Research articles are not just of interest to students and academics in established educational institutions. There are many serious hobbyists, writers and independent researchers who may have an interest in a particular topic and who wish to access the latest research about it. However, frequently there is either no way to access this research if you are not part of an educational institution or are not willing to pay large sums for single articles. (The debate around open access to publicly-funded research is large and I’m not going to get into that here!)
Scottish, and then Welsh universities, have been working to change this by allowing members of the public ‘walk-in’ access to their libraries. The member of the public can then search (a pre-selected range of databases and journals) for articles of interest. (SCONUL has also issued guidelines on how to set up walk-in access in university libraries.) Initial take-up in Wales has so far been low, although for various reasons there has not been a large promotional drive to highlight the availability of these schemes in the participating institutions.
There may be other reasons for low take-up: how to reach the niche target audience, lack of awareness of what journals are available, restrictions on printing and saving the articles, and perceived barriers of walking into a university.
If we assume that walking into the university library as a member of public is a barrier, the Access to Research scheme now operating in the UK could be the answer. This scheme was trialled in 10 public library services in England in autumn-winter 2013 and was then subsequently opened up to all public library services across the UK with a two year pilot launched in February 2014. The launch generated quite a bit of publicity e.g. in the BBC, Times Higher, and in blogs.
Access is via public library branches, so members of the public are likely to be more comfortable about entering and being there. Searching for the research is via a dedicated website, from any on-site public library computer (i.e. not remote access from home or on the move), and users can search c.8400 journals from around 20 publishers, totaling around 1.5 million articles. (If this sounds a lot, one blog post notes that there are 46.1 million records in Web of Science.) All the major subject areas are covered by this scheme e.g. health, physical and social sciences, business, humanities etc.
Each public library service has to arrange their own access to the website and so far 9 (out of 22) public library services in Wales have done this. Participating libraries/services can be found by checking the Access to Research website. It’s possible to see the list of journals even if your local authority hasn’t got access yet.
Managing Google-search expectations will be an important factor in the scheme’s success. As will marketing and the information literacy skills of users, whether people know exactly what they’re looking for or those conducting general searches e.g. on health conditions. Evidence from the three month pilot found that health and historical searches were the most popular. (As reported in an article in Learned Publishing, freely available from their website).
The article notes that the scheme is a collaboration between publishers and public libraries as one of the recommendations of the Finch report into access to research. This scheme is licensed access and “represents an important milestone on the road of expanding access towards the ultimate objective of full sustainable open access.” (Faulder & Cha). Note that it’s not an open access scheme as the material is licensed and is not freely available.
After creating a system that works effort now needs to be spent in training library staff and users how to use it, and marketing it effectively to the target audience. It is important to note that whilst this scheme improves access to research, it still requires the user to go to a physical building, and, the terms and conditions of the license state that users cannot download the articles in any format. A balanced blog post on the Access to Research scheme highlights its good and bad points and is worth reading.
Thinking about some of the less positive elements of the scheme, I was really interested to read from Ken Chad* about two other websites that provide free access to research, outside of library walls. These are CORE and BASE. Ken asks if any public libraries have incorporated these free services into their offering, including integration with their online catalogues. I can’t answer that and have made only a cursory search of these search portals but they seem really great and can be used at any time, by anyone.
In short, the Access to Research scheme may be over-riding the university walk-in access schemes, but, the free and open search portals seem to be one step ahead again.
*Ken has also written an article on Access to Research where he makes very good points about this initative, and the freely available websites, being important springboards to enhance the learning link with public libraries.