Last week, I wrote about a fascinating and puzzling (if somewhat dispiriting) paper assessing the value of science-communication training. In an (obviously futile, I know) attempt to counter the scourge that is “I didn’t read the paper but here are my thoughts anyway”, I suggested repeatedly that folks ought to read the paper. And I suppose I should have seen it coming: a veritable deluge of “It’s paywalled, I can’t read it”.
The first half of that objection is true: the paper is “paywalled”. So are a lot of good things in life: as a few examples, the New York Times, Netflix, both of my books, and groceries. There are interesting arguments to be had about whether the paywall (= subscription access) is a good model for publication in the sciences, or whether universal open access is possible or desirable.* But we won’t have those arguments today, because I’m going to do something less interesting but more immediately productive: tackle the second half of the objection. Because that part – “I can’t read it” – is almost never true.**
Yes, you can read subscription-access papers – even if neither you nor your employer (if you have one) is currently paying for a subscription. There are all kinds of tricks. Here are some, and while I expect most will be familiar to readers of Scientist Sees Squirrel, I hope this will still be useful. You can:
- ask your institution’s library (if you’re at an institution that has one, of course) about their document delivery service – of if they’re still using the older name, ‘interlibrary loan’. Nearly all libraries have some form of this service and are happy to have you put it to use. It’s usually fast (a few days) and usually free. I’ve worked mine very, very hard and have never been let down.
- check your library for print holdings. We often forget about print journals these days! Even if you’re not on campus, a librarian may be able to scan for you. [Thanks to Alex Bond for reminding me of this one.]
- ask a friend or colleague at a different institution whether their library subscribes.
- ask all of Twitter using the hashtag #ICanHazPDF.
- ask at your local public library (not all will be able to retrieve academic journal articles, but some will).
- check for a preprint version, which is often identical but for typesetting. This may be on BioRxiv or another preprint server depending on your field.
- check to see if an author has posted a copy (perhaps of the preprint version) on their own web site or their institution’s repository. Many institutions have them; for example, here’s the one for the Canadian Forest Service [thanks to Chris MacQuarrie for this one].
- check to see if an author has posted a copy to ResearchGate, Academia.edu, or a similar networking site. (Note that the author’s posting of a paywalled paper there is of dubious legality, but it’s nonetheless common).
- email an author and simply ask for a copy. At least one author’s email address almost always appears with the paper’s byline, although it can sometimes take a couple of mouse clicks to find it. As a bonus, you might make a new acquaintance.
check for the paper on an illegal mass-piracy site that rhymes with FlyDub. (Whether you’re comfortable with this approach is something of a personal decision.*** I’ve never used it, but then I’ve never failed to find a paper using some other trick on this list.)
These are all things you can do instead of concluding that you “can’t read” a paywalled paper. Some of them aren’t available to everybody, but everybody can use at least a couple. And I’ve almost certainly missed an approach or two – in which case, please use the Replies to let us all know. Granted, some ways to get a paper are less than instantaneous, but it will be a rare situation indeed where you absolutely need to read a particular paper today.
Why not give it a whirl with the Rubega et al. paper from last week’s post? I promise it will be worth your while – it’s a fascinating paper.
© Stephen Heard May 4, 2021
Image: What you’ll see trying to access Rubega et al. 2021, if you aren’t logged in with subscriber access.
*^Unfortunately, the interesting arguments about this are often drowned out by poorly informed takes from people more interested in virtue posturing than nuanced argument. Or maybe I’ve just been spending too much time on Twitter.
**^Sort of in line with the last footnote, I’ll acknowledge that sometimes “I can’t read it” isn’t a real claim; rather, it’s a passive-aggressive way of staking out a anti-paywall position. But, having countered that with a rather passive-aggressive footnote of my own, let’s from now on politely take the claim as being in good faith.
***^Which seems to involve this question: does a high profit margin by some corporate entities in an industry make it ethical to steal from all corporate entities in that industry? (Or perhaps there are people who use FlyDub to get papers from the large for-profit players but not those from society journals?)
Thanks! It is really interesting that that image could be a barrier in the States or other similar countries with a lot of resources. We have a lot of problems in the third world, but we never, ever ever ever pay or know anyone who ever payed for a paper.
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One other trick is the one I usually try first; simply copy the title and paste into Google. It’s amazing how often that leads to a PDF someone has posted. It didn’t work for this one though.
As a student from a liberal arts school with little subscription I can confirm s**-hu* works. Use it all the time
To the point above: If you search for a paper using Google Scholar, there is often a link posted to the right of the paper which allows you to access the PDF immediately.
For medical/biomedical research, research papers are available free and online through PubMed (PubMed Central® (PMC) is a free full-text archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature at the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine (NIH/NLM) (review articles may still be paywalled)
I found a downloadable pdf, apparently through the publisher website. How? Clicked on Google Scholar link for one of the co-authors, AAM MacDonald. Went to the citation for this paper, clicked on it and a link to a pdf was there.
Ironically this did not work using the first author, MA Rubega. Lots of interesting birds papers, but did not see the science communication paper.
Oh no, I definitely one of those guilty people. I’m sorry! I just had to go through all this yesterday tracking down a paper I needed for my research. Never even crossed my mind to do this for that paper but I definitely will be looking it up because it does sound super interesting.
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Approving this because someone would inevitably say it. But it’s not true, of course. You’re depriving the scholarly Society (in the case of a society journal) of revenue. You can argue that you’re ok with that, but it’s naive or disingenuous to think it’s not theft.
I have to admit I write to authors requesting a full text when I already have it through my library. It’s an icebreaker. Authors are almost always glad that someone noticed and was interested in their paper, and that sometimes leads to further correspondence, and that sometimes leads to recognition and further conversation at a conference (remember those?). In one case such a query led to many years of collaboration, several papers and a lasting friendship. A couple other of these “could you send me a copy” queries led to collaborating on at least one-off papers.
Writing the author obviously won’t work with back files after enough years, and there is where OA seems more important. I hope more journals take the approach of say Limnology and Oceanography or most AGU publications, in which all issues greater than 5 or 2 years old (I think) are switched to open. That preserves the subscription value to libraries and thus income to the societies, and makes the old literature available after the authors have died, retired, or switched up their affiliations.
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Totally agree. As an author I am always pleased when someone asks for a paper; and I’ll often send another related one they might now know about. I also see it as an icebreaker!
Great article; an excellent list of options for the access-challenged.
The (totally legal and above-board) service unpaywall.org might be worth mentioning here; it’s a wonderful piece of automation that gets the article immediately from open sources if possible.
I know you didn’t want to incite a pro/anti-paywall argument here, but frankly your footnotes hit a bit of a nerve and made me quite sad 😦
Perhaps I’m reading into your post too much, but framing people embittered by a lack of access to the outputs of taxpayer-funded research in terms of slightly unfair comparisons to newspapers or groceries could be described as begging the question. Despite the great methods you’ve mentioned, I believe the vast majority of people still do not have legal access to most paywalled literature. It’s possible that this experience differs greatly between fields, however.
Thanks for the great blog and books!
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