How to access paywalled research papers without institutional access

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The Internet is full of extraordinary allegations, promises of breakthrough discoveries, and content promoting new, innovative products. Some of these claims are supposedly based on scientific evidence, linking to research which you are told to read. So, you look it up, but the papers are hidden behind paywalls. What should you do?

Paywalled Research Article

One option is to accept all those claims at face value. In a perfect world where everyone was an honest citizen driven by doing the most good, this could be a viable approach. However, whether it is because of ulterior motives or laziness, a lot of information published online is not based on strong evidence.

Linking to a paper doesn’t guarantee you can trust that what you’re reading is a true reflection of the original results, nor that the study constitutes strong evidence in the first place. In order to assess whether you can trust a claim, you need to access the original paper. Fortunately, even when the paper is paywalled, there are a few workarounds.

An opportunity to nurture your network

Paywalls are a pain, there is no denying that. However, you can turn your annoyance into an opportunity for growth by either making the most of your existing network, or expanding your network to include more experts in the fields you are curious about.

Here are some ways you can access paywalled research papers that will help you nurture your professional network:

  • Contacting the author(s). All papers, including paywalled papers, display the contact information for the corresponding author on the page. Send them a polite email asking if they can send you a PDF version of the paper. Most researchers will be happy to oblige, and even flattered that someone is taking an interest in their research, so you don’t even need to give a justification.
  • Obtaining alumni access. If you went to university, check with your alumni association whether they have a programme that gives alumni access to library resources. For example, many universities around the world give access to JSTOR as a perk of joining the alumni association.
  • Getting a courtesy appointment. Do you have any connections with an educational institution? It doesn’t have to be your former university. You can have a look at your local institutions, and offer to help with some projects or provide a few hours of adjunct teaching per month in exchange for a courtesy affiliation that will come with login credentials.

Of course, some of these workarounds are quite tedious, and you may not be interested in growing an academic network. Some other options are quicker and easier to implement.

Finding a freely available copy

A lot of paywalled research papers are also available freely somewhere else on the web. It may not always be the final, publisher-approved version, but you will still get access to the results you want to read for yourself.

  • Accessing the self-archived version. Many researchers post their papers on their own website, on their research institution’s website, or on self-archival websites such as Academia and ResearchGate. Instead of manually checking each of these, you can go to Google Scholar, paste the title of the article, and then check the “all versions” link. If it says “PDF” next to any of the versions, bingo! You’ve found yourself a freely available copy.
  • Downloading the preprint. If you can’t find a freely available copy of the peer-reviewed article on Google Scholar, you may still be able to find the corresponding preprint. While it may slightly differ from the final, peer-reviewed version, the data should still be the same. Just make sure you are downloading the latest preprint. Some preprint servers include arXiv, Cogprints, and PeerJ.
  • Going to a public library. If you want an excuse to take a walk, look no further. This is an old-school workaround, but most public libraries will give you onsite access to many research databases, though you may need a library card in some cases. If you are pressed for time, download the research you need and read it later in the comfort of your home.
  • Installing a browser extension. Even easier, you can install Unpaywall to do all of the hard work for you. It harvests content from thousands of university and government websites from all over the world, and will tell you if there is a freely available copy somewhere, whether it’s a preprint or an author’s self-archived version. Open Access Button is another extension that looks for the open access version, or sends a request to the author.

You can find many more open access journals and repositories by searching the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and the Directory of Open Access Repositories (openDOAR).

For instance, even if it’s published in paywalled journals, research funded through the National Institutes of Health must also be published through PubMed, a repository of freely available scientific papers.

This guide would not be complete without mentioning Sci-Hub. Created by Alexandra Elbakyan (read our interview), Sci-Hub will let you access almost any academic paper. As it’s not legal in many countries, we cannot fully endorse it and this is for informational purposes only 🙂

Open science where anyone could access any research at any time would greatly contribute to fostering scientific collaboration, nurturing our collective intelligence, and accelerate humanity’s pace of discovery. The current model is antiquated and new models are being designed as you read this.

In the meantime, there are many workarounds to access paywalled research papers without institutional access. Give them a go, and have fun expanding your knowledge and your network!

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