- We are sometimes (often in fact) asked questions like, "Why are you partnering with closed-access, for-profit journals? Aren't you making a devil's bargain? Aren't you perpetuating the toll access system? Don't paywalled references prevent our readers who can't verify the content? Isn't this against the verifiability policy? Aren't you tainting the mission of sharing knowledge by supporting or endorsing these very profitable publishing gatekeepers?"
Those are great questions, and definitely a valuable critique of our work. We, too, think it's sad that we have to ask for donations and pitch Wikipedia's value as a portal to publishers. On the other hand, we have our legions of readers and when they come to Wikipedia they will see the content we have summarized in a free format from sources. These critiques question whether that content is from full-text-freely-available-online-sources only, or from all of the best sources regardless of their ease-of-access status.
Our library role in the Wikimedia Community requires two different approaches to creating access:
In the short term, we have to serve our readers and editors as best we can and that means giving them as much access to the best research as possible today. Collaboration with publishers is a compromise with mutual benefit: we'd rather have our editors summarize paywalled content for our readers than for that content to not be represented on Wikipedia at all, even if readers may hit a paywall when they click-through.
We look forward to a world in which knowledge is more truly free (including the sources and data underlying it) but in the meantime, we have an encyclopedia to write which serves 500 million monthly readers. In 2013, our medical pages alone were viewed 4.8 billion times. We cannot just wait for the publishing industry to transform while readers are relying on us today.
Our editors send a clear message every time they request access to one of the over 40 publisher donations — editors have asked for nearly 5,000 accounts — that these sources are essential. The need for sources is a reality, however much that need challenges some of our community's ideals: much of the world's most reliable information is behind a paywall. Our most active, most trusted editors depend on these sources to do their daily work creating an encyclopedia and other free knowledge projects. Our editors are not encouraged or required to use our partners' sources over others; they are using them because extremely high-quality knowledge is hidden behind the paywall.
Whenever an editor cites a partner's paywalled source, we strongly recommend that they include thorough citation information and a link to the paywalled database. This allows a reader to track down the version that is most accessible to them, whether through the database or through another research source. We are also exploring models of collaboration with institutional repositories to encourage citations of free-to-read copies of the pre-publication versions of scholarship.
These editors are not a special elite or priesthood—any editor with a six-month old account and 500 edits can gain access—they are hardworking, dedicated, core volunteers who are summarizing research for the public. They either have the resources they need to do their work, or they don't. In this research climate, sadly, not having access to major publishers means missing out on some of the best research. Which means our reading public misses out too.
On a more technical level, it's long been Wikipedia's policy (at least an English Wikipedia policy) that accessibility is actually not a factor in determining the reliability or verifiability of a source. The best information often comes from hard to access materials, such as out-of-print monographs or expensive paywalled and embargoed journals. We use the best sources now to advance our mission: to write an encyclopedia. Wikipedia aims to be an open access summary of all reliable knowledge—not a summary of only open access knowledge. If we aim to exclude paywalled sources, our movement would need to have a very deep discussion about what our mission means.
In the long term, the Wikipedia Library creates another Wikimedia tool that can encourage the publishing landscape to move towards more open access. Without our direct request, some of our partners have asked us to support the growing Open Access opportunities tied to their donations: Elsevier asked us to mark their citations with "may require a subscription", precisely because some of it is switching to a free-after-x-months model. JSTOR permits readers to access 6 articles per month for free, just like the New York Times. Newspapers.com encouraged our editors to use their "clippings" function which allows subscribers to turn articles of interest into fair-use, open access webpages (see our description of this function). These requests grow out of the significant pressure larger open access and scholarly communities place on publishers. Sometimes these encouragements even reach publishers before we seek them out; for example, Nature is making their content free-to-read. Most major funding bodies, both government and private (like the Gates Foundation), require research to be freely available, at least after 6-12 months, and at least as a "green OA" copy in a repository.
We also actively seek collaboration and support with the biggest advocates for open access: universities, libraries, archives, and the network of organizations that support their efforts. Collaboration OCLC and DPLA allows us to support the larger dissemination of library and open-GLAM resources. Our Visiting Scholars and Interns program focus Wikipedians on sharing knowledge about specialized collections, which are often available for public access but not easily discoverable on the open web.
We also see librarians as our best allies in changing the OA landscape: we speak frequently with librarians, in order to both capitalize on their knowledge of best practices and to support their alignment with the open models of access that benefit the public and our editors. In part this is through education: in response to the concerns raised by librarians around their patrons understanding Wikipedia's references, we are soon going to be piloting a Research Help Portal that guides readers to the access they already have through public and research libraries. Our hope is that the libraries community, when seeing researcher demand for sources, can muster the kinds of pressure need to make changes in the access ecosystem: the Wikipedia community is a very small part of the larger global research community.
Using our growing network of supportive publishers and libraries, we do whatever we can to communicate this important shift towards OA resources. We tweet about Open Access Button efforts, promote WikiProject Resource Exchange, support the OA signalling project, engage with initiatives like the Open Access reader, work to raise awareness with OA advocates like SPARC and discuss the broader mission of sharing knowledge with reference experts. We want Wikimedia contributors to recognize the opportunity for open access sources, like PLOS One, the largest journal in the world, and help the editors make these sources part of their editing process. Wikipedia also has its own very progressive open access policy regarding our publications and the research that we enable or fund.
We hope to continue raising the profile of open access projects. That doesn't mean freeing summaries of paywalled content on Wikipedia today will oppose the changes happening tomorrow. Indeed, the efforts of The Wikipedia Library advance our mission and are *complementary* to the radical vision of open access that we also wholeheartedly support.
We're not done improving. We have some ideas, and ‘’we need your help’’ to advance them.
We can recognize the importance of OA by broadcasting that OA helps editors access reliable sources to improve Wikipedia and deepen the sharing of knowledge to readers. We can participate in research initiatives that measure the dynamics between Wikipedia and peer-reviewed literature in terms of impact on editors and readers
We can provide editors with support in finding and identifying OA sources; point out the availability of OA within donated publisher resources, such as JSTOR’s 6 articles a month free article access; provide links to pre-publication or other open repository versions of published research alongside paywalled journals where available; and give fuller citation information alongside links to closed access versions so editors can track down freely available copies or by including a 'see also' for closely related OA work.
We can continue to support OA Signalling and related projects that increase the ability of Wikipedia to take advantage of OA content by identifying it clearly for readers; experiment with tools for readers to find the latest OA research for Wikipedia entries on emerging topics, and promote the Open Access Buttoni, even integrating it as a search tool next to each paywalled reference. We could try to arrange free access for all incoming Wikipedia traffic to paywalled articles, or at least an extended preview, or open-access excerpt for the versions we cite.
There's also a discussion we could have about shifting priorities around OA and verifiability. Should we consider a ceteris paribus (all things being equal) principle which could apply to the selection of OA sources, as offering a 'verifiability advantage' of reader access? Should we explore adopting within the policies and guidelines a recognition that OA contributes to the quality of Wikipedia in terms of verifyability and that OA sources should be encouraged, if not preferred? If we aim to exclude or deprecate paywalled sources, our movement would need to have a very deep discussion about what our mission means.
We value this debate and the series of issues it raises. This is a very important discussion for us—because Wikipedia itself is an Open Access, Open Knowledge project; yet, we are tasked with writing the best possible encyclopedia with the sources that exist today—so many (too many) of which are behind Paywalls.
It's important that the public engage in this debate and have a nuanced understanding of how complex and critical the evolving state of knowledge is today. This issue should not divide the open access and open knowledge movements. It should unite us in shared problem solving. We know where we are both aiming, so we should work together to get there.
Our work with publishers brings that content to the public in a usefully summarized form whereas it otherwise would be completely unreachable for many. It's not perfect, but it's better than the alternative.
We are also looking forward to a world in which knowledge is more truly free (including the sources and data underlying it). We're trying to advance on both fronts, by working collaboratively with publishers, helping them to realize the value of opening up their content to the world. Meanwhile, we are promoting open access as the future shape of knowledge in a world with fewer barriers for those who want to learn, research, and create.
So, to those asking the questions, we hope you take this as our saying: while open access is increasingly embraced and mandated—and we are advocating right alongside you for it to become the default mode of publishing—we still have an encyclopedia to write!
--The Wikipedia Library Team