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Google introduced its search service for scientific material in mid-November, and sent yet another shock wave through the walled-up world of science publishing.

Google Scholar looks familiar with its same hallmark spare screen. Instead of spidering the Web for general information, though, the new technology sifts through specialty literature such as peer-reviewed papers, theses, abstracts and technical reports. Its goal is to provide a comprehensive list of scientific research, in the form of either full-text stories or abstracts of articles published in journals only available by paid subscriptions.

Scholar’s broad reach, however, underscores a glaring limitation in science publishing.

To access an article that appeared in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, for example, users will still need to visit a research library that subscribed to the publication.  Those who live near Harvard University, though, would be out of luck: the school cancelled its subscription in January as a cost-cutting measure. So did Cornell University, citing the $2,178-a-year subscription cost.

Industry giant Elsevier offers a different story. The company will sell users a copy of the five-page article – for $30.

And therein lies the rub. The Internet and search technologies have undermined the arguments by purveyors of specialty journals who say their fees reflect the expenses of the publishing process.

The $7 billion market for science, technical and medical publishing is dominated by Reed Elsevier, the Dutch company that owns 1,800 titles, according to Morgan Stanley. The company’s science publishing unit, Elsevier, has become the lightning rod for subscriber discontent, especially among campus librarians squeezed by budget cutting and per-journal subscription costs that range from $500 to $20,000 annually.

For years, controversy has raged over the pricey subscriptions that limit the availability of this information. Over the last year, several campuses have rebelled, canceling dozens of titles in an effort to more cost-effectively manage their collections. The Association of Research Libraries reports that its members have increased their serial spending by 227 percent in the last 15 years, but have reduced the number of titles offered.

The reduction of these resources, say some, may impede research.

“What could aggravate the serials crisis is when doctoral-level searchers find something relevant to their work and then finds out that their university no longer subscribes,” points out Peter Suber, open-access project director for Public Knowledge in Washington, D.C.

That prompted many groups to push for an “open access” policy towards scientific research, and they see Google Scholar as a major step to help that occur. Proponents believe that using the Internet as a vehicle for distribution has made the costly subscription fees unnecessary.

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