by John Borghi

EDITOR’S NOTE

The intent of this post is neither to provide a “how to manual” for individuals looking to subvert legal and established methods for obtaining scientific materials nor to advocate for such methods. The intent of this post is to be descriptive- to describe how and why an individual may choose to obtain scientific material using methods that exist in violation of copyright rules. More broadly, the intent is to open a conversation regarding the gap between rules set out  by United States Copyright Law (http://www.copyright.gov/title17/circ92.pdf), the license agreements between journal publishers and subscribers concerning the distribution of scientific material, and the perceptions of the users of that material. Individuals who engage in the methods described in this article should be aware that, by doing so, they may be placing the reputation of their affiliated institution at risk and may be participating in an activity that damages the financial security of journal publishers. Discussion of these methods does not indicate advocacy of them by the author, The Incubator, or Rockefeller University. 

Here is an unfortunately common situation: When searching for a particular scientific article, you quickly find its title and abstract in an academic citation index such as PubMed or Web of Science. However, when you click a link for the full text, a bolded notice politely informs you that you’ll need to pay an arm and a leg (or, more typically, between 30 and 60 dollars) for access. Commence cursing and gnashing of teeth. You have just run into a paywall.

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Knowlege Behind Barriers. Image from The Markus Library Rare Books Collection.

Why Do Scientists Need Ways Around Paywalls?

For a working scientist, the consequences of running into a paywall can be significantly more serious than simply a frustrating encounter with the commercial side of academic publishing. If a scientist is unable to access the full text of a particular article or paper, then he or she may find themselves lacking information crucial to decisions about experimental design or the interpretation of study results. For an individual scientist, purchasing journal subscriptions or individual articles à la carte is generally cost prohibitive. Even a scientist with access to institutional subscriptions and access tools like interlibrary loan (ILL) may find that certain articles are simply unavailable, even after exhaustive searching. Alternatively, a scientist working under a strict deadline may determine that interlibrary loan, which depending on the nature of the request can take between several days and several weeks, is just too slow.

Open access efforts have made an ever increasing amount of scientific material available free of charge. For scientists stymied by paywalls, accessing the full text of an article can now often be as simple as checking for an author manuscript in PubMed Central. However, approximately three quarters of all scientific articles, including those published in the highest profile journals, remain sequestered behind paywalls. In response to the difficulty and expense often involved in accessing these articles, scientists and other academics have developed multiple methods to quickly gain access to the material they need. Though a scientist may be able to gain access to a large number of articles using these methods, they are often at odds with the copyright rules set by journal publishers, as demonstrated by the flood of takedown notices recently issued to sharing platforms such as Academia.edu and Mendeley.

Methods for Getting Around Paywalls: Google Scholar, #ICanHazPDF, and Piracy

Even for a scientist without access to institutional subscriptions, locating the full text of an article can often be as easy as a quick search using Google Scholar. If an author posts full text versions his or her articles online, these articles will quickly be indexed by Google Scholar and will subsequently be made easily accessible. Similarly, an article may also become available if another scientist or academic uploads a paper to another location indexed by Google Scholar, like a website intended for lab members or participants in a seminar.

When unable to locate an article using Google Scholar, a frustrated scientist may turn to methods that allow access by violating reprint rules. By using the hashtag #ICanHazPDF, anyone can request the full text of an article through Twitter. Precise statistics are difficult to determine because related tweets are generally deleted, but other Twitter users often fulfill a request within a matter of minutes or hours. Similarly crowdsourced methods such as Reddit Scholar, Pirate University, and grr.aaaaarg work similarly, though they usually retain both the initial request and links to the requested article for longer periods. For example, it is currently possible to view nearly all of the articles requested by users of Reddit Scholar in the last month just by visiting the site.

Proponents of #ICanHazPDF or Reddit Scholar often claim that these methods are consistent with the spirit of scientific collaboration, even if they do not strictly adhere to copyright rules. Opponents argue that these methods do not significantly differ from the piracy of other content, such as movies or television shows. However, though the result is ultimately the same- people receiving content without paying- there is a fundamental difference between scientific material, which may be necessary to inform crucial decisions about experimental design or interpretation, and last night’s episode of Game of Thrones or Big Bang Theory. As the landscape of science publication continues to evolve, publishers and scientists will need to work together to bridge the gap between the material scientists need and the material made available to them. However, until this gap is completely filled, scientists will continue to find methods to get around paywalls. Journal publishers may not necessarily agree, but scientists skirting around paywalls is probably preferable to the alternative: citing articles without reading them.

5 Thoughts on “Skirting Around Paywalls: How Scientists Quickly Get the Articles They Need”

  • I don’t recommend piracy, but there is no reason you cannot ask the author to send you an electronic or print copy, this has been the accepted practice for decades. If you are doing research and cite the works, those citations help the journals and are highly sought after.

    • Hi Brett,

      Thanks for your comment. When I was writing this post, I tried to be very careful not to endorse piracy. I never intended this post to be a “how to” manual for getting around paywalls, more a description of how and why scientists find themselves turning to Reddit or Twitter for PDFs.

      In my experience, asking the author is not the most reliable method for getting an article quickly. When I’ve asked, I’ve sometimes had an author reply very quickly but sometimes they don’t reply at all.

      I’ll be delving into the issues related to citations , specifically for “glamour” journals like Science and Nature, in a coming post. While I agree that a high number of citations can help individual authors and journals, the reliance on citation-related metrics (like h-index for authors and impact factor for journals) has definitely had an effect on how science is conducted.

  • I am the author of this post. I am also the science informationist at The Markus Library at Rockefeller University. Through this position, it is my responsibility to bring the resources of the library proactively out to members of the scientific community on The Rockefeller University campus. In the process of doing this, and in my own experiences as graduate student and science communicator, I have noticed a substantial gap between the United States Copyright Law (http://www.copyright.gov/title17/circ92.pdf),license agreements with journal publishers concerning the distribution of journal articles and other scientific materials, and the perceptions and behaviors of the users of those materials (i.e. scientists). This post was my attempt to illustrate that gap and open a conversation about how to close it.

    Left out of this final version of this post is a discussion I initially wrote regarding education. A significant portion of my current role at the Markus Library is to educate scientists on the methods at their disposal for legally obtaining the material they need. This includes, but is not limited to, instruction on optimizing the use of citation indices such as PubMed and Web of Science, discussion of access tools such as interlibrary loan (ILL), and highlighting the growth of preprint repositories such as arxiv. It is my firm belief that such education goes a long way towards curtailing the type of behavior described in this post. I believe that many people who turn to these methods are doing so because they are not fully aware of the tools that have been made legally available to them.

    Thus, I believe that the conversation this post was intended to open has at least three participants; scientists, who often appear to regard their need for journal articles as somehow exempt from the copyright law and subscription license agreements, journal publishers, who are forced to weigh the ideals of the scientific community against their own financial needs, and library staff, who often act as intermediaries.

  • A dollar store for research articles?
    As a librarian and businessperson, what I see in this situation is a clear market need. That is, researchers need full text research articles, and they need them conveniently, quickly, and without an exorbitant fee. What I’d like to suggest is that libraries, publishers, and professional organizations get together and create a dollar store for research articles. Multiple major publishers could be invited to participate by opening articles to this service. A mobile app could be developed to access the service, and institutional and individual subscriptions would be available. Each level of service would entitle the user to a certain number of free, full-text articles per month; after that, each paper would be $0.99. This is not exactly the idealized open-access world we are hoping for, but it is at least a start to meeting the needs of researchers, who by the way, are not criminals, but kind, altruistic individuals interested in understanding and solving the world’s problems.

    • Hi Judy,

      Thanks for your response. I definitely agree that libraries/publishers/professional groups need to get together to do something about the current model. Unfortunately, I’d be surprised if any party would be satisfied with a 0.99 dollar price point. I’d imagine scientists would find it too high and publishers would find it too low.

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