Who benefits when scientists publish articles in open-access journals like mBio? I talked recently with someone who thinks a lot about open-access publishing, and he had some surprising things to say. He tells me that publishing an article in an open-access journal earns it the same number of citations as publishing in a “traditional” subscription journal, but open-access articles are also downloaded more often, which may result in greater readership and a broader reach.
Phil Davis, a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University, studies the use and dissemination of open-access content, applying scientific methods to scientific publishing. He says open-access science publishing seems to be on the upswing, with fee-for publishing journals like the PloS family of journals and mBio gaining recognition. Some would argue that unfettered access to scientific findings online is a uniformly positive development for research, and that scientists can only benefit from having their work freely available to all.
But Davis isn’t satisfied with what he sees as unproven platitudes about the benefits of open-access and argues that regardless of what you might believe about open access publishing, you’ve got to back up those assertions with measurements and facts.
While earning his Ph.D. at Cornell, Davis tested the notion of scientific impact – how often articles are viewed and cited – in an experiment in which he randomly assigned articles to either open-access (which were freely available on the publisher’s website), or subscription access. He says articles published as open-access were cited just as often as the subscription-access articles, but the kicker is that they were downloaded more frequently. So, presumably, the open-access articles were read by more people than the pay-for-access articles (that’s my interpretation). Davis was interviewed about his work for an article on "Free Journals" in the August 20 issue of Science magazine.
Davis takes this download disparity as evidence that open-access articles have the potential to reach beyond the usual consumers of scientific research findings (researchers at major universities and research institutes) to other people interested in the science who don’t have the benefit of institutional journal subscriptions.
Davis sees this as an important benefit. “When we count citations, we are measuring only the effect of one user community – scientific authors. There are many other communities that consume, but do not contribute to, the scientific literature,” he says. These communities may include lecturers, practitioners, industry researchers, students, and the lay public, says Davis.
Davis has published his work under such provocative titles as, “Open Access: Increased Citations Not Guaranteed”, and “Do Open-Access articles really have a greater research impact?”. Do his publication list and his enthusiasm for scrutinizing the issues indicate he doesn’t support open-access publishing? “Not at all,” he says.
“Science is based on the principles of openness and sharing. Science is a public domain,” says Davis. “But we need to make sure that the publishing process has integrity, we need to make sure that the best possible science is published.”