Nothing Succeeds Like Access

When it comes to the kids industry incorporating academic research into product and content development it's all about gaining access to relevant studies and journals. Is it as difficult as traditional assumptions make it out to be? The answer is yes and no.
November 6, 2014

I frequently write that journal access (difficulty and expense) and comprehensibility are the main obstacles when industry tries to incorporate academic research into content development. Recently, though, a long-time friend who teaches at a public university challenged whether I was working from assumption or experience. She felt I was doing a disservice by emphasizing barriers, rather than helping lay readers surmount them.

My friend teaches undergraduates to seek, read and use research; she feels any college graduate should be able to deconstruct a social sciences study (except, perhaps, the statistics). She also believes that anyone can access journals via public universities’ libraries (and many community libraries), in person if not online.

To see if her experience matched others’, I put out a crowdsource request on the Children and Media Professionals Facebook group (come join!). I asked industry professionals about their experiences finding and acquiring academic works, and asked those within universities about institutional openness and tips for discovering relevant studies, given the panoply of publications.

I asked both about comprehensibility – what efforts authors make to write for lay audiences and how well they succeed. This week’s entry will deal with access; in two weeks, I’ll share the comments on clarity and understanding.

At my friend’s university, the librarian reassured her that “the world that you always believed in is alive and well.” She confirmed that California public universities “have a mandate to serve the public” and that any resident “can walk in and create a guest user account, and access all of the databases while on site.” She admitted to “issues in scholarly publishing that do create barriers to access (such as rising costs),” but said open access is growing.

This isn’t the case everywhere. A professor at a New England public university noted that her school gives everyone access to the library, but a university login is required to access journals.

The crowdsource consensus was that research is accessible, with effort. One commenter, who straddles both worlds as an entrepreneur and student, wrote “it requires a certain amount of skill and perseverance, not to mention a library that subscribes to the proper journal. For instance, my institution…doesn’t maintain a subscription to the Journal of Children and Media – a pretty darn useful source in our business.”

A librarian – at a center devoted to media and children’s health – said, “I will fight for and promote access to information, although it is an uphill battle against copyright laws and cost of access…Freely accessible, reputable, and peer-reviewed open access journals, as well as mandates like the NIH’s Public Access Policy, are the way of the future. A footnote to this would be educating scholarly authors how to protect their copyrights, so they can share their published article more freely without fearing the wrath of journal publishers.”

Surely, university structures and rules for access vary by country, but one respondent who runs a Dutch center on children and media said her university does not provide free public journal access. She’s found two new ways to open doors, however: “Many journals are now offering the first 50 downloads for free as a way for authors to promote their work. Additionally, many journals are now offering ‘news-worthy’ pieces (i.e., articles that capture attention of media) for free access for a period of time along with other ‘most downloaded’ articles.”

The California university librarian advocated checking out public libraries. In San Francisco, at least, they “provide access to many research databases…and with a library card, anyone can access these from home 24/7.”

A number of people recommended Google Scholar. For the general public, it’s substantially limited to citations, but with university (or some public library) IDs, full-texts are linked.

Once the access puzzle is solved, navigating the sea of content is the next hurdle. The media and health center librarian said that in college, “we were never taught how to properly search a database unless we specifically took a workshop offered by our library. This tide is just starting to change as more university faculty include librarians in curriculum development, and librarians spend more time in undergraduate classes teaching the basics of searching academic literature.”

At her center, they keep a citation database related to media and youth health, with each entry having an “original structured abstract, as well as a plain language synopsis, both written in-house.”

Some people set up personal discovery aids, like Google Scholar searches that deliver notifications when relevant research is added. Others subscribe to email “table of contents” blasts for each new edition of their favorite journals.

Convenience and simplicity are the industry watchwords. A graduate student who has worked in media companies admitted it can take up to 20 minutes per article just to source, let alone read and analyze a study.

A former academic now in industry (who emphasized that she is fully capable of reading and comprehending studies) added her frustration. “I don’t have time to be searching through multiple databases and multiple disciplines to find something I may want to read. I tend to rely on friends in academia to post articles of interest on Facebook or Twitter.”

This was seconded by a Silicon Valley educational technology expert. “I rarely go to the UC Berkeley library for their full text access or print (2 miles away). Mostly if it’s not online, free, or on Kindle it does not exist. Free full access I would use a lot!”

So, there’s truth on both sides. There are traffic bumps (more than roadblocks), but the motivated will find a way to get to relevant studies. My friend was right in urging me to be more positive and helpful. So, what are the obstacles to being motivated? In two weeks, in this space, we’ll discuss one – why journal articles are written the way they are, and who’s helping to demystify them for lay readers.

Keep the crowdsourcing going! Comment below about your current experiences, and let me know what would facilitate your use of academic studies, whatever field you work in.

About The Author
Analyst/strategist/writer/speaker David Kleeman travels the world as SVP of Global Trends for kids research consultancy/digital studio @Dubit. Home is an aisle seat near the front. Follow: @davidkleeman.


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