‘Open citations’ movement targets big publishers

Restrictions on bibliometric data create ‘two-tiered’ research system, say campaigners

December 11, 2017
Books

“Open citations now!” So concludes a new open letter to publishers from researchers who support making scholarly citations freely available, in the interest of better citation analysis. Advocates of such efforts say that references are a pillar of scholarly work and that being able to understand how articles cite each other shouldn’t require an expensive subscription to a database.

In short, just as open access proponents argue for free access to scholarly articles, open citation proponents want free access to publication citation data.

“References are a product of scholarly work and represent the backbone of science – demonstrating the origin and advancement of knowledge – and provide essential information for studying science and making decisions about the future of research,” the letter says. “We therefore issue a strong call to all publishers to make available to the academic community that which it created in the first place.”

The letter builds on the Initiative for Open Citations, or I4OC, which about 60 organisations and publishers launched in April. Goals of that initiative include the establishment of a global, public web of linked scholarly citation data to “enhance the discoverability of published content”, both subscription access and open access. Such a web would especially benefit those outside academic institutions – or outside wealthier universities – who lack subscriptions to commercial citation databases, according to I4OC.

Other benefits would include the ability to build new services based on the data and create a public citation graph to explore connections between existing fields and the growth of new ones, advocates say.

Cassidy R. Sugimoto, an associate professor of informatics at Indiana University at Bloomington and president of the International Society for Scientometrics and Informetrics, is among the letter’s original signatories. She said that open citations wouldn’t make a huge difference in her own work, since she has access to highly curated Web of Science data through her professional collaborations and affiliations. However, she said, “it would make a huge difference for students and scholars” worldwide who don’t have that “luxury”.

Dr Sugimoto said that in her capacity as a reviewer and editor, for example, she’s read papers that lack broader “generalisability” because the authors clearly lacked access to data that could have answered their own research questions. That perpetuates a “two-tiered system” in which only scholars with expensive data-source subscriptions are able to do large-scale analyses, and publish in the most visible venues as a result, she said.

Many publishers have already committed to open citations, providing free access to the reference lists they submit to Crossref, a non-profit cooperative that interlinks published content.

Yet a large minority of major publishers still consider reference lists proprietary data, according to the letter, which frames open citations as similarly important to promoting research reproducibility, reducing misconduct and increasing access to scholarship.

Currently, the letter says, the ability to undertake large-scale and generalisable bibliometric research, both basic and applied, “is limited to a few well-funded centres that can afford to pay for full access to the raw data of Web of Science or Scopus”. And the remaining bulk of bibliometric research “is restricted to the analysis of small data sets or the use of freely available data sources”, such as PubMed, Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic, all of which suffer from “shortcomings”, which the letter defines as incomplete coverage, data quality problems, lack of transparency or limited large-scale accessibility.

In order to conduct rigorous analyses, therefore, “scientometricians need a data source that is freely available and comprehensive”, the letter says. It’s “a matter of scientific integrity, scientific progress and equity – we must ensure that all members of the scientometric community are able to participate in and validate the research in the field”.

Approximately half of the references deposited in Crossref are now freely available – a good start, advocates say. The new open letter calls out Elsevier in particular for holding out, since some 65 per cent of the remaining, closed references are protected by the mega-publisher, which also owns the paid-access Scopus citation database. Adding Elsevier’s references alone would increase Crossref’s proportion of open references to about 83 per cent, by the letter writers’ calculations.

Elsevier said in a statement that it already follows I4OC guidelines in that Scopus’ citation data are structured and separable. However, it said, “not all of Scopus’s citation data is freely accessible and reusable, reflecting the value we have invested in licensing and curating the data that underpins Scopus. Thus we continue to take a wait and see approach as to whether we will sign on to the I4OC.”

Yves Gingras, a professor and Canada research chair in history and sociology of science at the University of Quebec at Montreal, who has written critically about how citation metrics are used to evaluate individual scholars, said he “totally approved” of the idea of making citation data publicly available.

Given that authors publish papers with “public money”, he said, “it makes sense have to the references (hence citations) of these papers also in open access”.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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