Are Online and Free Online Access Broadening or Narrowing Research?

From: Stevan Harnad <amsciforum_at_GMAIL.COM>
Date: Sun, 3 Aug 2008 23:59:27 -0400

      [Hyperlinked version of this

Evans, James A. (2008) Electronic Publication and the Narrowing
of Science and Scholarship Science 321(5887): 395-399DOI:10.1126/science.1150473
      Excerpt: "[Based on] a database of 34 million
      articles, their citations (1945 to 2005), and
      online availability (1998 to 2005),... as more
      journal issues came online, the articles [cited]
      tended to be more recent, fewer journals and
      articles were cited, and more of those citations
      were to fewer journals and articles... [B]rowsing
      of print archives may have [led] scientists and
      scholars to [use more] past and present
      scholarship. Searching online... may accelerate
      consensus and narrow the range of findings and
      ideas built upon."

Evans found that as more and more journal issues are becoming
accessible online (mostly only the older back-issues for free),
journals are not being cited less overall, but citations are
narrowing down to fewer articles, cited more.

In one of the few fields where this can be and has been analyzed
thoroughly, astrophysics, which effectively has 100% Open Access (OA)
(free online access) already, Michael Kurtz too found that with free
online access to everything, reference lists became (a
little) shorter, not longer, i.e., people are citing
(somewhat) fewer papers, not more, when everything is accessible to

The following seems a plausible explanation: 

Before OA, researchers cited what they could afford to access, and
that was not necessarily all the best work, so they could not be
optimally selective for quality, importance and relevance. (Sometimes
-- dare one say it? -- they may even have resorted to citing "blind,"
going by just the title and abstract, which they could afford, but
not the full text, to which they had no subscription.) 

In contrast, when everything becomes accessible, researchers can be
more selective and can cite only what is most relevant, important and
of high quality. (It has been true all along that about 80-90% of
citations go to the top 10-20% of articles. Now that the top 10-20%
(along with everything else in astrophysics), is accessible to
everyone, everyone can cite it, and cull out the less relevant or
important 80-90%.

This is not to say that OA does not also generate some extra
citations for lesser articles too; but the OA citation advantage is
bigger, the better the article -- the "quality advantage" -- (and
perhaps most articles are not that good!).  Since the majority of
published articles are uncited (or only self-cited), there is
probably a lot published that no amount of exposure and access can
render worth citing!

(I think there may also exist some studies [independent of OA] on
"like citing like" -- i.e., articles tending to be cited more at
their own "quality" level rather than a higher one. [Simplistically,
this means within their own citation bracket, rather than a higher
one.] If true, this too could probably be analyzed from an OA

But the trouble is that apart from astrophysics and high energy
physics, no other field has anywhere near 100% OA: It's closer to 15%
in other fields. So apart from a global correlation (between the
growth of OA and the average length of the reference list), the
effect of OA cannot be very deeply analyzed in most fields yet.

In addition, insofar as OA is concerned, much of the Evans effect
seems to be based on "legacy OA," in which it is the older literature
that is gradually being made accessible online or freely accessible
online, after a long non-online, non-free interval. Fields differ in
their speed of uptake and citation latencies. In physics, which has a
rapid turnaround time, there is already a tendency to cite recent
work more, and OA is making the turnaround time even faster. 

In longer-latency fields, the picture may differ. For the legacy-OA
effect especially, it is important to sort fields by their citation
turnaround times; otherwise there can be biases (e.g. if short- or
long-latency fields differ in the degree to which they do legacy OA

If I had to choose between the explanation of the Evans effect as a
recency/bandwagon effect, as Evans interprets it, or as an increased
overall quality/selectivity effect, I'd choose the latter (though I
don't doubt there is a bandwagon effect too). And that is even
without going on to point out that Tenopir & King, Gingras and others
have shown that -- with or without OA -- there is still a good deal
of usage and citation of the legacy literature (though it differs
from field to field).

I wouldn't set much store by "skimming serendipity" (discovery of
adjacent work while skimming through print issue), since online
search and retrieval has at least as much scope for

Are online and free online access broadening or narrowing research?
They are broadening it by making all of it accessible to all
researchers, focusing it on the best rather than merely the
accessible, and accelerating it.

Stevan Harnad
Received on Mon Aug 04 2008 - 05:02:40 BST

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