Uneven Access - How Academic Journal Articles Are Shared in the Open


I submitted an abstract for a proposal to the OpenEd conference. Unfortunately, the proposal was not accepted, and so I am sharing the proposal here to gauge others’ interests and reactions to this work.

The motivation for this work was finding that many authors (including, occasionally, me) share PDFs of their published articles. Though technically a copyright violation, the practice is widespread. I wanted to see how widesread this was; the intended outcome of this is to start a conversation about why we are compelled to violate copyright to share our work and whether we might consider new ways of sharing our work that do not rely on publishers (and violating copyright in ways that may result in uneven benefits for authors who are and are not willing to post copyrighted work!).

The title of the proposed presentation was: Uneven Access: How Academic Journal Articles Are Shared in the Open

Here’s the summary/abstract:

Academic journal articles are read by policymakers, learners of all types, and, of course, researchers, but such articles are often not equally accessible to individuals outside of academic institutions. One way that the authors of peer-reviewed journal articles have attempted to address this issue of access is by sharing their publications in the open, such as by posting their papers as “pre-prints” or by uploading the PDF for their published paper to a platform like ResearchGate.

In this presentation, I share the initial results from an investigation into how widespread the open access of journal articles published in educational research journals is. Using a sample of 50 articles randomly selected from among all of the articles published in the United States’s largest educational research organization, the American Educational Research Association, in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020, I examined whether the article was available on the open web. I also explored what version of the article was shared (the published version or a pre-print of the paper) and under what copyright terms (i.e., open access or without permission). I found that 35 (70%) of the articles I analyzed were available in any form; 68% were available in their final, published form, and only 2% were available as a pre-print. Though more than two-thirds of articles were available in their final, published form, only 20% of the articles that were available in such a form possessed an open license. The remaining 48% were shared despite having a license that technically prohibits such sharing.

These findings suggest that researchers have found ways to make their work more widely accessible within a system that depends upon institutions to purchase access to academic journals. Though these findings may make it appear that open access is alive and even thriving amidst academic publishers that rely upon making the articles they publish (technically) inaccessible to the public, nearly one-third of articles were not accessible, with no meaningful pattern in the proportion of articles that were accessible being detectable on the basis of in what year the article was published. This suggests that the authors of articles who may have a lower tolerance for the (minimal) risk associated with sharing the copyrighted version of their work may be at a disadvantage concerning citations, recognition, and, perhaps, reputation as a scholar. In my presentation, I discuss how fully open access publications overcome the legal and even ethical challenges and dilemmas around the current system of academic journal article publishing. I also discuss how researchers can share and promote their work in the open through sharing pre- and post-prints in accordance with a journal’s copyright terms while working to open academic writing and scholarship to those interested or needing access.

I also noted why I thought this work was important and relevant::

While not a common form of OER, academic articles are used in many courses. Articles are also frequently of interest to policymakers, stakeholders, and the wider public invested or interested in a field of study, but most academic journal articles remain behind a paywall. In this presentation I share the results of an investigation into how accessible the articles published in the journals of the largest educational research organization in the United States are. I find that more than two-thirds are accessible, but that most are shared in ways that technically are in violation with the copyright agreements authors signed. I interpret this finding not to mean that authors are in any way at fault, but instead that the current system is not serving the aims of authors and their audiences; wider changes are needed. I discuss these changes and how authors of journal articles can work within the terms of the present system to make their work more accessible.

Again, I’d love to hear thoughts on or reactions to these findings and to be a part of conversations about how we can develop a publishing model that serves the needs and goals we have around sharing research findings. Reach out!