Questioning the 'Citation Advantage'

February 10, 2011

What if everything you knew about the incentives for publishing in an open-access journal was wrong?

That is the provocative idea put forward in a new working paper by two scholars of scholarly publishing: Mark McCabe, an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, and Christopher Snyder, an economics professor at Dartmouth College.

The pair contend that, contrary to many previous studies, articles published in open-access journals may not be any more likely to be cited than those published in journals that limit access to subscribers. “The current lack of evidence that free online access performs better, implies that the citation benefits of open-access publishing have been exaggerated by its proponents,” they write.

At least one academic blogger has pointed to McCabe and Snyder's work as legitimate cause to doubt previous findings about the "citation advantage" of open-access publishing. Others claim that the study presents no evidence against those findings, and that the authors are being unduly cavalier.

And around we go. Certainly, disagreements among scholars are nothing new. But the stakes in this case are potentially high for the open-access publishing movement, since the paper calls into question the main incentive for scholars to publish their research in open-access journals. If scholars buy McCabe and Snyder’s logic, advocates of open-access publishing could face an even greater challenge in changing the habits of academic researchers.

Their task is already daunting. In a report released last spring, the research nonprofit Ithaka S+R found that among faculty deciding where to publish their research, relatively few put a high priority on making their articles freely available -- fewer, even, than in 2003. In addition, a high percentage of faculty authors said they did not like paying high fees in exchange for a journal publishing their research, whereas many open-access journals charge authors relatively steep publication fees to support themselves in lieu of selling access to readers.

To combat these deterrents, open-access advocates tend to play up the perennial No. 1 priority for scholars shopping their papers: visibility among their peers in their field. Publish in an open-access venue, they say, and more people will read -- and cite -- your article.

This argument has benefited from a preponderance of studies suggesting that openly accessible articles get cited more frequently than do articles that are published behind a pay wall. Most studies have suggested that open articles increased the likelihood of citation by several hundred percent -- a phenomenon known as the “citation advantage.” In a profession where job security often depends on churning out influential papers, scholars might think it worthwhile to pony up (or persuade their benefactors to pony up) for higher publication fees if it means doubling or tripling one’s citation count.

McCabe and Snyder say their research implies that the citation advantage is, in fact, much weaker than the current literature would have scholars believe.

Their study focused on 260,000 articles published in 100 top business and economics journals between 1956 and 2005. McCabe and Snyder conclude that when the proper controls are put in place to isolate the online-versus-offline variable from others that have confounded past studies, the “citation advantage” created by an article’s presence on the Web is essentially zero. (Articles that are archived online in the popular subscription-based journal aggregator JSTOR registered a modest boost in citations of 10 percent.)

While McCabe and Snyder actually studied the effect of economics and business articles being available online as opposed to just in print -- not the effect of articles being online and free -- they nevertheless believe that their findings cast doubt on the supposed citation advantage of open-access articles, because, they contend, their study measures whether ease of access affects citation volume.

Stevan Harnad, a cognitive scientist at the Université du Québec à Montréal and a scholar of open-access publishing, isn’t buying the connection. Ease of access and open access are related too tangentially to justify transposing conclusions about one onto the other, he says.

McCabe and Snyder’s study addresses the citation advantage in the context of print versus online within the subscription-based journal model; contrary to its provocative assertion about “the lack of evidence that free online access performs better,” their paper does not address the citation advantage of free versus not free, Harnad says, and therefore cannot convincingly refute studies that do.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Snyder defended the extrapolation, arguing that since most scholars who produce significant research work at universities that provide them with free journal access, conflating the effect of online publishing and free online publishing is not unreasonable. But Harnad begged to differ, noting that many university libraries have had to cancel subscriptions even to relatively high-profile journals due to shrinking budgets.

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