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Business Impact

The Search for Science

Google’s new search service will open not just the world of scientific research but also the enclave of pricey journals.

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.

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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