Publishers may fear Google's incursions into scholarly territory, but Chris Johnston finds that academics, librarians and researchers are likely to welcome a move to a more digitised world
Few brand names are so ubiquitous that they have become verbs as well as nouns. A classic example is Hoover; another more recent one is Google, which is likely to be heard many times a day in universities, schools, offices and homes around the net-connected world today. The California-based company's relentless drive for what sometimes seems like domination of the internet has seen it become much more than just a search engine. In the past 12 months, Google has launched two services that directly affect higher education: its Print and Scholar initiatives.
Both have caused much hand-wringing, particularly the dual-pronged Print initiative, which has alarmed publishers who fear that Google is making a copyright grab that will ultimately affect their sales.
But for students, researchers, academic authors and university presses, it is a different story. Rabin Yaghoubi, Google's director of strategic partner development, says both programmes further the company's mission to make information universally accessible, with Print extending it to offline material. As he points out, the vast majority of the world's knowledge is not yet available electronically.
Google's Print Library scheme will be operated on an opt-out basis. It will not start digitising until November to give publishers a chance to submit lists of in-copyright books
But Sally Morris, chief executive of the UK-based Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, rejects the temporary respite.
"Publishers should be asked to opt in to the project and not to opt out," she says. "I very much hope Google will reconsider, as I'm sure no one wants a legal battle."
Last month, the association called on the company to hold an "urgent meeting" with representatives of all major publishing organisations to thrash out a "realistic - and legal - way forward".
The Association of American Publishers continues to criticise the project.
Patricia Schroeder, its president and chief executive, points to Google's intention to copy every work in the libraries of Harvard, Michigan and Stanford universities unless the copyright owner specifically denies permission for a particular work. "Google's procedure shifts the responsibility for preventing infringement to the copyright owner and away from the user, turning every principle of copyright law on its ear," Schroeder says. Google argues that its plans fall within the "fair use" provision of copyright law.
It is not hard to understand publishers' ire given that many of them in the UK and the US, including the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge, have signed up to Print Publisher. It is hoped that this project, which allows selected titles to be scanned and searched on a limited basis, will drive sales of books that no longer win space on bookshop shelves. Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury, has called the scheme a "Pandora's box" and has urged publishers to look at other ways of moving to a digitised world.
But James Hilton, associate provost and interim librarian at the University of Michigan, says that materials that are not searchable online will no longer be read. "That doesn't mean that a work is going to be read online, but it's not going to be found if it's not online," he says.
Oxford University is a participant in Google Print for Libraries, but only its holdings that are in the public domain will be scanned, Yaghoubi says.
For Debby Shorley, president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip) and a Sussex University librarian, the Google initiative has to be seen in the context of changes in the publishing world. "Google is not the only kid on the block," she says.
Institutional archives and open-access publishing are two reasons why Shorley is convinced that the present models for book and periodical publishing will be outdated within five years. "They are giving academics opportunities to publish and be read without going near a publisher. We're on shifting sands."
Compared with the Print programme, Google Scholar is somewhat less contentious. It aims to make peer-reviewed papers, theses and other scholarly material more easily accessible - including those that are held behind subscription barriers.
Yaghoubi explains that Google is working with academic publishers to ensure that content can be searched, even though access will not be allowed until a fee is paid. Google Scholar will offer author-written abstracts for each document that people can view in order to decide whether or not to pay to see the whole article. Most English-language academic publishers have come on board, and Google is now expanding into other European countries and languages.
Google does not take a cut from the transaction. It generates revenue from advertisements on pages from publishers, but not from library material.
Scholar appears to have the potential to ruin the business models of established academic publishers, although it has not done so yet. Earlier this year, publisher Reed Elsevier said the threat of Google Scholar and open-access publishing had so far failed to materialise. The company said it expected internet sales to double to almost £3 billion over the next few years.
Sir Crispin Davis, chief executive of Reed, says his company is working with Google in a number of areas. "Google brings its size, and we bring our content," he says.
Given that Google was founded at Stanford University by two graduate students, something of an affinity for matters academic might be expected of the company that has grown beyond all expectations. It is unafraid to experiment and dabble in unusual ideas and only one thing is certain: Print and Scholar will not be the last academic-related initiatives to emerge from such an innovator.