Open communities bring the Open Access Button to life

A prototype to track article access attempts was born at the BMJ hack day

General Public

Running into a publisher’s paywall is one of the biggest daily frustrations that many in research tend to encounter. Students and health advocates David Carroll and Joe McArthur decided to take these dead ends and turn them into something useful. With the help of the open source and open access communities, they have just created a prototype of a tool—the OA Button—to map article access denials and help users track down a version of the publication available for their use.


You can also read this article in French ("Les communautés ouvertes ont donné vie au bouton open access"), translated by Timothée Froelich.


David Carroll took a year out of his medical studies at Queen's University in Belfast to gain research experience in the lab. For his study on cystic fibrosis, he read only papers for which his university had a subscription or those published in open access. At $35 a paper, everything else written on the topic fell by the wayside. “That gap in my knowledge probably ended my research,” he says, “because I didn’t have the opportunity to read everything [that would help me] generate hypotheses. I could only use what I had.”

Carroll’s experience is far from isolated, and yet, each collision with a paywall does remain isolated, leaving every researcher, journalist or citizen denied access to fume, alone, in front of the computer screen. Along with his friend and pharmacology student, Joe McArthur, David decided to turn the tables on this situation with a tool that will track article access attempts, creating a map of when, where and for whom that access is denied. The “OA Button”, as it is currently known, will also go out in search of a version of the publication that the user does have the right to view, in a university repository, perhaps, or a pre-print server. “People advocating for open access will get what they want – data – plus people who want access will get the paper,” Carroll explains.

A leg up from open source & open access

Given their own very limited programming experience, the pair turned to the open source community to make their idea a reality. The recent BMJ hack day, hosted by the British Medical Journal on July 6 and 7 in London, “exceeded our wildest expectations,” David Carroll says. “We met really wonderful people, who are a lot more intelligent than we are, and in less than 30 hours had built this prototype.” Awarded 3rd prize by the hack day judges, the first map resulting from the OA Button appeared as BMJ’s image of the week on 13 July.

One moment particularly struck David: The team had had their eye on a specialist with experience on similar projects, someone they could look to for assistance. Then, during the hack day, a “stranger turned up on GitHub [the hosting service for software development projects], out of the blue, and completed one of the key functions for us, one that we were stuck on.” It turned out to be none other than the expert they had hoped to use as a resource. For help in the world of open source, sometimes you don’t even need to ask.

An open access button that counts the number of times journal readers hit an article paywall was one of three winners at the BMJ inaugural hack day, held in London at the weekend. Readers submit details on an online form, and their data are used to populate a “map of frustration” aimed at persuading publishers to embrace open access. (Source: BMJ, volume 347, 13 July 2013)


Throughout the weekend, the online open access community, too, “got on board in a big way,” Joe McArthur told Matthew Billingsley in an interview for BMJ. “They made suggestions we never even thought of. We’re completely blown away by the response. People are still sending in ideas, people are still coding who weren’t even at the hack day.” Twitter followers have asked if they can help with the development of the OA Button—a ready-made list of beta testers, David Carroll laughs.

"Together, we can start to make some noise"

In a recent Twitter conversation, Tim McCormick was ready and willing to participate, saying the OA Button project would be good for advocacy. He wondered only about the quality of the data produced and suggested a broader approach. Carroll acknowledges, for example, that the population of users will be self-selecting, at first. “But we have plans to expand the reach of this button.” One is to work through librarians. “We’ve noticed that they love this idea. We hope this will empower them to go to their universities and say, ‘This button works. Not only will you be helping your students, but you’ll be helping us and helping yourselves.’”

The team is securing seed funding for the project and considering crowd funding as a solution for the long term. Spreading the tool far and wide will be important for capturing the full depth and breadth of the access problem. “If I’m working in my bedroom and I hit a paywall, nobody cares. But with everyone together, we can start to make some noise.”


To find out more:

The Open Access Button blog

GitHub for development of the OA Button

“Can they hack it? Yes they can”, by David Payne, editor,


“Allies and predecessors of the OA Button”, provided by Stevan Harnad

Boost repository content with EPrints "Request eprint" button

What is the DSpace Request Copy Add-on?

The "Request eprint" button

Open Access Mandates and the "Fair Dealing" Button

Stevan Harnad : The OC OA Button is certainly very timely and welcome. But it does have some allies and predecessors: Sale, A., Couture, M., Rodrigues, E., Carr, L. and Harnad, S. (2012) Open Access Mandates and the "Fair Dealing" Button. In: Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creating Canadian Culture Online (Rosemary J. Coombe & Darren Wershler, Eds.)
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Abby Tabor : Hello, Good information - thank you for contributing this. I've added the links to the "Find out more" section where they'll be more visible. Something to be learned from them all, no doubt.
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