Being an open-access advocate doesn’t excuse you from proper literature searches

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Every week or two I see a tweet, or overhear a conversation, from somebody bemoaning the difficulty of accessing a paper.  Often it reads about like this:

Another day, another paywalled paper I can’t access and won’t cite. Moving on to read some open science….*

I get that open-access is an attractive model**.  I’d be pleased if we moved all our literature this way, although only if that meant that we had solved the (enormous) transitional funding problems and dealt with the inevitable unintended consequences.  But none of that matters to a simple and important point: I don’t care how fervent an open-access advocate you are; it’s still your job to use our literature properly.  It’s absurd to claim that a paper deserves to be read and cited if it’s published in The American International Journal of Ecography (a hypothetical open-access journal that’s predatory with fraudulent peer review***), but not if published in The American Naturalist (a subscription-model journal of very high quality published by a great society).  Absurd.

Making a good-faith effort to find and cite work relevant to your own is an indispensable part of doing science.  And by “good-faith” I don’t mean “two mouse clicks and a four-second timeout rule”.  I mean using the document-delivery service that 99% of all working scientists have access to****, e-mailing the corresponding author to request a PDF, or checking with a friend at another institution.  I do those things routinely (usually in that order).  I don’t remember ever being unable to secure a copy of something I needed, and the median wait time has been ~48 hours.  Sometimes, if the source is really obscure, I’ve had to unleash the awesome power of a librarian (you can do this too; you’ll find they love to be asked).

If you can’t be bothered to find, read, and cite (if appropriate) a paper because it can’t be delivered instantly to the desk you’re sitting at, that isn’t a stand on principle – that’s being lazy and irresponsible.

“Lazy” is obvious, but why “irresponsible”?  When you neglect a subscription-model paper, you fail to credit the work of your colleagues and your predecessors.  You also miss opportunities to stand on others’ shoulders – to improve your own work by incorporating insights that have already been published.  If you use a less powerful analysis than you could, neglect a known-to-be-important covariate, or attack a question that’s already answered, you aren’t just harming your own science – you’re wasting research funding.  We’re not swimming in funding, and the public are increasingly less enthusiastic about providing that funding via government, so wasting it is a significant dereliction of duty.

So by all means be an advocate for open-access publishing – that conversation needs to continue. But while you’re advocating, please also be a good scientist.

© Stephen Heard ( February 1, 2017

Disclosure: I am an Associate Editor for The American Naturalist (subscription model) and for FACETS (open-access).  Neither journal saw or commented on this post, which reflects my views and not necessarily theirs.

*^This is a mashup, not a single, real tweet reproduced to call out a particular individual. But believe me, it’s true to the form.  If anything, I’ve fallen short of representing the disdain for the task of ferreting out literature from a subscription-model journal.  But to be clear: I am well aware that not all, not even most, open-science advocates take this position.

**^Although it’s peculiar that we hear about it for journal papers, but not for books – and not for groceries, where it would do a lot of immediate social good.

***^Yes, I understand that not all open-access journals are predatory.  Someone will inevitably claim I’m confusing the two, but they should have read more carefully.  To anticipate another obvious objection: yes, I’m aware that not all, perhaps not even many, open-access advocates believe they can just ignore the subscription-model literature.  But enough do – or at least say they do – to get me riled up.  The fact that citation rates are higher for open-access journals (citation needed, someone please remind me why I know this) suggests that a substantial number of people really do act this way.

****^This statistic may well not hold in the developing world, and I have much more sympathy for the can’t-access-the-literature argument coming from there.  But that’s not who I’m hearing from.


14 thoughts on “Being an open-access advocate doesn’t excuse you from proper literature searches

  1. sleather2012

    Excellent call out – totally agree with your sentiments. Relevant literature is ignored often enough without people making feeble excuses about OA, and like you I have never had someone not send me a reprint when asked (nicely).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris Mebane

    Amen, but ….
    True, no excuse for not doing a proper literature review, and seminal or truly relevant literature should be carefully tracked down, considered and properly cited. But as a practical matter, for any given topic there are usually multiple sources to read, reference, or ignore. Much of my searching and readings are in the evenings, off my library network, and if I can’t get full text easily from the publisher, university repository, or more commonly from a scofflaw posting on ResearchGate, if the article isn’t obviously important, I’ll pass it by.

    If it does sound interesting enough, for very recent literature the best method for access is indeed your top method – drop an email to the corresponding author. This has the main benefit of letting the author know someone is interested, and often starts a dialog that is much more useful and interesting than the paper that broke the ice ever was. But older literature can be a hassle, despite the wonderful librarians of the world and the fact that the OCLC has made their World Catalog OA, So authors can easily see which library holds that back catalog and request it and usually get it within a few days.

    There’s a message and warning here for authors and societies. If you want people to find, read, and reference your stuff, don’t play hard to get. For authors, consider if you can wheedle up the $1500 to $3000 for true OA fees, or at least push the limits of legitimate self-archiving. This usually entails posting the authors’ version of an article, possibly after waiting out their usual 1-year embargo. For societies, if you want to stay in the game, look for approaches that open up your back catalogs. ASLO (e.g., Limnology and Oceanography) makes all content older than 5-years free access, and AGU is supposed to be making all content open after 2-years. Those articles are probably going to see more readership and citation than would similar paywalled content from the societies that don’t get it.

    Lots of pros and cons to OA, such as when I tried to write a Letter to the Editor of Ecosphere pointing out an invalidating mistake in a paper, and she wrote back saying she’d be glad to consider it if I agreed to pay the $1500 OA fee. Plenty of unintended consequences to OA!

    I’m sure you’ll have struck a nerve with this post. Should be fun reading.


  3. CuriousGeorge

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making an ethical stand that science *must* be open-access and that those who continue to support a publishing model that one believes is unethical (by publishing in pay-to-access journals) should be made to suffer the consequences by not being read or cited.

    Besides, if those authors had wanted their work to be read or cited by *everyone*, they should have made the paper open access. That was an option that was open to them. But they didn’t. So it’s completely fair game not to cite the paper or to read it beyond the abstract. The authors deliberately chose an exclusionary publishing model and have no right to be upset when the people who were excluded do not cite them.

    At a bare minimum, authors who choose a traditional publishing model should be posting pre-prints (and preferably post-prints) on publicly accessible central archives.


    1. John

      You say that “if those authors had wanted their work to be read or cited by *everyone*, they should have made the paper open access. That was an option that was open to them.”

      While this is true in the sense that it exists, I can tell you from personal experience that if the audience you want to reach with your work primarily reads a particular journal, and that is the audience you want to reach, and you are a grad student with no (or a limited) budget for publication fees, then paying the additional fee for open access is really not possible.

      I am all for open access, but without the proper funding, for people getting their research done on a couple of $500-$1000 grants from local conservation NGOs, the budget for paying the fees just isn’t there, so it is out of the reach of some researchers, especially in early-career settings and outside of R1 universities.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Completely agree, David (I have a paper in a subscription-model journal that was never picked up by Web of Science, and its impact really suffered). But do you have an answer to the question you pose? Is Google Scholar really that deficient with respect to (non-predatory) open access journals? It does suggest an interesting research project…


      1. David Haden

        Well, JURN — of which the above-referenced openECO is a side-project — is the best public solution for easy search across all of the known open access articles (outside of social studies, education and psychology, which it doesn’t seek to cover). Especially for your own field, as JURN is now comprehensively covering the relevant open/free titles, while also rigorously excluding predatory titles.

        As for Google Scholar coverage of open access journals, research is fairly sparse. A 2011 study of OA art history journals found Scholar only had half of the OA titles then registered with the DOAJ. More recently, this comment from a leading professional librarian is perhaps indicative… “It’s an irony that I find discovery services generally have much poorer coverage of Open Access than Google Scholar.” — Aaron Tay, Library Analytics Manager, Singapore Management University, July 2015. At a guess, Scholar’s OA coverage is probably better in the harder sciences than in the arts and humanities.

        Group-tests for OA search tools consistently show that Google Scholar can’t surface as many free articles for a keyword search as JURN can…

        The other problem with Scholar is the amount of articles from questionable journals a search can include, depending on the search topic.


          1. David Haden

            Thanks. Where Google Scholar does have a distinct advantage is in finding and harvesting PDFs from the 50,000+ small departmental Web pages at universities. There a researcher will typically have a list of their own research outputs, and will usually link through to a half-dozen of their own articles in PDF – hosted on the departmental web-space rather than a repository.

            Scholar’s main disadvantage is that there is no human curation, since like the main Google Search the service’s everyday running is done entirely by bots. Those bots can drag in a lot of fluff (Powerpoints etc) and also articles from questionable journals.

            Also, it’s perhaps important for a comprehensive literature searcher to know that Google (of which JURN is a highly curated subset) uses an entirely separate document harvest and search database than Scholar does. A literature searcher can’t, therefore, use software such as Mendeley (which interfaces with Scholar) and assume that they are ‘also searching the main Google’. They won’t be.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Why aren’t we agitating for open-access groceries? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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