Has this ever happened to you? You come across a tweet with a link to a new study in your disease area and you eagerly click on it only to find it leads you to a journal article behind a paywall.
I’ve lost count of the number of times this has happened to me and the frustration I feel at not being able to access a relevant study without paying an amount I cannot afford. To purchase a single article can cost upwards of $100.
Over the years I’ve discovered there are some ways to get around this paywall. Below I’ve outlined 7 tips on gaining access to journal articles. These methods may not always give you access to the full article, but they are certainly worth trying in your search for peer-reviewed literature to better understand your health condition.
1. Search Google Scholar
Google Scholar provides a simple way to broadly search for journal articles, alongside books from academic publishers. The site harvests the content of institutional repositories and links them in one record.
2. Explore online databases
Similar to Google Scholar, there are several online repositories of academic papers free to search online. As I said above, you may not always be able to access the full article, but you will be able to read the study abstract (an abstract is a short summary of the research contained within the study.)
Core is a search engine and index for aggregated research publications from repositories and journals globally.
Dimensions is a next-generation linked research information system that makes it easier to find and access the most relevant information. Developed in collaboration with over 100 leading research organizations around the world, it brings together over 128 million publications. Users of the free version can use the Open Access filter to find articles.
The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is a list of nearly 10,000 open access journals and a search service finding peer-reviewed and scholarly journals and articles.
PubMed, maintained by the US National Library of Medicine, is a free search engine covering the biomedical and life sciences going back as far back as 1951.
JSTOR gives you access to more than 12 million journal articles in upwards of 75 disciplines, providing full-text searches of more than 2,000 journals, and access to more than 5,000 Open Access books.
Web of Science covers more than 20,000 carefully selected journals, along with books, conference proceedings, and other sources.
Science.gov covers the vast territory of United States federal science, including more than 60 databases and 2,200-plus websites.
3. Search for pre-printed publications
OSF Preprints is a platform with openly accessible preprints, or submitted manuscripts that are publically distributed before acceptance and peer-review in a traditional scientific journal. An advantage of publishing preprints is the speeding up of scientific communication and of sharing research results earlier, as it can take a long time between submission of an article till publication. OSF Preprints is developed by the Centre for Open Science (COS), a non-profit organization with the goal of greater openness and reproducible research.
4. Download an app
I have installed an app called Unpaywall as a browser extension on my laptop.
Unpaywall is an open database of 29,624,840 free scholarly articles. The app harvests content from legal sources including repositories run by universities, governments, and scholarly societies, as well as open (free access) content hosted by publishers themselves.
Open Access Button is another plugin for Chrome or Firefox that works similarly to Unpaywall. Click on the button while you are viewing a pay-walled journal article and it will search for open access versions.
5. Ask a university librarian or academic
Did you know that people with access to university databases usually have “free” access to all journal articles, because their university pays for it? If you know someone who works in a university library or is affiliated with an academic institution, it’s worth asking them if they can help you get access to a paywalled journal.
6. Ask the author for it
While the publisher owns the article, the author will have a legal version he or she can share. Many authors are happy to share a pdf version of their published article. The author’s academic affiliation will be published alongside the article and sometimes this will include their email address. If not a simple Google search should help you find the author’s email contact.
Metastatic breast cancer patient, Martha Carlson (@Martha__Carlson) says reaching out in this way can be productive. “I’ve had article PDFs sent to me by reaching out to the author and also through other advocates,” she explained.
ResearchGate and Academia.edu are both platforms that facilitate making contact with researchers and requesting copies of their articles.
Note: Do NOT share an article an author has given you anywhere online as this will breach the publisher’s copyright rules.
7. Rent the article
Finally, some journals allow you to “rent” an article for considerably less than buying it. Ok so this tip isn’t free, but if all else fails, it may be your best option.
I hope you find these tips helpful. As patients and patient advocates, it is important that we can access the latest evidence-based research to help us advocate for ourselves and others.
Below you will find a list of websites linked to the sites and tools mentioned in this article.
The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ): https://doaj.org
Web of Science: https://clarivate.com/webofsciencegroup/solutions/web-of-science
OSF Preprints: https://osf.io/preprints
Centre for Open Science: https://www.cos.io
Open Access Button:https://openaccessbutton.org
A Stanford Medicine X e-Patient scholar, Marie Ennis O’Connor is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and consultant on global trends in patient engagement, digital health and participatory medicine. Marie’s work is informed by her passion for embedding the patient voice at the heart of healthcare values. She writes about the experience of transitioning from breast cancer patient to advocate on her award-winning blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.