advantage, schmantage

In a recent post at The Scholarly Kitchen, Philip Davis takes issue with a recent article by Alma Swan regarding the controversial Open Access citation advantage, the idea that any given paper is, ceteris paribus, more likely to be cited if published under an Open Access model than it would be if published behind a paywall.
The FUD merchants want to claim that, if no citation advantage exists, there is no point to Open Access: that unless OA papers are currently garnering more citations than their TA equivalents, current levels of access must be adequate; or that if OA papers, which presumably are read more, are not cited more, then OA must be a repository for the second rate. Hence the controversy: it’s an easy way to obscure the debate, sending up a cloud of statistical argument like a fleeing cuttlefish squirting ink. “Look over there, OA proponents are wrong about this, surely they must be wrong about everything, pay no attention to the massive profits behind the curtain.”
Considering that:

  • only around 20% of the world’s scholarly journals are OA, and very few of those have been around for more than about a decade
  • the subscription model is propped up by systemic inertia and by the fact that it simultaneously makes competitors into complements and hides its costs in multiple places, thereby divorcing demand from the reality check that costs ought to provide; and
  • although we might wish it were otherwise, the practice of citing papers known only from their free-access abstracts or mention in another paper is hardly uncommon

it’s something of a miracle if any OA citation advantage shows up anywhere. More importantly, though, the citation advantage was always a minor point in the list of reasons to prefer Open to Toll Access:
(1) Not everyone who needs to read the primary literature is going to write anything citing it. That doesn’t make providing them with access to the literature any less important, and no payment or institutional affiliation is required to read Open Access information.
(2) Toll Access confines data- and textmining to isolated, artificial commercial sections of the body of knowledge, hindering progress on mining methodologies, restricting the reach of existing work and precluding any idea of a comprehensive protocol.
(3) OA provides better value for money than Toll Access. Regardless of where the money comes from, OA is a one-time up-front expense that covers all subsequent use: pay the midwife, but keep the baby. Peter Suber has written a careful exposition of this argument from the taxpayer perspective, but most if not all of his points map readily onto any research funder.
(4) Open Access scales where Toll Access doesn’t; my own recent estimate (caveat lector!) is that library access, even at the best funded libraries, runs to around half of the total available scholarly journal literature. What use is a system that enables publication without enabling access?The subscription model divorces (part of) the cost of dissemination from the overall cost of production of scholarly information, which has allowed research funders to overlook that part of the cost of their mission. It’s been historically picked up by libraries, but that’s easily revealed as a shell game when you look at where library funding comes from. Who loses the shell game? Academics whose work is less widely available than it should be, and anyone who wants to read the primary literature. Who wins? Publishers, whose prices have been allowed to escalate because they have largely escaped scrutiny (except by librarians, who for no good reason that I can see have been largely ignored, at least until relatively recently, by academic and political decision makers).
So I don’t think the citation advantage question has much bearing on the larger question of the value of Open Access. Existing access is clearly inadequate by comparison with Open Access by way of points (1) and (2) above, and OA is in any case preferable by way of point (3) and inevitable by way of point (4).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *