Thursday, April 13, 2006

Microsoft's Windows Live Academic Joins Search for Scholarly Publishing Content

There is wide coverage of Microsoft's launch of the Beta for Windows Live Academic Search (WLAS), the new search portal that includes content from many major scholarly publishers. Initial partners in journal and indexing content include CrossRef, the IEEE, the ACM, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and Elsevier include: Taylor & Francis Group, the American Institute of Physics, the American Physical Society, the Institute of Physics, Ex Libris, TDNet, Blackwell, Nature Publishing, British Library, and OCLC, according to Web Pro News. Free and premium scholarly content is served up via the OpenURL and DOI link resolvers of partners, providing consistent references for researchers requiring stable citation information.

The interface is quite nice, if a little quirky. Glide your cursor over a given search result and an article abstract pops up in the left-hand portion of the display, as well as BibTex and EndNote data tabs, further facilitating citation for researchers. The abstract panel can disappear easily if necessary. The search results themselves scroll in a sub-window of the page rather slowly, which is a little annoying if you're trying to find a result that's not near the top of the stack. My assumption is that this "user friendly" feature is probably a way to provide an interface that will work consistently on both PCs and mobile devices.

There are other nice little touches in the interface that add up to something that is tangibly different from Google Scholar; it's a tool for researchers rather than search results for researchers. Still missing is metadata on purchasing that's already available in Google results - only a warning message "The search results contain freely available and access-restricted content from peer-reviewed journals." appears in a banner above WLAS search results (premium content as a danger sign...?). Also missing is consistent navigation: at least in this early Beta version there's no tracking back to the Academic search box. But the proof of the value of this service will be in the search results themselves, which is a little difficult to judge in an offhand test with the very esoteric topics covered in the service. In general WLAS appears to rely a little more on the cataloging metadata from partners to provide relevant content in high-level category searches.

Windows Live in general is trying to carve out a feature-by-feature competitor to Google services, neutral in its approach to content sources and attempting to provide superior usability for its audience. The WLAS facility offers a lot of promise as a tool, but it will do little to ease many underlying issues faced by publishers trying to define their own online futures via an expanding array of search partners. If WLAS succeeds it will take some share of the market for online scholarly content search: others such as Google and Yahoo will take their own part as well, but it's a given that none of these will ever "own" the market for scholarly content searching. In short time this will require scholarly publishers to provide a more consistent cross-platform approach to content licensing that will empower content subscribers to use whatever search tools work best for them at the moment. Pay-per-view access alone as a solution in these environments is not likely to suffice for many of their targeted users.

This new entry from Microsoft is sure to heat up the competition for effective scholarly content search services online with its distinct and useful features, but it is far from solving the many commercial issues that scholarly publishers must address to thrive in an online search-driven world.
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