Open Access Priorities: Peer Access and Public Access

The claim is often made that researchers (peers) have as much access to peer-reviewed research publications as they need — that if there is any need for further access at all, it is not the peers who need it, but the general public.

1. Functionally, it doesn’t matter whether open access (OA) is provided for peers or for public, because OA means that everyone gets access.

2. Strategically, however, it does matter, because currently OA is not being provided in anywhere near sufficient numbers spontaneously by researchers (peers).

3. This means that policies (mandates) from peers’ institutions and funders are needed to induce peers to provide OA to their publications.

4. This means that credible and valid reasons must be found for peers’ institutions and funders to mandate providing OA.

5. For some fields of research — especially health-relevant research — public access is a strong reason for public funders to mandate providing public access.

6. But that still leaves all the rest of research, in all disciplines, funded and unfunded.

7. Most research is technical, intended to be used and applied by peer researchers in building further research and applications — to the benefit of the general public.

8. But most peer-reviewed research reports themselves are neither understandable nor of direct interest to the general public as reading matter.

9. Hence, for most research, “public access to publicly funded research,” is not reason enough for providing OA, nor for mandating that OA be provided.

10. The evidence that the primary intended users of peer-reviewed research — researchers — do not have anywhere near enough access is two-fold:

11. For many years, the ARL published statistics on the journal subscription/license access of US research universities:

12. The small fraction of all peer-reviewed journals that any university can afford to access via subscriptions/licenses has since become even smaller, despite the “Big Deals”:

13. The latest evidence comes from the university that can afford the largest fraction of journals: Harvard University

14. Researchers’ careers and funding as well as research progress depend on the accessibility, uptake and impact of the research output.

15. Open Access maximizes accessibility and enhances uptake and impact.

16. Hence peer access, rather than just public access, is the reason (all) researchers (funded and unfunded, in all disciplines) should provide OA — and the reason their institutions and funders should mandate that they provide OA.

Stevan Harnad
Enabling Open Scholarship


The list of recommendations I made was strategic. The objective was to maximize OA deposits and maximize OA deposit mandates.

The issue is not about how many members of the general public might wish to read how many peer-reviewed journal articles.

The issue is strategic: What provides a viable, credible, persuasive reason for researchers to provide OA and for institutions and funders to mandate providing OA in all fields of research, funded and unfunded, in all disciplines.

My point was that providing access for the the general public is a viable, credible, persuasive reason for providing and mandating OA in some fields (notably health- related research, but there may be other fields as well) — but it is not a viable, credible, persuasive reason for providing OA in all fields, nor for all research.

It is not difficult to find anecdotal evidence of nonspecialist interest in specialized research; one’s own interests often go beyond one’s own area of expertise.

But that is user-based reasoning, whereas providing OA and mandating OA require reasons that are viable, credible and persuasive to providers of research — and not some providers, sometimes, but all providers, for all research.

The only reason for providing OA to research that is valid, credible and persuasive for all research and researchers is in order to ensure that it is accessible to all of its intended users — primarily peers — and not just to those whose institutions can afford to subscribe to the journal in which it was published.

The issue is strategic. It is a great mistake to construe giving priority to reasons for providing peer access over reasons for providing public access as somehow implying that public access should be denied: Public access automatically comes with the territory with OA. So public access denial is not the issue.

The strategic issue is whether researchers (and their institutions and funders) are more likely to be induced to provide and mandate OA by the argument that the public wants and needs access or by the argument that peers want and need access.

Peer access provides research progress and impact. It is an appeal to researchers’ self-interest to stress the beneficial effects of OA on the uptake and impact of their research.

Most researchers of course also have a secret yearning that their research should appeal not only to their peers, but to the general public. But they also know that that is probably just wishful thinking in most cases. And in any case, public access does not have the direct affect on their careers, funding, and research progress that peer access has.

So it is not that the enhancement of public access should not be listed among the reasons for providing OA. It is just that it should not be promoted as the first, foremost, or universal reason for providing OA, because it is not: for many or most researchers, that argument simply will not work.

Ditto for the argument that researchers need to provide OA because journal subscriptions cost too much. The eventual solution to the journal affordability crisis will probably also come from providing and mandating OA. But, like public access, journal affordability is not a sufficiently compelling or universal rationale for providing OA.

The public access rationale for providing OA appeals to politicians and voters. Good. Use it in order to help get OA mandate legistlation adopted by research funders. But the rationale is much less convincing to researchers (peers) themselves, and their institutions.

The journal affordability rationale for providing OA appeals to librarians and institutions, but it is much less convincing to researchers (peers).

In contrast, providing OA in order to maximize research progress and impact, by maximizing researcher (peer) uptake, usage, applications and citations — if backed up by evidence — is the way to convince all researchers, funded and unfunded, in all disciplines, that it is in their own best interests to provide OA to their research.

Stevan Harnad