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Over 50% of Newly Published Paywall-Protected Research Fails to Be Consulted, which Makes Open Access Increasingly Attractive

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The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia, April 17, 2017 | © Courtesy of Mark 爱生活.

As Australia seeks to increase the efficiency of the investment it makes into scientific research, Open Access promises to maximize its benefits. While across disciplines previously published articles are likely to be referenced to various extents, some studies indicate that up to 50% of all scientific papers published are never read except by authors, referees and editors and that around 90% of articles are never cited. This further strengthens the case in favor of transitioning from subscription-based models to Open Access ones.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


Given that subscription-based publication models not only tend to lock up access to articles and books behind paywalls, but also transfer copyright and intellectual property to large publishers as content distributors, governments are beginning to expect a larger return on their financial investment into academic research by switching to Open Access. While publishing at prestigious journals is critical for research careers and university rankings, a growing awareness exists that a significant share of fees paid for journal subscriptions goes to waste. Some studies argue that approximately 21% of all scientific articles published between 1900 and 2015 have never been cited. Moreover, in the year they are published, close to 80% of journal papers are not cited at all, whereas this statistic drops to approximately 10% fifteen years after article publication, according to findings based on papers indexed by the Web of Science in recent decades.

However, other studies indicate that almost 50% of academic articles ever published are not read by anyone beyond their authors, journal editors and peer-review participants. Moreover, some researchers suggest that up to 90% of academic papers are never cited at all. In other words, according to these findings, journal subscriptions may be making measurable contributions to the advancement of science, such as in the form of citations by other scholars, in about 5% of cases. Although the journal publishing market estimated to generate revenues to the tune of 10 billion USD has been growing at the annual rate of between 3% and 4%, the primary beneficiaries of this apparent growth in scientific productivity are likely to be large traditional publishers, such as Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell and Springer Nature, demonstrating stellar financial performance, such as profit margins upwards of 30%, in recent decades.

As university libraries pay for journal subscription deals around 200 million GBP in Britain, 260 million AUD in Australia and staggering 2 billion USD in North America, for access rights to articles subsidized throughout their production and review by local governmental and research institutions, the transition to Open Access beckons ever so strongly, especially since journal subscription fees paid by universities tend to rise over time, such as by 17% in New Zealand in 2016. For this reason, in Australia, the Australian National University (ANU) Press has adopted Open Access not only for its monographs, but also for textbooks since 2017.

While national policies may be slow to promote Open Access in some countries, the accumulating evidence suggests that Open Access publications enjoy high national and international download rates, such as over 2 million downloads from Australia, United States, Britain, France, China and elsewhere for the 700 Open Access books and 27,000 yearly downloads for Open Access textbooks of the ANU Press.

Therefore, Open Access is likely to be critical for the efficiency and sustainability of publishing models subtending the dissemination of scientific findings.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia, April 17, 2017 | © Courtesy of Mark 爱生活.

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4 Comments

  1. Hi, though I support Open Access wholeheartedly and recognize the citation advantage, I think you grossly overstate the uncitedness of papers in your introduction. The claims of 50% unread and 90% uncited in your introduction are unsubstantiated. The reference you give for this also makes the claim without providing evidence or data. The research by Richard van Noorden you refer to further down has finally corrected this false view, but you seem to have a reason to give greater prominence to the unsubstantiated claim. Why is that? Also the number you quote from Van Noorden’s paper is 20% for all paper 1900-now, but the more important figure is that currently fewer than 10% of the papers will remain incited.

    1. Hi Jeroen, as far as research findings are concerned I have followed as closely as possible their implications. If anything, some mass media sources may be overstating the case. By contrast, I have located the original scholarly articles to verify these statements. The pre-print to the study by Lockman I. Meho uses the research methodology of meta-analysis, which is a valid research approach. I am not sure whether his conclusions can be thrown out of hand as unsubstantiated. The study by Richard van Noorden has reached different conclusions. However, these also need to be independently validated and reproduced, to be accepted as representing what is the case as regards citation statistics. Notably, as the latter article suggests in reference to the Open Access mega-journal PLOS One, articles published in Open Access journals are likely to attract significant viewership and have high download rates, even if they go uncited.

  2. You linked to: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5467414/
    claiming: “Estimates vary but some citation analyses suggest that 90% of academic papers are never cited and 50% are never read by anyone other than the authors, reviewers and a journal’s publication team [1].”

    The [1] links to a manuscript, you also link to.
    https://arxiv.org/ftp/physics/papers/0701/0701012.pdf
    this claims: “It is a sobering fact that some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited. Indeed, as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors. We know this thanks to citation analysis, a branch of information science in which researchers study the way articles in a scholarly field are accessed and referenced by others (see box 1). ”

    Box 1 only explains the concept. I was unable to find the citation analysis that came to this conclusion. I would also be surprised if *citation* analysis could show how often a paper is *read*. These things are not the same.

    Do we have actual evidence for these claims?

    1. These are relevant questions that do demand further empirical research. As my reply to the previous comment suggests, view and download statistics can serve as alternative indicators for the rates at which scientific articles are read. However, other things being equal, article published in Open Access journals are likely to have higher download and page view rates than their counterparts in closed access publications, due to paywalls.

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