28 Apr 2014

Promoting Open Access --- Within Reason

Guest Post by Sean Burns, School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) / University of Kentucky

I recently watched a panel titled Librarians Collaborating to Produce Systematic Reviews, which was delivered as a webcast and hosted by the Medical Library Association (MLA). It was an informative webcast. There was quite a bit to learn about conducting systematic reviews and it was interesting to hear how librarians are working on these types of projects. In fact, watching the panel discuss this topic reminded me of the kind of rational, rigorous approach to the practice of librarianship that prompted the early scholars in this field to call it library science.

With the webcast and related issues in mind, I later saw a post on Google Plus by Peter Suber, who shared a link to, and seemingly endorsed the arguments in an article hosted on Medium.com about the need to "modernize citation practices." One of the arguments presented in the article, the one I think Dr. Suber endorsed, contends that in every instance possible authors should reference research available as open access (OA) instead of research that exists behind a paywall or is "buried away in some library."

It is, as Dr. Suber noted, an interesting argument. It is also, I might add, a little scary, and what I'm concerned with is that it signifies a turning point in the arguments among those who strongly advocate for open access (I've seen glimmers of this attitude about referencing only OA material elsewhere). That is, for most of the OA movement the argument has been largely about the moral and practical good in publishing one's research in an open access journal (gold OA) or making it available in an open access repository (green OA). The above argument, however, speaks to a different supposed good --- only using research that is OA; and hence the apparent turning point is one that involves making every effort to produce OA material to one that now adds making every effort only to consume OA material.

Since the set of all openly accessible scientific research is still only a portion of the set of all scientific research, it might be nice to have a discussion about what it would mean to consume OA material intentionally and singularly. For example, while I have never met the librarians who discussed the details involved in conducting systematic reviews, my guess would be, given the purpose of systematically and thoroughly reviewing the literature using the methods they described, that these librarians would think it negligent to ignore any research that is relevant and pertinent to the study at hand if that research only exists behind a paywall or is "buried away" someplace in the stacks. Fortunately, my understanding is that most scholars and scientists would feel this way, and I was recently reminded of the scope of this sentiment when a student at my school was describing her interlibrary loan work as an intern at the National Library of Medicine, which processes around 250,000 document delivery requests "for articles, books, audiovisuals and microfilm material" annually.

In the end, it might be morally praiseworthy, as well as good science, to place one's research in an accessible channel so it is available to as many as possible without any direct cost to end users, but the same criteria does not necessarily transfer to how we use research. In this aspect, I would emphasize that it is a duty for researchers, as it is for librarians, to locate and use the best information that exists, even if this means having to use a library's service or visit the stacks.

The scientific process is not contained in the lab. It extends also to the communication of that process. Furthermore, the epistemological rigor scientists attach to their work just as easily applies to the kind of rigor needed in scholarly information seeking. I made the following comment about this need for rigor and persistence on Dr. Suber's post, and it seems worth repeating:
Rather, the search and retrieval of good information might best be served by the same kind of activity that P. W. Bridgman described in 1955, that Gerald Holton picked up on in 1994, and that Susan Haack continued in 2003/07 about the scientific method --- that "it is nothing more than doing one's damnedest [...], no holds barred" (Bridgman, p. 534; Holton, p. 78; Haack, p. 24).
Bridgman: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/920431
Holton: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/30624193
Haack: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/475499229

See also Sean's Research Notebook / Twitter


  1. Thanks for a really interesting post Sean. From my reading of Patrick Dunleavy's post on modernising citation practices (which I thought was excellent!), I understood that it was not about solely reading/citing OA material, but rather citing the open version where available as the primary source (and cross-referencing the published/paywalled version in the secondary instance, rather than the other way round which is the case generally today). This makes sense to me, and does not interfere with a researcher's frequent need to use and cite paywalled material.

    Thanks again for a very interesting discussion!

    1. Thanks Michelle.

      I agree that there is an overall emphasis on versioning in
      Dunleavy's essay (which is problematic too), but there are certain
      appeals to obligations that he makes that are concerning. For
      example, consider that he writes that "Referencing should connect
      readers as far as possible to open access sources, and scholars
      should in all cases and in every possible way treat the open
      access versions of texts as the primary source," I think the
      second half of that sentence supports your reading of the essay,
      but I think the first half of the sentence supports mine. I hope I
      haven't treated Dunleavy unfairly, but there is an OA preferencing
      here that I think we need to be careful about and that is part of
      a group of other comments on the subject. Consider, e.g., these
      two comments by others:

      1. "If I cannot read the full content of a paper from my Google
      search, I will not bother to read it at all." --Yihui Xie


      2. "I find myself, without having intended to, approaching the
      position that anything behind a paywall is not part of the
      conversation. That position surprises me; but I suspect within
      three or five years it'll be pretty common." --Mike Taylor


  2. Thanks Sean. Those two comments make very interesting reading in terms of elucidating researchers' workflows, and it is very likely that such statements will become more commonplace (and even more ardent!) in the coming years.

  3. Sean,

    I read the article the same way Michelle did, but I see your points also. Here's a practical example that might illustrate the issue:

    A journal I am on the editorial board for, In the Library with the Lead Pipe, publishes exclusively online, open access, in HTML. Our audience ranges from academic libraries to public libraries. We encourage linking AND referencing so that anyone who reads the articles published there can get back to the source material. In the most recent article there, of which I am a co-author, I made deliberate decisions to cite published versions of articles, but to only link to open access versions. My preference for OA sources is because I know that a large percentage of our readership does not have access to academic journal subscriptions. In that sense, I think this practice is not only fair and good, but responsible.

    Arguments that privilege scholarly literature as only existing to serve the scholarly literate make no sense to me. I'd echo Mike Taylor and say that paywalls end the discussion; open access facilitates it.

    1. Hi Micah, thank you for your comment.

      If you can reference OA literature only and if it works given the
      material that you're discussing, analyzing, researching, etc.,
      then sure, I see no reason why it can't work in some very limited
      situations. But most literature still does not exist as OA,
      including most of what was published before the Internet, and I
      think it's safe to say that ignoring that literature would be
      negligent in most situations. Much knowledge exists in containers
      that are not easy to access and that lack of ease does not justify
      pretending it does not exist. That is, it does not seem reasonable
      to me to imagine that no conversations take place or have taken
      place in literature that is not easy to access. Furthermore, and
      as a counter example, consider the importance and seriousness of
      due diligence as it relates to the John Hopkins case at the link
      below (do a page search for "For studies involving drugs for which
      the FDA" to jump to the relevant text). I cannot imagine your
      situation being applicable in that situation.


      What I think this is really about is immediate access and not just
      open access. Personally, I'm fine waiting a few days or even
      longer for my library to inter-library loan an article or retrieve
      it from an off-site repository if I think the information is
      important (also, out of curiosity, I've called my public library
      to see if they could retrieve articles that others have criticized
      for not being direct link accessible -- and they can, but granted,
      public libraries vary in capability). While I certainly look
      forward to living in a world where there is a justified
      expectation that I can click on a link to an article (e.g., a DOI
      link) and be taken directly to the green or gold OA version, I
      think that world is still a ways off.

      There's an interesting conflict here, I think, arising out of
      librarians' duty to provide access, but it's easily resolvable.
      Librarians can do their darnedest to make sure more and more
      literature is available as OA, forward and past (and I think that
      I, among others, have shown that they are doing this rather
      successfully --- see link below). In the meantime, they can make
      sure that they are helping people get access to that which is not
      yet available at the click of a single link. The is a long haul
      process though.


  4. I would agree with all comments on this post. When I read initially I took from it that there was a priviliging of OA being sought at the expense of pay walled - ie exclude it from your research as Mike Taylor and Yihui Xie if it is not freely available. This for me is worrying - especially in the disciplines where research has practical everyday implications for peoples lives - in this case it would be immoral to not use the best material - OA or pay walled - that is available.