(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.

A matter of perspective. Image via Jean-Christophe Benoist.

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.

Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist. https://phil-davis.com/


9 Thoughts on "Stick to Your Ribs: Challenging the Access Crisis"

Thanks Phil, I look forward to reading your paper. Since it is freely accessible I was able to click the link above and have access to it in less than a second. If it were not, chances are I would have access through my library portal since I work at a major university. In my experience I can get about 90% of the articles I want through that route. It however would take me 4 or 5 minutes to work through the portal to the publisher’s site for the journal, the appropriate volume, issue and finally the article. For the other 10% I would have to work through inter-library loan and probably get it in a few days at a fairly high cost to my library. I suspect that is why researchers are not unsatisfied.

The extra time accessing the literature particularly when you have to go through inter-library does impact on research productivity and at least I find frustrating when trying to conduct research knowing there are better ways.

As for others who are not connected to a good research library it is a problem. The Jack Andraka story is a good example.

Most high school students are not going to come up with a potentially break-through discovery but they could use better access to the research literature and a few Jack Andraka really matter. My uncle along with 4 or 5 people I knew have died of pancreatic cancer. If the “dipstick” test he developed holds up, deaths from pancreatic cancer may be largely a thing of the past.

Their teachers also could use better access to the literature. They are college trained, most with at least Masters degrees and having better access to the literature probably would help the quality of teaching.

Also, I was just down in Mexico City at the Public Knowledge Project Conference and it was really humbling to see how the journal system works in Latin America. I felt like I was living in a parallel universe.They do have real problems accessing the literature from the US and Western Europe. That’s from taking to researchers who live there. Journals in Latin America have been traditionally freely available, most published by universities who freely distributed them to other universities long before they could be distributed digitally. My university gave their journals to yours, yours gave their journals to mine. Since the Internet became available they have quickly moved to distributing their journals digitally through platforms like Redalyc and SciELO which by the way are highly selective in the journals they allow to participate in these networks. There are other ways of funding publication that are not any more expensive and make the literature easily available to anyone.

I am not connected to a university but I have never had trouble getting an article I wanted to read. I first check the lead author’s website. If it is not there I send them an email requesting a copy. No one has ever refused. This is the kind of peer to peer access that Phil is suggesting we need to understand. Given that the number of people who actually want to (and can) read most articles is probably very small this existing form of access is probably more than sufficient. Has anyone bothered to look at this issue using scientific method, or is it all anecdotes and rhetoric?

It’s ironic that you decry anecdotes and rhetoric after using a personal anecdote of emailing authors of articles.

The problem is a science policy that runs for the benefit of university managers rather than in zealous pursuit of knowledge. Money for academic R&D increases while money for conserving and providing access to the results does not. In short, it encourages universities to “do science” rather than to “get useful results.” The difference, I believe, goes to profitability. Fiat Aurum.

I think what is needed more than access (in light of accessibility and electronic storage) by the general population and scholars – high school to college and old alike – is training on how to ask a question then do research, then access, and validate. As an aside, did we always think in terms of keywords?

In short, there is so much out there that one is more likely to miss something not because it is not available but rather because one simply cannot find it.

David Willetts, the UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, asked for the Finch Report to be created. As he wrote this book, /The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back/, he couldn’t easily access a lot of scholarly resources that he needed because he was not affiliated with a University. (http://societycentral.ac.uk/2012/10/16/society-centrals-role-in-promoting-informed-policy-making/)

This August 19 paywalled article (only $39.95) in ScienceDirect provides evidence that University Alumni (general public no longer affiliated with a University) would like greater access to scholarly information. “Providing Alumni Access to Electronic Resources” noted that “University alumni are frequently surprised and dismayed to find that access to online library resources is terminated at graduation.” (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0098791313000944) If more information was published as Open Access, the alumni (and policy makers like David Willetts) would be less dismayed at their lack of access to scholarly research.

Rather surprising. I would have thought he could have walked over to a university library and read the article. If I recall, that is what was done before all this electronic delivery stuff!

As interesting as the “Is there a crisis …” question may be, it is certainly not the only or the most important question relative to publicly-funded research. There is, for example, the moral question as to whether taxpayer assets should be made any scarcer than absolutely necessary. The inefficiencies of a Balkanized system of scholarly communications present unnecessary barriers, raise costs and thereby unnecessarily constrain access. The reluctance to seek out ways and means of reducing the wasteful friction of a system no longer aligned to the medium as digital replaces paper is morally indefensible.

I’m not sure “morality” is the right lens with which to view policy decisions or business strategies here. If the moral question of public access to taxpayer funded research is at the core of the thinking, then this extends far beyond access to research papers to access to actual research results themselves (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/08/06/is-access-to-the-research-paper-the-same-thing-as-access-to-the-research-results/).

It also argues against the US governments’ chosen role as a supporter of private industry and a driver of economic profits, discussed here:
and here:

But even if one takes your argument at face value, isn’t a better understanding of the situation likely to be helpful in designing policy to address it? There’s no argument being made here against increasing access to knowledge. The argument being made is that more data can help inform ways to do that better.

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