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Search engines increase online journal use more than open access

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 08 June 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:1353
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. London

    The ability of internet search engines to find journal articles has considerably increased the readership of academic journals, a detailed analysis of the internet use of one particular research journal has found.

    Introducing open access publishing achieved a smaller additional increase in journal use, the analysis showed.

    Researchers at the Centre for Publishing at University College London used a deep log analysis, which collects “digital fingerprints” of users of specific internet sites, to track use of the online version of Nucleic Acids Research. They assessed use before and after the journal introduced an “author pays” open access publishing system, in which authors pay a fee to cover the cost of publishing their paper, which is then made available for free to readers. This was the first time that this technique had been employed to analyse the use of a single academic journal.

    The analysis found that 1 500 000 separate internet protocol numbers accessed the journal during the period studied, between January 2003 and June 2005. Devices use these unique numbers to identify and communicate with each other on a computer network. Readers accessed the journal in nearly six million sessions, viewing more than 13 million abstracts or articles. Monthly use of the journal showed a 143% rise from 132 000 articles in early 2003 to 321 000 in January 2005.

    Reporting the findings, Professor David Nicholas, from University College London, said that the increase in use of Nucleic Acids Research was related to enabling search engines to find it. The publisher, Oxford University Press, allowed search engines and robots (systems that search the internet) to access the journal's website from June 2003. “This opened the gates to the Google generation,” he said, speaking at a workshop on open access publishing organised by Oxford Open.

    The study also showed that the introduction of open access publishing in January 2005 achieved a small further increase of about 19% in use of the journal. Most of this increase came from eastern European countries.

    Further research on the journal's switch to open access publishing showed that most researchers paid the charges imposed by the new system out of research grants. The publisher emailed a survey about “author pays” publishing to more than 13 000 researchers who had previously published in Nucleic Acids Research or who were on the journal's database; 1144 replied.

    Nearly 70% of respondents who had published with the journal in 2005 reported that they had paid their open access charges out of research grants. At the time, the journal charged £900 ($1500) to non-members, whose institutions did not subscribe to the journal, for publishing.

    Claire Saxby, senior editor at Oxford Journals, which publishes the journal, said, “We have not had a problem with authors not being willing to pay.” However, she noted that the journal waives fees for researchers who are unable to pay, including those working in developing countries.

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