(Editor’s Note: Today we revisit a 2011 post from Phil Davis that asked important questions about access to the scholarly literature that remain unanswered today. Funding agency mandates for Open Access are usually based on a notion that there are clear benefits to broadening access to research papers. The RCUK, for example, begins their policy page with this statement: “Free and open access to publicly-funded research offers significant social and economic benefits.” That may seem fairly obvious, but it remains something of a conjecture. To my knowledge, there have been no evidence-based studies to quantify those lacking access, nor any concrete definitions of exactly what level of social and economic benefit is expected to result. Without these sorts of data and the guidelines they can provide, policy-making becomes a trial and error process. The more we can learn about realistic goals and underserved researchers, the better all involved can formulate plans to achieve those goals and meet those researchers’ needs.)
Is there really a crisis in access to the scientific literature? The answer is largely a matter of perspective.
If you ask librarians, the answer would be a resounding, “Yes!” Faced with stagnating and declining acquisition budgets and a growing production of scientific literature, librarians have been forced to make hard decisions on what to keep and what to cancel. As someone who conducted three journal cancellation projections, I have first-hand experience that these decisions are never easy to make, and each year, they only get harder. There is only so far you can go before the ability of the library to provide core titles to its researchers becomes compromised.
If you ask researchers, however, you may hear a resounding, “No!” Big Deals have provided readers with access to more titles than ever before, and many subscription-access journals now provide hybrid open access publishing models. The number of open access journals and articles has been steadily increasing, as are the number of articles made freely-accessible through voluntary or mandated policies to self-archive. Add to this a growing list of programs that provide free access to developing countries, free access to backfiles, free access to research articles, and articles selected by editors to have important public health implications, and the access landscape starts looking very different.
From the perspective of readers, the world of access looks a lot different than the perspective of librarians.
In an article published in the July issue of the Journal of the Medical Library Association, “The Impact of Free Access to the Scientific Literature: A Review of Recent Research,” Bill Walters and I review the existing research on the access problem and the impact of free access on the behavior of scientists as readers and authors. We also examine the extent to which the biomedical literature is used by the general public.
We report that there is little evidence to support the idea that there is a crisis in access to the scholarly literature, although this statement does come with a big caveat: most of the studies to date have focused on the behavior and opinion of scientific authors, most of whom are located at institutions with excellent access to the scientific literature.
In building the answer to this larger picture puzzle, we also found many missing pieces. For inquisitive graduate students looking for interesting research topics, the field is wide open.
First, little is known about whether free access is making a difference in non-research contexts–in teaching, clinical, extension, government and industry settings.
Second, there is a lack of understanding on the use of the primary scholarly literature by the lay public. We know that the public searches the Internet for health and medical topics, but their use of the Internet appears to be limited to public-directed summaries, such as those available at MedlinePlus and social media sites that help facilitate patient interest groups.
Last, most of what we know about access to the literature is provided through traditional channels–publishers and library intermediaries. If peer-to-peer sharing of scientific articles resembles the sharing of other forms of media–such as music and video–publisher website usage may capture only a small channel in a diverse multi-channel environment.
I’m no Pollyanna, and do not, for one instant, believe that access conditions are perfect. Access to the scientific literature could always be better. On the other hand, the data simply do not support a widely vocalized view that there is a crisis in access (or in scholarly communication in general).
The problem with getting an accurate view on the access situation is that the messages we hear are dominated by advocates and astroturfers — individuals who want to change the system and those who wish to profit from such a changed system. As David Crotty argued recently, it’s difficult to distinguish prescient views from outliers when the status quo remains largely silent.
Those who work for the complaints department know that silence usually means satisfied.