There seems to be something in the water. Out of the blue, interest in helping users find free/open access articles seems to have blossomed since earlier this year when Unpaywall was unveiled. With all the intense interest Unpaywall is getting (See coverage in academic sites like Nature,Science, Chronicle of Higher education, as well as more mainstream tech sites like Techcruch, Gimzo), you might be surprised to know that Unpaywall isn’t in fact the first tool that promises to help users unlock paywalls by finding free versions.
The Gold rush of services built on/around open access
To be fair, Unpaywall was built around the very cool oadoi.org service, which when given a doi, could give you a link to a free version. It even has a nice API service. But even that wasn’t unqiue as a predecessor service — doai.io serviceexisted that did the same thing.
Still for whatever reason, suddenly services built around helping users find free full text began to emerge all at the same time. Canaryhaz a commercial service that helps direct you to articles you have access via your institutional affiliations and open access versions was the next logical step.
As a librarian, who came into librarianship almost exactly 10 years ago I find this development pretty amusing. Back in 2007, libraries was in the middle of experimenting with browser extensions (as perhaps part of “Library 2.0” movement)
Back then I draw inspiration from the great Dutch Medical Librarian, Guus van den Brekel who was in my book leading in the exploration & use of such tools for his users. To this day, you can find my earliest blog posts were on such subjects, but by 2010 interest began to cool.
Browser toolbars were seen to be clunky and worse mostly sources of malware and we turned out attention towards social media and handling mobile. Today the only survivors of those days are Libx which itself seems to be barely afloat and the idea of proxy bookmarklet , though in both cases they are not usually well known outside the library community.
Library discovery of open access gets serious
The main drawback of browser based extensions if you ask me is that you could never get even a large minority of your userbase to install and use it.
Hence it is important that your discovery service cover open access and free items.
Sadly, library discovery tools had never been good at this.
As any librarian familiar with the situation can tell you, while in theory Discovery services like Summon, Primo allow you to add a lot of open access material from various open access sources, in practice you wouldn’t do so because there were many issues such as inability to reliably identify full text items among non-full text items in open access collections as well as outright broken links. This was particularly bad for institutional repository contents (if they were even included, indexed individually or as part of a aggregator).
Things seems to be changing though. First off, Scopus and Web of Science began to tag articles as open access. Still initially this was done crudely based on whether it was in a Open access Gold journal. But this still missed out hybrid articles and even more seriously Green Open access material.
More exactly, it will query the two systems to check if there is a free full text item and display the buttons only if available. This check only occurs I believe if the link resolver is unable to find suitable access via Library subscriptions.
As hinted above getting discovery of open access to work well given the way our systems are currently designed isn’t easy and the documentation of the open access filter in Summon gives you a taste of the issues.
More services around discovery of open access are emerging
Besides traditional companies in the library field, I’m also looking with interest the rise of companies like 1Science which offer novel services around effective indexing of open access items (Oafinder), automatically fill your Institutional repository with open access items by your authors (Oafinder+), help decide on subscription decisions based on amount of existing open access items out there for the title (OAfigr)
Is Open access getting too big to ignore?
The two developments above are actually quite remarkable. When commercial services start sprouting up or caring about something, I tend to sit up and take notice.
The emergence of such tools that try to find Open Access articles is an implicit recognition that open access articles are in such numbers where they can no longer be ignored and it is worth the effort to install such tools to find them.
Go back 10 years or maybe even as recently as 5 years, most mainstream researchers and many librarians (those not directly in Scholarly communication) would consider discovery of Open access articles as at best a second thought if at all but it seems things have changed. Either there is now such a big pool of open access articles that they can’t be automatically ignored and/or there is much faith and belief that the percent share of open access articles is going to continue to grow.
One is the reluctance of researchers to deposit their articles.
Secondly, even if the article existed in Green OA form , there was the difficulty of discovering whether such articles exist as a substitute to the paywall article and many Institutional repository contents would be missed if not for Google Scholar.
I am perhaps trying to be controversial to say that Google Scholar alone has done as much if not more than most librarians or open access advocates to raise awareness of Open access by making the content in Institutional repositories discoverable. Even more controversial would be to credit the likes of Mendeley, ResearchGate, Academia.edu for making sharing/depositing of papers online by researchers a norm.
Both forces together of course with the hard work of open access activists and librarians have perhaps managed to push up Open access to a level where it cannot be ignored and be worth searching when faced with a paywall.
Tools like Unpaywall and its cousin further work to create a virtuous cycle. When more researchers find it easy to get open access/free alternatives , the more likely they will see the point of putting their papers online which will further increase the effectiveness of such tools. Non-academics who do not produce papers, will see better the value of open access.
As a librarian I would prefer a more gradual transition , giving libraries and librarians more time to adjust to our new roles and new environment and to phase out old functions but ideally how and when open access happens shouldn’t be influenced by our selfish desires.
Would the fact that we are now seeing the emergence of commercial services that using discovery of open access articles as a major draw, tip us off that open access will dominate or at least be a big part of the future? Certainly these commercial services are betting on such a future and we would be foolish to discount it.
In my next post, I will consider options librarians have in a mixed, hybrid open access-paywall world . I will argue that, in a world where open access cannot be ignored, a lot of interesting discovery options open up and we librarians will have some interesting decisions to make.