David Payne: Open access and the editor’s choice

A management consultant friend confessed last week that despite advising many media company clients about their digital strategy, he had little interest in Web 2:0 and social networking, shunned the TV when he got home, and ate dinner with his wife while BBC Radio 3 played in the background.

Who cares what some ill-informed blogger thinks about the day’s news, he argued, when you have James Naughtie asking probing questions on the radio each morning?

Naughtie and his Today programme colleagues are skilled editors and journalists, he added. They know how to distil a complicated issue like the credit crunch, swine flu or war in Afghanistan into a four minute package, what issues to cover, and which ones to ignore.

I thought of my friend at the publishers conference I’m attending in Washington DC, during a presentation about open access and a randomised controlled trial by Philip Davis, a PhD student in the Department of Communication at Cornell University.

Davis’ RCT looked at 36 scholarly journals and, unsurprisingly, saw an increase in article downloads and unique visits to articles made freely available.

He also noticed a positive citation effect when editors select which articles are made freely available, but not when article selection is made randomly.

So, like James Naughtie and the confidence he inspires in my friend and other listeners, a journal’s editorial team can positively influence the citation history of an article by consciously choosing to make it free. It’s the selection of an article, deemed to be of better quality, that gives it the citation advantage.

At the BMJ those open access judgement calls are made according to some quite tightly defined criteria. Original research is open access, as are articles deemed to be in the wide public interest (currently anything on pandemic flu, for instance).

I hope my friend will be comforted to know that despite the online din of blogs, comments, posts and tweets, the role of the editor is still very much alive across the broadcasting and publishing industries.

David Payne is web editor, bmj.com