One exciting development over the last several years has been the growth in open access peer-reviewed research in which scientific studies are published with free access for the general public.
Studies published in conventional scientific journals can cost as much as $35 per article for non-subscribers to purchase.
Given these ridiculously high prices, advocates of open access publishing have argued that making scientific studies freely available will expand the dissemination of the research - particularly in developing countries where people and institutions are less likely to afford subscriptions.
A new study, however, calls this assumption into question by finding that open access publishing has little effect on the number of times that a study is cited in the future compared to conventional publishing methods.
The study, published in the journal Conservation Biology, also finds little evidence that open access research generates more citations in developing countries.
Michael Calver and Stuart Murphy from Murdoch University in Western Australia compared the future citations of open access and non-open access studies published in 6 leading conservation journals during the year 2000. For 2 of the journals, they also looked at studies published in 2005 and 2006.
They controlled for potentially confounding factors like the number of authors, and the number of times the first and last authors had been cited prior to publication.
Given that research institutions often have to pay over $1,000 to publish a study as open access, these findings bring up the question of whether open access is worth the cost if it doesn't generate more citations (which is often equated with academic prestige and cache for securing future research money).
The study however suffers from some limitations.
The authors concede that the number of future citations for a study may not be a good indicator of how widely the results of the research are disseminated - particularly when it comes to reaching practitioners.
Given that conservation is a highly applied science, a main goal of research is to inform conservation practice. It seems likely that open access publishing would be more important for conservation practitioners than researchers given that many research institutions have paid journal access for their staff and students.
Another limitation of the study is that it looked at published research from as far back as the year 2000. However, the social landscape for disseminating information has changed dramatically over the last 5 - 10 years.
In developing countries, the number of people with access to the Internet - i.e. the medium in which open access research is published - was obviously much lower a decade ago than it is today.
So the improved accessibility that open access research gives a potential audience may have been obscured by the fact that few people had access to the Internet to begin with.
In developed countries, the emergence of social media like Twitter, Facebook, and research blogs has likely increased the speed at which new study findings bounce around the web.
It seems plausible that this changing system of information transfer is affecting open access and non-open access research differently.
Despite these limitations this study represents an important contribution to the debate about improving public accessibility to peer-reviewed research. More studies on the topic are likely needed - and hopefully some of them will be accessible for less than $35 apiece.
--Reviewed by Rob Goldstein
CALVER, M., & STUART BRADLEY, J. (2010). Patterns of Citations of Open Access and Non-Open Access Conservation Biology Journal Papers and Book Chapters Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01509.x