Open access to journals increases readership but not citations, study says

Citations matter for authors. Being cited by one’s peers is the chief indicator of an article’s quality and worth. In the sciences, citations fuel a reward system of promotion, tenure, grants and editorial board positions. And if prestige is measured in an economy of citations, why not publish in open-access journals with broader readerships?

Free online access to academic journals increases readership, according to a new study, but it produces no more citations, undermining a key claim of the open access movement.

"There are benefits to providing free access to literature, but academics should not bank on being cited any more though open-access publishing," said communication postdoctoral associate Philip Davis, author of the study published online March 30 by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Journal.

For the past decade, research into whether free access to scientific literature leads to more citations produced inconsistent results, Davis said, which he attributes to nonrigorous methodology.

"The great weakness in this research was that it was based on retrospective observational analysis," he said. "In observational studies, the best you can do is show a correlation. But an increase in citations may be caused by something else, such as if authors who can afford to publish in open-access journals generally had better articles."

Davis used randomized, controlled trials to find out what really drives citations. Publishers eager to know allowed Davis to randomly assign open access or subscription access to a group of articles in 36 journals in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Participants included the journal Science, the American Heart Association and Sage Publications.

"Over three years, we observed the number of downloads, unique visitors and citations of these articles," Davis said. "We found consistently that free access increases readership from a broader group of readers, but shows no difference in citations to the articles. This is consistent across time, disciplines and journals. We’re pretty confident that this is a general finding."

A broader scope of readers -- teachers, students, clinical scientists, practicing physicians, the lay public -- appeared in download statistics. But those readers do not publish and therefore do not cite. Citations are made by a small group of research peers, concentrated at research institutions, who already have good access to research.

Randomization enabled Davis to weed out other possible explanations for rates of citation. Because his control group was similar in all respects to the treatment group, the only variable he manipulated was access. "Through the methodology of our approach, we’re able to isolate the effect of access independent of any other possible explanations," Davis said.

The open access movement began a decade ago. Previous research claimed free access to scientific articles leads to a massive boost in article citations. "It was a spurious association," Davis said. "No one really knew what was causing the increase, but it was claimed to be caused by open access. This provides a great incentive for scientists to change where they publish.

"This notion that open access leads to more citations has been promoted as absolute scientific fact, rather than conjecture," Davis said. "Journals, activists and librarians promote it. If you don’t have the incentive of that reward, you have a harder argument to make. Open access should be promoted because it leads to greater dissemination of scientific knowledge, but it may not lead to more citations, and that needs to be acknowledged."


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