April 18, 2011
Open Access Does Not Necessarily Equal Greater Impact
One of the arguments to push for open access (OA) scholarly journals - besides the "who foots the bill" issue - is that free access results in greater distribution, and, theoretically, use of that information. And, it helps level the playing field for scholars in less privledged environments by providing research in a nonsubscription environment. With respect to OA scholarship, the legal academy has, for the most part, taken its cue from the sciences which has been on the forefront of the OA movement. (I am only discussing scholarship here as in law journal type articles.)
A recent study completed by Philip Davis in the Department of Communication at Cornell University seems to dent in what otherwise seems to be a logical argument in favor of OA. They are outlined in his article "Open access, readership, citations: a randomized controlled trial of scientific journal publishing. His efforts assume that citation counts are an indicator of scholarly impact. This is not a controversial assertion. [Davis supplies several endnotes to articles that discuss this issue but they are not OA so I do not link to them here. Seems wrong.]
Davis' study compared OA downloads and citations to downloads of and citations to subscription based journals. The study included 36 journals in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and more than 3,200 research articles. Davis found that the OA journals did enjoy a signifiantly greater number of article downloads and reached a broader audience within the first year of publication; however, they were not cited any more frequently or earlier than subscription journals over the period of the first three years of publication. But, on the other side, they are not cited any less either.
But is that enough for an institution to mandate an OA model?
I think that if the goal at an institution is to acheived greater distribution, OA actually does acheive that goal. That seems obvious. But, my initial reaction to Davis' finding is that if OA journal articles are getting downloaded more, then it follows that they should be cited to more as well unless they just aren't as useful. Davis explained the results of his study by asserting that "the real beneficiaries of open access publishing may not be the research community but communities of practice that consume but rarely contribute to, the corpus of literature." Bascially, those researchers at elite institutions who write the articles are still unconcerned that the Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, went up 40% this year. They are accustomed to have Elsevier at their disposal and paid access to the articles they read is not a significant barrier for them.
We also should not forget that the aspiring scholar typically has tenure to pursue. While it may be the goal of the institution to make work broadly available - one I whole heartedly support - it may not be the shared goal of the particular tenure track academic who may prefer to report back that their articles are published in journals that have higher citation impact factors than journals that have higher downloads -- except of course in the legal academy.
Preoccupation of journal impact factors are not as prevalent in the legal academy as it is in other disciplines. Law journals are poorly represented in common tools like the Journal Citation Report. And, although it is a bonus if you acheive a peer-reviewed publication, the emphasis is to publish in student-run journals. And, law professors/authors seem more concerned with how many SSRN downloads they have for their articles. Maybe we should take that cue from the sciences as well. (VS)
April 18, 2011 | Permalink
Hi Mikhail - I believe that JCR counts only 116 law related journals. This may be comparable to coverage in other disciplines (I'm just don't know), but it certainly is not the majority of legal periodical literature. I think the bigger problem is comparing peer reviewed and not peer reviewed literature together. OA's do not enter the impact factor race until they do have a track record, even if they are peer reviewed. Thats just the nature of the beast.
And, I do think legal scholars like to get cited in court cases, but not every legal scholar produces work appropriate for a court to consider. But that being the fact, it does not mean citations by your peers is not also welcome. Thanks for your input!
Posted by: Vicki | Apr 18, 2011 10:41:09 AM
This point has been raised before. In the case of SSRN, they do not force users to identify themselves in order to download materials. I feel that someone would be pretty wacko to actually do that. I don't think Davis made any attempts to identify who was downloading as that was not the focus on his research, though it looks like he did screen for multiple downloads based on IP addresses. The link to the article is not working above so I am reposting it here until I can correct the link in the post. http://www.fasebj.org/content/early/2011/03/29/fj.11-183988.abstract
Posted by: Vicki | Apr 18, 2011 9:28:44 AM
Law journals are poorly represented in common tools like the Journal Citation Report.
I disagree - my study, in LLJ 102(1) showed that definitely towards the top of the range of law reviews, coverage in JCR/SSCI is no poorer than for social science journals in general. The same goes for representation in general non-legal databases. Of course, there's also the issue that the kind of impact most legal scholars are primarily concerned about is citations in reported court decisions, not citations in scholarship...
[re/the overall direction of Davis' paper, though, for thinking about what does get cited, I think it's also critical to consider the 'perception' difference between a journal that looks and feels "authoritative", even if not OA, and another one that may be free/OA but exists as essentially a glorified and relatively unappealing website with only a couple of years worth of track record. When thinking about what to cite myself, I'd exhaust my luck with the first type long before I start considering the second.]
Posted by: Mikhail Koulikov | Apr 18, 2011 9:24:58 AM
This is a cynical view...but is there a way to track who is actually downloading articles? The suspicion being that if authors are rewarded for downloads, they will assign their own article to be read by their students, thus increasing downloads.
Posted by: anonymous | Apr 18, 2011 7:31:46 AM