Five key areas of digital accessibility are especially important to the global research community
Digital accessibility – a range of technologies and protocols promoting access to research – is of particular importance to the academic community. Although this range of initiatives encompasses Open Access (OA), it also includes many other ways we can engage the widest possible audience in research, with the aim of accelerating solutions to global problems.
Five key areas of digital accessibility that are particularly relevant to the global research community are:
1. Open Access (OA)
2. Research discoverability
3. Availability (or the lack of) funds and resources
4. Overcoming language barriers
5. Ensuring information accessibility, irrespective of health conditions and impairments
According to Delta Think’s OA Market Sizing Update 2022, the OA market grew to about $1.6bn in 2021, with 45% of articles published as paid-for OA articles. This is significant and may be attributable to publishers focusing on OA in the wake of Plan S, making full and immediate OA a reality. However, over 55% of new research and most of the previously published research is still behind paywalls today, making it difficult to access for most people. The proportion of research published via OA will continue to increase, thanks to the US’ OSTP (The Office of Science and Technology Policy) mandate, which states that the published results of federally funded research should be freely available to the public within one year of publication. Within a few short years, we will see most new research published through OA channels, thereby affecting – by sheer weight of numbers – the entire corpus of published research, until it too is mostly OA.
In the meantime, to counter the paywall issue, we must address the problem of academic piracy. There are many free pirate sites that scrape data online and offer free downloads of research articles and books that sit behind paywalls. This, however, can end up hampering innovation because data on such sites is usually not updated, retractions are not mentioned, and unlike journals, such sites do not maintain a record of the changes made to papers post-publication.
There is so much research underway today that accessibility alone is not enough. Research also needs to be discoverable. It is nice that you got your research paper published – but it was one of 2.5 million papers published annually, or nearly 7,000 per day, or one every 13 seconds. How does one hope to make a mark on the world when such a vast volume of research is being generated?
Reading apps such as Researcher App and R Discovery, which curate peer-reviewed articles and allow key searches, can play a significant role in research accessibility. These tools curate articles from different subject areas and make article summaries freely available so that academics can read the highlights of the paper (even if it is behind a paywall) and purchase the full text only when they have decided it is valuable to them. This is useful for those who are doing cross-disciplinary research and may not want to read an entire article from another field but only want its gist.
These tools are particularly useful for researchers in countries where funds and resources may be a challenge.
Availability (or the lack) of funds and resources
Factors such as access to funds and resources (or the lack of it) can affect digital accessibility. For instance, do researchers across the world have equal access to information and resources? Perhaps not.
Researchers in developing countries do not have the same access to libraries and literature search tools that are readily available in developed nations, affecting their research consumption. Papers that are behind a paywall may never be accessed in countries where funding is an issue; hence, access to existing information on a topic or subject also largely depends on access to funds and resources. This affects stakeholders across the researcher ecosystem for various reasons. For instance, the individual researcher does not get access to the right information, the publisher/journal does not get relevant citations, and information that is readily available on platforms like Wikipedia may be inaccurate, ultimately leading to distrust in science. In extreme cases, it can lead to duplication of work that has already been conducted and shared (with a select few).
These issues are gradually being addressed in the industry. Sage and Wiley have recently joined other forward-thinking publishers in partnering with the Wikipedia Library to provide access to the material in their journals for Wikipedia editors. This is a step towards countering the points above and improving research accessibility for a global audience.
Overcoming the language barrier
The next factor to consider while discussing digital accessibility is the language barrier. Any research that is significant is likely to be published in a peer-reviewed journal in English. Do researchers in countries where English is a second language believe they lack access to the latest research because it is published primarily in English? It is difficult for them not just to get published in these English-language journals, but also to stay updated on the latest discoveries because that information is available primarily in English. Since journals are now finding renewed focus on emerging research markets like China, there is a need for the industry to first, consider translated journals to improve accessibility, second, make journal formatting guidelines available in local languages, and third, disseminate their research with better transparency by providing article summaries in local languages.
Increasingly impressive free translation tools like Google Translate and summarization tools like Scholarcy are helpful for researchers. Publishers should consider using AWS or Deep L to provide “good enough” translations on demand for non-native English speakers.
Research is also being consumed in the form of videos, infographics, and other alternative formats. This makes it easier for those whose native language is not English to understand the research. It also helps those conducting interdisciplinary research to understand concepts from a field they may not be entirely comfortable with.
For instance, the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery published an infographic on the Efficacy of Irrigation Solutions in Local Adjuvant Therapy Following Intralesional Curettage, making it easier for the general public to consume this research.
Information Accessibility for those with health conditions and impairments
Digital accessibility is not just about geographical and cultural differences, but also about how the academic environment ensures information accessibility for all – irrespective of their health conditions or impairments. For instance, are there any provisions to make research readily accessible to visually- or hearing-impaired audiences? Audio journals (in English and local languages), physical journal issues in Braille, Alt text descriptions of images, and Text-to-Speech technologies are some ways we can make the industry truly inclusive for all. Alt text (alternative text) provides a description of the images on any given page, with the purpose of reading aloud such descriptions to those who cannot see them; this includes those for whom images do not load or those who are visually impaired. A successor to GPT3 that can provide Alt text automatically for all images is something we can look forward to in the near future.
Text- to-Speech software is also AI-based and simple to use. It is particularly useful for the visually impaired and for those who have difficulty reading. We must understand that preferences are important too. A dyslexic person may prefer changing the font or background color and may even use Text-to-Speech on some days. Are we embracing these options to ensure maximum accessibility?
Elsevier has strong accessibility policies and has developed several learning tools for disability and assistive technology to empower people of diverse abilities to access the content on their sites. The web accessibility team at Elsevier knows that a scientist who is visually impaired might navigate their site very differently from a sighted person. Their aim is to ensure that everyone who visits the site finds and consumes useful scientific content irrespective of their impairments. Elsevier’s accessibility team simulates different disability lenses to understand how people can navigate their site, and their website functionality is accordingly modified to make it convenient for all.
Only when academia as a whole starts to think of digital accessibility holistically, can we say that the industry is truly inclusive.
When this happens, all aspects of digital accessibility will spur further innovation in the global research community because the field will have been levelled for everyone and research made available to all, irrespective of geographical, cultural, and economic differences. Let us look forward and do our part now to help accelerate research outcomes where digital accessibility is a reality for all.
The author is the co-Founder & CEO of CACTUS