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Which (non-open access) journals can paleontologists access?

In a previous post, I detailed the various ways in which paleontologists access the non-open access literature. Institutional subscription was the most commonly-used method (but not for all people who answered a survey on the topic!), followed by accessing author-posted PDFs or requesting PDFs over social media.

A logical follow-up question is which non-OA journals are most commonly available to paleontologists via their institutions, at least when institutional subscriptions are available. Which subscription-based journals are least available?

To evaluate these questions, I posted a survey and advertised it via Facebook and Twitter. The sample shouldn’t be considered scientific, but it probably can be considered at least a general picture of the state of things for many paleontologists.

Here are the results! A total of 115 responses were submitted. One minor note: due to the nature of the survey form, there may have been some small errors in how some individuals responded, and some did not answer particular questions. Note, for instance, that 78% of respondents reported institutional access, but 24% reported no access at all to Nature. I do not expect, however, that these kinds of errors would have greatly influenced the reported percentages. Note, also, that individuals could report both a personal subscription as well as institutional access. [click table to enlarge — a text-based table didn’t present well, so I include the results as a graphic]

Type of electronic access, if any


Some general observations:

  • I am somewhat surprised by the rate of inaccessibility reported for some journals. For instance, a quarter of all respondents indicated no access to Science or Nature, journals which have a reputation as being widely accessible. Now, the survey did include respondents from small museums, government agencies, and amateur collectors; this is probably where many of those without access reside.
  • Society journals are doing reasonably well, for the most part–if you are a vertebrate paleontologist wanting to reach an audience of vertebrate paleontologists, JVP is one of the better options in terms of accessibility. I speculate that some folks keep their memberships at least in part for the journals.
  • Some journals that are anecdotally considered “top tier” (and which I personally consider to often publish very solid science) are not terribly easily accessible. This should be given some consideration for those cases when having to submit to a non-open access journal.
  • Best quote from the survey, regarding a journal I shall not identify [edited for punctuation]: “If I was going to publish something I didn’t want someone to see, I’d put it there.

How to use these results?

Firstly, the only way to guarantee easy electronic access to one’s research is to publish in open access or free-to-read journals. Barring that, institutional repositories or personal PDF posts can be a secondary measure (although I suspect that the activation energy required for many readers to locate such sources outside journal websites is a significant barrier).

However, based on conversations with colleagues at various stages in their career, publishing in certain non-OA journals is important. But, that still doesn’t absolve a researcher from working to ensure that their work has at least a minimum level of easy accessibility. We can say “just use ILL” or “just write to the author”, but every barrier to immediate access reduces even cursory skimming of a paper by potential readers. If you absolutely have to publish in a non-OA journal, it is worth your time (and career) to publish in one that is more widely available than not.

So, if you have to submit to a non-OA journal, give some consideration to these survey results. If many of your colleagues and other potential readers won’t be able to read your work easily, you may want to submit elsewhere.

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