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Do Open Access journals have impact?

At Thomson ISI, we have followed debates over Open Access to scholarly literature with great interest. This is partly because our mission, best incarnated today in the Web of Science®, is to help researchers find and access quality, relevant information wherever it is published. It is also because the journal-level metrics, such as the Impact Factor and Immediacy Index, for which Thomson ISI has become known, have assumed importance in these discussions.

Some assert (as readers of Nature are no doubt aware) that too much importance is sometimes given to these measures. Few would contest that they have an important place in the current debate. The Impact Factor is often referenced both in recent contributions to this Nature 'Focus' and in other forums. Researchers often ask, 'If I publish in an Open Access journal, will my work be cited?'

I have personally been asked many times what the 'ISI position' is on Open Access. This is in some ways a curious question, given our mission - I am rarely asked what our 'position' is in regard to publishing by society publishers, or commercial houses, or advertising-supported trade magazines. The answer is simply that if it results in high-quality information of use to scholars, we will cover it in our databases; if not, we will not.

Is there evidence that can help indicate the impact and influence of Open Access journals in the research community? To begin to answer this question, Thomson ISI recently undertook a small study of the Open Access journals that it currently indexes1. We defined Open Access purely on the basis of access - without being concerned with who pays for it - checking available lists of such journals and attempting to verify that both the current and back issues were directly accessible over the Internet at no charge.

We do not pretend that this study is in any way exhaustive or definitive. It is simply a first look at the available data. We intend to refine the analysis as more data become available.

Several facts stand out. First, we were surprised by the number of Open Access journals that we have selected for inclusion. Over 190 journals met our rigorous selection criteria. Second, these journals tend to behave very much like other journals in our collection. While some of them are at the top of their disciplinary categories, others are not. Although as a group they may be receiving slightly more citations sooner, the evidence to date is inconclusive and the difference is not dramatic.

We were also struck by the variety of journals that appeared in our analysis. Some, like the BMJ, have a long and prestigious history, which they have carried with them into this new model. Others, like BMC Cancer, are newer creations seeking to garner a reputation. Still others, such as the Brazilian Journal of Microbiology, are journals of regional importance that use Open Access as a way of expanding global awareness. These distinctions are important. There are multiple routes to Open Access, and the goals of each individual publisher may be different.

From what we are seeing, Open Access itself does not necessarily equate to more citations in these journals - nor does it equate to fewer. We think that this is because increasing the potential journal readership does not change the fundamental value and relevance of an article in a journal to the work of a particular researcher. If any chosen access model allows the journal to be read by all or most of its intended audience, that audience will judge its relevance. Journals and other forms of scientific publishing will have impact based on criteria other than simply Open Access.

Increasingly, scholarly literature is becoming more widely accessible in multiple ways. Some journals are entirely accessible to the general public at no charge. Others are publicly accessible in large part or for most issues. Still others are accessible to the vast majority of their intended audience under wide license agreements, even if not accessible to the general public. If the journal is accessible by its intended audience, then the components of journal quality, such as the profile of its editorial board, its ability to attract excellent articles and so on, will continue to be paramount, whoever pays for its production.

Given ISI's selection process, our study does not measure the entire range of influence of Open Access literature. Instead, it measures the impact of this literature on core scientific publications - in a sense, its entry into the mainstream of established scholarship. Scholarly publication is being reshaped in other ways, with uncertain effects. Some quality information that has been traditionally available only as articles collected in issues of journals is becoming accessible directly as articles deposited in institutional repositories. These repositories may have different citation patterns2. Looking even further ahead, the scholarly article itself may eventually be broken up into components, as its data, multimedia objects and supplementary materials become more directly accessible from supporting databases, but it is too soon to predict the extent to which Open Access depends upon having a 'journal' as we currently know it.

Our observations yield some useful lessons. Open Access journals can have similar impact to other journals, and prospective authors should not fear publishing in these journals merely because of their access model. Furthermore, it does not appear that expansion of potential readership in itself will necessarily transform the impact of a journal.

James Pringle

Vice President, Development, Academic and Government Markets, Thomson ISI, USA

  1. The Impact of Open Access Journals: A Citation Study from Thomson ISI.

  2. Hitchcock, S., Brody, T., Gutteridge, C., Carr, L., Hall, W., Harnad, S., Bergmark, D. & Lagoze, C. Open citation linking: the way forward. D-Lib Magazine 8(10) (2002)

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