Is There an Open-Access Citation Advantage?

It’s Open Access Week, a worldwide effort to promote open access “as a new norm in scholarship and research,” organized by the folks at the Scholarly Publishing and Resources Coalition, or Sparc. Many institutions are hosting related events this week, including workshops for graduate students and faculty members interested in open-access publishing models. (See, for instance, this how-to session organized by libraries at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. You can note your own event on ProfHacker.)

A key point in debates about open access centers on how much and whether authors benefit from open-access publication. Advocates such as Stevan Harnad maintain that such publication creates a citation advantage—that openly available articles are cited more frequently. Mr. Harnad holds a research chair in cognitive science at the University of Quebec at Montreal and  is a professor of cognitive science at the University of Southampton. He is also one of the co-authors of a paper, released yesterday by PLoS One, titled “Self-Selected or Mandated, Open Access Increases Citation Impact for Higher Quality Research.” Among the co-authors is Yassine Gargouri, one of his colleagues at Montreal.

The paper reports the findings of an investigation the co-authors conducted into whether authors got a citation boost when they voluntarily made copies of their articles available rather than being required to do so under an open-access, or OA, policy. As a news release about the paper puts the question, are open-access articles “more likely to be cited because they were made OA, or were they made OA because they were more likely to be cited?”

Skeptics have argued that self-archiving of articles leads to more citations because authors are likely to make their best work available. As the paper’s titles suggests, however, the investigators concluded that it was open access that most affected citations, not whether the open archiving was voluntary or required. According to their findings, open access created a “quality advantage” because users decided “what to use and cite, freed by OA from the constraints of selective accessibility to subscribers only.”

How reliable is that conclusion? When a preprint of the article circulated earlier this year, there was a lively debate about its merits on the Scholarly Kitchen blog. Philip M. Davis, a postdoctoral associate in the department of communication at Cornell University, identified what he considered a number of idiosyncrasies in the investigators’ approach. “Their unorthodox methodology,” he wrote, “results in some inconsistent and counterintuitive results that are not properly addressed in their narrative.” Other scholars weighed in on the issue in the comments thread.

Mr. Davis is now three years into his own research project on open access and citation rates. The Chronicle asked him for his reaction to the final version of the paper by Mr. Harnad et al. Describing it as a piece of advocacy more than research, he reiterated his concerns about the methodology used. “As a result, its conclusions—that ‘the OA advantage is real, independent and causal’—greatly overstate its findings,” Mr. Davis said via e-mail. He added that “none of the journals in our study are showing any citation effect as a result of open access.”

The debate continues. If you’d like to weigh in, please do so in the comments.

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