Sunday, October 11, 2009

Google's world library


I can't believe that a head of state would explicitly condemn the actions of Google's management team in attempting to digitise the world's library. Angela Merkel's statement is so bizarrely narrow-minded that I am instantly driven to seek an ulterior motive for it. Condemning the generation of such a library; that is accessible to all, that is so clearly of such enormous value to global society, and to place the income of publishing houses above it in value, is utterly disingenuous, baffling and inscrutable.

As a scientist I come across Google Books all the time. An incredible amount of knowledge and insight is contained within the "secondary literature" comprised of reference books and- in complete contrast to the "primary literature" of scientific journals- this knowledge is utterly inaccessible unless your local university hapens to have a hard copy of the title you seek. Even then, the material within the book is never searchable in an efficient way and you must rely exclusively on precises of the volume and lists of chapter headings to determine whether it contains anything of insight before wading into the text page-by-page. Obtaining the hard copy and leafing through it in search of your desired information or insight can consume hours. Prior, that is, to Google Books incredible digitising work. Nowadays, if I Google something as obscure as "polychaete osmolytes" I get a list of journal articles which might mention osmolytic function in specific polychaete species or even describe it in detail but which generally fail to provide an overview of the organic osmolytes polychaetes synthesise to regulate their osmotic potential. You may not care about the science but the point I am trying to make is that there are two Google Books hits in the first four pages of results that both provide a general overview of the diversity and function of endogenous osmolytes in different animals as well as a description of their synthesis. To collate this amount of information from individual papers would have taken a day's research or more and would have demanded that I reference a dozen papers. Now I can find the information in minutes and provide a couple of reference to the volumes in question. Ultimately, I didn't buy the volumes in question but someone else might come across my reference to it and do so themselves.

Reference books are expensive too, lets not forget. The reason that so many university libraries contain such a limited range of aging reference books is that these volumes can cost several hundreds of pounds each to buy. Whatever price you place on the knowledge within them, this makes their acquisition a problem and access to the information they contain often impossible. Punkscience has personally acquired a handful of cheaper volumes which have provided the foundation for his thesis.

I'm not sure how the contributors of these books profit from their work. I have been asked to contribute to book chapters by one supervisor and I have been warned away from it by another because it would be wasted time at this point in my career. Such books rarely generate big sales due to the inherently small target market. Therefore acclaim and profit are generally absent from scientific publishing unless you happen to be a leader in your field and have insight and passion for a broad field of biology that enables you to produce a definitive reference volume.

My point is this: In the above example, regardless of the value of the knowledge contained within the texts relating to polychaete osmolytes, I would never have bought those texts and they weren't contained within the university library. Google Books made the specific knowledge available to me at no cost. Despite the missing pages I was able to cobble together an understanding of the subject and write it into my thesis, even bookmarking the pages for later reference. Repeat that experience a hundred times over the coming year and my life is transformed. Productivity soars, effective research output increases. Try and imagine the same result repeated across the tens of thousands of researchers in this country and across the globe. Try and imagine how people searching for quotations or passages in works of literature feel being able to Google their search and have the appropriate page delivered to them instead of leafing through notes and indices. Imagine how literature fans feel being able to find that quote easily and simply instead of having to stew on it until the title and author come to them. Yes, the productivity benefits of some of these examples are dubious but others are not. This is a classic example of something with enormous potential to empower society being assaulted because its benefits are intangible and obscure but its- arguably tiny- losses are well defined and clear.

My point is that Angela Merkel needs to get some perspective. Her rejection of this development in information-handling is profoundly Luddite. If she has concerns about the effects of Google Books on the revenue of publishing houses then she should be negotiating with Google to secure appropriate remuneration, not decrying their work. It is the same mindset that refuses to comprhend that on-line file sharing is the new paradigm in media distribution. A work of art, entertainment or science is only valued for its inherent worth. If that work is unavailable to those who might legitimately exploit its value it is worthless. Merkel and her ilk wish to contain and constrict access to knowledge and culture. People like me believe it should be virtually freely available with only a small token price attached to each unit thereof.

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