A Reflection on Access to Academic Research

I’m writing this quickly, my fingers flying across the keyboard in a quiet room on a Sunday afternoon. I hope my daughter doesn’t wake up from her nap before I finish, and I know that my time is limited. I’m excited to have a few stolen moments to write here, in this recreational writing space I so rarely visit these days. Today’s topic: a reflection on a most privileged kind of access: access to academic research.

I’m doing research this afternoon on reading and writing in digital environments. I’m doing this research so that I can discuss plans for introducing more digital reading and writing tasks into middle school curriculum with our district’s ELA director. This is research I’ve conducted before, both within and outside of my doctoral program, and I am thanking my former self for saving few PDFs in the archive.

I’m glad I saved PDFs because as I conduct my search, I am reminded that I lack the privileges once granted by my affiliation with a major research institution. The University of Michigan, Purdue University, and The University of Illinois boasted library collections and databases that gave me access to… well, anything I wanted. If I didn’t have access through my university, I had access through the robust Big Ten Interlibrary Loan network, and when that failed me, I could ask my trusty School/College of Ed librarian to consider adding a journal or database to the collection (which they often would).

When I was associated with a major research institution as a graduate student, the research process was pretty simple. I searched library databases. I found excellent articles in prestigious or lesser-known research journals. I downloaded a PDF and saved the citation. The end.

Today, my process looks a little more like this:

  1. Search of old stuff from my own archive, because let’s face it, start with what you’ve already done. But most of this stuff is from 2013 or earlier, so…
  2. Google Scholar Search, editing parameters for only those articles that include an openly available full-text version.
  3. Google Scholar Search v.2, eliminating the extremely limiting PDF parameters, and archiving citations using Zotero for future search in our High School databases.
  4. Extremely frustrated break for lunch.
  5. Remember the Directory of Open Access Journals and comb it for education journals that are open access. Bookmark these journals for later searching.
  6. Academic OneFile Search (we subscribe to this database for our high school students) for articles for which I already pulled citations, in hopes the journals are included in that database. Very few of them are. Note to self to check public library databases later.
  7. Regular Old Google Search, which turns up an article from Scientific American (okay yes, it’s a media outlet, but it often does a pretty good job offering up “digested research,” IMO). Archive a few citations from this article, repeat steps 5 and 6.

I can navigate this process in part because I know how to navigate our district and public library resources. I know how to do this in no small part because of my background in research and my former affiliation with large research institutions, and because I am pretty good at navigating the Interwebs and conducting strategic keyword searches. So it’s fine that I need to do all of this, if a little frustrating, because I have the information literacy skills needed to find the 345 workarounds I need to gain access to rigorous academic research.

But I will not walk away with all of the articles that I want, and I will spend a long time finding the ones that I do finally gain access to.

Access. We ask teachers to engage in research-based best practices, but they (and sometimes we — leaders of these teachers) do not always have the access we need to the research that helps us understand, study, and develop these practices.

Access. Even when we do have access, we sometimes need to understand how to use that access — we need the information and digital literacy skills to navigate online databases and search engines.

Access. I never realized how much access I had to the brightest minds in the world until I suddenly had extremely limited access.

My time runs low, so I’ll end my reflection here. I know many newer journals are open access, embracing the call of many in the academic community to embrace the Open Educational Resource (OER) movement, and I hope I more scholars will support this movement by submitting to these journals too… not always the journals that make a lot of money because of their high impact ratings (which also get professors tenure, and grants, etc.). I understand why some journals are proprietary, but I can’t help but find myself, a k12 educator and teacher leader in search of excellent literacy research, a little disheartened and disappointed by today’s search.