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What the Open Access Button Means for the Future of Research and Publishing
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Posted On December 17, 2013


The Open Access Button is designed to help researchers easily report when they hit a publisher paywall and are unable to access scholarly publications (because they lack a paid subscription to a particular journal or database or have not otherwise paid an access fee for the document). The button, an easy-to-use browser bookmarklet, searches for alternative access to the article, identifying open access versions of articles/research on the internet while mapping where obstacles are inhibiting research advances around the world. Researchers can complete an optional short form to add their experience to a map along with thousands of others located around the world. This visualization depicts the worldwide impact of paywalls on research, building a picture of where obstacles are placed in the way of research, inhibiting collaboration and possibly delaying innovations.

Launched on Nov. 18, 2013, at the Berlin 11 Student and Early Stage Researcher Satellite Conference of the Berlin 11 Open Access Conference, the Open Access Button “tracks how often readers are denied access to academic research, where in the world they were or their profession and why they were looking for that research,” aggregating the information in “one place, creating a real time, worldwide, interactive picture of the problem,” according to a blog post at the Public Library of Science. The button was developed in response to the frustrations of two medical students, David Carroll (Queens University Belfast) and Joseph McArthur (University College London), who repeatedly encountered difficulties in gaining access to academic research results they needed for their work.

Denial of access, which is largely invisible (hence, the map), has repercussions beyond each incident, slowing innovation, killing curiosity, and discouraging students from reading and reusing the research conducted by others. By tracking the impact of paywalls and helping users get access to the research they need by pointing them to OA repositories, Carroll and McArthur hope to improve the online experience of individuals and influence the field of academic research (and beyond) by shining a light on practices that inhibit progress: “Each time an individual hits a paywall is an isolated incident, this is unlikely to shake the ivory tower of academic publishing. But putting these moments together using the Open Access Button, we hope it will capture those individual moments of injustice and frustration and show them, on full view to the world. Only then, by making this problem impossible to ignore, will the button begin to make a difference.”

Carroll and McArthur hope that “[t]he use of the button will help more people to find research papers. But just as importantly, it will generate worldwide data on the extent of the paywall problem. By exposing the problem, the button should add to the push for change,” according to Stephen Curry. The music and film industry, as well as general publishers, have already experienced disruption by musicians, filmmakers, and authors taking control of their intellectual property through online businesses with direct contact with customers; open access repositories are taking root for academic researchers.

For students—who resent having to click more than once for access to a full-text article or inputting usernames or passwords in databases—linking to open access repositories is crucial. The upshot of hitting a paywall is ignored research, even when the article or document is precisely the item that could form the centerpiece of their term papers, supporting their theses on every level. However, as Bonnie Swoger noted in her Nov. 25 Scientific American blog, one of the goals of the Open Access Button is to “quickly and easily point users to freely available copies of the article online (via open access repositories such as PubMedCentral or the arxiv).” By not pointing users to institutional resources they may have access to, such as an academic library with access to JSTOR for older issues of Science or one that offers interlibrary loan services (recognizing that these cost money too), the Open Access Button stops short of the help it could offer researchers.

These paywalls go beyond students and academics. When doctors not affiliated with universities don’t get access to the latest treatments, patients suffer. Similarly, the work of lawyers, engineers, accountants, farmers, and others can be less than optimal when professionals have hoops to jump through to obtain access to quality research, including paywalls. With no university to turn to, fees for access to these articles by individuals can reach $40, in part because the expensive subscription-based journals are now bundled in databases whose vendors are also shifting strategies from purchase to licensing, adding costs for access when the print journal is not subscribed to along with the database. Individual publications may be embargoed for a time so that subscribers have access, but others do not. (See Marydee Ojala’s Nov. 21, 2013, NewsBreak concerning the Harvard Business Review.)

The Open Access Button tagline says it all: “Tearing down barriers to accessing research. one click at a time.” Follow the project on Twitter: @OA_Button and #oabuttonlaunch. The code behind the bookmarklet can be found at GitHub.


Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser
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