Researchers despair as Microsoft shuts down academic services

Decision will impact other tools that relied on Microsoft’s database and raises questions about relying on private firms, critics say

May 7, 2021
Plug pulled out illustrating Microsoft Academic being ‘retired’
Source: iStock

Microsoft is to shut down its academic research discovery services at the end of the year, a decision that highlights the dangers of academia relying on commercial firms for key tools, scholars have warned.

Earlier this week, the technology giant announced that after seven years, it would be “retiring” Microsoft Academic services at the end of 2021 and encouraged academics to switch to other research discovery tools, such as Semantic Scholar, Dimensions or Scopus.

Competing in a similar area to its rival Google, Microsoft has created an underlying database of research papers called Microsoft Academic Graph (MAG) and a website that claimed to offer users a better searching experience, which understood the real meaning of search terms rather than just finding keywords in articles.

“We have chosen to embrace a community-driven approach within academia and now turn our focus to exploring ways we can extend this technology to even more people and organisations,” the firm said in a statement.

On Twitter, researchers and librarians said the shutdown was a major blow.

“Holy Cow. Microsoft Academic is shutting down. That’s a considerable blow to bibliometric scholars and services,” tweeted Elizabeth Gadd, a research policy manager at Loughborough University.

“Microsoft Academic is an incredible (and free!) resource,” commented Charles Gomez, an assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York. “A huge loss to bibliometric and science of science research.”

The decision looks set to have a ripple effect beyond Microsoft’s own search website because other services and projects had built upon the company’s underlying graph of research.

“We had come to rely on Microsoft Academic Graph extensively in our AI mapping and emerging technology work,” tweeted Juan Mateos-Garcia, director of data analytics at Nesta, the UK-based innovation agency. The organisation would now have to find other bibliometric databases, he said.

Aaron Tay, a librarian at Singapore Management University, tweeted that the “hit” to other services that relied on Microsoft’s graph would be “substantial”.

“The number of systems & tools relying on MAG is quite large,” he said.

The broader lesson, argued open access campaigners, was that academics should not entrust their search and research mapping tools to private companies that can shut them down on a whim.

The news “shows why there is such peril in placing our trust in commercial systems with no accountability”, tweeted Ginny Barbour, director of Open Access Australasia. “I’m so fed up of commercial orgs getting all offended when we question governance and sustainability.”

Several speculated how much greater the damage to academic infrastructure would be if Google ever pulled the plug on Google Scholar.

“Keep in mind that we have no guarantee that other valuable side projects of commercial firms – Google Scholar in particular – will be there in perpetuity either,” tweeted Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington.

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