scholar_logo_lg_2011In research circles, the term ‘open access’ has long been synonymous with the absence of content paywalls. It is of course valuable to be able to supply the fruits of research to those who, for whatever reason, are not in a position to pay. Yet for all the attention it gets, at least in publishing circles, this kind of open access represents only one relatively modest part of a much grander ambition to make research truly accessible in every sense of that word. This includes, for example, making content relevant and comprehensible to readers — free content that doesn’t make sense merely adds to the noise. In addition, research data needs to be interoperable and properly documented — hence common data formats and metadata standards. It also includes the monumental task of making all this stuff discoverable in the first place. It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come on that last point, and timely to reconsider it today, on Google Scholar’s tenth birthday.

Rex Sorgatz recently published a wonderful short article on the evolution of online media. He breaks this down into three phases: surfing, drowning and diving. In research, surfing became possible during the late 1990s, when full-text papers started appearing online. Drowning is what most researchers now feel they’re doing when they try to keep up with the cornucopia of new content, and frankly, though many have tried, we’ve yet to come up with a good solution to that problem. Diving is what Google Scholar enabled. This, as Sorgatz puts it, is about shifting

“away from an obsession with capturing everything to a fascination [with] exploring something”.

True, Google Scholar also helps with the challenge of trying to drink from the gushing content firehose, but above all, particularly in its earlier incarnations, it has enabled us to dive into the vast ocean of literature and explore its nooks and crannies.

Not that Google Scholar was the first search engine for research — far from it — but it was the first to be successfully aimed at researchers themselves rather than information professionals. True, it had (and continues to have) certain shortcomings, and it has occasionally been the subject of scathing criticism. But in the spirit of the best web applications it has steadily improved over the years, and readers have voted with their mice and keyboards such that today its position as a central part of the research information ecosystem is surely irrefutable. It was also the first, and so far only, such offering from a large technology company to benefit from consistent support over many years. And if that support has been relatively modest in the scheme of things then this only makes Google Scholar all the more inspiring, for it is also a wonderful example of what a small number of very clever people can achieve given the right technology and guiding vision.

The visionary here is Google Scholar’s creator Anurag Acharya. Steven Levy has written a warm and insightful profile of Anurag, which I urge you to read if you haven’t done so already. For someone who used to run Google’s main web crawl, taking on the task of indexing the scholarly literature might seem like a retrograde step, a retreat into obscurity. But Anurag sees it differently:

“We are basically making the smartest people on the planet more effective.”

Many of us here at Digital Science recognise that sentiment in our own motivations. I first met Anurag a few months before the launch of Google Scholar, and since then he’s become a personal source of inspiration too. Much more recently I discovered (appropriately enough, through a rather obscure piece on the history of Indian mathematics) that ‘acharya’ means something like ‘teacher’ or ‘scholar’. Since then he has also become my favourite example of nominative determinism. : )

Where now?

“The next big thing we would like to do,” says Anurag, “is to get you the articles that you need, but that you don’t know to search for. Can we make serendipity easier? How can we help everyone to operate at the research frontier without them having to scan over hundreds of papers — a very inefficient way of finding things — and do nothing else all day long?”

In short, he and his team want to save us from drowning, and who would bet against them succeeding?