Information Culture

Information Culture

Thoughts and analysis related to science information, data, publication and culture.

The Open Access Button: Discovering when and where researchers hit paywalls


Last week, an intriguing new tool for researchers was launched, the Open Access Button. The Button has two main goals:

  1. Track when and where researchers encounter publisher pay walls (articles unavailable because the user hasn't paid a subscription or access fee).
  2. Provide researchers with additional tools to find available full text articles (such as copies available from open access repositories).

CC_BY Image courtesy of the folks at Open Access Button

The first goal serves the larger scientific and open access community. By tracking when and where researchers are stymied by publisher paywalls, the scientific community can get a better handle on the complex issues related to accessing scholarly material. When discussing open access policies and mandates, publishers often argue that the researchers who need access to scholarly material already have the access they need. Their access is paid for by the institutions the researchers work for. But any librarian will tell you that rising costs are placing that access in jeopardy. This year is the first of the past 5 years in which my library hasn't been forced to cancel databases or journal subscriptions in order to deal with flat or decreasing budgets. The new Open Access Button has the potential to uncover the barriers to access that affect even university affiliated researchers.

Map of paywalls encountered

The map of paywalls encountered by Open Access Button users (as of November 25, 2013).

The second goal attempts to quickly and easily point users to freely available copies of the article online (via open access repositories such as PubMedCentral or the arxiv). This is a laudable goal, and for articles in disciplines that are likely to have open access copies available, it works well. But the Open Access Button fails in this goal by not pointing users to institutional resources they may have access to. For example, if I come across an article from Science from the early 1990s, I will hit a paywall at the Science website, and the article is unlikely to be available freely online. But if I use library resources to find this article, I discover that my library has access to articles in Science all the way back to 1880 via another database, JSTOR. And of course, I won't go into details about interlibrary loan services that are available (although those cost money, too).

To a certain extent, the two goals of the Open Access Button are at odds with one another: demonstrate that folks don't have access, then find them access. But the project is laudable and is the only effort I am aware of to collect data about worldwide lack-of-access to scholarship. It is an intriguing project to watch, and I'm curious to see what will happen as they collect more data.

The Open Access Button is very easy to use, and lives in your web browser as a bookmark. When you encounter a paywall, just click the bookmark and provide a bit of information. The interface is sleek and you remain on the webpage where you are. Your information about the paywall is added to the Open Access Button database, and then provided with some tools to help you find a freely available copy of the article, or other related articles.

Install your button now!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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