Science blog

17 posts categorized "Open access"

10 January 2014

Gathering dust? Opening up access to PhD research

In our first blog post of 2014, Katie Howe explores another of the services that we offer to contemporary researchers - the British Library’s e-thesis collection, EThOS.

I finished my PhD in 2012. Four years of blood, sweat and tears were summed up in one 200 page document neatly bound in blue cotton. But who has actually read my thesis? Well, my supervisor read it very closely, suggesting many alterations and improvements. My viva examiners read it. I like to think that contemporary members of my old lab might refer to it when working on some of the methods I developed. But what about its wider impact? Is my thesis destined to gather dust or simply be used as a bookend?

Theses cropped
PhD theses ready for submission (Photo: Katie Howe)

My thesis is deposited in the UCL Discovery repository and the full text will soon be available via the British Library’s e-thesis service, EThOS, meaning that people will be able to access the information even though much of the data hasn’t been published in an academic journal. EThOS works by harvesting information from university and institutional repositories, thereby creating a single point of access for doctoral theses from across the UK. The EThOS website has records for over 300,000 UK theses and for 100,000 of these, it is possible to access the full text instantly - either by downloading directly from EThOS or via a link to the relevant institutional website. If you haven’t used EThOS before then you can give it a try here. The great thing about EThOS is that it can be accessed remotely, from all over the world. You can use it to search and read theses on your topic of interest, or to research the work of individuals in your field. EThOS can also be useful in finding out how to structure a thesis and some people even use it for leisure purposes in researching their own interests.

As one user noted, “a wealth of primary data is buried in theses, which can shed light on very interesting areas that may have been missed for decades”. PhD theses are increasingly recognised as important sources of information and although the UK’s open access initiatives relate mainly to journal articles, open access to PhD theses has been embraced by UK universities and research councils. Nowadays, many institutions require PhD graduates to deposit their thesis in a local repository and services such as EThOS facilitate access to this material.

EThOS contains records for over 300,000 UK theses (Image: Shutterstock)

Although my thesis might not quite be worthy of a Nobel Prize, having it available on EThOS will undoubtedly increase the visibility of the unpublished information within it. With about 35,000 theses viewed per month on EThOS, hopefully someone will find my thesis useful rather than having it languishing on my bookshelf gathering dust.

Katie Howe

15 November 2013

Explaining Focal Osteoporosis to My Gran

As the BL Science Team and Europe PubMed Central launch the second year of Access to Understanding, a plain English science writing competition, Allan Sudlow reflects on the challenges of explaining science to a broad audience.

Scientific journal articles are written by scientists to be read by other scientists. Those scientists are usually experts on the topic they are reading about. Thus, journal articles tend to be written in a highly technical style, laden with acronyms and jargon, and this ‘compressed’ language is used to squeeze in as many facts as possible, within a given word count. There is a huge amount of assumed knowledge needed to even begin to understand what is being said. Scientists fall into writing in this way as it’s the most efficient way of communicating with their peers. But what about others who are interested in the latest research findings but aren’t part of this scientific community?

Access to Understanding is a science writing competition aimed at early career scientists organised by the Science Team at the British Library, in collaboration with Europe PubMed Central. Competition entrants choose from a selection of free-to-access articles in this online biomedical literature resource, and describe the science in 800 words or less. They need to explain, in plain English, the reason why the research was done, what the scientists found, and why those findings are important. This is challenging.


Source: Shutterstock Copyright: Ivelin Radkov

Entries need to be self-explanatory and represent the science accurately. Entrants are encouraged to be informative but not patronising, and engaging without over-selling the importance of the research findings. Knowing your audience is key but this, in itself, is not easy when that audience can be anyone who is interested enough to read the summary. The advice we have provided to competition entrants aims to address some of these challenges by setting out specifics in the context of the competition, giving helpful writing tips, and highlighting the views of the judges of the 2013 competition.

So, why would any jobbing scientist want to enter the Access to Understanding competition in the first place?   Well, I predicted the number of entries last year as 50. We received just under 400. This was a fantastic response and it was interesting to hear some of the motivations that the entrants had for taking on this difficult challenge. For some, it was recognising the importance of communicating cutting-edge science beyond their own community, for others it was developing their writing skills in this context. Some scientists saw this as a way to showcase these skills to a broader audience, and have since gone on to pursue their interests in this domain, entering further science writing competitions and seeking employment in roles that require an ability to write about science for a broad audience.


Source: Shutterstock Copyright: Sebastian Kaulitzki

To me, the challenges and the motivations for entering a competition like Access to Understanding, are summed up by the slightly obscure title of this blog post. Before you lambast me, I recognise that many grandmothers may be scientific or clinical research experts, though not mine! Last year’s competition entrants and judges agreed that being able to explain a complex piece of science to a relative who as has no knowledge of the subject, and keep them interested, is a great test of your ability to communicate science effectively. So if you have heard of ‘osteoporosis’ but aren’t sure what factors influence how and why it happens, find out more by reading about it and other scientific findings, beautifully explained, in the shortlisted entries from 2013.

Good luck to all this year’s entrants to Access to Understanding. We will be reading and evaluating your entries with critical interest, and admiration!

13 November 2013

Science-writing competition

Access to Understanding is a prestigious, international science-writing competition aimed at PhD students and early career post-doctoral researchers, developed by Europe PubMed Central and The British Library.

The winner will receive an iPad and have their entry published in eLife. Read on for more…

Access to Understanding 2014 flyer

For more information:
Questions: [email protected]

Access to Understanding is supported by the Europe PubMed Central Funders Group.

25 October 2013

How open is it?

Elizabeth Newbold explains why not everything is as straightforward as it may appear for a science librarian dealing with Open Access content

It is Open Access week and sitting in an office with Anna Kinsey, the Engagement Manager for Europe PubMedCentral, Open Access has obviously been a topic of conversation. Anna has written a blog outlining some of her frustrations with Open Access. I’m not going to repeat them (I recommend reading her post) but in conversation with her it made me think about some of my own frustrations, as a librarian, dealing with free-to-access content.

A timely incident highlighted one of the frustrations we face as librarians in providing access to content. This week I had a question from a colleague, who asked “why can I access this article?” Possibly a slightly unusual question, as we are much more likely to be asked, “why can’t I access …”.and a surprising one, as it took longer to answer than we thought.

In the past, the simple response - “because we have a subscription to the journal” - is actually no longer always true or sufficient. Alternative answers, such as “because it’s open access” or “because it’s freely available” need to be considered. And in this particular case we actually needed to know why we had access, since the mode of access would determine how the reader could use the article.

We started with the first question – do we have a subscription? In this case, the answer was no, so we needed to see why we had access, which is where it started to get complicated. The obvious next thought would be is it an OA journal or OA article? In some cases this is easy to ascertain but not always! So my frustration is the lack of clear identification and consistent explanations regarding OA material. Words such as “free”, “freely available”, “free access”, “open research”, “open”, “open access” are used seemingly interchangeably – all adding to the confusion. It is especially so when we move outside the realms of STM journals and look at the ever increasing and varied amount of other freely available content. Information about the access and restrictions which apply to the material are often hidden away on web pages that are difficult to find. This week I finally found the explanation I needed on the ‘information for librarians’ page. Luckily, I’m a librarian so I looked there but would a non-librarian have found it?

This example may seem like a small issue but it highlights increasing fragmentation when we need to be able to easily and consistently identify why we can access something, otherwise we don’t know how it can be used. 

Whilst the OA symbol originally designed by the Public Library of Science has been used to good effect – wouldn’t it be nice if there was a universally accepted and adopted set of symbols to help identify Open Access material and navigate through the maze?

27 September 2013

Seek, but shall ye find?

Johanna Kieniewicz explores information access across the environment sector, and what the British Library is doing to improve its discoverability.

When I was doing my PhD in Earth and Planetary Sciences, I had exceptionally good access to the information required for my research. I was doing my degree at a major US research university that had excellent print and online journal subscriptions - and on the occasion that I required something a little more unusual, such as a PhD thesis, our departmental librarians were only too happy to request it by inter-library loan. And indeed now, working at the British Library, I find myself once again with exceptionally good access to any piece of information I could possibly want.

Researching the information use of researchers and practitioners across the environment sector, I now realise how fortunate I have been. Extensive journal subscriptions are often prohibitively expensive for many charities, small businesses and local government departments. And, while resources such as government reports and PhD theses might be free and contain really useful information, they are often difficult to track down. A couple of years ago, I surveyed a wide range of researchers and practitioners from the flooding sector about their information access. This group included not just academics, but also people working for local government, environmental charities, consultants and small businesses. Were they happy with their current access to information? What barriers did they encounter in trying to get the information they needed for their work?


ES info use
We asked researchers across the flooding community to rank the factors creating barriers to information. The boxes highlighted as 1st and 2nd indicate their most significant barriers.

Not surprisingly, pretty much everyone reported either money or time as their greatest barrier to the information they needed for their work. However, digging a bit deeper, they also reported difficulty actually discovering the information itself - or filtering through to get at the stuff actually relevant to their work. For a flooding practitioner interested in the impact of Thames flooding on London, their first port of call might well be a Google search: Thames flooding London (or something similar). However, this search would bring back first news articles first, not the Environment Agency report, which is actually what they need.

Our survey also showed that environmental information access is also far from equal. We asked the flooding community what information they now find crucial to their research (red dots below), and what they might potentially use with improved access (yellow dots). While the behaviour of academic researchers might not change that much, that of people working for NGOs/charities, local government, the private sector would change tremendously. While being more financially pressured, they are also often more pressed for time, with tight deadlines, multiple priorities, and little time to spend searching for (letting alone reading) information. We found that government reports, datasets and legislation were real priorities across the board, but also a real interest in less conventional outputs such as PhD theses.

ES Info sectors
Red dots represent resources that researchers considered crucial to their work. Yellow dots indicate resources that they would use more with better access.

So we in the Science Team at the British Library wondered if we could improve things. As a library, we have a duty to facilitate access to information and help users discover the research they need for their work. But most environmental scientists aren’t interested in coming into libraries - they would like electronic access, pdfs they can download, whether they are in the office, lab or field. Would there be a way in which we could make more of what we already do as a library but make the information available to users electronically, wherever they are?

The search interface for Envia, the new environmental information discovery tool from the British Library.

Envia is a new tool developed by the Science Team, with support from the Living With Environmental Change partnership, to improve environmental information access and discovery. Bringing together often hard-to-find government reports, PhD theses, data resources, and journal articles (soon!), we aim to enable the easy search and discovery of resources relevant to flooding (we thought all of environmental science might be a bit much to tackle in one go, so have narrowed down to flooding for the Beta). Rather than viewing ourselves as a ‘one stop shop’ for flooding information, we view Envia as an important tool for connecting  users to information - whether it’s in the Envia repository or elsewhere on the web. Envia might be accessed through its website at - but we also intend it to be used via search boxes embedded in users’ browsers or our partners’ websites.

We have now launched Envia as a Beta service. This means we are still adding content and developing its functionality and looking for feedback from users. So please try it and let us know what you think. User involvement has been integral to the Envia project from the beginning as we are keen to develop a tool that meets the needs of our users - particularly those who don’t have the kind of access to information I was privileged to have during my PhD.

30 August 2013

Access to everyone

This week we reveal all about a core part of our work - our science content and collections.

At the British Library we want to “enable access to everyone who wants to do research”. In fact, you could look at libraries as the physical manifestation of open access – they were helping people to connect to information for free, long before the internet. Antonio Panizzi, the Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum Library said in 1835: “I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom, as far as books go...”

And we are still doing that – only we offer more than books today. We have two dedicated Science Reading Rooms at St Pancras where anyone who wants to do research can access our vast collection of science content. When people ask us what we have, it can be difficult to give a comprehensive answer, as we have a lot. We have been collecting for a long time but we also provide access to the latest research across all subject areas in science, technology and medicine. What many people don’t know is that we also have strong holdings of trade and professional titles and collect material from around the world. And for some research, the scientific article may not be enough – perhaps you need to see conference proceedings, reports, PhD theses, datasets, maps or sound recordings – and we have those too.

As the world of scientific information use and publishing evolves, our collection changes too. We are going digital and provide a range of electronic databases, online journals and eBooks. We continue to develop our services and appreciate the feedback we receive from our many users - each year the Library’s dedicated science reference team handles nearly 30,000 customer enquiries both in person and online.

A view of one of the Science Reading Rooms. The ability to browse the physical copies of journals and books is still possible, while having access to the latest online journals and electronic resources.

We know through reader surveys and interviews that our Science Reading Rooms are used by a diverse range of people. While many working in higher education use us, we also attract independent researchers, teachers, entrepreneurs and other professionals. If you are doing research in an obscure field of science it is likely that we’ll be able to help you – our readers identified 45 separate science subjects as research topics in one survey. Try putting any scientific search term into our catalogue – and let us know if you don’t find something! Readers have told us that the breadth of subjects we cover is the main reason they come to us, but many also just really like the experience of having a quiet space to do research, without the interruptions of the outside world.

If you want to find out more about how to use the Library, have a look at the latest videos, see how to obtain a Reader’s pass or look at the Science team’s guide. Then you too can be the ‘richest man (or woman) in the kingdom’.

Ian Walker and Elizabeth Newbold

23 August 2013

An open and shut case

To continue exploring services that we offer to contemporary researchers, today Anna Kinsey talks about Europe PubMed Central, rated the world’s best repository1 for life sciences and biomedical information...

Until relatively recently, publication practises and dissemination of scholarly works had not changed a great deal since the first journals were launched in the 17th century. However, the advent of computers and, more specifically, a worldwide network of connected computers, enabled sharing of research articles in a way not previously possible. Before the internet we were reliant on publishers to distribute research articles, as printed copies of journals had to be posted to libraries and private subscribers. Now, while publishers remain responsible for packaging research articles as digital works, the dissemination of the article can be done via a variety of other services.

This massive technological leap helped to shift the model of how we share scholarly literature in an equally spectacular way. It enabled something called Open Access.

Open_Access_logo_PLoS_white_wikimedia commons‘Open access literature is digital, online, free-of-charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions’ (Open Access, by Peter Suber, The MIT Press).

Open access is hugely beneficial for furthering research. And that, in turn, benefits society with advances in healthcare and new technologies, and greater availability of information to inform policies and decision-making. The removal of those barriers imposed by the traditional publishing model – cost to the reader, and copyright restrictions – means that the results of research are more widely available and useful, wherever and whoever you are.

The Wellcome Trust led a progressive movement by research funders by being the first in the world to mandate that papers arising from research they had funded must be open access – and that they must be made available in Europe PubMed Central. They were joined by a growing number of government and charity research funding organisations (for example, those that support Europe PMC),which also made open access publication a requirement of their funding.

Europe PMC is a free life sciences and biomedical information resource that allows you to use keywords to search for research of interest, across nearly 28 million article summaries (abstracts) and patents. Over 2.5 million articles in Europe PMC are free or open access, and the proportion of published work that is open access is growing every year.

Europe PMC
The British Library has been involved in Europe PMC since its inception in 2006. In this digital era, Europe PMC is one way that the Library is providing users off-site with access to scientific information. As engagement manager, I want to let people know about Europe PMC as a useful resource but I also help to ensure that Europe PMC delivers features that will be of benefit, by seeking and understanding community requirements. You can stay up to date by following me on Twitter (@EuropePMC_news) and looking out for more detailed descriptions of developments on the Europe PMC blog.

Of course, access to research does not necessarily equate to understanding of some of the complex ideas described in research articles. Europe PMC and the Science team at the British Library recognise that to achieve maximum benefit from research discoveries, there is work to be done to translate the technical language and scientific jargon into ‘plain English’. With that in mind, we launched a science-writing competition, Access to Understanding, where entrants were asked to do just that. Look out later in the year for an announcement about the 2014 competition.


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