Earlier this year, David Carroll and Joseph McArthur, two university students from the U.K., became fed up with running into paywalls when trying to access scholarly articles needed for their research and studies. Instead of simply complaining, they decided to take action: “Every paywall met is an isolated incident; it’s time we capture those individual moments of injustice and frustration to turn them into positive change.” The result: the new “Open Access Button,” a web browser plug-in designed to track instances of researchers around the world every time they hit a paywall. The plug-in is also designed to help users find freely-available versions of those articles. The Button was launched on Nov. 18, 2013 at the Berlin 11 Student and Early Stage Researcher Satellite Conference, an international meeting for students and other young researchers interested in Open Access.
The Open Access Button is the brainchild of Carroll, who studies medicine at Queens University in Belfast, and McArthur, a pharmacology student at University College in London. The two created the Button in response to their own frustrations trying to access articles. As Carroll explained via email, “We both spent a year in research, working for well-funded institutions. After a year of frustration being denied access to the research we needed, our eyes were opened to the problems surrounding access to research. We discovered the solution, Open Access, after meeting the Director of the Right to Research Coalition, Nick Shockey.”
Once the two found out about Open Access, they wanted to contribute to the cause. Carroll wrote, “We’re advocates at heart—once we truly grasped the potential of Open Access, we knew we needed to do whatever we could to help realize its potential.” This passion for advocacy and first-hand experiences with paywalls sparked the idea to develop the Button. They explained their vision for the Button in a guest blog post on the PLoS website and what they hoped to create:
This idea was a browser-based tool which tracks how often readers are denied access to academic research, where in the world they were or their profession and why they were looking for that research. The tool would aggregate this information in one place and would create a real time, worldwide, interactive picture of the problem. The integration of social media and mapping technology would allow us to make this problem visible to the world. Lastly, we wanted to help the person gain access to the paper they’d been denied access to in the first place. Through incentivizing use and opening the barriers to knowledge, this can be really powerful.
Using the Button helps by generating, aggregating, visualizing, and sharing data about researchers having similar experiences all over the world.
While Carroll and McArthur had the idea behind the OA Button, their respective skillsets did not include programming. To overcome that hurdle, they brought their idea to the inaugural BMJ Hack Day in London in June. David Payne, editor of BMJ, explained in a recap of the Hack Day that participants were invited to develop ideas aimed at innovation, including but not limited to, “revolutionizing the scholarly publishing process.” The pair joined up with a team of developers to build a prototype; the prototype was awarded Runner Up at the event. In his editorial, Payne noted that, “the judges believed that the tool, besides championing open access publishing models, could also function as a ‘pester power’ resource to persuade librarians to subscribe to a particular journal.”
Participating in the BMJ Hack Day led to development of a prototype. The current version of the OA Button was released a few months later after further development work, but it closely resembles the vision described by Carroll and McArthur earlier this summer in their PLoS blog post:
Each time an individual hits a paywall is an isolated incident, this is unlikely to shake the ivory tower of academic publishing. But putting these moments together using the Open Access Button, we hope it will capture those individual moments of injustice and frustration and show them, on full view to the world. Only then, by making this problem impossible to ignore, will the button begin to make a difference. Everyone is affected by this problem, and we need your help to make this problem too obvious to ignore.
The Button is a lightweight, browser-based tool for use with Chrome, Firefox, Safari, iPad, or Internet Explorer. Users are encouraged to register on the OA Button site by submitting their name, email address, and profession, then dragging the OA Button provided to a browser’s bookmark bar. The next time you hit a paywall:
Simply click the Open Access Button. After a second you’ll see the button activate. When you are asked to allow the Button to find your location, you should say ‘yes’ so we can put you on the map (Don’t worry, we don’t use your exact location). Take another second to tell us why you are looking for that paper, then hit submit.
After you click the Button, a bookmarklet window will appear within your browser, with a few fields to collect data about the sought-after article and some personal details such as your location and a brief statement about why you need the article (Figure 1). Fill out the brief form and click the submit button. Optional steps are designed to help spread the word through social media—you can use Twitter, Google+, or Facebook to share your experience with others (Figure 2). The last step, also optional, attempts to help connect users to alternate versions of the same article if one is available through an Open Access repository or connect users to “related documents.” The results screen (Figure 3) offers 1-click DOI searches through Google Scholar and Google Scholar title searches.
While the Button requests some personal details from users, none of the information is compulsory. However, since the Button is designed to collect and share the experience of researchers on an aggregated level, the outputs of the Button will be richer if users opt to share broad details. Similarly, the Button produces a visualization of where users are when they are running into paywalls – which necessitates collecting high-level location details such as the country where users are located.
The Button was launched nearly a month ago. Carroll reflected on the launch and its initial adoption:
The response to the Open Access Button’s launch has blown us away, we are really pleased so far but know there is a long way to go. Currently we’re allowing the button to spread naturally, there are librarians, students and researchers taking it upon themselves to spread it far and wide—which is humbling. In the new year, we’ll step up our work in bringing the button to the public—with additional new features. These features will just be a taster of what is to come next.
It has been truly amazing to watch what David, Joe, and the excellent team they’ve recruited have been able to accomplish in launching the Open Access Button. The fact that they went from not knowing what Open Access was to launching the button in nine months’ time is a perfect testament to the creativity, passion, and power students bring to the Open Access movement.
Student OA Advocacy Efforts
Indeed, while the OA Button has received a good deal of publicity since its launch last month, it is just one way in which students have become involved in the Open Access movement. Shockey explained via an email interview that there are many ways in which students are getting involved in Open Access advocacy efforts:
For many [students], it starts on campus by talking to friends and professors about Open Access and what authors can do to make their work openly available—often with local context supplied by a university librarian. On a number of campuses, these conversations grow into student campaigns for institutional open access policies to make the entire university’s research output openly available. This year at the Stanford School of Education, we even saw a new type of Open Access policy championed by students that expands their institutional open access policy to include graduate students.
These campus advocacy efforts are often just the first step. Shockey wrote:
Students are also active at the national level. Students played a significant role in the push that ultimately led to this February’s  White House Directive of Public Access. Students contributed many signatures to the We, the People petition that catalyzed the directive. They also wrote op-eds, such as one co-written by the Presidents of the American Medical Student Association and the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students in the Washington Post that demonstrated to the Administration that students were invested in a strong U.S. public access policy and expected the Administration to take action. This is just one example. There are many opportunities for students around the world to get involved at the national level, advocating for policies where they don’t yet exist and strengthening those that do.
These efforts are not strictly occurring in the U.S. and Europe. The Right to Research Coalition (R2RC), the leading organization for student support for Open Access, comprises more than 72 student organizations from around the world, collectively representing nearly seven million students in over one hundred countries. As Shockey reflected:
Students in every country face this same problem of limited access to research, and just as importantly, the solutions to this problem are the same between countries and between disciplines….I can’t think of another issue that has the same power to unit students from completely diverse backgrounds…The Open Access movement truly is global, and I think student involvement in the issue reflects that fact in a very real way.
This international interest and engagement was visible at the Berlin 11 Satellite Conference for Students and Early Stage Researchers, where more than 70 participants from 35 countries attended. Shockey explained that the conference provided an opportunity for students and other early-stage researchers to:
…discuss and deepen the impact the next generation of scholars are already having in opening up scholarly communication. The meeting served to highlight successful student initiatives on Open Access, launch new ones including the Open Access Button, and catalyze participants to lay the foundation for their own projects. From the first student-specific Open Access policy [at the Stanford School of Education] to the launch of the Open Access Button, it’s been a remarkable year for student-led progress on Open Access.
For more ideas about ways in which students can make a difference in widening access to research, check out the R2RC Action Center. Further details about downloading, installing, and using the Open Access Button are available on the OA Button website.
Abby Clobridge is the Managing Director of Clobridge Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and Open Access. Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various UN agencies; colleges and research universities; non-profit, inter-governmental, and multi-stakeholder organizations; the news media; and private sector companies. She can be found on Twitter at @aclobridge.