Ask A Librarian

Open-Access Journals Widen Research Audience

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
October 19th, 2009

In the age of tweets, blogs, YouTube videos, and Facebook postings, people strive to share information with as many as possible and as fast as possible. Even television networks have ventured onto the Internet to capture more viewers for their hit shows.

The academic world is slowly waking up to this new paradigm, and open-access journals are cracking the rigid scholarly publishing system.

Traditionally, reading the latest research requires academic libraries to pay high subscription fees for electronic journals that are available exclusively to students, faculty, and staff and for paper versions housed on campus.

However, more eyes than usual will be able to read WVU’s latest research about infant health thanks to how the researchers chose to publish their findings.

After Dr. Giovanni Piedimonte and his team recently made discoveries about how respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) affects infants, they published their work in PLoS (Public Library of Science) ONE, an open-access journal. That choice made their findings available to anyone with access to the Internet.

“If a paper is accepted, everyone on the planet can access the paper with no charge,” Piedimonte said. “They can be in Pakistan or Afghanistan and still be able to read the paper. The audience is enormous.”

Open-access journals are peer-reviewed and provide free, online access to their articles. Rather than charging subscription fees to readers or libraries, they cover their costs through publication fees to authors. And because of limited copyright and licensing restrictions, the articles are available to anyone to download, copy, and distribute for research purposes.

The wider audience maximizes the research impact. Susan Arnold, Director of the Health Sciences Library, said that in 2008 the British Medical Journal reported that open-access articles received a significantly higher number of downloads from more visitors than their traditional subscription counterparts. An article published recently in Science showed that when articles were made freely available within two years of publication, their citations increased by almost 20 percent.

Those statistics have held true for Piedimonte. In just six weeks, according to PLoS records, Piedimonte’s research had been viewed about 630 times and more than 90 people had downloaded it. Piedimonte said a previous paper by his research team had more than 3,000 readers. Two of the Public Library of Science journals, PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine, have been credited with a double-digit impact factor.

“The visibility and impact you can achieve by publishing in a good open-access journal like PLoS is far superior to other journals of the same type,” Piedimonte said.

The additional visibility helps researchers to fulfill WVU’s mission as a land grant university. In Piedimonte’s case, pediatricians throughout West Virginia and the world will better understand a potentially fatal respiratory infection because they can read the article.

“What if you are a physician who works in an underserved area or in a rural area? The open-access medium allows these people to be in touch with cutting edge research in clinical medicine in real time in a way they wouldn’t be able to otherwise,” Piedimonte said.

Dr. Richard Crout, Associate Dean for Research in the School of Dentistry and Professor in the Department of Periodontics, has witnessed the effect of a lack of access to new research on a trip to the Soviet Union. Crout talked with a doctor in Kiev, Ukraine, who had spent four years studying an issue not knowing that it had already been resolved.

“We all can learn from what other people are doing,” Crout said. “If it’s something similar, we work together.”

Another advantage of open-access publishing is a shorter length of time between acceptance and publication. Piedimonte is still waiting for a traditional journal to publish an article that he submitted two months before submitting his RSV article.

“This benefits the entire research community by accelerating dissemination of research findings,” Arnold said.

The boost, though, extends beyond the labs and professors’ offices to undergraduates and others new to research. Linda Blake, Electronic Journals Librarian, said the typical freshman or sophomore lacks savvy research skills and tries to avoid going to great lengths to find information they need. They may know Interlibrary Loan exists, but they want the article immediately, not in a few days.

“The human inclination is to go the easiest route,” Blake said. “If the article is right there, they will use it rather than pursue something that is not easily available.”

WVU and the WVU Libraries have actively advocated for open-access publishing. The Libraries, the Office of Information Technology, and the Office of Academic Affairs and Research collaborated to establish an institutional repository containing Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETDs), Electronic undergraduate Honors Theses (EHTs) and the Electronic Scholarly Research Archives (ESRA), a faculty research portal.
Along with bringing nationally known speakers to campus, the Libraries sponsored an Open Access Day in 2008 and will sponsor a weeklong program from Oct. 19-23. For more information about Open-Access Week:

To encourage faculty to publish their work in open-access journals, the WVU Libraries purchased institutional memberships in BioMed Central and Public Library of Science which reduce the required publication fees for WVU faculty researchers. The Libraries also negotiated favorable terms for WVU authors in Oxford University Press open-access journals.

“Open-access is one of the WVU Libraries’ newer initiatives,” Libraries Dean Frances O’Brien said. “We’re interested in improving access to research. We know these issues are complex and it will take a lot of people working together to change the system, but I think it’s an appropriate direction for a land-grant university.”

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