Open Access, coming to a workflow near you: welcome to the year of Ubiquitous OA

Thanks to 20 years of OA innovation and advocacy, today you can legally access around half the recent research literature for free. However, in practice, much of this free literature is not as open as we’d like it to be, because it’s hard for readers to find the OA version.

OA lives on repositories and publisher websites. But very few people visit these sources directly to find a given article. Instead, people rely on the search tools that are already part of their existing workflows. Historically, these haven’t done a great job surfacing OA resources. Google, for instance, often fails to index OA versions, in addition to indexing content of dubious provenance. OA aggregators like BASE, CORE, and OpenAIRE aim to solve this by emphasizing OA coverage, but they require researchers to add a second or third search step to their existing workflows–something researchers have been reluctant to do.

So in addition to the well-known access problem, we also have a discovery problem. On the one there’s a healthy, efficient OA infrastructure in journals and repositories. On the other we have millions of individual readers doing their own thing. We need to connect these. We need to cover this last mile between the infrastructure and the individual user, and we need to make that connection easy and seamless and ubiquitous. Until we do, OA is writing a check it can’t fully cash.

But the news is good: over the last year, several efforts are emerging to cover that last mile. Our contribution was Unpaywall: an extension that shows a green tab in your browser on articles where there’s an OA version available.  Unpaywall has enjoyed lots of success, adding over 100,000 active users in under than a year. Moreover, the backend database of Unpaywall (formerly called oaDOI) can be integrated into any number of existing tools, making it easier to spread OA content all over the place. For instance, we’re already seeing over a million uses every day from library link resolvers.

Our most recent integration takes this to a new level, and we’re so excited about it: thanks to a new partnership between Impactstory and Clarivate Analytics, data from Impactstory’s Unpaywall database is now live in the Web of Science, making it the first editorially-curated and publisher-neutral resource to implement this technology. Web of Science has been able to use Unpaywall data to discover and link to millions more OA records amongst their existing content.  This enables millions of Web of Science users around the world to link straight from their search results to a trusted, legal, peer-reviewed OA version—and they can also filter search results by the different versions of OA.

This is a big deal because article and indexing (A&I) systems like Web of Science are currently the most important way researchers access literature.  And though it’s by no means the only A&I system out there, Web of Science is the most respected and most prevalent. Every month, millions of users access literature through Web of Science—and now, each and every one of them will see more OA options for articles they might not otherwise discover, right alongside subscribed content.  Every day. What a huge change from the days we had to convince folks that OA was legitimate at all! It’s a new era.

A new era: that’s not just a hyperbolic phrase. We think this year marks the turning of a new moment in the OA narrative. We’re moving out of the author-focused, advocacy-focused initial phase, and into a more mature era of ubiquitous Open Access, characterized by deep integration of OA into researcher workflows and value-add services built on top of the immense OA corpus. This is the era of user-focused OA.

As OA becomes the default state for published research, tools that centralize, mine, index, search, organize, and extract knowledge from papers suddenly become massively more powerful.  Integrations between Unpaywall and commercial services aren’t generating this new era, but they are one of the hallmarks of it. We’re not making new OA, but rather starting to leverage the massive OA corpus now available. In the last year, many others have begun to do this as well. Many, many more will follow

For years, we in the OA advocate community have been arguing that a critical mass of OA would not just improve scholarly communication, it would transform it. This is finally beginning to happen, and we think this partnership with Web of Science is an early part of that transformation. Now, a subscription to Web of Science—something most academic libraries globally already have—is also a subscription to a database of millions of free-to-read OA articles.

We’ve never been more excited about the future of OA–or more thankful for all the work the OA community as a whole has done to get here. And we can’t wait to keep working together with the community to help make the vision of ubiquitous open access a reality.

Green Open Access comes of age

This morning David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, tweeted, “So we have @unpaywall, @oaDOI_org, PubMed icons – is the green #OA infrastructure reaching maturity?(link).

We love this observation, and not just because two of the three projects he mentioned are from us at Impactstory 😀. We love it because we agree: Green OA infrastructure is at a tipping point where two decades of investment, a slew of new tools, and a flurry of new government mandates is about to make Green OA the scholarly publishing game-changer.

A lot of folks have suggested that Sci-Hub is scholarly publishing’s “Napster moment,” where the internet finally disrupts a very resilient, profitable niche market. That’s probably true. But like music industry shut down Napster, Elsevier will likely be able shut down Sci-Hub. They’ve got both the money and the legal (though not moral) high ground and that’s a tough combo to beat.

But the future is what comes after Napster. It’s in the iTunes and the Spotifys of scholarly communication. We’ve built something to help to create this future. It’s Unpaywall, a browser extension that instantly finds free, legal Green OA copies of paywalled research papers as you browse–like a master key to the research literature. If you haven’t tried it yet, install Unpaywall for free and give it a try.

Unpaywall has reached 5,000 active users in our first ten days of pre-release.

But Unpaywall is far from the only indication that we’re reaching a Green OA inflection point. Today is a great day to appreciate this, as there’s amazing Green OA news everywhere you look:

  • Unpaywall reached the 5000 Active Users milestone. We’re now delivering tens of thousands of OA articles to users in over 100 countries, and growing fast.
  • PubMed announced Institutional Repository LinkOut, which links every PubMed article to a free Green copy in institutional repositories where available. This is huge, since PubMed is one of the world’s most important portals to the research literature.
  • The Open Access Button announced a new integration with interlibrary loan that will make it even more useful for researchers looking for open content. Along with the interlibrary loan request, they send instructions to authors to help them self-archive closed publications.

Over the next few years, we’re going to see an explosion in the amount of research available openly, as government mandates in the US, UK, Europe, and beyond take force. As that happens, the raw material is there to build completely new ways of searching, sharing, and accessing the research literature.
We think Unpaywall is a really powerful example: When there’s a big Get It Free button next to the Pay Money button on publisher pages, it starts to look like the game is changing. And it is changing. Unpaywall is just the beginning of the amazing open-access future we’re going to see. We can’t wait!