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Open access misunderstood by latest generation of doctoral students

Younger doctoral students harbour considerable misconceptions about open-access publishing and feel discouraged from citing open-access sources, a major study has revealed.

The study into the working practices of more than 13,500 PhD students, just over 6,000 of whom were born between 1982 and 1994—dubbed ‘Generation Y’—reveals that 1 in 10 believes that open-access journals are not peer reviewed. There is also confusion about the differences between open access, open web sources and social media.

The Researchers of Tomorrow report, published by the British Library and higher education technology body Jisc on 28 June, is the result of a three-year investigation, which included a survey of the Generation Y doctoral students as well as an older cohort.

Only 55 per cent of the younger students surveyed were sure that the statement “open-access journals are not peer reviewed” was false. Another 36 per cent were not sure of the answer and 9 per cent thought that it was true. “That was very surprising,” says Andrew Rawnsley, a member of the steering committee for the study and a research governance and training manager at Teeside University’s Graduate Research School. “We’ve got some work to do to step up on awareness building to dispel some of the myths.”

Some students even said that their supervisors would not want them to cite open-access sources.

On the same day the Researchers of Tomorrow report was published, the Wellcome Trust announced plans to withhold further grant money from researchers who fail to comply with its open-access policy. Yet among younger students, only 26 per cent knew that funders were beginning to expect the researchers they fund to publish open access and that many already operate self-archiving mandates.

Despite the confusion, the number of younger students who had produced or intended to produce open-access articles increased from 28 per cent in 2009 to 32 per cent in 2010 and 49 per cent in 2011. They are also more likely to consider open access than their older colleagues.

According to Julie Carpenter, director of consultancy Education for Change and author of the report, this growth could go hand in hand with increasing competition. “It’s so difficult for a young PhD scholar or a postdoc to get published in subscription-based journals,” she says. Although many doctoral students are concerned about changing models of publishing, such as the credibility of open-access journals, Carpenter notes that the report found students “manage somehow to resolve those reservations for themselves and they are very inclined for everything to be open”.

Generation Y students also show a poor understanding of intellectual property rights. When asked to consider the statement “copyright protects ideas”, 52 per cent thought it was true. More than one-quarter thought that they, not their institution, owned the IP they developed, which is likely not to be the case in the UK.

This poor understanding of key components of academic life is blamed partly on their institutions by the report, which says the students are largely dissatisfied with the training for research work and information use they receive.

They are also unhappy with the access they have to e-journals. Younger students, it seems, are making do with reading abstracts rather than entire articles: 43 per cent of them said they did this, while only 36 per cent of older students said they relied on the abstract alone. “That was a rather worrying finding,” says Carpenter. “It’s obviously to do with the wealth of material out there.”

Technology take-up more generally is mixed among younger students but more differences occur between research areas than anything else. For example, far more biological sciences students than arts and humanities students use alerting services and RSS feeds; but arts and humanities scholars are slightly more inclined to use social networks during their research.