High quality information?

Open-access sources and student research

Should schools be recommending open-access sources to their students for their research? Robert George, Head of Libraries at The Alice Smith School takes a look at both sides of the story.

The dilemma

They are free and quick to access but should we really be recommending open-access sources to our Extended Essay (EE) and Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) students alongside paid-for or subscription information sources? Peer-reviewed sources in the traditional subscription journals surely have the level of authority we would like our students to value? However, they come at a cost in time and money, while open-access materials are establishing their own credentials which need to be taken seriously.

The growing quality of open-access sources

Open-access sources are of increasing importance in education and research due to their transformative effects on knowledge dissemination and their accessibility. There are good reasons why they are becoming increasingly valuable:

1. They democratise research.

Firstly, open-access sources democratise access to information by removing financial barriers. Traditional academic publishing often involves costly subscriptions and paywalls for the research student, limiting access to a privileged few. Open access, on the other hand, makes research papers, journals and educational materials freely available to anyone with an internet connection. This accessibility is crucial in ensuring that knowledge is not confined to an elite but can benefit a global audience, levelling the playing field for both researchers and students worldwide.

2. They promote collaboration and innovation in research

Open-access sources facilitate rapid information sharing among researchers, transcending geographical and institutional boundaries. This fosters interdisciplinary collaboration as experts from different fields can easily access and integrate each other’s work, leading to creative solutions to complex problems. Our students deserve access to this kind of material.

3. They have a more diverse audience and promote knowledge

Moreover, open-access enhances the impact of research. Openly accessible publications often have broader visibility and reach a more diverse audience. This increased exposure leads to greater citation rates, ultimately advancing the careers of researchers and the overall body of knowledge. In a rapidly evolving digital age, open-access is therefore a catalyst for progress, driving the development of new knowledge and ensuring that the benefits of research and education are equitably distributed. Its increasing importance is a testament to its potential to revolutionise the way we learn and discover.

The challenges of using open access sources

There is inevitably a flip side to consider.

1. Verification

Without a verified peer-review process, quality and credibility are drawn into question and without a clear line of income, the open-access source provider is more prone to premature closure and the potential omission of key sources of information.

2. Fragmentation and cost

Secondly, with the databases of traditional peer-reviewed journal content, researchers have logical direction in selecting authoritative sources that have clear copyright and licensing control. However, open-access sources can lead to fragmentation with researchers needing to turn to multiple repositories to find relevant content. Also with a migration to open-access sources there will potentially be a loss of revenue for traditional publishers, which might in turn undermine the breadth of their provision. There is also a hidden cost to researchers when research institutions promote open-access publication, as the publication fees often become the responsibility of the researcher rather than the institution and these publication fees can be high.

3. Overwhelming volume of sources

Perhaps, however, it is the ‘usual suspect’ that presents the biggest challenge – the internet itself, as the sheer volume of open-access content available can be overwhelming, making it challenging for researchers, especially teenage novices, to sift through and find the most relevant and high-quality sources.

A question of balance

With these issues in mind, a certain element of caution seems indicated, perhaps more so for tertiary educators, in recommending sources to their undergraduate students. But here I will reflect on how we might handle this burgeoning area in secondary or high school education, particularly in areas of assessment where there is a significant element of coursework involving student research, such as the EE or EPQ.

Firstly – what open-access sources should we be promoting? At Alice Smith, we find that our students are constantly surfacing new open access research sources and that helps us to keep our recommended links updated. On our school library website at present, we link to; Google Scholar, DOAJ, Internet Archive, RefSeek, JURN, The National Academies of Sciences and Medicine, Faculty Opinions and Elicit (limited free content).

All these OA databases stand in support of our current subscription databases such as JSTOR and Gale Academic OneFile.

For me it is a question of balance. In today’s budget-conscious environment, some school libraries that have previously invested in subscription databases might find themselves under pressure to draw back and only provide links to open-access sources. I think this is a mistake. From my perspective, I will continue to encourage our school leaders to support our existing subscription databases, so that we are in a strong position to teach the skills of searching and selecting from them, while also expanding our students’ capacity to conduct research in a mindful, information-fluent manner using open-access sources.

As school librarians we may or may not be able to influence the balanced use of subscription and open-access databases by the global research community. However, we do need to keep on top of developments in this area and make responsible decisions to support our students in the best way we can, as they search for and use a variety of sources in their research work.


Rob George is the Head of Libraries at the Alice Smith School in Kuala Lumpur






You can catch up with Rob at the upcoming British and International Schools Library Network webinar on Wednesday May 15th.

Find out more here:

British and International Schools Library Network






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