Do your students have questions they need answered for a research assignment or other school project? Cornell University reference librarians say they do slightly better getting answers than researchers for Google’s pay service.

The university compared its free eMail reference service with Google Answers (http://answers.google.com/answers), a research service created by operators of the popular search engine. For fees starting at $2.50, Google users can submit questions to a pool of more than 500 freelance researchers. Google says someone can usually answer questions within 24 hours.

In the Cornell study, 24 questions–ranging from the population of Afghanistan (about 26 million) to where Geoffrey Chaucer died (London)–were submitted to reference staff at the Ithaca, N.Y., university and to Google Answers. University librarians graded the responses without knowing in advance which team had submitted them.

The study found librarians faring better overall, but by such a small margin that researchers said there was no clear winner.

Authors cautioned that their small study, published in the June issue of D-Lib Magazine, was more exploratory than scientific. But they said it provided potential lessons about how the commercial sector handles reference services.

Susan Wojcicki, director of product management for Google, said the company was flattered to be included in the study.

“As this study reveals, Google Answers is another helpful, effective resource to individuals to find hard-to-get information,” she said.

Nancy Skipper, co-chair of Cornell University Reference Services (http://campusgw.library.cornell.edu/services/ask.html), said that while the university’s service is free, it gives priority to people in the Cornell community. Librarians do try to answer every query received, she said–but time doesn’t always allow this.