Open Inaccessibility

Open Inaccessibility
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

In my decade working on the openness of research I touched upon content accessibility only a few times, in part because it was and is a less discussed topic in my circles. But that does not make it less important.

After all: When a PDF is downloaded, who can read it?

At the start of the year I discussed the social model of disability and inaccessibility in relation to open scholarship, but since then I have not done much more in a practical sense. Here's the best explanation of the social model of disability I have seen:

An explainer video of the social model of disability. Source:

Content inaccessibility came back on my radar again when I read a recent study about content accessibility improvements for arXiv. This paper calls content accessibility "the next frontier of open science." As we see a simultaneous increase in user-generated content platforms for publishing, where there is less control over what and how things get published, I would agree and argue that accessibility will become a bigger topic quickly.

Some of my main takeaways and juxtapositions from this paper include:

  • There is clear content inaccessibility: only 30% of people using assistive technologies rate all research as accessible (vs. 59% of people not using assistive technologies).
  • HTML is preferred for accessibility, but non-disabled people prefer PDFs.
  • Biggest improvement areas for accessibility are (1) PDF formatting, (2) images (alt texts), (3) math accessibility (e.g., MathML for screenreaders), (4) making data in figures parseable by screen readers.
  • People who don't use assistive technologies don't know what is required of them to make accessible documents
  • PDF is often preferred because it is easy/easier to save to reference managers.

Moreover, this study evaluated the experiences of researchers in each step of the article process. A lot of negative experiences happen at each step, indicating there is ample room for improvement. Accessibility is helpful for everyone in the end.

Original Figure 1. The stacked bar chart shows the percent of positive vs. negative experiences at each step in the user journey.

I wonder though, how HTML pairs up with other technologies like XML, which this study did not dive into.

Next steps

This study on content accessibility on arXiv is a great example of how to engage and with mindful intent start moving the needle forward. It inspires me to take some next steps as well. I am a non-disabled person, so my forgetfulness about this topic is a reminder of my privilege to not have these issues on a day-to-day basis. It also highlights the importance of actively doing something about it, as not doing anything is bad enough to promote the status quo.

Practically and specifically, I will implement accessible DOIs into ResearchEquals upon my return next week. I also recognize I am fairly ignorant on disability studies and activism, so I am starting that journey by making these the first books I read in 2023:

  1. Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century (by Alice Wong)
  2. Year of the Tiger: An Activist's Life (by Alice Wong)
  3. I'll figure it out: How ableism impacts disabled people's lives (by Marina Carlos)

If this topic of inaccessibility and ableism was new to you, what are your thoughts? I would love for people to explore this area more in 2023 and share in each other's journeys! Book recommendations welcome too 😊