Focusing on the Impact of Open Access on Legal Scholarship – 50% More Citations

A new paper by James M. Donovan from the University of Kentucky College of Law caught much attention recently. The paper is self-archived and it examines the citation trend of open access articles from three different law journals. The opening sentence from the abstract sounds very powerful:

“Open access legal scholarship – which today appears to account for almost half of the output of law faculties – can expect to receive 50% more citations than non-open access writings of similar age from the same venue.”*

The introduction to research is done with the mention of Harvard, ranked number one among world universities according to Times Higher Education, as the first law school to make an institutional commitment to open access. Durham Statement on Open Access to Legal Scholarship, which calls for all law schools to stop publishing their journals in print format and to rely instead on electronic publication coupled with a commitment to keep the electronic versions available in stable, open, digital formats, is also described as a strong argument for open access gaining ground with law librarians who are also facing crisis due to increasing prices of journal subscriptions.

“The AALL’s Price Index for Legal Publications… reports a 42% increase in costs for all periodicals (both law-school subsidized and commercial) from 2005-2009, with the average price jumping from $155 to $222.”*

The paper focuses on the question: “What motivations does the legal scholar have to disseminate his writing in this format?”

The position is supported, that articles freely available on the internet are consistently cited more frequently than non-open access articles from the same publications. Thus, the paper focuses on the practical value of such engagement, although not leaving out the philosophical principle.

“In academia, where once the frequently quoted demand to faculty was to publish or perish, today the more appropriate adage might well be to publish, get cited, or perish.”*

Articles from 3 different journals were analyzed:

  1. the Georgia Law Review – where 75 out of 272 articles were made OA
  2. the Georgia Journal of International & Comparative Law – where 26 out of 199 articles were made OA
  3. the Journal of Intellectual Property Law – where 23 out of 95 articles were made OA

Altogether, 124 out of 556 articles were made openly accessible, which makes for 22% of the overall output.
Citation rates were compared to those of articles which are not openly accessible.

“From each of these journals we took the content published in the eighteen-year span from 1990 (excepting JIPL, which was not founded until 1993), and 2008…
Citation counts were obtained by entering article citations into Shepard’s using LexisNexis. In the few instances in which no Shepard’s reports were available, a KeyCite report was substituted.”*

Each of the three journals demonstrates the same general pattern:

James M. Donovan and Carol A. Watson. 2011. "Citation Advantage of Open Access Legal Scholarship" The Selected Works of James M. Donovan Available at:

Some of the conclusions are:

  • almost every year after publication, an open access article’s likelihood of citation is either the same or higher than non-open access articles.  Only after approximately seventeen years does open access no longer have an impact on an article’s citation rate
  • open access availability offers a consistent citation advantage, especially in the early years immediately following publication, which then gradually diminishes to extinguishment.
  • For most of its life, the open access article can expect to accrue citations along the line of 50% more than non-open access articles of similar quality.
  • The citation advantage of open access for legal scholarship, so evident within other scholarly writing, does not appear to carry over into citations by courts (judges and law clerks are less likely to do research on the web, relying instead upon proprietary databases such as Westlaw and Lexis?)

Although the study uses some of the already recognized material for its background, it also offers a critical overview, adds some changes of its own and offers a fresh overview of the trends in the publishing of scholarly law material.


* James M. Donovan and Carol A. Watson. 2011. “Citation Advantage of Open Access Legal Scholarship” The Selected Works of James M. Donovan
Available at:

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