November 21, 2013

Mapping Open Access, or the lack thereof


Just how many scholars and researchers are running into paywalls as they go about their work? A new initiative, the Open Access Button, is in the process of making it very clear.

Launched on Tuesday, the Open Access Button is a browser bookmarklet (which doesn’t sound like a real thing, but is) to be used like so: whenever a researcher encounters a paywall, they click the button, and their individual moment of frustration and denial is added to a world map. They’re given the option of adding a bit about their particular experience: who they are and what they’re looking for. And then, so the process has short-term benefits for the researcher as well, they also receive a link that suggests ways to find the paywalled material for free.

The Open Access Button is a project originally conceived of by two British med students, David Carroll of Queens University Belfast and Joseph McArthur of University College London, who found that, despite the fact that they attend large institutions that are able to subscribe to many major journals and databases, they were still running into material they couldn’t access without paying fees.

And they realized that this was an issue whose real size could be represented: instead of these searches leading nowhere and disappearing (converted only, perhaps, into wide-margined thesis papers and very expensive ulcers), all the individual instances could be collected, over time, as they happen. As McArthur described it on the project’s blog:

Until now, being denied access was invisible, because it happened to people individually. We created The Open Access Button to collect these separate experiences and to showcase the global magnitude of the problem.

Professor of structural biology Stephen Curry, who wrote about the OA button for the Guardian, also pointed out that each entry will contribute to further research on access issues themselves:

The use of the button will help more people to find research papers. But just as importantly, it will generate worldwide data on the extent of the paywall problem.

The map is up and running, and the number of entries has doubled just in the space of the single day I’ve been watching it: most of the entries so far are from Germany, where the project was officially launched at the Berlin 11 Student and Early Stage Researcher Satellite Conference, but participants have also used it in significant numbers in Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Nigeria, and scattered across the United States, with concentrations in Texas, Southern California, and the Northeast.

And what the map will hopefully show, as it gathers entries and the stories behind them (I particularly enjoyed Richard Turkington in Cambridge, MA, who sent in a series of entries with the taglines: “I’m trying to cure cancer!”, “Still trying to cure cancer!”, and “Trying to cure cancer……still” — he does indeed appear to be a cancer researcher, according to some Google-stalking) is that though this is a problem that plagues researchers even at the places with the deepest resources, it disproportionately effects smaller or less well-funded institutions, not to mention unaffiliated scholars. Carroll and McArthur clearly believe there’s no excuse for this, or for its consequences for the greater public; they write that “this problem is invisible, but it slows innovation, kills curiosity and harms patients.”


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.