Inequality, Paywalled: Update from a Literature Review

I have done revisions to this post since publication.

[I don’t have time. What is this about?

My view is that altmetrics are not merely tools for the measurement of  online attention but tools that can help us discover the literature that is being tracked as mentioned. I used the Altmetric Explorer as a tool to discover articles about inequality. I cleaned the data into three tables to reflect only the articles that interested me from three journals and then checked them for access and license type. Most are paywalled and if free access the licensing is not clear. Scroll down to see the tables, or download the dataset here.

It’s better if you read the post, though. ;-) ]



Keep off the grass, photo CC-BY Attribution Some rights reserved by Kyknoord
Photo CC-by Kyknoord. Some Rights Reserved.


Using the Altmetric Explorer to Discover Literature

I‘ve been doing some research on the concept of ‘inequality’ from an economic and sociological perspective to add background to ongoing research on academic publishing and ‘monopolies of knowledge‘. I am interested in finding out more about the potential relationships between inequality of access to information (particularly access to peer-reviewed research publications) and other forms of inequality affecting social and economic development.

As you may (or not) know I am also interested in the potential for altmetrics as tools to help us in the discovery of research outputs. Some may not like it but needless to say people do search for and discover all sorts of information online. To give an example, these days many of us rarely get invited to a party with a paper invitation sent on the post (unless it’s a wedding, and even that is culture and country-dependent now); it’s likely, however, that there will be a Facebook invite, an Instagram account, or an email. OK, you may hate weddings or have never been invited to one. You must like music. If you are reading this you are likely to know people who discover new (and old!) music by looking into what other people listen to on apps like Spotify or Soundcloud, etc. (Yes, this sounds so old and so obvious!). We trust other people to recommend us stuff. (Think of how many of us travel today: TripAdvisor is a good example too).

More to the point, libraries and library web sites are no longer the only gateways to academic information (why should they be?). You don’t have to be a declared open education advocate to share, search for and discover interesting materials on Slideshare or YouTube. The distinction between ‘social networking’ or ‘social media’ sites and the rest of the Web is at best artificial: most platforms today imply inter-linking and therefore social interaction. Surely, I think, web platforms tracking social media activity like Altmetric can be used to discover what research people are mentioning online. One does not need a personal or institutional Altmetric account to discover other outputs from the articles themselves when they have Altmetric widgets. In other words, my view is that altmetrics are not merely tools for the measurement of  online attention but tools that can help us discover the literature that is being tracked as mentioned.

The bibliography collection is an important part of a literature review. We may collect bibliography we are interested in reading before we properly review or collect as we read/review (hopefully once one is reading one follows leads in an article, checks the references and notes, clicks on links, gets elsewhere). To discover published research I have used the Altmetric Explorer  many times before (see, as an example, “Ebola: Access and Licenses of 497 Papers Crowdsourced in 7 Days”, 14/08/2014).

Three Sets of Articles on Inequality

Recently I have been using it to search for articles on the topic of ‘inequality’. I am interested in which articles on this topic are being tracked by Altmetric as mentioned online, but I am also interested in the access and license types of the outputs tracked.

As I do normally in my research workflow I have been exporting the results of my searches and then cleaning the data. I do this by manually applying spreadsheet filters and adding and deleting columns, and using OpenRefine to deduplicate and standarise the data. I then check each output (i.e. I click on each link) and make a note whether I can access the full version without academic library credentials or not.

In this case I am sharing with you three sets of articles, each corresponding to a different journal that has published articles on inequality that have been tracked as mentioned online by Altmetric within the last year. In the tables below I have left the Altmetric score in timeframe (one year) in the first column and have organised the outputs in that order (from the highest score to the lowest). Having checked each article one by one manually not using any institutional credentials or IP, I have indicated in the last column the access type of each article. As Altmetric scores can change over time often quite quickly I have also left the most recent mention online according to Altmetric. This is of course not live data so it merely reflects the score and the most recent mention at the time of my data collection.

Information, Communication & Society

Altmetric Score in timeframe Title URL Most recent mention online according to Altimetric Access Type


Racial formation, inequality and the political economy of web traffic Tue, 16 Aug 2016 20:46:58 +0000 Free access. License not clear. 


The Trend of Class, Race, and Ethnicity in Social Media Inequality Fri, 26 Apr 2013 19:03:50 +0000 Paywalled


Social networking sites and low-income teenagers: between opportunity and inequality Mon, 07 Mar 2016 11:57:49 +0000 Paywalled


The contemporary US digital divide: from initial access to technology maintenance Fri, 19 Jun 2015 16:17:31 +0000 Paywalled


The Digital Production Gap in Great Britain Wed, 31 Jul 2013 14:46:59 +0000 Paywalled


Reconceptualizing Digital Social Inequality Tue, 02 Feb 2016 20:04:21 +0000 Paywalled


The disability divide in internet access and use Tue, 06 Dec 2011 17:05:28 +0000 Paywalled


Mapping the two levels of digital divide: Internet access and social network site adoption among older adults in the USA Tue, 24 Nov 2015 18:43:40 +0000 Paywalled

British Journal of Sociology

Altmeric Score in timeframe Title URL Most recent mention Access Type


After Piketty? Wed, 30 Sep 2015 08:47:42 +0000 Paywalled


Capital in the twenty‐first century: a critique Thu, 07 May 2015 09:55:36 +0000 Paywalled


Gendering inequality: a note on Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Thu, 07 May 2015 09:55:58 +0000 Paywalled


The politics of Piketty: what political science can learn from, and contribute to, the debate on Capital in the Twenty-First Century Thu, 21 May 2015 13:11:02 +0000 Paywalled


Income inequality, poverty and crime across nations Mon, 15 Dec 2014 18:00:58 +0000 Paywalled


Why ‘class’ is too soft a category to capture the explosiveness of social inequality at the beginning of the twenty‐first century Tue, 13 Jan 2015 00:56:42 +0000 Free access. Permissions required via RightsLink.


Where’s the capital? A geographical essay. Thu, 07 May 2015 09:56:17 +0000 Paywalled


Capital and time: uncertainty and qualitative measures of inequality. Thu, 07 May 2015 09:55:00 +0000 Paywalled


Class and comparison: subjective social location and lay experiences of constraint and mobility Sun, 31 Jul 2016 08:34:47 +0000 Paywalled


Alleviating poverty or reinforcing inequality? Interpreting micro-finance in practice, with illustrations from rural China. Sat, 17 Oct 2015 07:50:32 +0000 Paywalled


Configurations of gender inequality: the consequences of ideology and public policy1 Mon, 02 Mar 2015 00:00:00 +0000 Paywalled


Who do you think they were? How family historians make sense of social position and inequality in the past Mon, 07 Jan 2013 09:25:05 +0000 Paywalled


Tom Clark and Anthony Heath 2015 [2014] Hard Times: Inequality, Recession, Aftermath, Aftermath, New Haven and London: Yale University Press Mon, 28 Sep 2015 10:59:31 +0000 Paywalled


Cultural capital or relative risk aversion? Two mechanisms for educational inequality compared1 Thu, 03 Mar 2016 09:20:51 +0000 Paywalled


Piketty’s capital and social policy. Wed, 24 Dec 2014 10:30:35 +0000 Paywalled


Declining inequality? The changing impact of socio-economic background and ability on education in Australia Tue, 18 Sep 2012 02:04:48 +0000 Paywalled

Journal of Economic Perspectives

Altmeric Score in timeframe Title URL Most recent mention Access Type


Why Hasn’t Democracy Slowed Rising Inequality? Mon, 15 Aug 2016 12:20:10 +0000 Free Access (“Complimentary”)


Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility Wed, 25 May 2016 10:20:30 +0000 Free Access (“Complimentary”)


The Top 1 Percent in International and Historical Perspective Tue, 02 Aug 2016 14:35:17 +0000 Free Access (“Complimentary”)


Consumption Inequality Sun, 28 Aug 2016 09:59:44 +0000 Free Access (“Complimentary”)


The Rise and Decline of General Laws of Capitalism Wed, 03 Aug 2016 00:00:00 +0000 Free Access. License not clear


The Inheritance of Inequality Wed, 27 Jul 2016 22:41:32 +0000 Free Access (“Complimentary”)


Crime, the Criminal Justice System, and Socioeconomic Inequality Fri, 08 Jul 2016 22:54:56 +0000 Free Access (“Complimentary”)


Pareto and Piketty: The Macroeconomics of Top Income and Wealth Inequality Tue, 10 Nov 2015 08:02:28 +0000 Free Access. License not clear.

I am not sure if this humble blog would be tracked by Altmetric so (ironically) I may or may not be contributing to the Altmetric score of the outputs above as I am linking to them. (It is insightful that altmetrics can be tracked when people have reached merely abstracts but not full texts). In this instance I am not listing them above because I necessarily recommend them but as a small sample of articles on inequality from recognised journals, noting their access type.

I do not know if the authors of these articles have deposited open access versions of these papers in their respective institutional repositories or elsewhere (if you are so inclined, you can check the three journals’ archiving policies here), and I am not publishing this post because I cannot personally access the articles above (so thank you very much indeed but please do not contact me, dear reader, to offer me the PDFs via email or Twitter). I am not saying the articles above are all there is on the subject; I am just sharing those results and detailing their access type (which you can’t easily get unless you click on them and try to access them, and even if you can access them -this means full versions- you may find it difficult to tell why you happen to have access to them).

In this post I have wanted to make a very simple point: following the links to the publishers’ versions of record of these articles discovered via the Altmetric Explorer, the access conditions were the ones detailed above.


It could be argued that as an academic I have used the wrong tool to access these resources. It can be said that in my case, as an academic based in London, UK, it is my fault to expect to access these resources from outside my library (you say you can’t access them, dear reader? Your fault!) What I am trying to do here is try to see and share what happens when someone who normally has access to this kind of research steps out from their traditional/standard discovery tools and/or position of privilege. If you don’t have the right credentials, how much can you access? [I must also note that the Altmetric Explorer requires registration and normally membership too; however, all the links listed above can be reached via regular search engines and Google Scholar].

Things are changing slowly but academics’ distrust and complaints about the low quality and lack of trustworthiness of information found on the Web are common, but at the same time we have allowed paywalled online academic journals to remain (to me weirdly) disconnected from the rest of the Web, with links leading to abstracts that promise you a full version if you pay or have the right library credentials. This breaks the flow of information that has made the Web the amazing invention it is, and contributes to the separation between the outputs of higher education and the ‘general’ public.

In my opinion it is a serious problem that if you don’t have the right credentials then so much detective work is required to access some important research (or to elucidate articles’ licensing conditions, even if they are ‘free’ or ‘complimentary’). Others, as we know, can’t be bothered at all and merely jump all the hoops, against all policies. The more barriers you impose, the more people will want to circumvent them. Ideally.

In reality, it is more likely that paywalled outputs remain inaccessible/invisible to the larger public, and perhaps even more to those affected by the very conditions studied in them. Even as an academic or student in an elite institution it is often hard (read: not straight-forward, not friction-free) to access them! A non-academic searching for this research online is likely to have already transcended many of the structural barriers created by inequality. Once you finally get to an interesting article, how great it must be then to be greeted by a huge ‘pay or keep off’?

Some might say my hypothetical non-academic individual seeking access does not really exist. Some have suggested to me that there is no evidence there is interest from the public, and that those who have access are the only ones interested. That the non-academic public wouldn’t understand the research anyway. That those interested could try harder to find surrogates. That in case they exist they are likely to know people who can ‘share’ the research with them anyway. The list of justifications of the current system can be long.

Having lived, studied and worked in a developing country I know intelligent, curious, well-informed bilingual individuals who have no access to versions of record do exist. This is people who face the inequalities of access to scientific information. They may be relatively privileged, because they have transcended the most pressing needs to enable them to seek out research. This, however, does not mean they do not exist and that their needs are not important.

I know interested individuals that are not academics exist here in the UK too. I also know for a fact that there are academics worldwide who do not have access to a lot of paywalled research. I am often one of them myself. I know there are others because I know them personally and because we know that not all libraries can afford to subscribe to the same ‘bundles’ (for the latter there is a growing body of evidence).  My personal experience does not count as scientific evidence, but it matters to me and I know it matters to others. I question why we assume that if there is supposedly no current public demand for research then it is acceptable to paywall it and not encourage further public interest and demand.

I am aware it is getting boring because I have been repeating this for several years know, but legal ‘frictionless sharing‘ wouldn’t go amiss, especially for this type of research. We call it “open access”.


Priego, Ernesto (2016): Inequality: Three sets of Journal Article Titles and URLs/DOIs from Three Different Journals, with Altmetric Score in Timeframe (1year), Last Mention at the Time of Collection and Access Type Noted. figshare.  [CC-0].