[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

Open Access Advantage (or Not!)

I am not competent to assess the discussion between Stevan Harnad, Phil Davis, Peter Banks, and others concerning what is called the Open Access Advantage, which sounds oddly to my ear like a frequent flier program. I do wish to clarify two domains that are being confused in this discussion, unless it is I who is befuddled by the terms.

I take it that the discussants use "citation" in the formal sense in which one author cites another in a paper. It should be self-evident that Open Access cannot have anything to do with citations, whether they are great or few in number. OA simply means a user can read material through the mediation of a Web browser without having to pay for it or having someone else (e.g., a librarian) pay for it. A citation requires a positive action on the part of an author. An author can cite a paper that is OA or one that is "toll-access." Indeed, presumably sometimes authors cite papers they have not read at all. If all the world's papers were OA, and every researcher read every one of them in his or her field, it is theoretically possible that not one citation would result from it. Authors cite articles because they provide value to the authors' own work. Open Access has nothing to do with it and therefore, if there is an OA Advantage, it must lie elsewhere.

The OA Advantage, if it exists, lies not in citations but in findability. How can a researcher cite an article that he or she does not even know exists? I happen to believe that at this time the likelihood of a researcher not knowing about a meritorious article that could be of value to his or her work is highly improbable, but I don't wish to argue the point here. Researchers find articles because they see them cited, because colleagues recommend them, because they use insitutional or product- or publisher-specific search engines, or because they use a "universal" (that is, publicly available) search engine such as Google. Open Access only pertains to the universal search engines. All other ways of finding articles have nothing to do with OA and thus cannot yield an OA Advantage. OA, thus, is a means to market articles (that is, call attention to them) to Google and its kin, and any OA Advantage lies in Google-like findability, not in increased citations. The term of art for this is search-engine optimization. But even a well-SEO'd article will not yield any citations if other authors don't choose to cite the article. OA can bring a researcher to the foyer, but it is no guarantee of a dance.

Of course, an author would be crazy not to want optimal findability. Last year I posted to this list an argument to the effect that any advantage OA had in findability (NOT in citations, since OA has nothing to do with citations) would shortly be overcome by publishers (the bigger the better, because the big ones have more resources), who would commit resources to SEO. Size matters: a single self-archived article would have little chance of climbing the Google rankings because of the way the Google algorithms work. Successful publishers would find ways to expose limited amounts of content and metadata to search engines, and OA would fade away, at least in terms of any presumed findability advantage. I was wrong.

In order for my thesis to have been correct, the large toll-access publishers would have to make investments in SEO, but as best as I can tell, they have not. Most publishers continue to operate in such a way as to imply that the public Internet is something of a bad neighborhood, to be avoided. OA, however feckless most of its implementations to date, walks on the wild side. Traditional publishers are making a huge error by focusing entirely on "walled garden" approaches to driving up citations. Google is evolving into the de facto universal interface, and any publisher who does not invest heavily in marketing to the Google algorithms is endangering the publishing enterprise and short-changing authors. Findability matters.

Contra the OA advocates, an author should not be insisting on self-archiving as a means to increase citations (because it won't) or even to increase findability, which is the necessary but not sufficient step to increased citations. Rather, the author should be challenging publishers on different metrics. Who is your search-engine marketing team? How many page views does your site get? How does your Web presence compare to the competition's? If you are not going to make an attempt to bring my work to the attention of the universal interface, why shouldn't I simply take up self-archiving?

Open Access is a poorly thought-out, amateurish, and risky strategy that will nonetheless prevail if traditional publishers don't begin to take the Internet seriously. Few do.

Joe Esposito