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The Internet search engine Google launched a new service last Thursday (18 November) that will search academic texts only.

Google Scholar searches for key words and phrases in peer-reviewed journal articles, theses, books, technical papers, as well as preprints (articles available on the Internet prior to publication). It does not return any non-academic websites that contain the selected key words.

The site uses a similar principle to the one used by the main Google search engine. It defines the importance of the references through a combination of the number of times they are cited by other texts, and how important the source is.

Google Scholar also tells users how often a reference has been cited by other publications. It then allows the users to also see details of these texts.

As with all Google products, the service will be entirely free. While some of the papers are available online for free, others are not, but are still covered by the Google Scholar search.

This is made possible by collaboration between the search engine's creators and academic publishers, who have agreed to let Google Scholar scan the text of their papers.

When a user selects a particular link returned from their search, they will be led either to the full text of the paper, if it is available online, or to the publisher's page explaining how they can pay to read it. In addition, some texts may only be quoted as a reference if they are not available online at all.

The service has received mixed reviews from the academic community. Their main hesitation reflects Google's unwillingness to reveal who participated in the search engine's development.

Duane Webster, head of the Association of Research Libraries told The Scientist there were concerns over this lack of information and with "Google's unwillingness to describe how it defines what is scholarly".

Some proponents of the open access movement, which supports making all academic literature free to access online, have suggested that the service might better serve the community if it were to scan open access literature only.

However, David Spurrett, a researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, points out that his first concern is to find out what literature exists on a given topic. Only once he knows this, does he worry about which papers he can and cannot get hold of.

A test version of Google Scholar can be tried by clicking here.