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Open Access: Impact on Information Literacy

February 22, 2012

Open access is important to librarians and patrons for many reasons,  the most obvious being that it democratizes information so that quality research is not only available to a handful of librarians and citizens who can afford high publishing costs. However, OA impacts these groups from an information literacy perspective as well. This is because OA journals are not always as user-friendly as paid databases, they are not always easy to find, and they may need to be evaluated for credibility.

When librarians purchase database subscriptions, the publishers add many features to enhance searching. Paid databases are increasingly doing the thinking for patrons, suggesting spelling changes and topics, suggesting similar articles, allowing patrons to do one click search from references, etc. OA sources are not always this intuitive, and so patrons are basically left to do their own thinking. For example, comparing Directory of Open Access Journals ( to other paid databases, lacks the ability to limit by date, by subject heading, by language. How you can search from an article you click on (i.e. searching for similar articles or searching the references) is not consistent between articles. It’s not a bad thing to have patrons learn to think for themselves, but technology is basically teaching them they don’t have to think for themselves. Will patrons want to use something that requires the extra effort, even if they don’t have access to paid databases? Will they know how to adapt to thinking for themselves? Or will they cling to general Google search results just because they’re easier to find and the search engine is easier to use?

But won’t OA journals appear in Google? Yes, they should. But will they appear high enough up in the search that someone will look at them? Sometimes. And will these scholarly sources be indexed so that library databases can find them? Perhaps. Some discovery tools allow you to include the metadata for OA sources and link out to OA websites; for example, College & Research Libraries is indexed in databases. But what if your library doesn’t have the ability to include these sources in searches, or what if the link breaks? Ultimately uncovering OA sources can be challenging because they’re not always indexed or easy to find. That means as an information seeker you either have to know which databases to search already or know which journals to visit. Also, being able to find OA sources in Google is almost a double edged sword that warrants even more information literacy. If we urge patrons to rely more on library resources for scholarly information, but then tell them that a simple Google search can uncover scholarly resources, we must also make sure we are correctly teaching them how to determine what’s a scholarly source versus a trade publication or popular source, and we must re-emphasize the fact that they must be incredibly careful when evaluating web sources.

Related to this is the fact that, because OA resources have no obligation to undergo a peer review process to have the information published, patrons must be able to effectively evaluate the resources for credibility. Unfortunately urging people to learn how to evaluate Internet sources is not something many schools or companies do, especially with the mistaken ideas that many administrators have – that everything is easily and freely available on the Internet and that being able to search the Internet equates to being able to find quality sources.

Clearly OA impacts information literacy. While it’s great to have information democratized for everyone, it’s a bit more challenging from an information literacy perspective when there is no gatekeeper, or at least when there’s the option of not having a gatekeeper. It’s much easier to tell patrons that to find scholarly sources they should use a library database as opposed to looking in a search engine, but now we must tell them they can find scholarly sources in search engines but they must be careful when determining what’s scholarly. Essentially our past method of information literacy must adapt – the method of being able to draw a distinction between where you access the best scholarly sources. We can no longer allow patrons to have that blind trust just because we say a source is credible; after all, that blind trust is why so many patrons believe whatever they find on Google is credible – they blindly trust Google more than librarians in many cases. We must instead help them to think for themselves and teach them how to use resources they will have access to regardless of library budgets, resources that will change the way they research.


*Following are some interesting articles/blog posts related to the perceptions of “digital natives,” the perceptions of/trust in librarians and Google, open access education, and patrons’ searching abilities and habits. These resources illustrate the challenges information literacy currently faces, challenges we must consider as OA resources become more prevalent.

ACRL (2010). In Google they trust. ACRLog. Retrieved February 17, 2012, from

Brower, S.M. (2010). Medical education and information literacy in the era of open access. Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 29(1), 85-91.

Hargittai, E., Fullerton, L., Menchen-Trevino, E., & Thomas, K.Y. (2010). Trust online: Young adults’ evaluation of web content. International Journal of Communication 4, 468-494. Retrieved February 17, 2012, from

Kolowich, S. (2011). What students don’t know. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved February 17, 2012, from

Radford, M. (2010). Librarian stereotypes, alive & well, alas. Library Garden. Retrieved February 17, 2012, from



2 Comments leave one →
  1. Linda Neyer permalink
    March 16, 2012 10:05 pm

    Nicely written! I’ll have to check out the bib, too. I often tell students the medical literature leads the way with open access because of NIH funding requirements. Someone’s life may literally depend on a practitioner having access to current research!

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