Anurag Acharya, one of the founders of Google Scholar, gave the keynote address at the recent ALPSP Annual Conference. His wide-ranging overview of the effect of full-text searching on academic content raised many good points, but one that struck me as perhaps the most intriguing was his call for more abstracts of scholarly content. This is a remarkably different to current feeling within many academic publishers, many of whom were betting some years ago that the published collection of abstracts was doomed, to be replaced inexorably by searching of the full text. Given that he argued that the electronic table of contents alerts for journals are obsolete, why did he argue for the continued existence of abstracts?
Acharya suggested that even at a time when all academic content is available online, and full-text searching becomes ubiquitous, it is still not sufficient just to have every word of every content item indexed. The key difference between the abstract and the full-text is that the abstract is designed to be easier to comprehend; it is (or should be) an outline for non-specialists. He even suggested that COUNTER stats should be kept for views of abstracts as well as for downloads of full-text (although how this could be managed he didn't state). Plus, there should be abstracts for monographs.
Some of his suggestions raise many issues that are the subject for another post, but what is remarkable is to hear one of the senior figures at the world’s leading search company, who have been responsible more than any for the overwhelming use of full-text searching, calling for hand-crafted abstracts- in other words, that there is a role for the skilled human editor after all.