The value of bibliographic references and the importance of making them open

The OpenCitation infrastructure
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Bibliographic references are crucial in scientific literature, ensuring reproducibility, serving as a source of in-depth information, and assessing the impact of scientific work. However, if these data are closed, these processes may be compromised. OpenCitations is an infrastructure established in 2010 that provides open access to bibliographic and citation data, positioning itself as an alternative to commercial services. The academic community plays a fundamental role in supporting and developing OpenCitations and its future

Research evaluation and transparency

In scientific literature, bibliographic references – the detailed list of sources used and cited within a scientific article – are pivotal for the validity and integrity of research and play a crucial role in the evaluation of other aspects such as the scientific impact assessment of the work itself. They not only allow retracing sources and delving deeper into a topic but also enable reconstructing the map of connections between works and other measurements typical of scientometrics, the discipline that deals with measuring scientific activity

However, in an article published in Nature in 2013, Professor David Shotton defines as a “scandal” the fact that in the academic community bibliographic references to academic articles are not immediately and free of charge available to all scholars.

The difficulty of accessing citation data undermines the reproducibility of bibliometric research and, more generally, of the research evaluation processes.In this discouraging context, in which research evaluation is influenced by a general lack of transparency of the data used and the methods adopted, the academic community must strive to make bibliographic and citation metadata open and reusable, as this is a crucial requirement for the creation of reproducible metrics for research evaluation processes.

OpenCitations for Open Science

Since its founding in 2010, the open, non-profit infrastructure OpenCitations has been committed to providing open and open access to bibliographic and citation data, pursuing the mission of openly collecting and publishing accurate and complete metadata describing academic global publications and the citations that link to them, and preserving access through platforms that secure archiving. The data provided by OpenCitations is published under an open CC0 license that allows them to be reused for any purpose, allowing easy integration with complementary sources of open academic information and thus providing the basis for developing a global network of open knowledge services.

At the end of November 2023, OpenCitations data is collected in two separate and interlinked collections: OpenCitations Index, which currently has almost 2 billion citations among bibliographic resources (in the form "resource A cites resource B"), and OpenCitations Meta, which contains the basic bibliographic metadata (title, publication date, author, identifiers, etc.) of the bibliographic entities involved in the citation. Thanks to these numbers, OpenCitations can therefore be considered a valid and open alternative to commercial services. In 2021, an analysis conducted by Alberto Martìn-Martìn showed that the coverage of OpenCitations citations (considering the COCI citation index, now merged into the OpenCitations Index collection) was approaching that of some large commercial players such as Web of Science and Scopus (fig.1).

Fig. 1 Percentage of citations found by each database, compared to all citations (first row) and to the number of citations found by Google Scholar

OpenCitations is therefore achieving the goals set by SCOSS (the Global Sustainability Coalition for Open Science Services), which in 2019 selected it among the open science infrastructures worthy of receiving support from the academic community, defining it as "a game changer by challenging the established proprietary citation services".

The extensive citation coverage achieved by OpenCitations confirms the essential value of the Initiative for Open Citations (I4OC), of which OpenCitations is one of the founders. Since 2018, I4OC's mission has been to move academic publishers to openly provide the bibliographic references included in their articles via the Crossref platform. I4OC's tireless efforts have led leading academic publishers to a progressive change of heart towards open citations. As a result, the OpenCitations database now contains citation data derived from Crossref that includes all publishers that deposit their bibliographic references there (including Elsevier and IEEE), and citation data included in additional sources such as DataCite, PubMed, OpenAIRE, and the Japan Link Center.

Thanks to its commitment to open bibliographic data, OpenCitations has become one of the main players in the current Open Science landscape, and embraces the core Open Science values, including the UNESCO Principles for Open Science, the Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructure (POSI), the FAIR Principles for data, and the recommendations of the Initiative for Open Citations. OpenCitations also collaborates with a wide network of industry projects and infrastructures (fig.2); in particular it has been involved in OpenAIRE Nexus, RISIS2, and is one of the data providers in the GraspOS project. He is also an active member of the SCOSS Family Network and of the POSI Adopters group, as well as being one of the members of the Working Group Towards Open Infrastructures for Responsible Research Assessment (OI4RRA) recently inaugurated by the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA). Finally, OpenCitations is included in the EOSC Marketplace and the JISC catalog.

Fig. 2 Part of OpenCitations' network of collaborations

The academic community and OpenCitations

The extensive network of community-based services that support the use of Open Science and Open Access practices is just one of the ways in which the academic community is involved in OpenCitations, which is defined as "community-guided" infrastructure. OpenCitations is in fact administratively managed by the Research Centre for Open Schorlarly Metadata at the University of Bologna, and its governance relies on the representation of the academic institutions that are members of the infrastructure, and on the strategic advice of the exponents of Open Science initiatives who are a part of the International Advisory Board. The academic community also participates in the activities of OpenCitations through financial support or by helping to provide, annotate, curate, and correct OpenCitations data, thus working with the infrastructure to expand the coverage and quality of the bibliographic metadata and citations it provides.

The academic community plays a key role in the future of OpenCitations: support from academic institutions can help OpenCitations become a financially stable and durable infrastructure that the community can rely on to provide open bibliographic and citation data for many years to come. If an institution is interested in supporting OpenCitations, it can contribute to the maintenance of its team for the development and research of its technical infrastructure by becoming part of its members or donors – all information about the membership program is available on the website. OpenCitations exists for the community and thanks to the community: together we can create a fairer, more sustainable and open future of research.

To stay up-to-date on OpenCitations' activities, follow the OpenCitations blog and the Public Roadmap on Trello.

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Italian version

Chiara Di Giambattista

Chiara Di Giambattista is a Research Fellow at the University of Bologna. She works as Communications Director and Community Development Manager for OpenCitations, an open infrastructure organization dedicated to the publication of open bibliographic and citation data. She manages the OpenCitations Blog ( dedicated to updates on OpenCitations's activities in the context of the Open Science ecosystem.


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