Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Why Google Scholar Adding Elsevier "ScienceDirect" Data is Significant

By Dennis D. McDonald. Follow me on Linkedin, Twitter, and Google+.

Peter Branley in O’Reilly Radar wrote Science Direct-ly into Google. It describes how Elsevier’s ScienceDirect service, which according to Elsevier contains “25% of the world’s science, technology and medicine full text and bibliographic information,”  will become accessible through Google Scholar.

The potential impact of this agreement is far reaching. It means that the discoverability of a huge chunk of scholarly and professional literature will increase. This discoverability will not be limited only to those who subscribe to Elsevier’s own pricey online search service, Scopus.

Why would Elsevier do such a thing which, on the face of it, appears to be competing with its own Scopus service? (Keep in mind that Elsevier will be making ScienceDirect titles more searchable but will not be giving away the Google Scholar search hits for free; searchers will still need to locate a source for the full text.)

Increasing demand, most likely. “Free” searches conducted via Google Scholar will increase demand for Elsevier scholarly properties. This greater utility  for Google searches will translate into more eyeballs and more Google ad revenue. Both sides will win.

The potential losers are “niche” secondary publishers who will be challenged, as they are already, to provide services that go beyond the basics of what Google is willing to provide “for free.”

One of my reactions to this news is encapsulated in a comment I left on the Branley article:

Ale’s comment makes a great deal of sense. In highly specialized areas there is a limit to the number of specialists that are interested in specific topics. So massive growth in demand for Elsevier content through improved Google based findability is unlikely.

Also I would think that specialized services that provide additional content and searchability will still appeal to niche markets (that can afford to pay).

Where I would hope to see significant impacts would be on the “edges” of specialized areas where cross-discipline communication opportunities exist. Discipline A may be unwilling or unable to subscribe to highly specialized indexing services in Discipline B, and as a result they may remain unaware of potentially useful or important topics in Discipline B. But a Discipline A researcher might be more likely to use a low-cost Google service that helps located the occasional Discipline B article. So even though Elsevier gives up some hypothetical “findability” revenue via Google indexing, Elsevier benefits by generating demand for Discipline B articles among Discipline A.

This deal between Elsevier and Google may be further evidence of how disruptive the web has become to traditional publishing, research institutions, and professional membership associations. Web access and the proliferation of systems offering collaboration opportunities via social media and social networking are forcing management to make tough decisions about how much to give away for free and how much to restrict to paying customers.

These balancing decisions are especially difficult in relation to scholarly communications. There has always been a difficult balance between taxpayer-subsidized public institutions and private enterprise.

The current arguments about “open source” journals is a case in point. One issue is that commercial publishers (such as Elsevier) are heavily subsidized already by the government funded research that they publish, yet their prices are viewed by some as excessive and consistently outstrip those of non-commercial publishers — whose costs are also subsidized, by the way.

While reasonable people differ about how to define “excessive,” Elsevier’s decision to work with Google Scholar is an added complication. On the one hand, some might argue that Google and its advertisers will now be taking advantage of the subsidized research that Elsevier is providing via the Google-accessed ScienceDirect titles. Others will argue that this is a win-win situation all around, especially for independent researchers, smaller institutions, and/or institutions in developing countries.

In my opinion,  it makes good sense for Elsevier to team up with Google. If you pay any attention to revenue trend projections that are made by organizations such as the AAP, the BISG, and Outsell, you’ll see that scholarly and professional publishing are not huge “growth markets” when compared with other areas such as business and marketing information.

In its way, Elsevier is innovating via its arrangement with Google and may just be positioning itself to address the slow-growth marketplace realities of scholarly research and publishing.

An interesting question to be asked about this relationship is whether  there is potential here for the creation and maintenance of Google based ad hoc communities of researchers who discover and establish professional communications based on the underlying citation and linking patterns inherent in scholarly publications. Why should the researcher take the time to get a “printed” copy of an out-of-date research paper when she can click on an icon next to the name of a cited researcher and initiate a VOIP call based on discoverable identification data?

If something like this could be accomplished on a Google scale, the impact on existing publications and professional membership associations could be significant.

A Publisher Comments on the Elsevier-Google "ScienceDirect" Deal

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