Anurag Acharya’s problem was that the Google search bar is very smart, but also kind of dumb. As a Googler working on search 13 years ago, Acharya wanted to make search results encompass scholarly journal articles. A laudable goal, because unlike the open web, most of the raw output of scientific research was invisible—hidden behind paywalls. People might not even know it existed. “I grew up in India, and most of the time you didn’t even know if something existed. If you knew it existed, you could try to get it,” Acharya says. “‘How do I get access?’ is a second problem. If I don’t know about it, I won’t even try.”
Acharya and a colleague named Alex Verstak decided that their corner of search would break with Google tradition and look behind paywalls—showing citations and abstracts even if it couldn’t cough up an actual PDF. “It was useful even if you did not have university access. That was a deliberate decision we made,” Acharya says.
Then they hit that dumbness problem. The search bar doesn’t know what flavor of information you’re looking for. You type in “cancer;” do you want results that tell you your symptoms aren’t cancer (please), or do you want the Journal of the American Medical Association? The search bar doesn’t know.