The Cost of Inaccessibility at the Margins of Relevance

I use RSS feeds to keep up with academic journals. Because of an undocumented and unexpected feature (bug?) in my (otherwise wonderful) free software newsreader NewsBlur, many articles published over the last year were marked as having been read before I saw them.

Over the last week, I caught up. I spent hours going through abstracts and downloading papers that looked interesting or relevant to my research. Because I did this for hundreds of articles, it gave me an unusual opportunity to reflect on my journal reading practices in a systematic way.

On a number of occasions, there were potentially interesting articles in non-open access journals that neither MIT nor Harvard subscribes to and that were otherwise not accessible to me. In several cases where the research was obviously important to my work, I made an interlibrary request, emailed the papers’ authors for copies, or tracked down a colleague at an institution with access.

Of course, articles that look potentially interesting from the title and abstract often end up being less relevant or well executed on closer inspection. I tend to cast a wide net, skim many articles, and put them aside when it’s clear that the study is not for me. This week, I downloaded many of these possibly relevant papers to, at least, give a skim. But only if I could download them easily. On three or four occasions, I found inaccessible articles at this margin of relevance. In these cases, I did not bother trying to track down the articles.

Of course, what appear to be marginally relevant articles sometimes end up being a great match for my research and I will end up citing and building on the work. I found several suprisingly interesting papers last week. The articles that were locked up have no chance at this.

When people suggest that open access hinders the spread of scholarship, a common retort is that the people who need the work have or can finagle access. For the papers we know we need, this might be true. As someone with access to two of the most well endowed libraries in academia who routinely requests otherwise inaccessible articles through several channels, I would have told you, a week ago, that locked-down journals were unlikely to keep me from citing anybody.

So it was interesting watching myself do a personal cost calculation in a way that sidelined published scholarship — and that open access publishing would have prevented. At the margin of relevance to ones research, open access may make a big difference.

5 thoughts on “The Cost of Inaccessibility at the Margins of Relevance”

  1. Maybe a modification of Bdale’s quote is in order….

    “Life is too short to use closed journals”

  2. More generally, the theoretical idea is that when we consider the effects of IP on follow-on work, the kinds of uses that tend to be the most affected are the ones that are experimental in nature. You’re willing to pay for ideas when you know their value to you, but when their value is conditional on their revelation (i.e. when experimentation is important) IP blocks a lot of this potentially great creativity.

  3. I have much the same experience, though I’ve phrased it differently: For any paper I write, there’s perhaps 3-5 papers that are really central to my own work, and crucial to cite. The rest of the 40-50 references are needed as support, but the particular I cite are not. For any of them I could probably substitute with a different paper from the same group; a paper from another group; or a review paper that spells out the particular issue.

    And since I’m human and I’m lazy, when I look for support for (or argument against) a particular point I will tend to cite the papers that I can easily find. Which will be papers I can easily find and get from work or from home, depending on where I’m working at the time. This will tend to be Open Access papers or, less common, papers directly accessible from work. Very rarely will I bother with a paper I need to actually order and buy.

    I bet this is a major reason Open Access papers consistently get more citations than papers in comparable losed journals. And I suspect this will ultimately push Open Access journals to the top of the publishing hierarchy.

  4. Interesting chance to evaluate your choice of material to read and cite because of a software bug. I’d assume more and more people who are part of the post-internet, post-search engine, post-open access age are going to favor such easy access to material they wish to read and cite, so like Wikipedia, if its not easy to cite, it probably won’t. And the cost to the people who author the papers is great if they know that easier access would get their work cited by peers in their field. And school I’d imagine want authors to produce papers with as much current research as possible and with limited budgets, closed journals would be cut, losing money for publishers and authors papers never to be read. With OA Journals, someone could create a recommendation engine to help with finding relevant articles which would be near-impossible with closed journals because of the copyright and licensing issues.

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