One of the potential upsides of open access papers is that they can be accessed by anyone for free, including people who don't live or work in a university. As a result, one might think that non-"professional" researchers may access open access papers more than paywalled papers.

Is there any research/study/survey that tried to quantify to what extent open access papers are read by a larger readership than paywalled papers?

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    This is an excellent question. My gut reaction is that the quality of the publication is more important to it getting cited than its access, but this does seem like the sort of thing that could get quantified. And in particular, since some professional organizations (in CS this would be ACM and IEEE) will for some publications take a "hybrid" approach in which authors can opt to pay up-front for open access, that would provide the best testbed for analysis: do papers in the same publication get cited more when provided for open access? – Fred Douglis Mar 27 '17 at 21:52
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    I seem to recall a study that mentioned citations were higher for papers authors posted online, I'll see if I can find it (or maybe someone has it handy). That makes sense to me since those of us in smaller institutions might need to wait several days to ILL a paper that's not freely available. Easier to use the one immediately available – user0721090601 Mar 27 '17 at 22:06
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    A good rule of thumb is that I cannot cite what I cannot find/read :). Not everyone has access to journal/publishers subscriptions, not all subscriptions have access to every journal. The publication doesn't need to be open, you work just need to be "findable", if you catch my drift... – Fábio Dias Mar 27 '17 at 22:24
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    Science is not a number game. On long term it is more important who reads your paper than how many. If the name recognition of the open access journal is low (and nowadays it can be a real problem), than it can bite you back even if you have more readers in terms of numbers. – Greg Mar 28 '17 at 0:01
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    Scientific papers, on average, are NOT read by the general public. Zero. – Karl Mar 28 '17 at 6:04

This answers is not exactly what you ask for — you ask for readership, but most of the research has focused on citations. The two are, of course, related, and the answer seems to be a pretty clear yes. (In my field, it's practically the only way I find stuff from overseas, as many online repositories don't seem to have much international coverage except for a handful of big general journals but not the niche ones).

  • Gargouri, Yassine. “Self-Selected or Mandated, Open Access Increases Citation Impact for Higher Quality Research.” Public Library of Science ONE 5.10 (2010): n.p. Web.
    This article indicates that citations are more common for open access articles, and that this is a result of higher availability and access (=likely readership) by researchers. [Link]
  • Lawrence, Steve. “Free online availability substantially increases a paper’s impact.” Nature 411 (2001): 521. Print.
    This comes to the same conclusion — way back in 2001. The effect is found to be quite massive: “Averaging the percentage increase across 1,494 venues containing at least five offline and five online articles results in an average of 336% (median 158%) more citations to online computer-science articles compared with offline articles published in the same venue.” [Link]
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    Since the OP only asked for a correlation, this is a perfectly valid answer. Just one caveat: based on this evidence, it is unclear whether OA publishing increases citations or whether authors who anticipate many citations are more likely to opt for OA publishing. – HRSE Mar 28 '17 at 4:00
  • @HRSE the Gargouri paper delves a bit into that. How well, I'm not a good judge — definitely outside of my area of research. – user0721090601 Mar 28 '17 at 4:01
  • it is a bit complicated, but there seems to be some trouble in their paper. one problem is that their results hinge on differences between compliers and noncompliers to mandatory OA publishing. the quality of a research paper is very likely to be correlated with whether its author follows his/her institution's rules... – HRSE Mar 28 '17 at 4:20
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    Reads outside of academia don't generate citations. I'd say that citation count is not a valid indicator of readership breadth. – Cape Code Mar 28 '17 at 6:48
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    @capecod note that I answered initially before realizing the focus (by way of comments on the original post) was on non-researcher readings. – user0721090601 Mar 28 '17 at 11:26

Paywalls are very porous. Depending on your field, you might find many paywalled papers available for free through Google Scholar. I know there are major universities, at least in Europe, that encourage their staff and students to use proxies to log into libraries like ScienceDirect for free.

In my experience I googled up shared PDFs of thousands of paywalled papers in the field of economics. I only encountered a handful of papers that weren't available for free somewhere online so I contacted the authors and they sent me copies of their papers for free.

I'm not aware of any data out there that would suggest that open access papers have a larger audience nowadays.

My intuition is that top paywalled journals have more readers than top open access journals, but average paywalled journals have lesser readership that average open access journals. Mediocre paywalled papers don't seem to generate enough interest for someone to share a copy online so they are the ones that end up truly paywalled.

Sorry for the lack of data references. I just wanted to point out that any data on this question should take into account the field, the rating of the journals, and readers who google up paywalled papers for free.

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