Informal peer-to-peer sharing of scientific articles is common for researchers in developing countries, a new study suggests.
The article, “Access to scientific literature in India,” appears in the December issue of the Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology. Its author, Patrick Gaulé, is a post-doctoral student at the MIT Sloan School of Management. An earlier draft of his manuscript is freely available.
Reporting on several related research studies, Gaulé combines a massive bibliometric citation analysis with a survey of Indian researchers on their article sharing behaviors.
Analyzing 1.27 million citations to over 45,000 articles published in 2007, Gaulé compared the citation behavior of Indian researchers with those of Swiss researchers. On average, the reference lists of Indian papers were 6% shorter than their Swiss counterparts when published in the same journal. This translates to about two fewer citations. The reference length effect was more exaggerated in the life sciences (9% decrease for biology, 11% for medicine) than for physics, engineering, or chemistry.
In addition, Indian researchers included about 50% more citations to open access journals than Swiss researchers, although this translated to just a small fraction (0.16) of one citation.
In a similar study published earlier this year, Tove Frandsen reported that authors in developing countries were no more likely to cite open access journals, although her limited sample size (150 biology journals) did not permit her to detect small differences in her data. Evans and Reimer’s 2009 paper in Science analyzed 26 million articles appearing in over 8,000 journals and thus was able to detect small but statistically significant differences.
Gaulé is cautious when attempting to interpret the differences in reference length as many citations listed in a paper are perfunctory — that is, they are not necessary to understand the meaning of paper but appear to serve to acknowledge that other general work has been done in the field. Many authors understand this form of citation as “hand-waving.”
Assessing whether differences in citing behavior reflect a severe problem is difficult. Do missing references really imply missing knowledge?
Even the best Indian research library has sub-optimal access to the scientific journal literature. The Indian Institute of Science, for example, lacks access to one-third of the top biology journals. Gaulé was interested in how Indian researchers cope with their situation.
The answer? File-sharing.
Indian researchers routinely send requests to corresponding authors and peers for copies of articles, Gaulé reports. Some Indian researchers responded that they obtained articles from former students now doing research in the United States and Europe. Most requests for copies were honored, and the strong sharing ethos in science may help attenuate the effects of subscription access barriers. Gaulé writes:
Thus, in practice, the importance of openness as a norm of science lessens the effect of restrictions imposed by publishers on access to the literature. It could be that the prevalence of informal information sharing is increasing over time, thanks to the generalization of new technologies facilitating information exchanges
Still, having to rely on authors and peers to supply one’s information needs may not be an optimal way to conduct science. Programs like HINARI, AGORA, and OARE may help alleviate access problems in some of the world’s poorest nations, although countries like India fall above the cut-off for eligibility. Gaulé concludes:
In the long run, having all scientific publications freely available to the world from the day of publication may be a desirable goal. In the short run, however, it is more important to make scientific publications freely available for developing countries because this is where the problem really lies.