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Google Scholar (GS) is a freely-accessible web search engine that indexes the full-text of scholarly literature across an array of publishing formats and disciplines. Released in beta in November 2004, the GS index includes most peer-reviewed online journals, except for those published by Elsevier, the world's largest scientific publisher. Comparable in function to the expensive subscription-based tools like Elsevier's Scopus and Thomson ISI's Web of Science, GS nonetheless covers more websites, journal sources and languages. Its tagline - "Stand on the shoulders of giants" - is a nod to scientists who have contributed to the scholarly literature over the centuries.

In terms of features, GS allows users to search for digital or physical copies of articles, whether they be online or in libraries (see [1]). Through its "Group of" feature it may also provide a free full text version (a preprint or an early draft, for example) of articles that are usually charged by subscription-based services. Through its "Cited by" feature, GS provides access to citations of articles that have cited the article being viewed (see [2]). In 2006, in response to release of Microsoft's Windows Live Academic Search, a potential competitor for GS, an importing citation feature was released using bibliography managers (such as RefMan and BibTeX) [3].

Some searchers consider GS of comparable quality to commercial databases (e.g. [4]), even though its user-interface (UI) is still in beta. Many search experts suggest that its functionality is severely hampered by poor database design. For example, when searching articles based on publication dates, GS results are unreliable, even inaccurate. The number of articles found in some searches, for example, increases when limiting to a range of years (ie. 2000-2006) instead of decreases. Some librarian critics have said that GS's counterintuitive and illogical presentation of results hinders its usefulness in academia.

A significant problem with GS is the secrecy about its coverage, its refusal to publish a list of scientific journals crawled and its updating policies. It is therefore impossible to know how current and/ or exhaustive searches are in GS. Nonetheless, GS has found favour among undergraduates browsing for articles, freed from the barriers to access articles quickly that are encountered in some commercial databases. For more information about using Google scholar for literature reviews in scholarly writing, see some of the references below (or, visit your nearest university library).

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