The Impact of Research Accessibility on Future Research, Part 2: The Effect of Open Access Articles on Research

This is a continuation from last month’s post Part 1: Researchers’ Information Seeking Behavior, so if you haven’t read that yet, I would suggest you read it first.

In the post, I explored the question, how much of future research is impacted by whether someone can quickly and cheaply gain access to other research? Last month’s post focused on how researchers’ information seeking behavior has an impact on the research they find, and therefore, future research. This month’s post explores how open access research has made an impact on emerging and future research.

I was also interested to see what other people had discovered about the effect Open Access publications have on emerging research. Most of the research I found focuses on the number of citations open access articles receive in comparison to similar articles from subscription journals.

In an article published in The BMJ in 2008, five researchers (a combination of one graduate student, three professors, and one programmer/analyst) created a randomized controlled trial to study the effect of free access to the scientific literature on article downloads and citations. They found that open access articles did not result in more article citations over a one-year period, but they were downloaded more than their subscription counterparts (42% PDF downloads). In their article they acknowledged that this finding challenged most of the research on open access at the time, and they suggested “that the citation advantage associated with open access may be an artefact of other explanations such as self selection” (Davis, et al.). What Davis et al. means by self-selection is that authors that publish in Open Access may be citing their own research, which may be freely accessible, thereby artificially inflating the number of unique citations an article may receive. This conclusion would seem to support the idea that it does not matter from a research standpoint if an article is readily accessible (free, within their library system), but what it doesn’t explain is why the open access articles are downloaded more often than subscription articles.

However, the authors expanded their conclusion farther, and addressed why there may be such a large discrepancy between number of citations and number of downloads:

Whereas we expect a general positive association between readership and citations, we believe that our results are consistent with the stratification of readers of scientific journals. To contribute meaningfully to the scientific literature, access to resources (equipment, trained people, and money) as well as to the relevant literature is normally required. These two requirements are highly associated and concentrated among the elite research institutions around the world. That we observed an increase in readership and visitors to open access articles but no citation advantage suggests that the increase in readership is taking place outside the community of core authors (Davis, et al.).

This is an interesting idea. Their speculation is that their method of measuring citations may be flawed. They believe that in order to be able to publish a paper in the scientific community, and therefore cite a paper, one must already have access to funding and some sort of institutional library.

Lastly, they postulate that the citation advantage of open access, as reported by other journals, may be a result of self-selection postulate. That is, that prominent articles are more likely to be made freely accessible (often by the author), as a way to promote the research (Davis, et al.).

Jonathan P. Tennant et al. wrote an article eight years later, reviewing literature in the field on the impacts of Open Access on academia, the economy, and society. He estimates that approximately 25% of scholarly research is available freely online. However, this means that

…universal or even marginal access to approximately 75% of articles is not directly possible unless one either is in a privileged position to work at an institute that has subscription access to these articles, or has enough money to pay on a per-article basis (given that journals provide this feature; some do not). Subscriptions to all peer-reviewed journals is not affordable for any single individual, research institute or university. Consequently, the potential impact of research articles is never fully realized, impeding scientific progress by a lack of use, while simultaneously negatively affecting the recognition of individual researchers and the funders who support their work (Tennant, et al.).

The article posits that the lack of Open Access articles is detrimental to the research community, especially those without means and often those in developing countries. They write, “OA is a global issue, highlighted by inequalities between developing and developed nations, and largely fueled by financial disparity” (Tennant et al.). While most cutting-edge research tends to come from western, developed countries, that may be because they had access to the cutting edge research that preceded it. What this article does not and cannot answer, is how much is the research from developing countries helped by Open Access research, and potentially hindered by the costs of subscription articles?

Lastly, one point that Tennant et al. make is that there are many Open Access journals out there, especially in the developing world, that do not peer-review papers, and do not check the author’s research; they just are interested receiving payment from the authors in the exchange for publishing their work, regardless of quality. It is hard to tell how much those journals have impacted research as well, and how many of them were included in prior research of Open Access journals.

Parts One and Two Summary

While the research on this is not definitive, it looks like accessibility to research does have an impact on ongoing and future research. The extent of the impact is hard to measure, and it seems to have less influence in more traditional academic and research circles where there are resources and systems to request materials for little or no cost. The institutional libraries for these places are able to provide the researchers with almost all of the information they need, but only if they are aware of the library’s offerings. For those who remain unaware, Open Access is likely to have a larger impact, as they might believe they have to pay for access to research themselves.

It seems the largest impact accessibility of research has on upcoming research is for those outside of the traditional research circles of academia and well-known research institutions (National Institute of Health, CERN, Centers for Disease Control, etc.). This includes industry researchers, scholars from the developing world, and researchers with limited funds. These groups frequently don’t have access to a research library, or money to pay for access to subscription research, which is where Open Access journals and articles are likely making their biggest impact. Additionally, this group may not be able to publish as often as those in academia, due to the limited funds and resources available, which are large components of being able to do research. They have difficulty accessing most research due to the cost, and as a result, they are likely unable to publish as frequently as their counterparts. By allowing certain groups of researchers to pay high costs to have access to the newest ideas in their field, we may be denying ourselves perspectives on research that Western society hadn’t yet considered.

Stray Notes

While researching for this post, I came across a review article that I found interesting and somewhat relevant, but it didn’t help answer the question I had in the beginning. However, I think it explores an important topic; the affect Open Access articles has on professionals. Here are a few things I found from that article:

  • Over half of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) of industry researchers surveyed in the United Kingdom in 2011 reported access difficulties to research, more than large companies of researchers, and of universities. SMEs used personal subscriptions as their most common point of access to their research (ElSabry, 13).
  • Among Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) surveyed in the United Kingdom in 2012, 80 percent said the high cost was the biggest barrier to their access to research. Some [no numbers given] admitted to asking student volunteers to provide them with research using their university access to subscriptions [which is illegal]. Research is also quite costly because “an NGO serving people with a particular disability, ‘might be interested in research across a very wide range of disciplines, from health to sociology to engineering (ElSabry, 23),” thus increasing the number of subscriptions that would need to be purchased, and therefore the costs associated with access to research.
  • Over half of health and social care professionals in 2015, in Ireland, accessed research from Lenus, the Irish Health Repository [free], to help a patient in their care (ElSabry, 27).
  • Back in 2005, [when subscription research was generally less costly] a third of family doctors surveyed said cost was an obstacle for access to relevant literature (ElSabry, 27).
  • An experiment in 2015, suggested that Open Access journals who make research available for free after an embargo period [typically six months to a year] are hindering the dissemination of information to medical practitioners, since half of the articles the physicians consulted were published in the previous twelve-month period (ElSabry, 28).
  • In 2011, a group of researchers analyzed web log data of over 5,000 professionals working in Stanford University Hospitals, and found that one fifth of the research papers visited were published in 2011.

Access to research is clearly very important to many professions, not just other researchers. While I have not seen any evidence to suggest that the lack of access to subscription research has harmed patients or industries in any way, it seems to be slowing down the progress those professionals can achieve. The evidence here suggests that having this information available on Open Access sites would have a huge impact (and has already) on many professions, and consequently, the beneficiaries of the services those professionals provide.

References:

  1. Beaubien, Anne K. “ARL White Paper on Interlibrary Loan.” Association of Research Libraries, Association of Research Libraries, June 2007, arl.nonprofitsoapbox.com/storage/documents/publications/arl_white_paper_ill_june07.pdf.
  2. Davis, Philip M, et al. “Open access publishing, article downloads, and citations: randomised controlled trial.” The BMJ, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, 31 July 2008, bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a568.full.
  3. ElSabry, ElHassan. “Who needs access to research? Exploring the societal impact of open…” Revue française des sciences de l’information et de la communication, Société Française de Sciences de l’Information et de la Communication, 1 Aug. 2017, journals.openedition.org/rfsic/3271.
  4. Haglund, Lotta. “The Impact on University Libraries of Changes in Information Behavior Among Academic Researchers: A Multiple Case Study.”Volume 34, Issue 1, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 24 Jan. 2008, Abstract Retrieved from ScienceDirect database. sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0099133307002169.

Tennant, Jonathan P., et al. “The academic, economic and societal impacts of Open Access: an evidence-Based review.” F1000Research, F1000Research, 21 Sept. 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4837983/.

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dhrutikaribhagat

I am a librarian who works on many different parts of librarianship in many different roles.

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