SPARC Innovator: The Open Access Button

Open Access

David Carroll (left) and Joseph McArthur (right) are the co-founders of the Open Access Button.

Before graduating, pharmacology student Joe McArthur and medical student David Carroll took for granted that they could read any scientific article they wanted for free in college. But when McArthur took a job with a pharmaceutical company in London and Carroll spent a year away from medical school in Ireland, they hit pay walls restricting access to articles every day.

“It was a shock to me,” says McArthur, on discovering that many journals charged for article access. “It was a barrier, but it was something I didn’t think I could do anything about it.”

The 20-somethings realized their shared frustration over this situation while discussing scientific techniques, and “nerding out on research” at a conference in the spring of 2013, says Carroll. They were representing Medsin-UK, a student global health network at an international meeting of student medical associations in Baltimore.

At the time, Carroll and McArthur considered themselves activists and friends. Little did they know that they were about to be inspired to develop a revolutionary open access tool that would change the trajectories of their careers. And, in the collaborative process, they would become like brothers.

For creating the Open Access Button, which tracks how often researchers hit pay walls and attempts to connect users with freely accessible copies of articles, SPARC (The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition)  is honoring Carroll and McArthur, both 22, with its first Innovator Award of 2015.

“What allowed Joe and David to follow through on the idea was their passion, commitment, and unwillingness to take no for an answer,” says Nick Shockey, director of SPARC’s the Right to Research Coalition.

Dubbed affectionately by SPARC staff as “The Button Boys,” the young pair of British researchers assembled an international team of volunteers to develop and launch the Open Access Button in the November of 2013.  The student-led project came to fruition on a shoe- string budget with minimal finances, but substantial in-kind support.

“David and Joe epitomize what it means to be a catalyst for action,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC. “They spotted a problem that has vexed the community for years, and, rather than complaining about, they jumped in with both feet to take action to try and fix it.”

Carroll is currently in this fourth year of medical school at Queens University of Belfast. McArthur was recently hired as the assistant director of the Right to Research Coalition in London.

At the spring 2013 conference, Shockey met with Carroll and McArthur to encourage them to get involved with the open access movement. Both are quick to credit Shockey with providing them with the inspiration to take action.

“Until we met Nick, we didn’t know there was a solution,” recalls Carroll. “He sufficiently engaged us and we got really angry about it. Once we knew there was a solution, we wanted to do whatever we could to try to fix it.”

McArthur says the idea of making research freely accessible immediately resonated. He left the initial meeting wanting to help.

The journey to the Open Access Button started with a chat on Google Hangout with Carroll, McArthur, Shockey and Cameron Neylon and Paul Simpson, both from the Public Library of Science (PLOS).

“Sometimes an issue grabs you by the collar and pulls you with it,” says McArthur. “That’s where we found ourselves.”

Carroll and McArthur wanted a statistic: How often are people are denied access to research articles?  They couldn’t find it anywhere. That’s when concept for the Open Access Button sprang up. McArthur, who says he’s practically a narcoleptic, couldn’t sleep. “I was just thinking about this idea and the campaign you could run off of it – just the huge potential. It clearly hadn’t been done,” he says. “How on the face of it, it was so simple.”

Middle-of-the-night emails flew back and forth between McArthur, Carroll, and Shockey. Cameron Stocks, a student at Barts Medical School, also gave some early direction to the concept. The framework for what would become the Open Access Button was laid out.

The concept is simple and graceful: After downloading the Open Access Button app, when a user encounters an article they want to access that charges a fee, they simply click a button on their browser. The incident is then registered, and displayed on the Open Access Button website, providing, for the first time, a sense of the scale of the problem of pay walls.  The incidents are also displayed on a map of the world, which provides an important visual representation of the scope of the problem. The data and stories collected in the process put a human face to the problem and are helping build the case for changing the scholarly publishing system.

A new feature of the Button, currently under development, will email the corresponding author and ask for a link to a free copy of the research, preferably from a repository. The Open Access Button could then serve links to those papers to users who wouldn’t have otherwise had access.

The Button will generate crucial information about magnitude of the problem, something that advocates have long been lacking, says John Wilbanks, chief commons officer at Sage Bionetworks.

“Having it easy to do in way that is native to the experience of looking for articles is just a great idea,” Wilbanks says. “A lot of us maybe were too close to it to see that a reporting mechanism could be incredibly powerful…It was the right idea at the right time. They had the ability to really dedicate time to it.”

Going into this project, Carroll and McArthur were not experts in computer programming. They brought their idea to a hack weekend in London, and assembled a group that put together a rough proof of concept of the Button. The early version of the Open Access Button won third place at the event and was featured in the British Medical Journal the following week.

Next, they presented the idea to the student Right to Research Coalition’s general assembly in Budapest. With more feedback from student participants at that meeting, they refined their idea.

Carroll and McArthur spent a week pounding out the details and a strategic plan in McArthur’s tiny London flat. “It was a quintessential student moment,” he recalls. Amid pizza boxes and beer cans, they had two computers, four monitors, and one desk (made out of two boxes of books) set up as they worked on their vision for what would become the Open Access Button.

“It took a couple of students with boundless energy to make it happen” says Neylon of PLOS. Figuring out how to survey people that were not known seemed impossible, but it didn’t occur to Carroll and McArthur not to try, he says.

Carroll describes the pair as “two peas in a pod,” and says their friendship is a big factor in the innovation coming together. “Because we are friends, it’s easy to tell each other when we are brainstorming, ‘That’s a terrible idea.’ We can be frank.”

As the project progressed, they recruited more volunteers and received some small grants to keep the project afloat. An early collaborator on the Button was Georgina Taylor, now 25 and a doctor at the Royal Darwin Hospital in northern Australia. She serves as fundraising coordinator and volunteers her spare time on the project because she believes Open Access is an issue of social justice.

“The Open Access Button made it harder to ignore,” she says, “Showing the names and stories of people who want access to information puts a human face on the problem.”

Spanning many time zones, the volunteers on the international student team have become friends. Taylor credits Carroll and McArthur with building the collaborative culture. “Everybody has responded to their passion,” she says. “They are very supportive and responsive to the needs of the team.”

Carroll and McArthur coordinate volunteers in their virtual organization and try to give each space to develop their own ideas. They spend hours on the phone with individual members of their team to check in and making sure they are satisfied with their contribution.

As a group, weekly or bi-weekly conference calls often start with 10 minutes of banter and shooting the breeze, which has bonded the team across the miles, says Martin Bentley, a 27-year old graduate student in geophysics in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He was recruited via Twitter to be a tech volunteer on the project and says it’s time well spent, as it’s become a relatively high profile project

“Open Access is an increasingly hot topic,” says Bentley. “It’s a really powerful tool to say why we want Open Access.”

The beta version of the button rolled out in November 2013. It has since been re-built, scaled to reach more users, and is being continually revised. So far, the button has had 5,000 users and 9,000 stories on the map. “It’s only the tip of the iceberg,” says Carroll. “This is a tiny fraction of the amount of people denied access to research.”

Carroll and McArthur say they are taken aback by the positive feedback to the Button.Yet, McArthur says he is never satisfied and constantly wants to improve on the tool. “I see flaws,” he says. “That’s one of the motivations to move forward. I always see room for improvement.”

The tight friendship between Carroll and McArthur also keeps them energized.

“We both are really driven and have the same attitude toward challenges,” McArthur says of his partnership with Carroll. If they think something is important, whether or not they have the ability, they both tend to throw themselves into a project deeply.

McArthur describes Carroll as being like a brother to him. Carroll describes their friendship akin to the best friend “bromance” of Turk and J.D. on the former U.S. television show, Scrubs.

“The obvious delight the two take in working together makes them a joy to work with,” notes Heather Joseph. “They’re a wonderful example of how satisfying – and effective  – it can be to find people you like and who share your values, and work with them on issues of deep mutual interest.”

As for what’s next professionally for the pair, Carroll says he changes his mind every few weeks. But any future career will include an element of seeing patients, but also doing research, policy and advocacy work. And although he always anticipated a career as a researcher, with an interest in immunology and the brain, McArthur is enjoying his open-access advocacy work with the Right to Research Coalition.

Together, they hope to enhance the Button, expand its use, and share stories with the public in hopes of making the case for expanding Open Access.

The co-founders of the Open Access Button are quick to share credit with the 15-member student organizational team, the wider Open Access community and the developers. “Bringing other students on board has given new life to the project that we couldn’t have given it in terms of new ideas and energy,” says McArthur. “We wouldn’t be here without them.”

The fact that the Button was a good idea that addressed an important problem helped attract idealistic young researchers. They all share a common goal: “We want to create a world where we no longer need to exist -where people no longer hit pay walls,” says Carroll. “That’s our vision.”

-by Caralee Adams


Open Access Button Student Team:

Dave Bennett, England
Margaux Larre-Perez, France
Megan Waples, USA
Lydia Zvyagintseva, Canada
Alexandra Giannopoulou, France
Jess Warren, Australia
Reshma Ramachandran, USA
Sarah Melton, USA
Minuette Le, Germany
Georgina Taylor, Australia
Heidi Dowding, The Netherlands
Natalia Norori, Costa Rica
Joseph Paul, USA
Chealsye Bowley, England
Luke Barnes, Wales
Juan López-Tavera, Mexico
Natalie Catherwood, Northern Ireland
Sucheta Tiwari, India
Penny Andrews, England
Martin Bentley, South Africa
Rigel Hope, USA

Open Access Button Developers:

Mark MacGillivray, Senior partner at Cottage Labs
Harry Rickards, Undergraduate Student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Vesko Vankov, Undergraduate Student at the University of Bristol
Andy Byers, Software Developer at Ubiquity Press


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