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Discoverability is probably a bigger problem than paywalls

By Minhaj Rais | Sep 16, 2019
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This is the first in a series of articles that discuss the various issues plaguing the discoverability of research worldwide.

In the past year, “Open Access” has been one of the most hotly debated topics in the scholarly publishing industry. The announcement of guidelines for Plan S, responses from various stakeholders, and the resulting amendments have dominated the discourse for several months. In essence, the proponents of Open Access have been toiling hard to free scholarly publishing from the clutches of paywalls in the interest of democratizing access to science. But even the elimination of all paywalls might not solve the problem of discoverability of research completely.

There is a school of thought that contests the fact that there might be more factors than just mere paywalls that limit the reach and discovery of scientific content. Toby Green, ex-COO at OECD Publishing, while commenting on Open Access on the OSI listserv, offers the opinion that “One part of the Open Access debate has always made me uncomfortable: the assumption that the biggest barrier to being read is a paywall.”

This tweet by Roger Schonfeld, Director – Libraries, Scholarly Publishing, and Museums at Ithaka S+R, points to a study on the time spent by researchers for searching articles. The study in question was conducted by Elsevier and Sense about Science and has revealed surprising statistics that researchers now spend almost as much time searching for articles as actually reading them!

On average, researchers spend just over four hours searching for research articles a week and more than five hours reading them. More intriguingly, between 2011 and 2019, researchers have been reading 10% fewer articles but are spending 11% more time finding articles. The full article by Adrian Mulligan elaborating on this study can be read here on Research Information.

Further, with the exponentially increasing global research output and an increasing amount of research going Open Access, this problem is sure to exacerbate. The sheer number of results each search would deliver would be proportionately higher, and sifting through them would take longer than ever before. For example, recently, the American Chemical Society, the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (German Chemical Society), and the Royal Society of Chemistry announced their partnership with the Chinese Chemical Society and the Chemical Society of Japan as co-owners to support the strategic and financial development of ChemRxiv, the premier preprint server for the global chemistry community.

Massive preprint servers, such as these, should make things easier for researchers, in that they wouldn’t have to search through dozens of different preprint servers. But would that really make things easier in terms of the time spent to zero in onto the right literature and reading it thoroughly to gauge relevance and impact remains to be seen. Imagine how much time authors would spend searching and shortlisting the right literature in such a massive database. In addition, if this leads to search and citation behavior that John Warner points out in this tweet, then these preprint consortiums of sorts might have to deal with a new problem.

The important point to be noted here is that publishing formats within scholarly publishing haven’t kept pace with the exponential increase in the number of papers being published worldwide. In the past few decades, scholarly publishing has witnessed the emergence of newer distribution platforms and channels through the Internet. But the basic output format—a text-heavy research article—has remained largely unchanged.

Hence, the Open Access movement might solve the issue of restricted access, but that alone might not enable scientists to make the most of access to research from around the globe. The need of the hour is for stakeholders in the scholarly publishing industry to complement Open Access with a focus on newer formats of research communication to enhance the discoverability of research. Better discoverability might help in driving more collaborations globally and give researchers more time to do what actually matters — more cutting-edge research!

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