China must unblock Google Scholar and keep the internet open for its researchers

Paul Stapleton says denying students and scholars in mainland China access to a good research tool like Google Scholar only impedes scientific progress

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 November, 2015, 12:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:48am

Most people are familiar with the various free applications available on the internet. Google gives us Gmail and Google Photos, for example, in exchange for our eyeballs, which can be targeted for advertising.

READ MORE: Great Firewall rises: darkness descends as China tightens online censorship

One Google application that many are probably not so familiar with is Google Scholar. Using it, which is free, has added great convenience to the lives of researchers. Type in the name of a scholarly author or keyword and it quickly generates pages of links to research articles by the author or to the most cited articles associated with the keyword.

Imagine getting arrested for downloading a scholarly article that could aid research towards finding a cure for a disease

Even better, most recently, the links to many articles are not password protected, so scholars can instantly retrieve full articles or even chapters that have been scanned into Google Books. The convenience that Google Scholar is now providing researchers in an effort towards advancing knowledge cannot be overstated.

With this backdrop, it is curious to note what has happened recently on the mainland. Google Scholar is no longer available there. And Gmail has become unstable for mainland users. For scholars on the mainland, losing their Gmail account is a nuisance, but most savvy users either have a backup account, or find another provider. However, researchers who have suddenly lost access to Google Scholar are seriously inconvenienced.

READ MORE: Chinese have no need for websites blocked by Great Firewall, says Beijing official

It is no secret that Beijing and Google are not the best of friends, which is why it has a diminished presence in China. Of course, it is not the only victim of the Great Firewall. Wikipedia, YouTube and a host of other Western media sites are also blocked.

However, Google Scholar is a benign site. The vast majority of links it generates are to scientific articles, such as medical studies. It appears to generate little if any revenue, so blocking it does not hurt Google’s bottom line. The most it appears to do for Google is create goodwill towards its brand.

And that charity is silently appreciated by millions of researchers and students around the world – except, now, scholars in China. They are left to perform a time-consuming dance with proxy servers in the remote hope of getting hold of the papers they need. This, however, risks getting in trouble with Chinese law. Imagine getting arrested for downloading a scholarly article that could aid research towards finding a cure for a disease.

READ MORE: Google ‘never left’ China, Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt says at tech conference in Beijing

Differing politics is inevitable. Here in Hong Kong, we are reminded of this on a daily basis. However, when it comes to advancing scientific knowledge, our differences should be set aside in the understanding that research is for the common good of humanity.

Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education