Getting Access to Paywalled Papers

One great frustration is that published studies sometimes appear in journals that are behind a paywall. If access to an article was a reasonable cost, then it would be no big deal. Unfortunately, unless you have access via an academic library account, it can often cost as much as $35 or more per article. What is also absurd is that the authors and peer reviewers don’t get any of this, it all goes to the publisher. Authors are forced to do this by circumstances because they need to get published in credible and reputable peer-reviewed journals. The publishers know this and have greatly inflated the prices for no justifiable reason.

One response is the rise of the open access movement. But often that also costs, because the author or their institution then needs to pay a huge fee that they can’t allocate for that. What can you then do if there is a paywalled paper that you would like to access?

Roughly about a year ago in Dec 2017, Holly Witteman, an associate professor of medicine, posted a blog article titled “Getting Access to Paywalled Papers“. With her permission, I’m reproducing it here via the Ref menu so that it is easy to find.

Getting Access to Paywalled Papers

Holly Witteman

I wrote this to explain some things that are often invisible to people who don’t publish in peer-reviewed journals as corresponding authors. My primary purpose for putting up this post is to share that even in the current, imperfect system, there are things that anyone can do to more easily access paywalled papers. Scroll down if you don’t want the preamble.

First some facts:

The $35 for a journal article goes to the publisher, not the author

Publishing is a very lucrative business. The profits go to publishers, not academics, though academics arguably also benefit to some extent. Because publication is a job requirement, when we publish, we are able to get and keep jobs.

Offering a paper as open access typically costs an academic around USD$2500-3000

Article processing fees in the journals in which I publish range from about $800 to $6000 but $2500-3000 is a pretty typical amount. I allocate for these in my grant budgets but sometimes the rules put limits on how much I can allocate to article processing fees, an article may come from an unfunded project, or I may have other uses for those funds that are more important at the time; e.g., paying to do more research or providing funding to a graduate student. Funds are not unlimited. When you demand open access within the current model, what you are implying is that it is more important for you to be able to access the article in one click than it is for more research to be done that could help you or others. (Working to change the current model is good, though.)

Some funders will also pay the article processing fees for some or all articles, but there may be limits. An agency from which I hold funds will pay up to $3500 per project, which is great, except my project funded from that agency has produced 5 manuscripts so far. Many agencies also have policies that require papers to be deposited in an open access repository, but it may take up to a year for them to become available to the public.

Preprints are great but are not accepted in all fields nor by all journals [added 2018-07-10]

Some fields (for example, physics, mathematics, computer science, and economics) have a long tradition of preprints. A preprint is a version of a manuscript that has often not yet by peer-reviewed nor published. I love the preprint model and have used it (for example, I am lead author on this preprint) but preprints are not a full solution to the problem of paywalled articles, for two reasons. First, preprints have not yet been peer-reviewed. Peer review is not perfect and it will not catch all problems but it does help improve papers. This helps people who are not scientists in that field have some confidence that the conclusions of the paper are valid. This may be especially important for things like randomized controlled trials that can change clinical practice. Second, preprints are not accepted in all fields nor by all journals. This means that, in some fields, by putting a manuscript out as a preprint, you can no longer submit it to a large number of journals. I think this is terrible and I have personally made a point to talk to editors about allowing manuscripts that have been already disseminated as preprints, but right now this is just a reality of academic science.

My view:

I prefer the open access model and I try to publish open access whenever I can. Especially when all or part of research is publicly-funded, I think its results should be available to all members of the public, not just people with institutional access. I am increasingly taking advantage of methods to put my paywalled papers online. My institution now has a repository, so I am slowly figuring out which versions of which of my papers can be put there. Different publishers have slightly different rules, so this is not always as straightforward as I would like. Despite my efforts, I can’t always manage an open access article processing fee for every paper, nor can many other academics, so with that in mind, I offer:


Editing to add two other options I’ve heard from multiple people. [Moved up 2018-07-07 to avoid mistakenly conveying these two methods are illegal when they are not. Thank you to Christy Caldwell for flagging this]

1. Email the authors.

As an author, I am thrilled when people want to read my papers. I am allowed to send copies to you upon request and I will happily do so if you just email me to ask. You can usually find an author’s email by googling them or, if they are a health researcher, by searching their publications on PubMed and clicking to see the author information. It isn’t there for all papers so it might take a few tries, but it’s usually possible to find someone’s email this way.

To do this, click on the little plus symbol labeled author information under the title and authors of an article:

You’ll have the best shot if the person is the first or last author. This is because some journals require emails from every author; some only require it from the corresponding author.

(Fun fact: if you are new to publishing, the first time your email address gets put up here, it will start to get scraped and you will start getting academic spam inviting you to submit papers to predatory journals. I have strategies for filtering that spam.)

[edited to add 2018-07-06] Related to this, a tip from Twitter user @_impactandvalue: also ask if they will share any of their other work cited in the paper you’re requesting. This may save multiple emails.

2. Use your local library.

If you have a university, hospital, or public library in your community, you should be able to access at least some articles through them. Not every library has access to every article but they may be able to use interlibrary loan to get access. The more those services get used, the more likely it is that they will keep on existing.

If you spend time in a hospital, especially one affiliated to a medical school, ask if they have a librarian who handles patient inquiries. They may not only be able to get you copies of articles, but also help you find the most relevant articles for your situation.

3. Check google scholar for a pdf.

If you put the title of the paper into Google Scholar, you should find it. The right hand side of the search interface will sometimes show you if there is a pdf available. Under the title you may also see a link, “All ## versions.” If you click this, you will see different ways to access the article, which may include pdfs or open access html versions.

4. Other methods.

I do not advocate these methods, especially not as a first line approach. This is because they are not necessarily legal–though they may well be ethical–and perhaps more importantly, I think they take away from libraries at a time when libraries need all the support they can get. However, for people’s information, other ways to access articles include tweeting a request for an article with the hashtag #icanhazpdf (once someone sends you the pdf, it is good practice to delete your tweet) or the group of pirating sites SciHub.

This post is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0.

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