Yesterday morning, I was surprised to learn (in this Nature.com interview) that Google Scholar lacks an application programming interface (API) because, in the words of Google Scholar co-founder Anurag Acharya, academic publishers allow Google “to scan all [their] articles, but not to distribute this information to others in bulk”. I’m extremely grateful for all the things that Google Scholar allows me to do (see e.g. this paean by Jonathan Eisen), but Scholar could supercharge scholarly research in new and powerful ways if it had an API. (Just consider our experience with Google Maps. What began as a way to find directions is now much more than a map, powering all sorts of unexpected applications.)
In yesterday’s post “Changing the game of scholarly search”, I discussed ways in which a new scholarly-search platform [which I called "Delphi"] could successfully enter the market and build the strategic ecosystem necessary to support programmable search WITHOUT Google’s help. In this followup post, I will discuss how Google Scholar itself could change the game for the better. (I’m motivated to do so by the fact that someone at Google Scholar @GoScholar seems to have followed — and favorited – some of the Twitter back-and-forth on this topic yesterday.)
[Please read yesterday's post before continuing.]
OPT-IN vs. OPT-OUT
A key feature of my proposed strategy for Delphi was that it set itself up as an “opt-in platform,” namely, that it only index and offer programmable search scholarly works from outlets that explicitly grant permission (and perhaps build out some interconnection functionality) for programmable search of its content. The reason why I chose an opt-in model for Delphi is that opting in gives the very FIRST publishers who join the platform a differentiating advantage. Drawing in the very first adopters is always a challenge when launching a new platform, and I figured that programmable search could be an attractive differentiating feature … enough so that some academic publishers might be willing to make their works Delphi-searchable in order to set themselves apart from the crowd.
But if Google were the one to launch Delphi — as “Google Scholar API”, much as it has “Google Books API” — there is no strategic reason to make the system “opt-in”. Indeed, the natural move for Google in this space would be to launch an opt-out API platform, giving academic publishers the choice not to have their content programmably searchable, but allowing all scholarly content in the public domain to be automatically accessible for search through the API.
RACE TO THE TOP
Once Google Scholar API is up and running, the same “race to the top” dynamics will naturally unfold as I laid out in Delphi’s case:
**1** scholars will naturally use the Google Scholar API to complement their existing work, even if many of the best academic publishers opt out
**2** papers published in API-accessible outlets will get more exposure and more cites, giving these outlets an advantage in terms of attracting good submissions and rising in the journal rankings
**3** more and more academic publishers will choose to adopt Google Scholar API, making it a more and more powerful scholarly-search platform as time goes on
This really is a case where, if Google builds it, they will come.
Google has done so much for scholarship already. But with an opt-out Scholar API, Google can change the game of scholarly search for the better … again!