Open access gets more readers, but not more citations

A widely accepted open access citation advantage "appears to be spurious" Copyright: Flickr/ebel

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[NAIROBI] Claims that papers published in open access journals are not cited more highly than those in paid-for publications have been criticised by developing world scientists and open access campaigners.

A paper published last week (30 March) in The FASEB Journal analysed more than 3,000 articles from 36 journals. It found that although open access papers are downloaded more, they are not cited by other scientists any more than paid-for articles. Citation rates are a key measurement of an article’s relative importance and value.

A widely accepted ‘open access citation advantage’ therefore appears to be spurious, said Phillip M. Davis, the study’s author and a researcher at Cornell University, United States, in a press release. Instead, open access papers may be more beneficial to non-scientists who make use of the knowledge than to active researchers, he concludes.

"To suggest that open access articles do not lead to dissemination of scientific knowledge [within the scientific community] is disturbing," Nasra Gathoni, president of the Association of Health Information and Libraries in Africa, told SciDev.Net.

"Most health institutions [in Africa] use these articles as tools of learning every day. To water down their usefulness, or even block access to them, would be a big letdown for us," she added.

"What we need, perhaps, is to train people to [harness] the opportunity of open access more appropriately."

Jeremiah Owiti, executive director of the Centre for Independent Research (CIR) in Nairobi, said that Kenyan researchers use articles from all over the world as comparisons or yardsticks.

"To be unable to access and compare would [mean] operating in a conceptual and methodological vacuum," he said.

Stevan Harnad, a researcher at University of Quebec, Canada, said: "The study lacked the statistical power to show what it purported to show."

Harnad said: "[Its] conclusion might be congenial to the publishing industry, but it would certainly not be in the interests of research, researchers, their institutions, their funders, and the public in whose interests the research is funded and conducted — not just so they can read it, but so that its intended users (researchers) can access, use, apply and build upon it, to the benefit of the tax-paying public that funds it."

Bo-Christer Björk, researcher at the Hanken School of Economics in Finland, agreed the study "has several limitations which makes interpreting the results difficult". For example, he said, it focused on high-impact English-language journals, but "the results would probably have looked very different" if it had looked at non-English or developing country journals.

But he added: "Davis’s study demonstrated increased readership [for open access articles], and this can also be important, for many groups such as government experts, patients, [and] students."

And Davis told SciDev.Net he does not see his paper as an argument against, but for, open access.

"I demonstrate quite clearly that free access to the scientific literature results in greater dissemination of scientific knowledge in terms of readership; it just may not result in more citations," he said.

"I also argue … that measuring citations provides us with only a very narrow indicator of the diffusion of scientific knowledge and ignores the many other beneficiaries of free access beyond the core group of research scientists. Taken together, I see this article as being a very positive contribution to the cause of open access."

Link to full article in The FASEB Journal

Additional reporting by  Mico Tatalovic


The FASEB Journal doi: 10.1096/fj.11-183988 (2011)