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Open Access: No Benefit for Poor Scientists

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Open Access has a moral agenda: to increase the flow of scientific information to researchers in developing nations.

Yet a new study suggests that authors in developing countries are no more likely to write papers for Open Access journals and are no more likely to cite Open Access articles.

The article, “Attracted to open access journals: a bibliometric author analysis in the field of biology,” was published this week in the Journal of Documentation.  Those without a subscription can access the final manuscript for free. The author, Tove Faber Frandsen, is a PhD student at the Royal School of Library and Information Science in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The study involved 150 journals in the field of biology.  The authorship study measured the share of publications in an Open Access journal written exclusively by authors from developing countries.  The citation study measured the share of references to Open Access journals.  Frandsen writes:

authors from developing countries are not more attracted to OA journals than authors from developed countries [...] authors from developing countries do not cite OA journals more than authors from developed countries.

Frandsen acknowledges that her research focuses on publication and citation, and not on reading, and that we should be careful not to confuse citation rates with usage.  Open Access to the scientific literature has been associated with increased article downloads.

In the introduction to his widely-acclaimed book, “The Access Principle,” John Willinsky describes the dire state of a medical library in Kenya with access to only 5 journals.  We are given the image of a faculty completely unable to conduct medical research and are left with a feeling of moral outrage.  It is not fair, something has to be done, and Open Access is the answer.

The fact that authors in developing nations cite as many subscription-based articles as their counterparts in developed nations questions the notion of a crisis of access to scientific information.  The image of an empty library may be a strong rhetorical device, but a poor indicator of a researcher’s true connection to the literature.

Patrick Gaulé, a Swiss economist who focuses on access to scientific literature in developing countries commented on the paper:

Our own research reveals that researchers in developing nations routinely share copies of articles among colleagues, thus bypassing formal subscription barriers.

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About Phil Davis

I am an independent researcher and publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of readership and citation data. I am a former postdoctoral researcher in science communication and former science librarian. http://phil-davis.org/

Discussion

11 thoughts on “Open Access: No Benefit for Poor Scientists

  1. Open Access is not the same thing as Open Access Journals.

    Articles published in conventional non-Open-Access journals can also be made Open Access (OA) by their authors — by self-archiving them in their Institutional Repositories.

    The Frandsen study focused on OA journals, not on OA articles. It is problematic to compare OA and non-OA journals, because journals differ in quality and content, and OA journals tend to be newer and fewer than non-OA journals (and often not at the top of the quality hierarchy). Some studies have reported that OA journals are cited more, but because of the problem of equating journals, these findings are limited. In contrast, most studies that have compared OA and non-OA articles within the same journal and year have found a significant citation advantage for OA. It is highly unlikely that this is only a developed-world effect; indeed it is almost certain that a goodly portion of OA’s enhanced access, usage and impact comes from developing-world users.

    It is unsurprising that developing world authors are hesitant about publishing in OA journals, as they are the least able to pay author/institution publishing fees (if any). It is also unsurprising that there is no significant shift in citations toward OA journals in preference to non-OA journals (whether in the developing or developed world): Accessibility is a *necessary* — not a *sufficient* — condition for usage and citation: The other necessary condition is *quality*. Hence it was to be expected that the OA Advantage would affect the top quality research most. Thatès where the proportion of OA journals is lowest.

    The Seglen effect is that the top 20% of articles receive 80% of the citations. This is why the OA Advantage is more detectable by comparing OA and non-OA articles within the same journal, rather than by comparing OA and non-OA journals.

    We will soon be reporting results showing that the within-journal OA Advantage is higher in higher-“impact” (i.e., more cited) journals. Although citations are not identical with quality, they do correlate with quality. So an easy way to understand the OA Advantage is as a *quality advantage* — with OA “levelling the playing field” by allowing authors to select which papers to cite on the basis of their quality, rather than just on the basis of their accessibility. This effect should be especially strong in the developing world, where access-denial is greatest.

    Stevan Harnad

    Posted by Stevan Harnad | Jan 14, 2009, 9:50 am
  2. Ms Frandsen’s conclusion that ‘authors from developing countries do not cite open access more than authors from developed countries’ is not based on solid evidence. While she reports the p-value and not the standard errors, it is clear from her regression results that she cannot statistically rule out the possibility that authors from developing countries may be more likely to cite open access journals.

    More interesting are her results on the composition of authorship in toll access and open access journals. A closer look at the regression tables suggests that developing country authors may be less likely to publish in open access (negative coefficient and p-value of 0.16). This should remind the open access community that appropriate steps need to be taken to ensure that open access does not make it more difficult for developing country scientists to publish.

    Patrick Gaulé

    Posted by Patrick Gaule | Jan 14, 2009, 12:34 pm
  3. I concur with Stevan’s comments, and would like to add the following:

    1. From our perspective, OA is as much about the flow of knowledge from the South to the North as much as the traditional concern with access to literature from the North. So the question to ask is whether with OA, authors from the North are starting to cite authors from the South. This is a study we are planning. We already have good evidence that more authors from the North are publishing in OA journals in the South (already an interesting reversal) but we need a more careful analysis of the citation data.

    2. The more critical issue regarding OA and developing country scientists is that most of them who publish in “international” journals could not access their own publications. This is where open repositories is crucial, to provide access to research from the South that are otherwise inaccessible.

    3. The Frandsen study focuses on biology journals and I am not sure what percentage of them are available to DC researchers through HINARI/AGORA. This would explain why researchers in this area would not need to rely on OA materials as much. But HINARI etc. are not OA programs, and local researchers will be left with nothing when the programs are terminated. OA is the only sustainable way to build local research capacity in the long term.

    4. Norris et. al’s [2008] “Open access citation rates and developing countries” focuses instead on Mathematics, a field not covered by HINARI and they conclude:

    ” that the majority of citations were given by Americans to Americans, but the admittedly small number of citations from authors in developing countries do seem to show a higher proportion of citations given to OA articles than is the case for citations from developed countries. Some of the evidence for this conclusion is, however, mixed, with some of the data pointing toward a more complex picture of citation behaviour.”

    http://elpub.scix.net/cgi-bin/works/Show?_id=335_elpub2008

    5. Citation behaviour is complex indeed and more studies on OA’s impact in the developing world are clearly needed. Davis’ eagerness to pronounce that there is “No Benefit for Poor Scientists” based on one study is highly premature.

    If there should be a study showing that people in developing countries prefer imported bottled water over local drinking water, should efforts to ensure clean water supply locally be questioned?

    Leslie Chan

    Posted by Leslie Chan | Jan 15, 2009, 12:29 am
  4. Leslie Chan wrote: Citation behaviour is complex indeed and more studies on OA’s impact in the developing world are clearly needed. Davis’ eagerness to pronounce that there is “No Benefit for Poor Scientists” based on one study is highly premature.

    Leslie,
    Please remember that this is a blog post and not an academic article. Blog posts are written much like the news: they contain a single narrative and lack the nuance and complexity found in academic articles.

    I encourage you (and others) to read Frandsen’s article. It is there, in the 25 pages of text, where you will find the details and complexity you desire.

    Posted by Philip Davis | Jan 15, 2009, 8:52 am
  5. First of all, I would like to thank everyone for taking the time to read and comment on the paper.

    The debate has already proliferated and a number of issues has been raised. I will limit my comments to four issues directly relating to the study.

    The first issue is the difference between OA and OA journals. I agree with you, Stevan ,that OA journals are not the same as OA and the terminology should be used with care as the demarcation of the term “open access” tends to be unclear as it is and the abstract could have been more accurate. Having said that, it is clearly stated in the article that the focus is on OA journals: The research questions are stated as follows:
    1. Are authors from developing countries more attracted to publishing in OA journals? Are OA journals thus characterised by a greater share of authors from developing countries than traditional subscription based journals?
    2. Do authors from developed and developing countries cite differently in OA journals than authors of same nationalities publishing in NOA journals?

    Secondly, I would like to stress that this article do not try to assess the benefits of OA for developing countries. The conclusion of the study is not that open access is of no benefit to developing countries. From the conclusion:

    “[B]ased on this study author behaviour in terms of OA publishing and citing cannot be distinguished on the basis of the author(s) being located in developed or developing country. However, OA journals can be characterised by attracting a certain group of authors as the results show that although authors from developing and developed countries do not differ in terms of citing OA journals, publications by both authors from developed and developing countries differ from the two former groups.”

    I would not recommend drawing the conclusion that OA is no benefit for developing countries on the basis of the present study. The analyses are based on publication and citation counts, and we should be careful not to confuse citation rates with usage. Whether one prefers one method of analysis over the other is another matter beyond the scope of my paper.

    The third issue is that Stevan recommend not comparing OA journals and non-OA journals, “because journals differ in quality and content, and OA journals tend to be newer and fewer than non-OA journals (and often not at the top of the quality hierarchy).” However, the distinction between OA article and non-OA article is not unproblematic either. A few examples: (1) Some studies of OA on article level include earlier versions of the publication when determining the OA status of a publication as they do not distinguish between various versions of publications. However, two publications with same title and author are not necessarily identical as e.g. a working paper can differ quite substantially from the later journal article. (2) An article not available OA can be distributed via various informal forums and consequently providing the members of a research community with de facto open access. Scholarly communication is a a continuum in the paper-only world as well as in the electronic (Kling and McKim, 1999).

    Fourth, Patrick Gaule states that this study cannot ”statistically rule out the possibility that authors from developing countries may be more likely to cite open access journals”. Typically, it is preferred to have statistically significant results and that preference can be seen in the share of published studies with statistically significant results which tend to be much higher than in unpublished studies. However, studies reporting non-significant findings are also important to report (e.g. Banks, 2004).

    Finally, I would like to say that I look forward to continuing these discussions in the primary literature where we also need to document the differences of opinion.

    Tove Faber Frandsen

    Banks, M. (2004), Connections between open access publishing and access to gray literature. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 92(2), 164-166.

    Kling, R. and McKim, G. (1999). Scholarly communication and the continuum of electronic publishing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50, 890-906.

    Posted by Tove Faber Frandsen | Jan 15, 2009, 9:26 am
  6. Thanks to Tove for her response, with most of which I agree. The only point on which I continue to disagree concerns the meaningfulness of comparing OA and non-OA journals, rather than comparing OA and non-OA articles *within* journals, to ensure that like is compared with like. Tove mentions that (1) there might be multiple OA versions of the same paper, sometimes none of them identical to the published version and (2) sometimes articles will be OA yet not detected as OA in the comparisons. These two factors, and others, make the within-journal OA/non-OA comparison more noisy, thereby *reducing* any systematic OA/non-OA difference. Hence the consistent, significant OA Advantage that keeps being observed in study after study *despite* this noise means the OA Advantage is even more robust. Nor does this noisiness alter the much more important methodological fact that within-journal comparisons are comparing like with like on a common average-quality and content baseline, whereas between-journal comparisons are not.

    Posted by Stevan Harnad | Jan 15, 2009, 9:50 am
  7. I have to agree with some of the commentators, i am an unemployed Open University (UK distance learning) postgrad student and I use a lot of open access articles, and i search for terms eg in pubmed, then i search for the articles next: i don’t search oa journals, i search in google: i mean, how specialist do you have to be to know which journal you’re going to find the article in? Very. After three years at uni, i used only two mags – sorry, journals – regularly, and then one was TICS which contains general introduction articles and the other i just liked. Mind you, ucl had like a million subscriptions. And I know a lot of people from china, actually they are rich, but they are not used to paying for content and they won’t, they just share it all illegally: ditto the greeks: they don’t suffer any risk of being prosecuted, since nobody’s going to bother do it in greek/chinese. When i lived in italy, there were particular shops called ‘Photocopisterie’ (singular has -a ending) which did what you think they did: you left the book and collected it a week or two later, along with a full photocopy (the downside was they photocopied even the flyleaves, the upside was it cost the same as if you did it yourself at the university and was bound). No student ever actually bought books. (This was before the internet became mainstream-useful.) Finally, anyone who’s at uni knows who to ask or where to go to get articles for free, and good ones are often republished in book collections, which, if you hang around second hand bookshops,you can get for a couple of quid (‘recent research in photosynthesis’ or somesuch).

    Posted by maia | Dec 31, 2009, 7:00 pm
  8. What i meant by the above waffle was, in my experience the comment about citing a pay-for journal article doesn’t mean you paid is extremely relevant. Also, just add that anyone who is a ‘scientist’ in the ‘developing world’ is actually pretty rich there, if not in exchange rate terms, and probably can afford to pay for a few articles.

    Posted by maia | Dec 31, 2009, 7:07 pm

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