Michelle McCudden is a Client Engagement Director on the Client Strategy & Innovation team at Social Media Group. Follow @mmccudden1

I’m coming up on an important and depressing anniversary: it’s been one year since I lost my access to a university library and the hundreds of paid access journals it subscribes to. Because a relatively small percentage of these academic journals are open access, I (along with anyone else outside the university system) am unable to read the vast majority of the new research covering media and new technologies[1].

Open access is the practice of providing unrestricted and free access to peer-reviewed academic research. The traditional peer-review research and publication process works like this: academic/s spend months (or years) researching a specific phenomenon, compile and analyze their results into an article and submit it for publication to a journal likely to be interested. At that point, the journal asks experts in the field to review and validate the research; this way, readers know that someone has vetted the work, increasing its reliability. If the peer experts approve, the article is published and anyone who subscribes to the journal is free to read it. These journals have arguably the best and certainly some of the most thorough research on new technologies and social behaviors online. Who subscribes to these journals? Universities. Why? Because these subscriptions are expensive—think thousands per year, and rising.


What Does This Mean for the Digital and Social Industry?

Under this system, a very select group of people will ever get to view that research. If you’re not faculty or a student at a university, the cost to subscribe to even a handful of these journals as an individual is prohibitive. Most journals also prohibit authors from sharing their research for free.

As a result, the world at large is missing out on some of the best thinking regarding how people use new technologies and online communication tools (these are most relevant to me, but substitute medicine, advanced physics, you name it).

What Can We Do?

  • Look for open access research and support it wherever possible. A number of journals have moved to an open access model—danah boyd has compiled a list (http://zephoria.tumblr.com/post/1054392618/open-access-journals).
  • Look for free alternatives to academic research. The Pew Internet & American Life Project is excellent, for example. However, a lot of non-academic research has corporate sponsors, so readers need to be aware of possible bias in their results.
  • Some researchers are taking a stand: The Cost of Knowledge (http://thecostofknowledge.com/) is a boycott, with almost 13,000 academics committed to open access publishing.

Are there other tricks of the trade for accessing great research? What do you use?

[1] Although you could certainly apply this to almost any area of academic study.