Publish your work behind a paywall? Put up a preprint, or it won’t get read.

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Results from the March 2017 OpenChannels Literature Library Survey

On March 21st we launched a survey to subscribers of the OpenChannels Literature Update to solicit feedback on how we could make the service more valuable to our members. In addition, we wanted to know how many of our subscribers have access to pay-walled content. That is, academic research that requires a subscription or per-article fee to read the full-text. The following blog gives an overview of how our subscribers access pay-walled content, and the changes we're making to the Literature Library and the Literature Update newsletter because of these results.

A few quick housekeeping notes: This was not a rigorous academic study by any means. We asked five questions pertaining to the how users utilize the OpenChannels Literature Library and their ability to access research, because less than half of what we tell our users about in the Literature Updates is freely-available. (Why keep telling subscribers about pay-walled content if they’re not going to use it, right?) Despite this, our survey offers some valuable insights into topics that haven’t been explored much in the academic literature. And for the record, I would love to see rigorous research on this topic so I can cite it in the future!

Before I get too far ahead of myself, let me explain the Literature Update newsletter for those of you who aren’t subscribers. I started compiling the Literature Update back on August 14, 2013. Every Wednesday morning (on the US Pacific Coast), I send out a list of ocean conservation research that we’ve added to the OpenChannels Literature Library over the course of the previous week. The Literature Update has grown and changed over time: the very first Literature Update listed just 21 articles, whereas more recent ones typically exceed 50 articles. From very humble beginnings, the Literature Update has grown to a subscribership of over 1,500 subscribers. I even have help with the Literature Update now! You can thank Allie Brown for combing through countless alerts and searches to find the research we add to the library. (Editor’s note: if you’re not a subscriber and would like to be, you can subscribe for free. If you have an OpenChannels User Account: Just click to edit your account, select the Literature Update near the bottom, and click save. If you don’t have an account, you can create one for free).

The results

We heard back from 113 anonymous subscribers of the Literature Update which reflects about one-third of our regular readership. These questions were mandatory so they reflect all 113 responses. Here are some of those questions:

Are you able to access the full text of most pay-walled ocean conservation-related academic journals, such as through your institution’s library?

56% of respondents were not able to access the full-text of most pay-walled ocean conservation-related academic journals.

How valuable is it (or how valuable would it be) to your work to have free access to all relevant journal articles?

89% of respondents reported that having free access to relevant journal articles is valuable or very valuable to their work. Only 11 people reported that free access was “somewhat valuable” while one wasn’t sure.

If you are in a situation where you have to pay a fee to read a pay-walled journal article, which of the following apply to you? You may select multiple answers.

The following question:response pairs are followed by the number of respondents selecting this answer (max 113) followed by the percentage of total respondents selecting that answer. 

  • You disregard the article, and do not read the full text. 53 | 46.9%
  • You pay to rent or purchase the article without looking for a free copy. 1 | 0.9%
  • You pay to rent or purchase the article only if you cannot find a free copy. 13 | 11.5%
  • You look for a free summary of the article. 60 | 53.1%
  • You email the author(s) for a free copy of the full text. 57 | 50.4%
  • You search online for a free copy of the full-text version from an online repository, such as Academia.edu, OSF Preprints, arXiv.org, Google Scholar, university repositories, or others. 81 | 71.7%
  • You ‘pirate’ a free copy of the full text from websites such as Sci-Hub. 16 | 14.2%
  • You ask friends and/or colleagues for a free copy of the full text. 51 | 45.1%

47% of respondents reported that if they face a pay-wall, they disregard the article and do not read the full text. Only 12% reported that they would pay a fee to rent or purchase the article.

If you email the author(s) for a free copy of pay-walled articles, how often do you receive a satisfactory response?

Of those respondents who tried contacting an author before (n = 101), half of respondents reported they receive the full-text from the corresponding author 50% of the time or less.

What does this mean to you as an author?

First off, that means the age-old excuse that “anyone can email me for the full-text” is not sufficient. A 50% response rate (or less!) from authors is intolerable, inexcusable, and unprofessional. Discourse is vital to academic research. As an author of a study, you cannot simply choose to ignore requests for your work.

Readers want the full-text without having to pay for it. They’ll go to great lengths looking at several different sources for the full-text. Clearly, that is a lot of lost productivity that could easily be avoided by making the research freely-available in the first place. What’s worse, is that 67% of these individuals consider having free access to academic research very valuable to their work. 89% consider it at the least, valuable. Publishing work behind pay-walls forces nonprofits and NGOs to waste countless hours searching online for a free-copy of research which they need to do their jobs. If you’re going to publish behind a pay-wall, do the right thing and publish a preprint or postprint, and be sure to publicize those links just as much (if not more) than the pay-walled version.

New changes and policies to the OpenChannels Literature Library

Thanks to this survey pointing out that the majority of our readership does not have access to most of the research we’re telling people about, we’re making some changes.

1. We’re going to continue pointing out the costs of pay-walled content in the Literature Library. As one anonymous respondent wrote:

“Pay-walled articles are, in short, a pain in the butt. I understand that the process of editing and publishing a scientific article entails costs, but the typical use fee of about $40 is simply not affordable for me or my organization, let alone for those in less developed circumstances.”

Since February 22, 2017, it would cost over $4,000 for an individual to rent or purchase a single copy of each pay-walled item we’ve added to the Literature Library. We’ll continue to post these costs in the Literature Update each week.

2. To aid in the process of finding freely-available versions of pay-walled content, we’re now providing a link to the preprint or postprint of articles we find, where such a copy exists.

3. We've added a special listing of Freely-available Literature that allows you to browse only the content in the Literature Library that doesn't require a fee to read. Pay-walled content with preprint or postprint links will appear in this listing, in addition to open access content.

4. Any unsolicited submissions of pay-walled content to the Literature Library from authors must be accompanied by a valid link to a preprint or postprint. If you want our help in advertising your work, people need to be able to read it without paying a fee.

How do I post a preprint?

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of preprints and postprints, here’s a quick primer:

  • The preprint (also known as “version 1”) is the manuscript you submit to a journal for publication and peer-review. Depending on the journal publisher, you may only be legally allowed to post this on your own, personal website or blog for a period of 1-2 years. Beyond that embargo period, you may post the preprint in any public repository. Some publishers allow you to immediately post the preprint in public repositories. Be sure to check your specific copyright transfer agreements to know which rights you have.
  • The postprint (also known as “version 2”) is the version of your manuscript which has undergone peer-review but has not received typesetting or final proofing by the journal publisher yet. Where you can share this copy differs from publisher-to-publisher. SHERPA/RoMEO is an excellent resource for determining this information. Sometimes you can only share this version for the first year after publication in the repository of your institution or on your own, personal website. Beyond that first year, you are often allowed to share it anywhere. Other times, you can only share the postprint in your institution’s repository after the first year of publication.
  • Unless your paper is open access, you likely won’t be able to share the final, peer-reviewed, nicely-formatted copy (also known as “version 3”) in any repository.

There are many free repositories available in which to share your research. If your institution has a repository, be sure to place your work there. Such repositories are often quickly indexed by services like Google Scholar so others may find it. OSF Preprints is a growing group of repositories run by the nonprofit Center for Open Science. Figshare is common repository which also allows you to make your datasets shareable and citable. ResearchGate is another commonly-used repository, though, it is run as a for-profit company and has received plenty of criticism from academics over the years, so I don’t personally recommend it. There are also a plethora of repositories as part of Cornell’s arXiv project.

You clearly put a lot of work into your paper, so help others benefit from it

We started using a new format for OpenChannels literature items about a year ago now. Of those 3,376 literature items, less than half are freely-available. That includes resources like reports, websites, and conference proceedings which are almost always free. If we limit the library to the 2,881 journal articles in it, only 38.5% are freely-available.

Keep in mind, too, that the Literature Update goes out to people who want constant updates on the state of academic research. Its subscribers are thus skewed toward academics who are at institutions with subscriptions to pay-walled journals. If less than 45% of them have access, the number of ocean planners, managers, and conservationists with access to pay-walled content is far less than that. Given these facts, it’s quite perplexing that scientists would willingly publish their hard work in places where others cannot benefit from it. So break the cycle! Publish your work in an open access journal, or at the very least, make sure you also post your preprints/postprints in a public repository.

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