Open Access Allows All the Cream to Rise to the Top

Stevan Harnad harnad at ECS.SOTON.AC.UK
Wed Nov 19 11:41:36 EST 2008

> Feed: D-Lib Magazine
> Posted on: Monday, November 17, 2008 8:46 AM
> Author: D-Lib Magazine
> Subject: Electronic Journals and Changes in Scholarly Article  
> Seeking and Reading Patterns
> "A recent article by James Evans in Science is being widely  
> discussed in the science and publishing communities. Evans' in-depth  
> research on citations in over 34 million articles and how online  
> availability affects citing patterns, found that the more issues of  
> a journal that are available online, the fewer numbers of articles  
> in that journal are cited. If the journal is available for free  
> online, it is cited even less. Evans attributes this phenomenon to  
> more searching and less browsing (which he feels eliminates  
> marginally relevant articles that may have been found by browsing)  
> and the ability to follow links to see what other authors are  
> citing. He concludes that electronic journals have resulted in a  
> narrowing of scientific citation patterns. This brief article  
> expands on the evidence cited by Evans based on the authors' ongoing  
> surveys of academic readers of scholarly articles. Reading patterns  
> and citation patterns differ, as faculty read many more articles  
> than they ultimately cite and read for many purposes in addition to  
> research and writing. The number of articles read has steadily  
> increased over the last three decades, so the actual numbers of  
> articles found by browsing has not decreased much, even though the  
> percentage of readings found by searching has increased. Readings  
> from library-provided electronic journals has increased  
> substantially, while readings of older articles have recently  
> increased somewhat. Ironically, reading patterns have broadened with  
> electronic journals at the same time citing patterns have narrowed.."
> Article by Carol Tenopir, University of Tennessee; and Donald W.  
> King, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Tenopir & King's confirmation of the finding (of Kurtz and others) --  
that as more articles become accessible, more articles are indeed  
accessed (and read), but sfewer articles are cited (and those are  
cited more) -- is best explained by the increased selectivity made  
possible by that increased accessibility:

The Seglen "skewness" effect is that the top 20% of articles receive  
80% of all citations. It is probably safe to say that although there  
are no doubt some bandwagon and copycat effects contributing to the  
Seglen effect, overall the 20/80 rule probably reflects the fact that  
the best work gets cited most (skewing citations toward the top of the  
quality distribution).

So when more researchers have access to more (or, conversely, are  
denied access to less), they are more likely to access the best work,  
and the best work thereby increases its likelihood of being cited,  
whereas the rest correspondingly decreases its likelihood of being  
cited. Another way to put it is that there is a levelling of the  
playing field: Any advantage that the lower 80% had enjoyed from mere  
accessibility in the toll-access lottery is eliminated, and with it  
any handicap the top 20% suffered from inaccessibility in the toll- 
access lottery is eliminated too. Open Access  (OA) allows all the  
cream to rise to the top; accessibility is no longer a constraint on  
what to cite.

(I would like to point out also that this "quality selectivity" on the  
part users -- rather than self-selection on the part of authors -- is  
likely to be the main contributor to the citation advantage of Open  
Access articles over Toll Access articles. It follows from the 20/80  
rule that whatever quality-selectivity there is on the part of users  
will be enjoyed mostly by the top 20% of articles. There is no doubt  
at all that the top authors are more likely to make their articles OA,  
and that the top articles are more likely to be made OA, but one  
should ask oneself why that should be the case, if there were no  
benefits [or the only benefit were more readers, but fewer  
citations!]: One of the reasons the top articles are more likely to be  
made OA is precisely that they are also more likely to be cited more  
if they are made OA!)

Stevan Harnad

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