20 November 2013

Assignment: Director’s Brief – Open Access Button

What is it?

In the last week an interesting web-tool called the Open Access Button was launched. It is an advocacy tool with the goal to recruit support for open access to research by collecting data from web users hitting paywalls when undertaking research.
“People are denied access to research hidden behind paywalls every day. This problem is invisible, but it slows innovation, kills curiosity and harms patients. This is an indictment of the current system. Open Access has given us the solution to this problem by allowing everyone to read and re-use research. We created the Open Access Button to track the impact of paywalls and help you get access to the research you need. By using the button you’ll help show the impact of this problem, drive awareness of the issue, and help change the system. Furthermore, the Open Access Button has several ways of helping you get access to the research you need right now.” – website accessed 19 November 2013
The reported goal of the tool fits nicely with libraries’ missions to connect people with information.

How is it used?

Users register with the site and are then provided with a ‘button’ to add to their browser’s bookmarks or links list. This involves dragging it to their bookmark or links list. For browsers that do not support this dragging option, the user would have to add the link manually by creating a bookmark to the page and then editing it so that the URL is replaced by the javascript code.

Users are then asked to use the button every day, on every occasion that they hit a paywall when trying to access research. A form opens up and the data they contribute includes their approximate location and is used to generate a map to illustrate the impact of closed access around the world.
Collected data
  • article url – collected automatically from the browser
  • location – browser asks for permission to use location
  • digital object identifier – collected automatically from the page displayed in the browser
  • Description (citation) – collected automatically from the page, but can be edited by the user
  • Why do you need access? eg. I’m trying to save lives, dammit! – entered by user
  • User (HIDDEN) – this is not shown in the form but captured from the personalised button code

After submitting the form the user is presented with options for using social media channels Twitter, Facebook and Google+ to “share their frustration”. Users can ignore these options and click a “Get me access!” button to receive some suggestions for how they might get access.


  1. For browsers that do not support this dragging option, the user would have to add the link manually by creating a bookmark to the page and then editing it so that the URL is replaced by the javascript code. This is not easy to find by the average user. It is probable that the javascript is customised for each user. If that is the case then sharing your code with another user does not make sense.
  2. On the How to use the open access button page on the website it mentions that the user will be presented with some options to help them access the article they want. This includes a Google Scholar search and an option for requesting a copy from the author. It is not clear whether there is any recommendation for the person to contact either their academic library or public library. In my test the only recommendation that appeared was to search for related material.
  3. Privacy -- Despite an assurance that the exact location is not used (http://oabutton.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/244/ accessed 19th November), when clicking on the map at the appropriate level of zoom it is possible to see the user’s registered name and a quite specific location. Users can enter a more generic location manually, but if they allow the browser to share their location then it cannot be edited afterwards. In addition, the links on the map to DOI and URL reveal what the person was trying to access. It should be much clearer to the user when registering that their name, location and the details of what they are trying to access will be publicly available, and the option to share these or keep private should be more explicit. While the information about the articles that are not accessible is valuable for understanding which sources of articles are most locked-down and perhaps where lobbying activities might be directed, it also leaves individual open to unsolicited targeting based on sensitive topics they may be researching eg. pornography. Once a DOI has been captured there is no option to remove it. The creators of the tool have indicated that they plan to release the data under a creative commons licence. While this is a good goal, it is not clear yet that individual’s privacy will be well-protected.
  4. The tweet I shared from the tool did not appear on Twitter – this may be entirely unrelated to the tool.

References & Research

This has only been launched in the last few days so there is little to no evidence to refer to in planning whether to recommend this to our students and academic staff. We would need to rely on our own investigation and one or two links below.
How to use the open access button
Push button for open access by Stephen Curry. The Guardian, Occam’s Corner 19 November 2013
Launch of the Open Access Button by Timothy Vollmer 18 November 2013

Final comments

It is early days for this project, and it is likely that some changes will be implemented following public comment now that it has been launched.
It is an exciting project with great possibility for advocating open-access to publicly funded research through crowd-sourced data, however before recommending this widely I’d like to see:
  • tightening up of the privacy aspects of the data
  • libraries included in the recommendations for getting access to resources – especially when we know that some students at our institution have never used the library knowingly and may be unaware of how we can help them via our subscriptions and document delivery services. Also, this would be very helpful to members of the public who are unaware that public libraries may be able to assist them with gaining access.