Scientists in the developing world depend heavily on recent scientific results available free online, even though many of the latest research results are still available only by paid subscription, a new study suggests.

'If everything stays in kind of a commercial but electronic world … is that going to limit the fecundity of science? Well, no... But...it’s going to make it harder for scientists in the developing world to participate.'— James Evans, sociology researcher

Providing free online access to results helps scientists from poorer countries participate in science, said the study published in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

"The real material impact is for doctors, farmers, land use planners and public health officials, and their ability to get access to findings which are produced in the developed world labs," James Evans, a sociology researcher at the University of Chicago who led the study, told CBCNews.ca.

On the other hand, the study found that it didn't matter much to scientists in the developed world whether access to particular results were available free or only by paid subscription. That suggests that most of them access journals through their universities, which buy subscriptions from publishers in bulk and use them to provide free online access to their students and professors.

"If everything stays in kind of a commercial but electronic world … is that going to limit the fecundity of science? Well, no, it’s not or in very small ways [it might]," Evans said.

"But what it’s going to do is it’s going to make it harder for scientists in the developing world to participate."

Evans and Jacob Reimer, the University of Chicago neurobiologist who co-authored the study, came to those conclusions after analyzing two major databases tracking a total of 26 million scholarly articles and noting the extent to which they were cited by other authors — a measure of which ones were read and whose findings were used as a foundation for future study.

$100,000 plus per year for access

Typically, Evans said, most of those articles appear in journals published by for-profit companies such as Elsevier, which charge universities for access to an online database of journals. Such companies are private about their negotiations with universities, Evans, said, but a typical deal with a major journal publisher is worth "well over $100,000 … per year."

The study took into account which articles were available online, and which ones were "open access" — accessible online for free.

They also looked at the average income in the countries where the authors lived, to gauge how rich or poor the country was.

In the past, other studies have had wildly varying estimates for the impact that open access has on citations. Some have suggested that fewer people cite articles available for free, while others have suggested that the articles are cited 100 per cent more.

The study by Evans and Reimer found that articles available free online were cited only about eight per cent more often than average. Making the article available online at all — even for a fee — gave a far bigger boost to its chance of being cited.

However, in poorer countries such as Turkey, Brazil, China, India and Iran, open access articles were cited over 20 per cent more often than average.

Evans said scientists from developing countries clearly devote more of their attention to open access journals relative to print journals and electronic journals that require a subscription.

"It ends up constituting much more of the work that they build from."

Universal free access may not be answer: author

He added "there's no question" that journal subscription fees are hampering science in poorer countries, but he doesn't necessarily think that making all scientific content free is the answer. He believes journals offer a valuable service by setting quality standards that are associated with a certain brand.

In fact, he published his paper in Science, a journal that is not open access, because the power of the journal's brand meant more people were likely to hear about it and discuss it, even though many people in the developing world would not have access to it.

Evans suggested that having accurate — not inflated — numbers about the influence that open access has on citations will allow people like scientists, publishers and governments negotiate fair ways to subsidize the cost of access or provide free access to journals to poorer countries. His intention was to spur that kind of discussion, he added.

"If extending the opportunity to participate in science of sufficient value to the first world scientists governments and publishers, then I believe they can find some way to organize."

The study found that open access had less influence on physics and social science citations. 

The researchers suggest that is because most of the articles in those fields are already available free in online databases supported by institutions such as universities, scholarly societies or government agencies, or in the researcher's personal online archive.