Science can’t advance without researchers being able to share their publications with collaborators and others and to access published papers as bases for their own hypotheses and work. The trend toward open-access availability of papers and the push for mandating publicly-funded research to be freely accessible to the public is still ongoing [1,2]. Until more literature is easily accessible, the path from the publication of an article to the eyes of a researcher in need of it is not always straightforward.
In this first of a two-part series, we review legal ways to access journal articles. Look out for our upcoming article on sharing your articles.
Access Journal Articles Behind Paywalls for Free
It’s an all-too-familiar frustration: you’re writing your latest research paper and sifting through PubMed  for sources to cite, and you come across an abstract where the authors describe experiments that would confirm or deny your burgeoning point…only to hit a paywall.
Another common dilemma: it’s your turn to lead journal club, and you want to cover the latest major publication on the gene many members of your group are researching, but like many just-published papers, it’s paywalled for the next 12 months.
How can you dig deeper to support your manuscript properly, or nab access to that hot new paper for group discussion, without paying the usually hefty single-article fee …or breaking the law?
Check Your Institutions’ and Associations’ Subscriptions
Universities, colleges, and companies usually subscribe to a number of journals relevant to their research. You might have hit a paywall simply because you’re not logged in through your institution. If you’re on-site, check your internet connection. Your Wi-Fi device might have reverted to guest access that lacks privileges afforded to students, faculty, and staff of the institution, a common glitch.
If you’re working from home, have you logged in to your institution’s VPN or library proxy server? Some papers (especially older ones) that are not available via PubMed even when you log in through VPN or proxy could still be available through your university’s library. Clicking around on the library’s site often reveals different ranges of issue dates sorted under different databases, particularly for long-running journals.
Institutions where you are an alumnus could also be helpful here. Many universities include some extent of library access—often for a small annual fee—in their alumni programs. It’s frequently limited to physical copies or to a single database that is separate from the greater variety available to current students, but it could just uncover that specific article you seek.
Finally, are you a member of the Biophysical Society, AAAS, ASBMB [5,6,7], or other science society? These usually offer free or discounted subscriptions to the journals they publish.
Investigate Other Library Options
Your local library might subscribe to the journal(s) you’re trying to access. In many cases, the resources are only available on microfilm or microfiche.
And don’t forget good old interlibrary loans. It will take a few visits to websites of libraries where you aren’t a member and maybe a few phone calls as well, just to see which library has the right issue of the journal. Then, call your institution’s or city’s library and arrange for a loan from that other library. This may cost a nominal fee and may only allow you access to a hard copy. Also, keep in mind how soon you need the resource, as interlibrary loans often take weeks.
Get it From the Author
The first page of most papers contains an email address for the corresponding author for situations exactly like this! Contact info is also available on that webpage with the abstract preceding the page with the paywall. It might feel awkward to cold-email a researcher you don’t know for their paper, but if they respond, it would be all worthwhile.
Be sure to ask the author about any permission they have from the journal to share the paper, and give them the chance to check with the journal as they might also not know. (You could also look on How Can I Share It whether an author is allowed to share their work .) In many cases, journals give authors permission to share only pre-print versions of their papers, which suit most purposes and shouldn’t inhibit your work that uses that paper.
If you write to the corresponding author and can’t seem to get a response, check the authors’ lab group pages on their institutions’ websites as well as their social media pages. Some publishers, such as Springer Nature , are allowing authors to share their work, often in view-only mode, on social media, networks for researchers, personal websites, and public repositories without it being a copyright violation.
Unpaywall , a service from the organization Our Research (formerly Impactstory) [11,12], legally harvests content from open-access sources such as university and government databases and authors’ and publishers’ webpages and makes them available in one place .
While there isn’t a search bar on its site to look for papers directly, it is integrated into Dimensions  and Scopus , where its database feeds into your search results . If you’re accessing the web from a University of California campus or through their VPN or proxy, you’ll see Unpaywall as a link for accessing many of your search results. Otherwise, you may want to install Unpaywall as a browser plug-in; it’s available for Chrome  and Firefox . It runs in the background while you browse, without the need for you to paste in article DOIs as in its previous iteration, OA Button (which is still available ).
Look for an Open-Access Alternative
Are you looking for an article to cite for backing up a statement? You might not need the particular one you’ve targeted. Similar work with results pointing to the same fact could be published elsewhere. This can happen because competing research groups often tend to publish parallel research at the same time, or else because findings are frequently reproduced by other labs to verify their integrity.
Sometimes a lab will publish figures analyzing the same data they had previously published in a new way, either in a review paper or in a subsequent research article where new, related data build over the old data. Alternatively, a review paper by another lab citing the paper you can’t access could cite the fact you seek substantially enough to serve as an adequate citation.
With any luck, you could find a source fitting any of these scenarios that is open access and can replace the citation you’d initially desired.
When it’s Time to Open Your Wallet
If none of the above options works, you may have to fork it over and pay the journal. Here are your options:
Purchase or Rent the Individual Paper
If it’s a particular paper that you can’t obtain for free and for which you just can’t find an open-access substitute, you may need to invest in access to that one paper. It may not be necessary to purchase it at the full price indicated by the paywall.
If the journal is published by a scientific society of which you are a member, the price is likely discounted for you. If the paper is from a Nature-branded journal, you could use ReadCube , which offers three different tiers of access:
- most cheaply, to rent the paper for 48 hours;
- intermediately, to purchase cloud access;
- and most expensively, to purchase the full PDF.
If this is a journal club article, you’ll need to purchase the PDF because you wouldn’t otherwise be able to print or share the paper with your group, just as you wouldn’t be able to import it into your reference manager. The lower tiers would still allow you to read the information from the paper for your use, and of course, you could always enter all the citation info into your reference manager.
Get a Personal Subscription
If you find yourself wishing you had access to different papers and a large proportion of them are from the same journal, it might be worthwhile to subscribe to that journal.
Perhaps you’re having a year during which you’re writing more than usual—the last year of your PhD, a period of grant-writing for a nonprofit startup that likely has few or no journal subscriptions of its own, or a year several years into a professorship at which point you’re hoping for tenure next quarter—and you might want to subscribe to a journal or two that particularly pertain to your work for that year (subscriptions are annual in most cases).
Admittedly, this is an expensive option, although personal, non-commercial subscriptions are usually priced lower than institutional ones. For instance, yearly individual subscriptions are $235 for PNAS , $835 for JLR  (though a subscription comes free of charge to members of ASBMB ), and $845 for Environmental Microbiology .
Have we missed any legal ways to access articles? If so, leave us a comment below. Also, make sure to check out our related Bitesize Bio articles on Common Myths of Copyright and Open Access: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for more answers to your burning questions about copyright and open access.
For more tips on keeping track of the scientific literature, head over to the Bitesize Bio Managing the Scientific Literature Hub.
- Piwowar H, Priem J, Orr R. The Future of OA: A large-scale analysis projecting Open Access publication and readership. bioRxiv 795310; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/795310 [PREPRINT]
- Rabesandratana, T. Will the world embrace Plan S, the radical proposal to mandate open access to science papers? Science, Jan. 3, 2019.
- PubMed. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- sporte (Porter, S). How much does it cost to get a scientific paper? ScienceBlogs, Jan. 9, 2012. Accessed Aug. 31, 2020.
- Biophysical Society. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- American Association for the Advancement of Science. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- How Can I Share It. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Springer Nature. SharedIt. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Unpaywall: An open database of 20 million free scholarly articles. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Our Research. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Heather. Impactstory is now Our Research. Our Research blog, July 4, 2019. Accessed Sep. 1, 2020.
- Unpaywall due for release 4th April. LibraryLearningSpace, March 22, 2017. Accessed Sep. 1, 2020.
- Dimensions. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Elsevier. Scopus. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Heather. Elsevier becomes newest customer of Unpaywall Data Feed. Our Research blog, July 26, 2018. Accessed Sep. 1, 2020.
- Chrome Web Store – Extensions. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Unpaywall – Get this Extension for Firefox. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Open Access Button. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Papers App. What is ReadCube Checkout? What are the purchase options? Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2021 Subscription Rates. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Journal of Lipid Research. Print Subscriptions. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Member subscriptions. American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 2020. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.
- Wiley Online Library. Step 1 of 4 – Choose Subscription. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020.