Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Open Access Organizational Advantage: An Hypothesis

The open access citation advantage has been amply demonstrated in many studies, which can be found through Steve Hitchcock's excellent bibliography, The effect of open access and downloads ('hits') on citation impact: a bibliography of studies.

With universities and countries proceeding towards open access at different paces, here is an hypothesis which anyone interested in invited to test:

There will be a strong positive correlation between open access and organizational impact.

Open access can be measured through such means as the availability and fill rate of an institutional repository, or the tendency of faculty to publish in open access journals. The former will likely be easier to measure than the latter.

Organizational impact can be measured through such means as success at obtaining funding grants (whether measured by number or amount of grants), success at attracting top students (perhaps measured through traditional evaluation criteria by which students are considered for competitive programs), graduate student success, success at obtaining operational or capital funding through public or private sources, academic awards, student success in the workplace, and so forth.

Here is a bit of background to explain why organizations would also see an open access impact advantage.

Funding agencies (e.g. the U.S. National Institute of Health, Wellcome Trust, Research Councils U.K., Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), have expressed a strong preference for open access to the results of the research they fund. Even without formal criteria rating research proposals from researchers with an open access portfolio higher (possible though this is, given the preference), there are still two reasons why researchers who meet this criterion are likely to be successful. First, even if the reviewers make every effort to avoid allowing this preference to affect their funding decisions, they are human beings, and subject to bias. All else being equal, if one would like to obtain funding, it is a good idea to try to fit the preferences of the funders, particularly ones with a sound philosophical basis such as open access. Second, the work of the researcher with the open access portfolio will be readily accessible to the reviewers. A researcher with a good track record will benefit from this added opportunity for scrutiny.

Top students are more likely to be attracted to a university with a strong open access mandate for two reasons. First, they are more likely to encounter the research published by the university's researchers and thus become interested in the university. Second, the university's researchers will benefit from the open access citation advantage - their work will be cited more often, and hence will be more obviously valued by the scholarly community. Good matches between graduate students and supervisors would appear to have some relation with common research interests - the more students who have access to our work, the better the chances that the grad student who would be a really good match will find us. This is particularly true of students who come from developing countries, or poorer areas of the developed world, who would not otherwise have access to all of the research literature.

A university that makes its work available to the world through an institutional repository is a resource for the community. Local media will find it easy to write about the university, and find local experts to interview. It makes sense that this would enhance the value of the university to the community, which in theory should help universities in their funding efforts.

If top-level students, whether graduate or otherwise, make their best work - whether a thesis, a capstone paper, or their best presentation - openly available, this should help out in obtaining employment related to their career. Picture a resume with this work - readily clickable, and leading to the repository of a university with a great reputation. Could this be a means of helping universities and alumni to keep in touch? Once again, this could help the university out financially, as alumni are an important source of fund-raising for many.

The same principles that apply to universities apply to other organizations, and entire countries. All else being equal, the country that is fully open access will be full of researchers whose work is read and cited more often, and universities with an edge on attracting top students and funding. Not that this competition is the point. To me, equity is the point, and this is where open access eventually leads. It's just that those of us who have to work hardest against the barriers (mostly the profits of a very few) are at a bit of a disadvantage. The only person we should ever be in competition with is ourselves - to always strive to be our very best. The real competition of the educational sector is not the other institutions - it is ignorance.

This post reflects my personal opinion only and does not represent the opinions or policy of the BC Electronic Library Network or the Simon Fraser University Library.

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