Citation advantage as Holy Grail

Over Christmas, betwixt comedy reviews of the year, I have continued to mull over (no pun intended) the debate surrounding Open Access and the citation advantage as evinced in my pre-festive post and Phil Davis’ response to it.  Somewhat whimsical to be a proper academic and determined to stay off-line I have mulled (OK pun intended) without recourse to any literature, either empirical or rhetorical.

Phil is quite right to question my (and others) motivation, as a repository manager, to look for studies that support my “own political view” and the putative citation advantage of OA is perhaps seized upon by our community as the only real carrot we can offer – after all we are attempting to engage with a community for whom empiricism is, quite rightly, extremely important (not to mention funding and professional kudos) so it is natural that we should seek to illustrate a concrete benefit in this way. My personal enthusiasm for OA, however, is actually based in a passion for learning and sharing that learning and in the course of my own advocacy I have found the majority of academics receptive to what might be termed the “soft” benefits of OA – indeed, in 2002, the Budapest Open Access Initiative detailed the “unprecedented public good” that OA could do:

“Removing access barriers…will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.”

Whether such rhetoric and idealism will translate into action without an empirical carrot (surely two words that aren’t often put together) is, perhaps, still a moot point.

A recent article by a certain Philip. M. Davis has analysed “the citations to articles published in 11 biological and medical journals from 2003 to 2007 that employ author-choice open-access models. Controlling for known explanatory predictors of citations, only 2 of the 11 journals show positive and significant open-access effects. Analyzing all journals together, we report a small but significant increase in article citations of 17%. In addition, there is strong evidence to suggest that the open-access advantage is declining by about 7% per year, from 32% in 2004 to 11% in 2007.” (from the abstract)

The article goes on to conclude that “the open-access citation advantage, widely promoted in the literature, is considerably overstated for the biological and biomedical literature; and secondly, that some of the citation advantage can be explained by variables other than access. Lastly, there is strong evidence to suggest that the citation advantage has declined moderately over the last few years.”

Davis also suggests that:

“Free dissemination of the scientific literature may speed up the transfer of knowledge to industry, enable scientists in poor and developing countries to access more information, and empower the general public. There are clearly many benefits to making one’s research findings freely available to the general public—but a citation advantage may not be one of them.”

In short, the citation advantage need not be the Holy Grail for Open Access.

Davis, P. M. (2009). Author-choice open access publishing in the biological and medical literature: a citation analysis. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 60(1), 3-8 and a free copy is available from:


2 Responses to Citation advantage as Holy Grail

  1. Philip Davis says:

    Thank you for your post. I would like to argue that there are indeed “empirical carrots” (your economic-vegetative expression) for authors who make their material freely available. While we could not attribute a citation advantage for freely-available scientific articles, we did document in our first article (see below) that freely-available articles received significantly more article downloads from a larger population of visitors.

    Counting citations only reveals that an article has influenced subsequent authorship : it does not count the may ways that articles are used for other purposes, such as teaching, medical practice, etc. While authors are often rewarded by citations, we should not forget other ways that authors can influence other scientists and the general public.

    Davis, P. M., Lewenstein, B. V., Simon, D. H., Booth, J. G., & Connolly, M. J. L. (2008). Open access publishing, article downloads and citations: randomised trial. BMJ, 337, 586-.

    From the abstract:
    “Articles assigned to open access were associated with 89% more full text downloads (95% confidence interval 76% to 103%), 42% more PDF downloads (32% to 52%), and 23% more unique visitors (16% to 30%), but 24% fewer abstract downloads (–29% to –19%) than subscription access articles in the first six months after publication. Open access articles were no more likely to be cited than subscription access articles in the first year after publication. Fifty nine per cent of open access articles (146 of 247) were cited nine to 12 months after publication compared with 63% (859 of 1372) of subscription access articles. Logistic and negative binomial regression analysis of article citation counts confirmed no citation advantage for open access articles.”

    “Conclusions: Open access publishing may reach more readers than subscription access publishing. No evidence was found of a citation advantage for open access articles in the first year after publication. The citation advantage from open access reported widely in the literature may be an artefact of other causes.”

  2. Pingback: More on the OA advantage « Be openly accessible or be obscure

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