Welcome to the fourth of our special blogposts for Open Access Week 2018! Today we are thinking about this year’s theme of “designing equitable foundations for open knowledge” and focusing specifically on the issue of discovery of- and accessibility to research outside of the academic community.
If Open Access is to be equitable, we must ensure that it is as easy as possible for anyone to discover open research, regardless of whether they are an academic with experience in using specialised databases, or whether they are a member of the general public with little- or no experience of searching for research. Among all Internet users, Google is an incredibly popular search tool – in September 2018, Google search represented roughly 77% of search engine market share.1 Its popularity means that any content-provider must ensure that their content is adequately indexed by Google, including research-related content. In addition to this, various specialised databases exist, which attempt to make it easier for people to discover openly-available research. For example, the European repository aggregator OpenAIRE aims to collect in one place all open, publicly-funded research from European institutions for the benefit of academics and non-academics alike.2
Different discovery services (including Google) have different requirements for what content-providers must do in order for their content to be properly indexed. These requirements affect how content is described on the website (what we call “metadata”), and they can vary greatly in what metadata they require and how that metadata should be presented. Sometimes these requirements can even be in conflict, which causes complications for content providers that then have to ensure that the same metadata is available in multiple ways. However, this kind of detailed metadata work is very important for ensuring equitable discovery of open access content; after all, how “open” is open research if people can’t find it?
Another important aspect of making research accessible to everyone is making it as easy as possible to read and understand, especially for non-academic audiences. Particularly in certain disciplines, research publications can be full of technical vocabulary and complex ideas that present a comprehension barrier for anyone outside that discipline. Of course, technical terms and difficult concepts are important for speed of communication between researchers within the same discipline; however, unless care is taken to ensure that research is made intelligible to other people as well, the research environment becomes limited to the “ivory tower” of academia, rather than openly accessible to all.
One possible solution to this is the use of “lay summaries,” which are already common in medicine and health.3 These short summaries explain a piece of research in a way that is easy for a non-expert to understand. Examples of where this is particularly useful include cases where patients or carers are participants in- or potential funders of medical research, or where charitable organisations want to ensure that the research they are funding is relevant to their missions. In general, lay summaries could help various audiences identify, understand and benefit from research that is applicable to their particular needs or interests. However, the majority of lay summaries are currently written only for grant applications, rather than being made available alongside the research outputs themselves.
Open Access is meant to make it easier for everyone to access research, not just the academic community. In order for this equitable goal to be achieved, we must make sure that open research can be discovered and understood by anyone, regardless of their level of expertise. To this end, discovery services could do more to align their requirements for content indexing, to make it easier for content-providers to make their research outputs visible to the general public. Additionally, researchers could invest more time in creating lay summaries of their research – not just for grant applications, but also for their actual outputs, to make it easier for the general public to understand what the research is about.
Feel free to share your own thoughts with the community, for example on Twitter (#openaccess https://twitter.com/search?q=%23openaccess), or send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org! Also, don’t forget to check out our other activities for Open Access Week at https://www.rgu.ac.uk/open-access.
1 Based on information from NetMarketShare (https://bit.ly/2OvF8Th – checked 17.10.2018)
2 OpenAIRE mission and vision (https://www.openaire.eu/mission-and-vision – checked 17.10.2018)
3 Based on definition and use cases provided by the Digital Curation Centre (http://www.dcc.ac.uk/resources/how-guides/write-lay-summary – checked 17.10.2018)