Paid access to journal articles not a significant barrier for scientists

Mar 30, 2011

They say the best things in life are free, but when it comes to online scientific publishing, a new research report in The FASEB Journal suggests otherwise. In the report, Philip M. Davis from Cornell University shows that free access to scientific journal articles leads to increases in downloads, but not to increases in citations (their use), a key factor used in scientific publishing to assess a research article's relative importance and value. This study should help scientists make informed decisions about where they publish their work and assist governments, granting institutions and universities with evaluating whether or not their open access policies are leading to greater dissemination of useful scientific knowledge.

"The widely-accepted 'open access citation advantage' appears to be spurious," said Davis.

"There are many benefits to the free access of scientific information," Davis maintained, "but a citation advantage doesn't appear to be one of them."

To reach his conclusions, Davis ran several parallel randomized controlled trials. Upon publication, articles, including those from The FASEB Journal, were randomly assigned to either the or the subscription-access group. He then observed how these articles performed in terms of downloads and citations over three years. He found that free access did not affect the number of citations a paper received, rejecting a widely-held belief that open access articles are cited more frequently because of their status. The results are consistent over time across 36 journals covering the sciences, social sciences and humanities.

"A study like this is long overdue," said Gerald Weissmann, MD, Editor-in-Chief of The . "For years, institutions and organizations have promoted 'open access' policies under the assumption that some scientists cannot gain access to research reports because they or their institutions have to pay for subscriptions. Now we learn that 'open access' articles may be seen by more, but not cited (used) by more fellow scientists. It's probably time to drop the 'open access advantage' assumption and policies that follow from it."

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More information: Philip M. Davis. Open access, readership, citations: a randomized controlled trial of scientific journal publishing. FASEB J.; doi:10.1096/fj.11-183988

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User comments : 4

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ereneon
5 / 5 (3) Mar 30, 2011
Free access means that non-scientists can read articles, and most non-scientists will not cite them. The problem is that there is no feedback path for normal people to critique articles.
Squirrel
4 / 5 (1) Mar 30, 2011
There is a methodological flaw. People who cite articles either work in institutions that have an esubscription to a journal or not. Those that do not are not likely to check its contents since they will not be able to read any of its articles behind its paywall so they will not be able to take opportunity of the occasional free article since they will not know about it, those with access will not notice the difference between free and nonfree.
StevanHarnad
5 / 5 (1) Mar 31, 2011
Many studies have reported a significant increase in citations for articles whose authors make them OA by self-archiving them. To show that this citation advantage is not causal but just a self-selection artifact (because authors selectively self-archive their better, more citeable papers), you first have to replicate the advantage for the self-archived OA articles in your sample, and then show that the advantage is absent for the articles made OA at random. Davis showed only that the citation advantage was absent altogether in his sample. The likely reason is that the sample was much too small (36 journals, 712 articles randomly OA, 65 self-archived OA, 2533 non-OA). Gargouri et al 2010 controlled for self-selection with mandated (obligatory) OA rather than random OA. The far larger sample (1984 journals, 3055 articles mandatorily OA, 3664 self-archived OA, 20,982 non-OA) found a significant citation advantage of about the same size for both self-selected and mandated OA.
Cin5456
not rated yet May 02, 2011
As an undergraduate in Geology and in English it has always been difficult to find the most inovative articles that are not subscription dependent. The most recent research is never OA. I always cite any article I use in research, but undergraduate citation doesn't count in the above model. I would bet that scientists would get more undergraduate citations if their articles were OA, and perhaps open up their fields to new scientists by attracting the interest of new grad school students and thesis writers. I'm not a scientist, just a concerned student.