In light of this year’s Open Access week, Michele Marchetto of Wikimedia Italia shares the story of how they helped authors to make their open access articles more widely available. This post has been cross-posted from Wikimedia Italia.

Wikipedia is probably the most effective initiative in the world to increase the readership of academic literature: for instance, is a top 10 source of clicks for Wikipedia contributors are among the biggest consumers of scientific publications in the world, because Wikipedia articles are not allowed to be primary sources: the five pillars allow anyone to edit but require copyleft and a neutral point of view based on reliable sources. Readers are advised to trust what they read only insofar it’s confirmed by provided sources. So, does free culture need all sources to be accessible, affordable and freely licensed?

Open access

Scholarly sources, while generally high quality, are problematic for Wikipedia users in that they are often paywalled and ask for hefty payments from readers. Open access wants research output to be accessible online without restrictions, ideally under a free license, given it’s produced by authors, reviewers and editors “for free” (as part of their duties). This includes papers published in journals and conference proceedings, but also book chapters, books, experiment data.

cost-effective open science infrastructure is possible but requires political will and proprietary private platforms grow to fill unmet needs, but authors can make their works green open access autonomously and for free, thanks to open archives and publisher or employer policies. The problem is, how much effort does it take? We tried to find out.

The easy way out

In the past year we saw many developments in the open access landscape. On the reading side, DOAI and then oaDOI plus Unpaywall have made it possible to access some 40 % of the literature in just one click, collecting data from thousands of sources which were formerly rather hard to use. It was also proven that cancelling subscriptions produces little pain.

On the authoring side, the SSRN fiasco paved the way to various thematic open archives and general-purpose repositories like Zenodo (offered by OpenAIRE and CERN), that make sure that an open access platform is available for all authors in the world, whatever their outputs. Publishers begin to understand the importance of metadata, although much work needs to be done, and the Open Access button staff helps connect with authors.

Finally, the web platform Dissemin put ORCID and all the above initiatives together to identify 36 million works which could benefit from green open access. Authors can deposit them from Dissemin to an open archive in a couple clicks, without to need to enter metadata manually. With the possibility of a “legal Sci-Hub” within our reach, what does it take to get the authors to help?

Frontpage of the platform

Wikimedia Italia takes initiative

Wikimedia projects contributor Federico Leva, frustrated at the number of pay-walled articles linked from the Italian and English Wikipedia, decided to contact their authors directly. Using the available data, almost half a million depositable articles by a million authors were found. An email was sent to each of them where possible: the message thanked them for contributing sources to Wikipedia, presented them with the dilemma of a simple volunteer editor who wants to link an open access copy for all Wikipedia users to see, and asked to check the publication on Dissemin to read more about its legal status and to deposit it.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive: over 15 % of the recipients clicked the links to find out more, thousands wrote encouraging replies, over 3000 papers were deposited via Dissemin in two months. Wikimedia Italia, active since 2008 in open access, covered the costs (few hundreds euro on and provided its OTRS instance to handle replies. With AISA’s counsel, hundreds of support requests have been handled (mostly about the usual pains of green OA, such as locating an appropriate manuscript).

Tell me a story

Our reasoning has been driven by examples such as the story of Jack Andraka, which showed how open access can change the world. Jack, as high school student, proposed a cheap method for an early diagnose of pancreatic cancer.

Jack’s research, like every invention, is based on previous scientific results. Jack was not affiliated to any research entity and was not able to access paywalled research, but he was able to consult the extensive body of open access research provided by NIH’s PubMed Central, which is often in the public domain or under a free Creative Commons license. Jack’s story was a potent message in mass media on how open access can save lives.

Some reactions and what we learnt

The authors’ responses taught us what makes a difference:

  • make deposit easy and authors will love open archives;
  • focus on their own work and its readership;
  • show the concrete difference they can make, rather than talk abstractly about open access;
  • lead by example: list other colleagues who archived papers from the same journal;
  • some will adopt a free Creative Commons license to facilitate further reuse, if told about it.

More warmth came from Peter Suber’s supportJohn Dove’s proposal for OA journals to accelerate depositing of papers they reference and a lively discussion.

Surprisingly many authors simply don’t know about green open access possibilities: they just need to hear about it in a way that rings true to their ears. If you work with a repository, an OA journal or other, you have a goldmine of authors to ask for deposits and stories relevant to them: why not start doing it systematically? If you are a researcher, you can just search your name on Dissemin and see what is left to make open access; when you are done, you can ask your colleagues to do the same.

It’s simple and, as with Jack Andraka, you can really change the world around us.

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Open source software developer and activist, Wikimedia Italia member.