Any time you see splashy headlines about a new study, or some marketer says that “studies show” their diet or product has a certain effect, chances are they’re talking about a paper in a journal that you have dicey odds of being able to access. Fortunately, there are ways to get your eyeballs on some of these journal articles without resorting to outright piracy — and without paying exorbitant per-article fees.
Why Journal Articles Cost So Much
Scientific journal articles aren’t the same as news stories in magazines or newspapers. These journals are publications that exist to publish scientific papers, and they’re typically peer-reviewed: When the journal receives a paper from a scientist, they send it to other scientists and ask whether the paper is worth publishing.
Traditionally, no money changes hands between the scientists and the journal. The journal then charges readers. This model was solidified in the days when journals were all printed on paper and you had to buy them. Libraries would buy subscriptions, of course.
But now that everything is digital, libraries pay subscription fees to provide access to their patrons. Not at a university library? The website is happy to put up a little shopping cart button to take your money — often around $50 for a single paper.
Either way, the money goes to the publisher, not the paper’s authors. (The authors are employed by institutions such as universities and hospitals, and expected to put out papers as part of their job.)
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who pays per-article fees. If you read papers as part of your job or classwork, you’ll quickly go bankrupt paying $50 for every paper you need to skim. I suspect the journals’ business model here is for the $50 fee to be a barrier to entry, something that makes you go away if you’re not serious, and find a university library subscription if you are.
Open-access journals work a little differently. Their papers are free to read, but the authors have to pay a fee — say, $4000 — so that the publisher still gets paid.
Scientists sometimes struggle to find the money to pay these fees. When they plan a set of experiments, they usually get the money by applying for a grant to cover their expenses (supplies, salaries, and a hefty chunk of change paid to their institution to cover rent and such). Fees for papers aren’t always included, or may not be enough to pay for all the papers that result.
That sucks for the rest of us. I read papers all the time as part of my work, and I access them through a dizzying patchwork of methods that I’ve found over the years. Some are only available to journalists, such as asking for media access to databases or contacting a journal’s or university’s press office. But others I can share with you.
Find Free Versions
An article may be published in a paywalled journal, and have another version available for free somewhere. For example, studies funded through the National Institutes of Health must publish their work through PubMed Central, a repository of free-to-read scientific papers, though they may also be published in paywalled journals.
Here are some ways to find the free versions:
- Check for a free version of your chosen paper through the Open Access Button, available through that website or as a browser extension.
- Search for your paper through PubMed, which includes health and medicine related papers. If the paper is available through PubMed Central, there will be a link. You’ll also often find a link to the paper where it lives on the journal’s website, and some of these are free anyway.
- Search with Google Scholar. If there’s a free full text version available, it will be listed in the right-hand column of the search results.
- Try a regular web search. Sometimes an author will post papers on their personal or lab website. If the results page is too unwieldy, try looking up the authors directly (their name plus the name of their institution should get you the right person pretty quickly) and see whether they link their papers.
- Use this one with caution: Sci-Hub provides papers for free, and many are there illegally. But it also reportedly contains at least a few million papers that are legal to access.
Love Your Library
Journals pretty much run on subscription fees. If you’re a university student, check out your university library’s website for instructions on how to access the journals they subscribe to. Often you can get paywalled papers easily this way, and the bigger your institution, the more journals they’re likely to subscribe to.
If you’re out of school, remember that other institutions, such as hospitals and community colleges, may also provide access to students or employees. Check whether you can get alumni access from the university you graduated from, or contact a nearby university — even if you aren't a student — to ask if you can pay for a library card and enjoy journal access as a perk of membership.
Since the scientists who author research papers don’t get a cut of the fees, they tend to be indifferent to whether readers pay money to access their work. In most cases it’s perfectly legal and ethical for them to hand out free copies of their papers to anyone they like.
So, just ask. When you find a paper you’d like to read, and can’t access elsewhere, check out the author list. One of them will be noted as the “corresponding author”, with an email address. (If several authors have emails listed, go with the person who is listed last. They are likely to be the person who was in charge of the project, or who runs the lab where it was conducted.)
Send an email politely asking for the paper, and indicating why you want it. Your own interest is a fine reason. It’s nice to let them know if you’re planning to write about it somewhere, or if it’s part of a project you’re working on. They may be interested in what you’re doing, and at the very least it feels more friendly than a request with no explanation.
You’re taking a chance when you ask, but many scientists are happy to oblige.
That $35 that scientific journals charge you to read a paper goes 100% to the publisher, 0% to the authors. If you just email us to ask for our papers, we are allowed to send them to you for free, and we will be genuinely delighted to do so. https://t.co/NHEfiOMLfG
— Dr. Holly Witteman (@hwitteman) July 6, 2018