Is the Open Access discoverability problem solvable? And whose problem is it?

By Byron Russell, Head of Ingenta Connect

Open Access has transformed academic publishing in some subject areas, but the rapid growth in the availability of content makes it increasingly difficult for researchers to find the research they need. An undiscoverable paper is a paper without impact. So how are we going to solve it?

Open Access is very much the disruptive new kid on the academic publishing block. It has been nurtured in part on the economic crises that have marked the last decade, and, rather more positively, on the emergence of web-based tools that make digital publishing and archiving easier than ever before. Demand from authors — especially in the sciences — to publish in OA mode has been rising steadily over the past five years. Taking into account the imposition of moving wall timeframes of up to 24 months, an estimated 43 per cent of academic content published in the UK is now Open Access. According to work by Research Consulting, a staggering two thirds of the world’s journals now offer an OA option, though most of their publishers, in what increasingly looks like a rather last-ditch effort to glean some actual revenue from publication, follow a hybrid rather than fully OA model. With this rapid insurgence of OA, researchers are now being faced with a tsunami of academic content that is free to download, share and even adapt. And, from the researchers’ point of view, if not from the publishers’, more free stuff is good…right?

Well, not always. There is an ongoing if rather pointless debate about exactly how much research goes uncited and unread, but the consensus is that it’s a lot — and the proportion is naturally increasing as more content is published. The history of scientific endeavour is littered with experimentation that was spectacularly right, but lay undiscovered for decades. As historian Helge Kragh asserts “the scientist who knows how to market a new discovery is of no less importance than the discoverer” — and today’s writers and researchers are faced with an unparalleled crisis of discovery.

Open Access generates no direct revenue post-publication, and so the incentive to proactively market new OA content by publishers is limited; discovery relies to a great extent not on proactive promotion but on Google Scholar and peer or engine referral (TrendMD is an innovative example of the latter). Searching and indexing is further complicated by the variety of OA licensing arrangements. There are no fewer than six core licence types, each with five versions, starting from the most common CC-BY. Different modes of access (Gold, Green or self-archiving, and delayed, moving-wall Open Access) further complicate matters. We then have hybrid (mixed subscribed and Open Access content) and “flipped” journals (journals converting from subscription to Open Access), so what is charged for one month may be open the next. OA policies among publishers and institutions are — where they exist at all — very wide-ranging, though organisations such as JISC are trying to propose a degree of standardisation. There is no cross-indexing of OA content, which is deposited in a variety of silos such as the DOAJ, OAPEN and institutional repositories which may not even be open to researchers from other institutions, let alone the public.

So how to resolve the discovery crisis? Now that the Open Access juggernaut appears unstoppable (year-on-year increase of OA content has averaged 11 per cent since 2012), this evidently begs the question of what the long term future holds for institutional librarians, as holdings and collection acquisition become increasingly less relevant. It might be that their importance will eventually lie in mentoring and facilitation; guiding researchers down the most appropriate discovery pathways.

Another possibility is to turn scholarly authors into marketers. Kudos is an innovative tool that empowers academics to do just that, enabling them to promote and monitor their research via social media, though it is necessarily reliant on the authors doing the legwork. But the incentive for doing so may be that the glory might end up going to those who draw most attention to a discovery — or the application of it — rather than the discoverers themselves.

A new concept publishers have to get their heads around is that in OA, jealously guarding IP from “competition” or piracy is largely redundant — it is all up for grabs. So one exciting option is transparent collaboration — a drawing-together of all the dispersed OA content silos into one place.

Content discovery is an issue for every stakeholder in scholarly publishing, as we face a future that is less certain than at any time in past generations; it’s a challenge that lies very much at the core of what that future holds for us all.

This article was originally featured in the Publishers Weekly London Show Daily on Day Two of The London Book Fair.

About Byron Russell

As Head of Ingenta Connect, Byron provides overall leadership and management of the commercial activities for our publisher-facing CMS product, ingentaconnect, spanning 280+ publisher clients and over 25,000 registered libraries. As a senior manager within the Group Sales and Marketing Division, Byron is responsible for the business development of the ingentaconnect service and for managing its Account Management and Client Support teams in the US and UK. Byron has an extensive background in publishing management, primarily in the education space, and was actively engaged in the business development of Macmillan’s class-leading English Campus and Discover China programmes and CUP’s English360 LMS prior to joining Publishing Technology.

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