“Research without Google would be like life without electricity”

It’s a strong statement, made by Nanjing ecologist Xiong Zhenqin, that defines the world’s most popular Internet search engine as one of a jobbing scientist’s bare necessities. But, if we are honest, many of us would have to admit our dependence on Google. There may be other options, but Google is the dominant player in the market, and the most powerful search engine with the infrastructure required for truly global reach.

A survey to be published tomorrow in Nature reveals that Chinese scientists would be royally screwed if Google was to follow through on its threat to pull out of China. Of the nearly 800 scientists who responded to the survey, over three quarters said that Google is their primary search engine. More than 80% use Google to find academic papers, around 60% to gather information on other research programmes, and a third for science policy and funding news.

If the same survey were carried out in Europe or North America, the results would likely be very similar. Western universities may have greater access to scientific journals, but from what I can see we are all turning to electronic searches, at least in the first instance. Web searches save time, and allow us to digest vast volumes of data. And for those without access to academic libraries, life without Google would be inconceivable.

The question of Google’s involvement in China, and its relationship with the Chinese state, is a difficult one. I tend to the view that Google should withdraw from China unless all content filtering by the authorities there is removed. At the same time, however, I realise that it’s not an easy call for the company to make, or one that would necessarily have the desired effect. This is a point emphasised by Guobin Yang, an Internet researcher at Barnard College in New York City:

“People have been largely focusing on how the filtered content has limited access to certain information. But Google’s presence has also helped the development of civil society in China.”

This is, says Yang, because Google equips citizens with the information they need to be more politically active. Where else are they to obtain this information, and how much of the Internet is beyond reach to most Chinese citizens?

That is also a difficult question to answer, as the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’ is a software filter that must necessarily operate with minimal human intervention. In the not-so-distant past, for example, this website was blocked in China, yet today it appears to be uncensored, despite there being a number of comments critical of the Chinese state. Totalitarianism can never be total in the age of global electronic information.

As for Google’s moral and ethical responsibilities, doing no evil is not as simple as it sounds.

Further reading

Jane Qiu, “A land without Google?”, Nature 463, 1012 (2010)