During my undergraduate degree, I remember all too well the many times in which I would search for a journal article that I needed to write a paper, only to be stymied by my institution’s inability to afford a journal or publisher. Of course, Interlibrary Loans could help me get my hands on those papers eventually, but rarely was it sufficient. As a result, I ended up spending out-of-pocket for journal articles during a time in which personal finances were dismal.
This reality is commonplace for many students both near and far. For many Canadian undergraduates, access to journals has been dwindling. Particularly in developing nations, scholars-in-training have limited access to journals published by conglomerate publishers. Furthermore, expensive subscriptions to scholarly journals can deprive everyday citizens from becoming more scientifically literate. So, what are we to do?
Cue the open access movement.
Open access publishing – making access to published works free for readers – has recently been adopted by many academic journals in attempt to remove barriers to scholarly works. Open access publishing in academia typically comes in two forms: green and gold. While the ‘green’ option allows scholarly authors to openly share their work through different outlets (e.g. personal webpage, social media, etc.), the gold option provides readers with free access to an article directly from the publisher. This has resulted in the establishment of fully-open access journals (such as the brand new on from Canadian Science Publishing, FACETS), as well as hybrid journals (where the journal offers the option for authors to pay for their article to be open access) Nonetheless, by enforcing an open access method, barriers to accessing scholarly works begin to dwindle and readership can be increased.
While open access certainly seems like a great idea from the readers’ perspective, it comes at an expense to authors – literally. Currently, the cost of making a scholarly article is substantial, generally running authors more than USD $1000 per article. So, is there any benefit from the authors’ side of the coin? It turns out that there is!
The prestige and productivity of scholarly authors is often gauged on citations – when another scholar references the work of a scholarly author in a subsequent article. The more citations that an author gains on their publications, the better. So, for authors, increasing citations is a benefit to authors for increasing the impact of their work and for career development. Interestingly, one way that appears effective in increasing citations is publishing open access.
In a study recently published in FACETS, I was able to show that open access articles in hybrid marine science journals received more citations than articles that were closed access. For my study, I collected citation data from articles in 3 hybrid marine ecology journals with similar impact factors as a microcosm to test for open access effects on citations: ICES Journal of Marine Science (Oxford Press), Marine Ecology Progress Series (Inter-Research), and Marine Biology (Springer). I also controlled for a number of other factors that could potentially influence citation rates, including self-citations, article type, time since publication, the number of authors, and the year that the article was published. I found that open access articles received, on average, 57%, 38%, and 24% more citations than closed access articles in for ICES Journal of Marine Science, Marine Ecology Progress Series, & Marine Biology respectively.
Although the trend observed in my study could be driven by authors’ self-selection to publish only their best work open access, the results are in line with numerous other studies showing a citation advantage of open access articles. In addition, my study only focused on a narrow field of academia: marine science. However, these ‘microcosmic’ studies are important for highlighting the benefits of open access to authors that reside within a defined academic discipline, and more of them are certainly needed.
Ultimately, the consistently-documented citation advantage of open access for authors of scholarly works should motivate authors to publish open access and, in turn, increase the accessibility of scholarly works for students, researchers, and the public. However, the financial burden to doing so is still substantial. Given the documented benefits of open access publishing to both authors and readers, it’s about time that both authors and readers push for reduced costs to publish open access. Alleviating the financial burden to authors will help to stimulate open access publishing and will lead to more efficient scientific communication between scientists and with the public. Such a transition is crucial in an age where scientific literacy is increasingly needed.