It happens to most researchers all too often. You see a reference or a link to an article that you’d love to read or use in your research. It looks like the article is online. But when you follow the link or look up the journal of venue it’s in, you’re confronted with a paywall— an impassable login screen, or a demand to pay a fee to read the article. Not all journals charge fees to readers (in fact, thousands do not), but for those that do, the fees are sometimes quite large– they can be $30 or $40 or more for a single article, and sometimes that fee only gets you access for a limited time period. Readers not affiliated with research institutions often run into paywalls, but so do scholars at elite research institutions, because none of us can afford to pay the ever-growing subscription prices of all the commercial journals on the market. (Not even Harvard.)
When you hit a paywall, it’s tempting to give up, look for other articles instead, or take your chances trying to get an illicit copy from sketchy bootleg sites. But there are various ways you can often get a legitimate version of the article you seek without having to pay anything. Here are some avenues you can look into.
There may be a legitimate free copy posted elsewhere online.
The website of a journal is often not the only place you can read the papers in it. Many authors also put their own copies of their papers online. There are various ways this can be done legally. Many journals and publishers allow authors to self-archive their papers on their personal or institution’s web sites, and sometimes elsewhere. (Authors might also negotiate this right when they contract with a publisher.) Typically the posted copies will not have the typesetting and formatting of the journal copies, but instead be a “preprint”– the version of the paper submitted to the journal– or a “postprint”– the paper after it’s been peer-reviewed and revised, but before it’s been reformatted with the journal’s customary typesetting and layout. There may also be an earlier iteration of a paper freely available online, such as a version presented at a conference or a working paper at an eprint site like ArXiv.org, SocArXiv, or Humanities Commons CORE.
How do you find these free versions of articles? Many of them can be found in Google Scholar, by typing in the title of the paper and the name of the lead author. (Sometimes earlier versions of the paper will have different titles, so you might also want to try typing in the names of the authors and some keywords, or a characteristic phrase from the abstract or introduction if you have access to it.) Google Scholar searches will often turn up both the publisher’s version and other versions that might be freely readable or downloadable. (Look for an “all versions” link by the search results; selecting that link will often show you the other versions.)
Unpaywall is another important tool for finding free articles. Its database of free alternatives to published articles isn’t as big as Google Scholar’s, but it’s still quite large– over 20 million to date– and it offers a variety of ways of finding articles that Google Scholar doesn’t offer. For instance, they offer a free browser plugin (currently available for Firefox and Chrome) that will inform you of free alternatives when you visit a web page for a paywalled paper. They also make their knowledge base available via APIs and bulk data downloads, allowing developers to build new applications for finding and using free versions of papers. (As a result, Unpaywall links are now available in some other bibliographic databases, such as Scopus and Web of Science, that are offered at the Penn Libraries and elsewhere.)
You might be able to get a copy from your library.
If you can’t find a free copy of the article you want on the open web, you may still be able to find a copy of the article through your library’s catalog, or via inter-library loan.
Searching the catalog can often turn up copies you can access for free. The web sites for many academic libraries, including the Penn Libraries, allow you to search for both journals and articles accessible via the library. If your library’s web site offers article searching, enter the title and first author’s name of the article you’re interested in– you might find a copy you can access via one of the library’s licensed databases. If your library just has a traditional catalog search, enter the title of the journal the article appeared in. The results may give you electronic access to the journal you’re interested in, or it might let you know about print copies the library has that contain the article. (Many journals still publish a print version.)
If your library doesn’t have the journal you seek in its collection, it might still enable you to get a copy of the article you want via inter-library loan. These days, inter-library loan can be quite fast, and in many places you can get a copy of the article delivered to you electronically. (Here’s how it works at Penn.) Visit your local librarian to find out more about what they can do for you.
It may be in the public domain.
Just because an article is behind a paywall doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually copyrighted. If you’re interested in an older article, it might be in the public domain. Many journal volumes published before 1923 have scans freely available online, and can be found via resources like The Online Books Page. But many later scholarly publications are public domain as well, including US publications prior to 1964 that did not renew their copyrights, and US publications prior to 1989 that were not published with copyright notices. Most US scholarly publications before 1964 in fact do not have copyright renewals (though a fair number do); and some more informal or noncommercial scholarly publications lacked copyright notices. At the Penn Libraries, we’ve been gathering information about periodicals and their copyright status over the course of the 20th century, and have information on many 20th-century journals here. (If you don’t see the journal that you’re interested in, and it was published in the US between 1923 and 1963, let us know about it and we’ll research it and put information about it in our resource. We’ll also list whatever public domain issues we can find freely available online.)
Just because an article or journal issue is in the public domain, there won’t necessarily be a free online copy. But if you do locate a copy of a public domain article or issue, you’re free to scan it yourself and share it with others. We hope that our listings of copyright information for various periodicals will prompt libraries and others who own those periodicals to digitize and freely share their public domain contents.
You might be able to get an article from its author(s).
If the article you’re interested in is a recent one, its authors might be reachable online. They might well have copies of their articles, and be willing to email a copy to a fellow researcher who asks for it. (Unlike the publishers, authors of scholarly articles generally earn no money from them, so they have little reason to be stingy about access.) This sort of person-to-person informal, non-systematic sharing has a long tradition in academia, and is generally allowed by publishers (and sometimes explicitly authorized; see for example this IEEE policy, which at this writing says it’s fine to “share copies… for individual personal use”.)
Contact information for authors can often be found by putting their names into search engines, along with their field of research and/or institution if known.
Paying it forward
Hopefully you’ve been able to find and benefit from free, legal copies of scholarly articles using techniques like the ones I’ve described above. You haven’t had to pay the authors or publishers for them, but if you’ve found them beneficial, you can always pay forward, by sharing your own articles with other readers. As I noted above, many journals allow authors to post their articles on personal, institutional, or other non-profit websites (though some may require waiting for a time after publication, or only posting certain versions of the article). Some publishers will also agree to additional author’s rights (such as those specified in the SPARC addendum) if the author asks for them.
Many academic libraries are happy to help you share the articles you write, and provide places to post them so that they’re easily discoverable online, and preserved for posterity. One of the services the Penn Libraries offers, for instance, is Faculty Assisted Submission, where librarians will go through your CV and post whatever they can to our institutional repository. You can also send them any further articles you publish when they are accepted, and they will take care of posting them as soon as any required waiting period has expired, without you having to keep track of what you can post when.
I hope these tips help you in freely partaking of scholarly research, and in freely sharing your own. If you have any questions about doing this, or experiences you’d like to share, feel free to comment here.