Open Access is a hot topic in academia at the moment. On one hand, researchers are personally motivated to publish in journals with the highest impact factor possible, as those are more likely to generate citations and otherwise advance their careers (tenure, promotion, grants). On the other hand, research is all about discovery, which works a lot better if you have access to each other’s ideas and data. Studies suggest that open access journals have robust-and-growing impact factors; with new models for author-fees, it’s a fair prediction that open access papers will continue to be cited more.
Some fundamental-of-the-field zombie papers are cited because everyone else cites them, even if no one has been able to find an actual copy to read for the past 20 years. But when hunting for evidence to support a concept, if 2 papers provide equal support, I will always cite the paper I can access at 3am in my pyjamas. If a paper isn’t open access or part of my university’s online-access subscription package, the amount of effort I will devote to tracking it down based entirely the merits advertised in its abstract drops considerably
For historic foundational papers, I’ll make substantial effort, tracking down a library that has a hardcopy in their archives and asking a geographically-proximate friend to scan it for me. I will only do this for key papers of proven worth, which translates into papers with pre-existing enormous citation counts, whose authors are already well-established or even retired or deceased. I’m fairly certain my devotion to actually reading papers before citing them is relatively unusual; I’ve read enough citations where the original data was distorted through a few generations of cite-based-on-what-she-said-he-said to doubt all researchers will put in the effort to find out-of-print, non-digitized archives if they aren’t locally available.
For a paper that is truly unique with a highly promising abstract, I might check my university’s hardcopy archives, or ask friends at other universities to check if their university offers online access to the desired paper. I will not buy subscriptions to get access to an article. I will not buy access to a single article. I don’t write to the author for a copy of the paper. No paper is worth that cost, either monetarily or requesting a time-favor from a probably-busy stranger. Others may see contacting the author as a form of networking, but I’m disinclined to initiate professional communication at 3am, and really don’t need to add another item to my To Do list during already-hectic regular work hours.
Now, if someone will only perform a study on “Citation rates as related to accessibility by pyjama-clad researchers at 3am local time.” to prove my hunch correct…