Getting academic papers for free

By Razib Khan | April 20, 2011 10:33 am

Some strategies (H/T Michelle). Unfortunately the efficacy of many of these tactics varies by discipline, and it is often really hard to get a hold of something without academic access when it comes to the biological sciences. There’s arXiv and SSRN for physical and social scientists, but in the biosciences you have clusters of journals such as at PLoS and BioMed which are relatively exceptional archipelagos of easy access. If you follow one of the Eisen brothers you’ll also be made very conscious of the unfortunate fact that many a time papers which are supposed to be open access at mainstream publishing houses such as Nature are mistakenly gated because of the content management’s default settings. This technical sloppiness is rather galling because these publishing houses are often very vigilant about scanning the web (I assume via crawlers) looking for people who have put up “their”* content for free (yes, I know this from personal experience).

I have many smart and motivated readers who happen not to have academic access. It’s definitely a consideration when I want to blog a paper whether it is open or gated. Obviously I blog gated papers, but it does change the nature of the task when many of your readers aren’t going to be able to see the primary source themselves.

* I hope I’m not getting anyone in trouble when I pass on the reality that many of the original content producers often are excited when they see unauthorized distribution, because they’re thrilled that people care enough about their research to do this.

MORE ABOUT: Open Access, Publishing
  • jen

    try NIH’s pubmed site:
    if a paper was generated using grant funding it must legally be posted there and available to the public.

  • Zach K

    @Jen – that’s true for the index and abstract, usually, not the full text (which is rather useless). Obviously, Razib knows about pubmed.
    edit: actually, I think you’re right about the whole text policy, but the rule is that the manuscript must be submitted within 12 months of publication.

  • ohwilleke

    Conference proceedings and subject matter blogs often have links to papers that aren’t easy to find elsewhere, or at least to detailed power point or extended quotation descriptions of them. Also, it is often the case that supplemental data and materials are open access even if the paper is not.

  • Ian

    I’m surprised that “contact the author” is so far down the list. Obviously it’s fairly normal to distribute reprints to ‘colleagues’ – are people less inclined to do this for members of the general public? Or is the difference in the process of asking, of the perception of ‘the professor’ as this distant person?

  • EcoPhysioMichelle

    Ian, I think it is just more polite not to bug people you don’t know with requests until you’ve exhausted your other options.

  • MN Family Historian

    I’d prefer you blog about even gated access papers. I don’t have the academic background to understand many genetics articles, so I rely on blogs like yours and Dienekes to at least summarize them, if not explain them further. There aren’t many other places to learn about advances in the field. And if I’m sufficiently interested in the subject of an article, I can always go to a nearby university library and read the whole thing there.

  • Pingback: Access to Scientific Knowledge |()


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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