THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Science blog

25 October 2013

How open is it?

Elizabeth Newbold explains why not everything is as straightforward as it may appear for a science librarian dealing with Open Access content

It is Open Access week and sitting in an office with Anna Kinsey, the Engagement Manager for Europe PubMedCentral, Open Access has obviously been a topic of conversation. Anna has written a blog outlining some of her frustrations with Open Access. I’m not going to repeat them (I recommend reading her post) but in conversation with her it made me think about some of my own frustrations, as a librarian, dealing with free-to-access content.

A timely incident highlighted one of the frustrations we face as librarians in providing access to content. This week I had a question from a colleague, who asked “why can I access this article?” Possibly a slightly unusual question, as we are much more likely to be asked, “why can’t I access …”.and a surprising one, as it took longer to answer than we thought.

In the past, the simple response - “because we have a subscription to the journal” - is actually no longer always true or sufficient. Alternative answers, such as “because it’s open access” or “because it’s freely available” need to be considered. And in this particular case we actually needed to know why we had access, since the mode of access would determine how the reader could use the article.

We started with the first question – do we have a subscription? In this case, the answer was no, so we needed to see why we had access, which is where it started to get complicated. The obvious next thought would be is it an OA journal or OA article? In some cases this is easy to ascertain but not always! So my frustration is the lack of clear identification and consistent explanations regarding OA material. Words such as “free”, “freely available”, “free access”, “open research”, “open”, “open access” are used seemingly interchangeably – all adding to the confusion. It is especially so when we move outside the realms of STM journals and look at the ever increasing and varied amount of other freely available content. Information about the access and restrictions which apply to the material are often hidden away on web pages that are difficult to find. This week I finally found the explanation I needed on the ‘information for librarians’ page. Luckily, I’m a librarian so I looked there but would a non-librarian have found it?

This example may seem like a small issue but it highlights increasing fragmentation when we need to be able to easily and consistently identify why we can access something, otherwise we don’t know how it can be used. 

Whilst the OA symbol originally designed by the Public Library of Science has been used to good effect – wouldn’t it be nice if there was a universally accepted and adopted set of symbols to help identify Open Access material and navigate through the maze?
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