it shows the document it extracts the answer from, we are not told explicitly which exact passage of text it used (in the above example, I had to skim the paper)

When you do the same search In Perplexity and ask it to search within only, you get not just the reference [1] but you can even see the sentence that it used to generate the answer, so this is even more useful for helping to validate answers.

The significant of all this is you can now do Question and Answering over full-text of papers, particularly if they are Open Access!

You can either use an academic search engine that works like Bing except searching over academic text — I recommend, though others like Scispace, Scite’s ask a question feature are all coming up.

Elicit and scite’s “Ask a question” feature in particular like Perplexity, do show you the sentences it uses to generate answer.

Elicit answers and the highlight text that was used to generate answer

Or you can use a general web search engine like Bing or Perplexity and ask the results to be restricted to peer reviewed papers or specify a domain where the answers come from.

A particularly useful domain to use is​ as it is one of the largest aggregator of Open Access content. They not only aggregate metadata but also harvest and store copies on their domain, so restricting to just one domain gets your answers over one of the largest sources of Open Access.

In fact, the logic of using Open Access papers in such a way is so obvious, CORE just announced CORE-GPT which allows “Combining Open Access research and AI for credible, trustworthy question answering”

What are the implications of doing large scale question and answer over academic papers? Firstly, open access papers are definitely going to be the first to benefit from this as the examples above here.

While the existence of the open access citation advantage is controversial , it seems to me this new development might strengthen this effect. While it is true that Open Access papers are more accessible than paywalled articles, in today’s world, both are equally likely to be discoverable via indexes like Google Scholar. Particularly for researchers in the global north, the issue isn’t paywalls but time to read papers.

These new search terms that extract answers directly from Open Access Papers will give OA a leg up because there is no or less need to read the papers! If you ask a question with such tools and one paper is Open Access and one isn’t, the former is more likely to surface since the latter’s full-text isn’t available for extraction of answers.

Further down the line it is interesting to speculate how this new search paradigm will affect relationships between Content owners like Elsevier and Google Scholar.

Just as Google is faced with a business model issue as the nature of this new search engines means, answers can be displayed automatically in the search without users needing to go on to the webpages, Google Scholar and Publishers like Elsevier will face a tricky decision.

Under the current search paradigm, publishers of paywall content like Elsevier, Springer-Nature allow Google Scholar to indexed the full-text of their content including paywall articles. The logic is that this makes their content more discoverable to readers and the readers still need to pay to access the full-text.

The new search paradigm where the search engine can extract and summarise answers directly from papers upsets everything. Assuming Google Scholar or Google Books introduces similar technology, I can always ask the system to summarise the findings of papers (even paywalled ones) and there is little need to read the full-text!

Assuming publishers of paywall content stop “giving away” full-text to be indexed by Google Scholar, what business model would they adopt? They could always introduce the same tech for users on their platform (this is a no-brainer) but this would only cover a subset of all the papers in the world. Would they offer special subscription models for people who want to integrate their LLMs with subsets of data?

6. There will be huge information literacy implications beyond warning about fake references

When ChatGPT was first released, there was panic over the possibility of students using it to generate essays and later people noticed the references were mostly fake. We are even seeing reports in the wild of naive users of ChatGPT asking to find such fake references.

This was comforting to many who seized on this as evidence you can never use LLMs to write essays, but I am afraid this illusion is slowly being washed away as tools like the new Bing, Perplexity, become more well known.

Still if I were a librarian specializing in information literacy, I would be excited because I see a ton of interesting problems and work ahead.

The first obvious thing is LLMs make it far easier to generate disinformation.

The CSET report using GPT3 to test how easy it was to automate generation of disinformation, and as a test I tried some of the techniques in my own local (Singapore context) and I was shocked at the results.

In fact, between generative AI for text like GPT models and generative AI for images and videos, we are entering a world where seeing and hearing isn’t believing, since the difficulty of creating fake images, and videos is becoming almost non-existent.

“You probably shouldn’t trust any video or audio recording ever again.”

People are badly underestimating the affect of this. Our identities and communities are now online, where it’ll soon be trivial to impersonate anyone and everyone.

— Jason Priem (@jasonpriem) March 14, 2023

But let’s focus on the main theme of this blog post, a new search paradigm where search engines not just rank and display documents but also extract answers and displays them. What information literacy implications are there?

It has been suggested that “prompt engineering” or coming up with prompts to produce better results is essentially information literacy. I’m not too sure if this makes sense, since the whole point of NLP (natural language processing) is you can ask questions in nature language and still get good answers.

More fundamentally, users need to be taught how such search technologies are different from the standard “search and show 10 blue links” paradigm which has dominated for over 20 years.

How do the standard methods we teach like CRAAP or SIFT change if such search tools are used? Should we try to triangulate answers from multiple search engines like Bing vs Google Bard vs Perplexity etc?

7. Ranking of search engine results become even more important

Conventional wisdom suggests users only look at the first page of results, perhaps the second page. I suspect this new search paradigm where the search engine extracts answers directly from top results might worsen this effect.

Under the old system, you would browse, skim through results until you got a relevant answers perhaps. As you skim you may get some context from reading the page and you may consciously or subconsciously notice cues of trustworthiness or suspicion.

Extracting the answer directly from pages removes all context. All you see if an extracted answer and a link to a URL which to most people tells them nothing.

There’s also a practical issue here. In the old search paradigm, you can easier press next page for more answers. How do you do it for the new Bing? I’ve found sometimes you can type “show me more” and it does get answers from lower ranked pages but this isn’t intuitive.

All in all, it seems even more important for such systems to rank results well. But how should they do it?

In OpenAI’s unreleased WebGPT, they hooked up a GPT model with Bing API and it was trained to know how to search in response to queries and when and what results to extract. They ran into a problem that every information literacy librarian is aware of.. how to rate the trustworthiness of sources!

Should librarians “teach” LLMs like GPT how to assess quality of webpages? The OpenAI team even hint at this by suggesting the need for “Cross-disciplinary research … to develop criteria that are both practical and epistemically sound”.

In the short run though, I hope such systems allow us to create list of whitelist and blacklist of domains to include or exclude results.

8. Long term use of such tools might lead to superficial learning.

Google and web search engines made it possible to get quick answers and may have led to overconfidence in estimating one’s expertise in an area. I would argue that this new search paradigm of directly extracting answers is going to make this trend worse.

At least with Google and web search, you had to skim through documents for answers, and it was much slower to get answers. With this new search paradigm, you don’t even need to skim, the answers just appear. It might become even easier to fool oneself that one is an expert…

I was speaking to some students recently on their use of ChatGPT and they proudly told me, they don’t use it to generate essays for fear of being caught, instead they use it to summaries long readings. I was told who hatime to read so many pages?

While there has been quite a lot of hysteria in the educational sector over plagiarism, my view is this actually isn’t the greatest threat to education. But when people start to take shortcuts and ask these systems to summarise long readings, alarm bells start to sound in my head.

Even if we grant these summaries are accurate, at the end of the day they are just summaries. I do not believe reading a 5 point summary of a book or an article is going to capture every nuance of the work, but it may be enough to get away with say a test.

But in the long run are we just educating students to have superficial understanding of things based on short summaries? How accurate are their internal models of things if it is all based on short summaries? As I argue in my next point, the future will need specialists with deep expertise while generalist with superficial knowledge that such search engines are able to generate from webpages are likely to become less important.

9. Relative Importance of deep expertise increases

I was recently writing an article for work on the CRediT taxonomy and it took me around 30 minutes to write it all out. I later realized I could have just use ChatGPT or even better the new Bing and it would generate perfectly serviceable writings.

It wasn’t better than what I wrote mind you. Just much faster. On hindsight, I probably should have realized that there are tons of pages written on the CRediT taxonomy on the web and these systems can of course generate good writings on the topic. I could add some value by customizing it to give local examples and make some particular points but otherwise I should have started with auto-generating the text on the standard parts.

The lesson to take is this, if all your knowledge is something that is so general, the answer can be found on webpages, you are probably in trouble….

For example, when I was writing the blog post on techniques for finding seminal papers, I checked with perplexity, ChatGPT to see if there were any interesting techniques but the best it could do is to state obvious answers and not the fairly novel idea I had in mind of using Q&A systems.

After I wrote up my blog post, I used Bing to ask the same question. Its first answer was roughly the same, but when I asked it to show more methods it eventually found my newly posted blog post!

The point of this story is that it shows how important it is to have deep or at least unusual expertise with ideas or points that aren’t available on the web. Of course, the moment you blog or capture it in the web, it can now be found and exploited!

But if everyone is using these new tools to extract or summarise answers, how will they gain the deep expertise to provide new insights and ideas? Someone has to come up with these ideas in the first place!


I’m poor at conclusions, so I will let GPT-4 have the last word.



Aaron Tay

A Librarian from Singapore Management University. Into social media, bibliometrics, library technology and above all libraries.