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What’s more, online publication opens scholarly research beyond the ivory towers to a public that has become accustomed to using the Web to delve more deeply into topics of interest. Until now, the general population hasn’t had access to most research, says Michael Eisen, a faculty member in the molecular and cell biology department at University of California at Berkeley and co-founder of the Public Library of Science, an open-access organization.

With Google Scholar, anyone from medical patients to inquisitive readers can follow up on an interesting article with do-it-yourself online research.

For its part, Elsevier says that, although a well-known brand, Google isn’t yet “delivering the tools serious scientists need,” according to an email from Elsevier communications manager Marike Westra. Professional scientists prefer specialist databases and research literature tools to find relevant information, writes Westra, adding that Elsevier is a participant in Crossref Search, a pilot project that employs Google technology for free, full-text searches among the journals of 29 publishers.

Google isn’t the only entity hammering at barriers to information. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced in September that, beginning in 2005, it will request that all funding recipients make their research results available to the public for free within six months of publication. The idea is that taxpayers ought to have free access to research for which they partially footed the bill. 

How big a trove of information will the new NIH policy pry open? The agency’s $28 billion budget contributed to research that produced 65,000 papers in 2003, making it the largest funding entity for non-classified research in the U.S. government.

The controversy is equally intense in Europe, which in addition to being home to Reed Elsevier is also the headquarters for Springer Science + Business Media, a German company. Last summer, the Science and Technology Committee of the British House of Commons recommending that publicly funded research be made freely available online.

Not all science, technical and medical publishers are created equally, cautions Sally Morris, chief executive officer of the British-based Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), a trade association for non-profit publishers.

Morris says that some presses are being pushed out of the libraries because it’s simply easier to jettison smaller publishers during a budget crunch, even though they cost less than larger journals. Caught between large commercial publishers and the open-access movement, ALPSP members – the largest of which owns 100 titles and the smallest just one – face a marketing dilemma.

To remedy the situation, the ALPSP is exploring alternative business models for its members. For example, the ALPSP’s Learned Journals Collection offers a variety of packaged, full-text collections from among 430 titles. So far, 30 licenses have been sold.

Morris says the ALPSP embraces Google’s efforts at lifting the lid on research and plans to meet with company representatives early next year to discuss collaborative opportunities.

In the meantime, librarians are elated over Google Scholar.

“It’s the sort of tool that libraries have lusted after for a long time,” says Duane Webster, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries in Washington, D.C. “As a discovery tool that links traditional and digitized resources, it’s a big advancement.”

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