In a study published in November 2021, Teresa Schultz, of the University of Nevada, Reno, reported that gold, green and hybrid open-access (OA) modes of publishing of scientific papers were correlated with more mentions in the news.

Gold OA refers to scientists publishing their paper in an OA journal, and green is when scientists publish their paper in a journal and then self-archives a copy on an openly accessible website or in a repository. A hybrid OA journal is one that allows for some papers to be published OA (or gold) and for the others to stay behind a paywall.

Schultz didn’t check if there was a causative relationship between a paper’s OA status and the likelihood of it being covered in the press, but found a significant correlation. It’s a heartening result – but I think it might be useful to qualify this finding with a perspective from India, a country whose scientific-publishing literacy is likely to be lower than the global average, and certainly lower than that in the richest nations, which also have some of the world’s more mature science-journalism enterprises. (To be sure, and lest we forget, science journalism is more than just coverage of the pandemic.)

An Indian perspective might also help to understand that a paper’s coverage in the news media is as much about whether it’s OA as about whether journalists know what OA is.

Schultz has found that the contents of a green/gold/hybrid OA paper are more likely to be covered in the news than those of a non-OA paper – but didn’t check for a causative relationship. One way to interpret the latter is that she didn’t check if a journalist determined to report on a paper because it was OA. Now, a journalist making this decision requires automatically that she be aware of what OA publishing is, its merits (and demerits if possible) and the ins/outs of displaying a preference – as a journalist – for OA versus non-OA papers.

Such awareness exists among Indian media-persons but it is sharply confined to some small pockets. And when awareness of OA, at least in opposition to non-OA, is so limited, the question of whether to cover a paper based on whether it has been published in an OA journal is relegated to the bottom of the priority list – if it finds mention at all.

In India, it is likelier for the average journalist who has been tasked with covering a scientific finding – rather than a science journalist per se, because the former are at least one order of magnitude more common – to consider whether the paper was published in a journal at all; whether, in keeping with the dominant view in the Indian scientific community, that paper was peer-reviewed; and whether it was published in a prestigious journal. Otherwise, the journalist may not even discover that paper.

When I was at The Hindu, I received a lot of emails from scientists requesting coverage of their paper, and 90% of the time, they would add with pride that the papers had been published in the peer-reviewed [insert name of legacy journal here] journal; I receive fewer such emails at The Wire Science but still around half-dozen a day.

This is just to say that the way the average journalist in India discovers papers is skewed in favour of non-OA, paywalled journals, typically one of NatureScienceThe Lancet, etc. (In a roundabout way, the popular support for Sci-Hub in India might attest to this reality: we need Sci-Hub because we need to access papers behind paywalls.)

Another factor in India that skews the discoverability of papers, albeit to a lesser extent, is journal outreach. The Nature Publishing Group, PLOS and Science are all prolific outreachers (the last through the EurekAlert! service) and the papers that are covered most often by Indian mainstream media outlets have likelier than not been published in one of these journals. In fact, this together with scientists flagging their own papers to journalists would cover almost all papers published in the mainstream Indian press.

So as such, a shift in favour of OA papers isn’t likely to arise from the quarter of journalists covering science in India – at least not without significant efforts to improve their awareness of the principles of OA. Note that this post is based on my personal experiences in the Indian news media space since 2012; if you have evidence to the contrary, please share. I’d be happy to be wrong on this front.