Intended for healthcare professionals


Open access publishing, article downloads, and citations: randomised controlled trial

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 31 July 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a568
  1. Philip M Davis, graduate student, researcher1,
  2. Bruce V Lewenstein, professor of science communication1,
  3. Daniel H Simon, assistant professor of economics2,
  4. James G Booth, professor of statistics3,
  5. Mathew J L Connolly, programmer, analyst4
  1. 1Department of Communication, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA
  2. 2Department of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University
  3. 3Department of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology, Cornell University
  4. 4Cornell University Library
  1. Correspondence to: P M Davis
  • Accepted 18 May 2008


Objective To measure the effect of free access to the scientific literature on article downloads and citations.

Design Randomised controlled trial.

Setting 11 journals published by the American Physiological Society.

Participants 1619 research articles and reviews.

Main outcome measures Article readership (measured as downloads of full text, PDFs, and abstracts) and number of unique visitors (internet protocol addresses). Citations to articles were gathered from the Institute for Scientific Information after one year.

Interventions Random assignment on online publication of articles published in 11 scientific journals to open access (treatment) or subscription access (control).

Results Articles assigned to open access were associated with 89% more full text downloads (95% confidence interval 76% to 103%), 42% more PDF downloads (32% to 52%), and 23% more unique visitors (16% to 30%), but 24% fewer abstract downloads (−29% to −19%) than subscription access articles in the first six months after publication. Open access articles were no more likely to be cited than subscription access articles in the first year after publication. Fifty nine per cent of open access articles (146 of 247) were cited nine to 12 months after publication compared with 63% (859 of 1372) of subscription access articles. Logistic and negative binomial regression analysis of article citation counts confirmed no citation advantage for open access articles.

Conclusions Open access publishing may reach more readers than subscription access publishing. No evidence was found of a citation advantage for open access articles in the first year after publication. The citation advantage from open access reported widely in the literature may be an artefact of other causes.


  • We thank Bill Arms, Paul Ginsparg, Simeon Warner, and Suzanne Cohen at Cornell University for their critical feedback on our experiment.

  • Contributors: PMD conceived, designed, and coordinated the study, collected and analysed the data, and wrote the paper. BVL supervised PMD and the study. DHS assisted in the analysis and writing of the paper. JGB provided statistical consulting and support for regression analysis. MJLC wrote the usage data harvesting programs. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript. PMD is the guarantor.

  • Funding: Grant from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation.

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Ethical approval: This study was approved by the institutional review board at Cornell University.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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