Researchers looking for academic or scientific articles on the Internet are increasingly able to access those articles free.
While big commercial publishers have tightened their grip on online academic journals in recent years, charging high prices for essential articles, a movement supporting the wider availability of research results—called the open-access initiative—has been gaining strength, making many scholarly publications available to readers free of charge.
Juan Pablo Alperin, an associate professor of publishing studies at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, Canada, says 45 percent of the scholarly articles published since 2015 are available free of charge.
But readers in Arab countries have sometimes been hesitant to use free-of-charge open-access scholarly articles. Hanady Geagea, a doctoral candidate at the Lebanese University who is studying the use of open-access scholarship in the Arab region, says the main reason for the slow acceptance of open-access publications by Arab readers is a fear that scholarship that is being given away must be of dubious quality.
“University librarians and professors have a responsibility to change this attitude, and to encourage students to use open access,” Geagea says.
Open-access scholarship is subdivided into different kinds and degrees of free access, from articles that can be downloaded and re-used without restriction, to articles that can be read free of charge only on the publisher’s website and can’t be copied.
The open-access publication model can be compared to the Creative Commons license for creative work that can be freely published and used on the Internet, and to open-source software, which can be freely distributed and used.
There is an advantage to the scholar in publishing in open access: Articles published this way are more likely to be cited than those published with restricted access.
Institutions that support scientific research are increasingly requiring that articles based on work that they have financed be published as open access. These include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, the European Commission and the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, both of which are in the United States.
Despite its popularity with those who finance research, open-access material can be hard to find. The landscape of sources is changing constantly, and the researcher needs to persevere in finding pathways through it.
“Open-access articles take different forms and are spread across a lot of different sites,” Alperin said. “The user needs to be a little bit savvy about how to find a free version of an article.”
A new tool to help users find free versions of scholarly articles is Unpaywall, an extension for the Chrome browser. Unpaywall finds open-access versions of articles that the user might first find on a publisher’s website, behind a paywall. Unpaywall doesn’t violate copyright: It directs the user to versions of articles that, in many cases, have been uploaded by the authors themselves. Its creators claim it has a success rate of 50 to 85 percent, depending on the subject of the article the user is looking for.
Some subjects are better represented in open access than others. Biomedical research and mathematics are well represented in open access, while articles in chemistry, engineering and the humanities are more likely to be behind a paywall.
A popular—if questionable—source of free-of-charge academic articles is Sci-Hub. This site is hosted in Russia and makes available more than 62 million academic articles. It does this by using proxy connections to educational institutions and finding ways around publishers’ paywalls. Articles on Sci-Hub are available with little regard to their copyright status, making the site unpopular with many publishers and authors.
In June, a court in the state of New York in the United States ruled that Sci-Hub was guilty of copyright infringement and ordered its owner to pay $15 million in damages to Elsevier, a leading academic publishing company. Sci-Hub is owned and operated by Alexandra Elbakyan, a Kazakh national who lives in Russia. Since Russia is outside the jurisdiction of American courts and Elbakyan has no assets in the United States, it is unlikely that Elsevier will be able to collect this money.
In Arab countries, according to Hanady Geagea, open-access, online publication of academic articles is at an early stage of development. Among the first sites to do this is Shamaa, which publishes articles in Arabic on educational research. Individual universities such as the Lebanese American University and the American University of Beirut often publish the work of their own academic faculty and students online.
Another way for readers to get free access to scholarly articles is through academic social networks. Sites such as Academia.edu and Researchgate.net connect readers with authors. Readers can directly ask authors to send the text of an article.
Juan Pablo Alperin has two tips for users looking for open-access articles. One is to look on publishers’ websites for a free version of an article. Even high-volume, for-profit publishers post a small percentage of articles free of charge. The second is to use Google Scholar to find an article and search within the results for “other versions.” This may turn up an open-access version.
Alperin says that open access is an issue of particular importance to researchers in developing countries, where institutions such as university libraries may not be able to afford subscriptions to journals that their students need.
There is no definitive list of websites offering open access articles, and their number is increasing, but the following are of interest.
American site publishing scientific papers.
Compendium of open-access online journals of science and humanities.
Site for librarians, in Arabic.
Directory of open access journals.
Iraqi scientific journals.
Qatar Foundation project publishing open-access articles on science and Islamic studies.