Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Eyes wide shut?

A debate is underway among the proponents and gainsayers of open access about the reality of whether OA leads to more citations. I am not over-concerned with citations as they are not the sole indicators of the usage of research output. As one of the contributors has said, there is an ‘invisible college’ within which data, methodology, ideas are shared among researchers via conferences, coffee-breaks, workshops, emails, reports, social networking and other communication devices. While this ‘college’ informs, it is seldom cited.

Another statement made in these exchanges was that ‘open access is a solution looking for a problem’. This stopped me in my tracks, since over the last decade, evidence has been accumulating showing the high level of information imbalance and paucity, especially - but by no means only - in the developing world. And it was for this reason that the EPT and many other initiatives were formed to help resolve the problem. It is indisputable that access to all necessary research findings had not been met in pre-web days. Researchers, we had a problem.

And there is now abundant proof that when publications are made available free of charge, full text downloads are very great indeed. As examples, recent usage of material from the institutional repository of the Universidad de los Andes (ULA), Venezuela, showed 1,404,423 full text downloads in 2009 (most usage from Latin American countries, but approximately a third from the USA). Similarly, usage of journals published in developing countries, and made available through the Bioline International platform, shows full text downloads for 2009 of 4,403,047 (figures adjusted to eliminate web crawlers and robots), usage recorded from both developed and developing country users, making these previously non-OA near-invisible publications international in reach.

Similar high usage figures are replicated by many institutional repositories and open access journals (such as those made available through SciELO), as has been reported many times in this blog. Researchers, particularly in low-bandwidth regions, do not download full text articles unless they need them.

The argument that current research communication meets the needs of international science is quite evidently unsustainable, and the research communities worldwide are vigorously adopting new mechanisms for sharing publications and data. View the global, multilingual work of the eIFL network (see side-bar) for more evidence of the multi-institutional effort being put into circumnavigating knowledge-barriers. The need for reform has long been accepted, but if there is anyone left that still feels there has been and remains no research communication problem it must be a case of ‘eyes wide shut and ears soundproofed’ (Ted Hughes). OA is a well-advanced solution to a well-known problem.

*For information on ULA, Venzuela, see http://epublishingtrust.blogspot.com/2009/12/venezuelas-technology-mecca.html
* For information on Bioline International, see http://www.bioline.org.br

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