Opinion Leader: Stevan Harnad

RESEARCH MONEY Volume 19, Number 16 - October 24, 2005

Making the case for web-based self-archiving
By Stevan Harnad

Canada is losing about $640 million dollars worth of potential return each year on its public investment in research. The Canadian research funding councils spend about $1.5 billion dollars yearly, which generates about 50,000 research journal articles. But it is not the number of articles published that reflects the return on Canada’s research investment: A piece of research, if it’s worth funding and doing at all, must not only be published, but used, applied and built-upon by other researchers. This is called ‘research impact’ and a measure of it is the number of times an article is cited by other articles (‘citation impact’).

In order to be used and built upon, however, an article must first be accessed. Published articles are accessible only to those researchers who happen to be at institutions that can afford to subscribe to the journals in which they happen to be published. There are about 24,000 research journals in all, across all research fields worldwide, but most institutions can only afford to subscribe to a small fraction of them.

In paper days, authors used to supplement this paid access to their articles by mailing free reprints to any would-be users who requested them. The online age has now made it possible for researchers to provide free ‘eprints’ (electronic versions of their own final drafts) to all potential users webwide who cannot afford the journal version -- by simply ‘self-archiving’ them on their own institutional websites, free for all.

The online-age practice of self-archiving has been shown to increase citation impact by a dramatic 50-250%, but so far only 15% of researchers are doing it. A recent UK international survey has found that 95% of authors would self-archive — but only if their research funders or their institutions required them to (just as they already require them to ‘publish or perish’). The solution is hence obvious:

After lengthy deliberations first initiated in 2003 by the UK Parliamentary Select Committee on Sceince and Technology, Research Councils UK is proposing to adopt a policy requiring UK researchers to deposit — on their university’s website — the author’s final draft of any journal article resulting from RCUK-funded research. The purpose would be to maximize the usage and impact of UK research findings by making them freely accessible on the web (‘open access’) for any potential users in the UK and worldwide. How would a similar policy maximize the return on the Canadian public investment in research?

It is not possible to calculate all the ways in which research generates revenue. A good deal of it is a question of probability and depends on time. Although everyone hopes for an immediate cure for cancer or a cheap, clean source of energy, most research progresses gradually and indirectly.

The best estimate of the size and direction of its progress is its citation impact, which reflects the degree of uptake of the research results by other researchers in their own subsequent research. Citation impact is accordingly rewarded by universities (through salary increases and promotion) as well as by research funders (through grant funding and renewal). It is also rewarded by libraries, through journal selection and renewal, based on the journal’s average citation “impact factor”. Counting citations is a natural extension of the cruder measure of research impact: counting publications themselves (“publish or perish”).

If citations are being counted, it is natural to ask how much they are worth.

The marginal dollar value of one citation was estimated by Diamond in 1986 to range from $50-$1300 (US), depending on field and number of citations. (An increase from 0 to 1 citation is worth more than an increase from 30 to 31; most articles are in the citation range 0-5.) If we update by about 170% for inflation from 1986-2005 ($85.65-$2226.89) and convert from US dollars to Canadian dollars, this yields the range $100-$2606 as the marginal value of a Canadian citation to its author today. Self-archiving, as noted, increases citations by 50-250%, but only 15% of the articles being published are being self-archived today.

We will now apply only the most conservative ends of these estimates (50% citation increase from self-archiving at $100 per citation) to Canada’s current annual journal article output (and only for the approximately 50,000 Canadian articles a year indexed by the Institute for Scientific Information, which covers only the top 8,000 of the world’s 24,000 journals). If we multiply by the 85% of Canada’s annual journal article output not yet self-archived (42,500 articles), this translates into an annual loss of $2.125 million in revenue to Canadian researchers for not having done (or delegated) the few extra keystrokes per article it would have taken to self-archive.

But this impact loss becomes far bigger for the Canadian public when factoring the loss of potential returns on research investment. As a proportion of Canada’s yearly $1.5 billion in granting agency research expenditure (yielding 50,000 articles x 5.9 = 295,000 citations), our conservative estimate would be 50% x 85% x $1.5.billion = about $640 million dollars worth of loss in potential research impact (125,375 potential citations lost). And that doesn’t consider the wider loss in revenue from the loss of potential practical applications and usage of Canadian research findings in Canada and worldwide, nor the still more general loss to the progress of human inquiry.

The solution is obvious, and it is the one the RCUK is proposing: to extend research’s existing universal ‘publish or perish’ requirement to ‘publish and also self-archive your final draft on your institutional website’. More than 90% of journals already endorse author self-archiving and the international author survey — plus the actual experience of the five institutions that have already adopted such a requirement (CERN, University of Southampton ECS, Queensland University of Technology, University of Minho, University of Zurich ) — has shown that more than 90% of authors will comply.

The time for Canada to close its own 50-250% research impact gap is already well overdue. Canada should immediately follow the UK model, adopting the web-age extension of “publish or perish” policy to “publish and self-archive on the web. “ This tiny and very natural evolutionary step will not only be of enormous benefit to Canada’s researchers, its institutions, its funders, and its funders’ funders (i.e. the taxpayers). But it will also be to the collective advantage of worldwide research progress and productivity itself.

Stevan Harnad is the Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal and Moderator of the American Scientist Open Access Forum.

How self-archiving increases citation impact:

How much a citation is worth:

How much time and effort is involved in self-archiving

RCUK self-archiving policy proposal:

Directory of publishers' policies on author self-archiving:

JISC user survey on self-archiving: