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Changes at Google Scholar: A Conversation With Anurag Acharya
Posted On August 27, 2007
In its own quiet way, Google Scholar has become a major force in scholarly communication. For many researchers, faculty, and students, it is the first search tool used, challenging the popularity and utility of veteran databases licensed—often at considerable cost—by academic and corporate libraries. Yet announcements about changes in the constantly evolving service seem to occur rarely and with little ballyhoo. For example, did you know that Google Scholar has launched its own digitization project, separate from the high-profile Google Book Search mass digitization? Or what about the new Key Author feature? Or the expansion into non-English languages and non-U.S./Western European content? A conversation with Anurag Acharya, the designer and missionary behind Google Scholar, helped us catch up on the latest developments.

As to how much content Google Scholar now reaches, Acharya couldn’t say, beyond the understatement, "pretty large." However, he described the growth in the volume of users as exponential. Arrangements with major content providers continue to expand Google Scholar’s reach. Acharya mentioned that Google was just completing the indexing of Elsevier’s Science Direct collection, with several new publishers on the horizon.

He was very excited about the outreach now underway into many new languages. "We have significant coverage in Chinese, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, and soon Korean." In working with these languages, Google Scholar will provide translated links across languages. In traditional databases, common subject terms or descriptors may provide the primary topical linking between foreign-language and English-language content. However, in Google Scholar, the linking involves Google’s translation capabilities. Acharya described the locating of related articles as "working surprisingly well." Overall, he said that non-English content lets users "find work they would never ever come close to" without Google Scholar.

Representing another effort to reach currently inaccessible content, Google Scholar now has its own digitization program. "It’s a small program," said Acharya. "We mainly look for journals that would otherwise never get digitized. Under our proposal, we will digitize and host journal articles with the provision that they must be openly reachable in collaboration with publishers, fully downloadable, and fully readable. Once you get out of the U.S. and Western European space into the rest of the world, the opportunities to get and digitize research are very limited. They are often grateful for the help. It gives us the opportunity to get that country’s material or make that scholarly society more visible."

I asked Acharya whether this program meant that publishers lost copyright and related revenue. He said that most of the publishers that this program might reach had "no significant opportunity to get their journals digitized or get large revenue. Basically their journals would just sit on shelves forever. We let the publishers choose what they like on dates or whatever. We’re not pushing anything."

No one could ever call Acharya’s approach pushy. In fact, besides his occasional public appearances at conferences, this NewsBreak may represent the main public announcement of the existence of the Google Scholar digitization effort. No press release appeared describing the service. By the way, although Acharya described the service in terms of outreach to other countries and other languages, he assured me that Google is "happy to work with anyone interested." In fact, the company is currently in negotiations with a Canadian scholarly society. Acharya said that content from the new digitization program should start entering Google Scholar before the end of the year.

However, a great many scholarly publications digitized by Google will not enter Google Scholar. Google Book Search has masses of back issues of journals digitized, as the bound volumes of periodicals come into the program from the stacks of its library partners. However, the metadata that Google Scholar needs to identify specific articles in specific issues does not exist and, at least for now, Acharya has no plans to create it. Searchers will have to remember to make a second search in Google Books, particularly for older journal content. However, scholarly book citations from Google Book Search do sometimes appear in Google Scholar search results.

Not only does Google Scholar continue to expand its content, but also its search features. A few months back, according to Acharya, it added Key Author listings to the left of search results pages. The listings are computed dynamically and have to adjust to different conventions in different fields, i.e., to identify the primary author names for different types of journals in different fields of study. Acharya had another tip. Enter the name of an author as your search query to find that author’s key co-authors. Acharya described the new feature as an attempt to solve the "basic fundamental problem of not knowing where the query wants to go. We need to take you beyond the query. Sometimes the Key Author feature works shockingly well." He found it especially useful in tracking new scholarly developments where new terminology emerged to describe a phenomenon after the original research. Using the Key Author feature, you can reach back to the original research. Using the "Related Articles" posted under each search result is another method.

As for the future, we’ll just have to watch and wait—and keep in touch with Anurag Acharya.

Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

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