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.