Hey, writers! Get academic research for free – without breaking the law

CC0. Photo by Nathan Riley on Unsplash. Research is hard when you don’t have opposable thumbs.

Hi pals. This is your auntie librarian, here.

A while ago I asked if any writers wanted guidance on finding free – and most importantly, legal – access to academic research online. About 190+ respondents said yes. So belatedly, here’s some advice on finding research without paying for it.

Writers need access to academic research for lots and lots of reasons. When I started working on Empire of Sand I wanted to use India’s Mughal Empire for inspiration, which meant I specifically needed to research the history, culture and politics of that era and region of the world.

If I’d been writing about the Regency era – which is super popular in historical romance and very, very far from niche – then I’d have been able to find a huge amount of free and accessible information online. But non-western history doesn’t have a big crowdsourced, accessible presence online. So to write my book, I needed academic research. And maybe you do too? I guess you do, if you’re here.

Like me, you’ve probably found lot of information is frustratingly difficult to get hold of, because journal articles especially cost $$$$$ (or £££££, or the currency of your choice. Basically, a LOT of money).

There are ways you can access those academic papers for free, but many of those ways are not legal. I’m here to give you some advice on how to access papers without going to websites that may or may not end in the word -Gate. Stay on the right side of the law, pals.

Thanks, great. But why do academic papers cost so much money?!

Because the academic publishing model, traditional academic publishing practice and copyright all make free access to research papers… complicated. I actually find this stuff interesting, but to cut a long story short and not bore you to death: academic publishers make their money from charging individuals and libraries for access to journals. If journals were free, they wouldn’t make money.

(Fun fact: Academics, fyi, are not paid for their articles. In non-academic publishing, the money should always flow to the author, but this isn’t the case at all in academic publishing. It’s wild.)

They charge so much for the same reasons any business charges what it does: it covers their expenses and provides them a significant profit that the consumer is willing to pay. As ‘the consumer’ is usually universities, who have much bigger budgets than impoverished writers, articles are priced accordingly.

So… does that mean you HAVE to pay a lot to access research? That doesn’t seem fair.

Lots and lots of people agree with you, which is why the Open Access (“OA”) movement has become pretty big. OA is when papers are made available free to access, either by publishers or by universities, totally legally. Which is great! But these papers aren’t always easy to locate.

Sometimes you’ll find you can access papers free on publisher websites, or access on university websites. But it’s not always clear if a) a paper has a free OA (e.g. legally free) version and b) where exactly it can be found.

Sigh. Okay, so how do I find Open Access papers then?

There are a few different ways!

A) Google Scholar

Google Scholar is the ‘academic’ version of Google, where you can search specifically for academic papers. The good thing about it is that it automatically looks for PDFs of papers, and also has an ‘all [x] versions’ link under the title of each paper, which you can use to find a free and available version.

B) Browser Extensions

There are browser extensions that can automatically check if the paper you’re looking at has a free, legally-accessible version. OA Button is one, but there’s also Unpaywall. Click on the installed extension when you find a paper, and it’ll check for you.

C) OA Websites

You can make sure the research you’re looking at is OA by going to an OA-specific site. Some you may find useful are:

CORE: A giant collection of Open Access research papers, aggregated from lots of different university repositories and online journals; really pretty awesome, honestly. Just type in your topic and go!

Directory of Open Access Journals: An online index of OA journals that you can browse by subject.

Disciplinary Repositories (listed on the Open Access Directory): Want to find papers in a specific subject area say, oh, art history or cryptology? Try a database of articles listed on this site.

Humanities Digital Library: Books! Free humanities books!

PubMed Central: Need medical papers? PubMed Central has everything you need.

Vancouver Island University also has a long list of OA journals and databases you can use.

D) Ask the Author(s)

It’s totally reasonable to find the contact details of the author and see if they’re willing to provide you a copy of the paper. If there are multiple authors, try and contact the principal author (the first name mentioned in the list of authors).

What if there isn’t an Open Access version?

There are limits to Open Access. It only applies to recently published papers. Medicine and scientific papers are more likely to be OA than any humanities papers.

If you can’t find what you need, I’m afraid you’re going to have to try your local public library. At least in the US and UK, many public libraries can get you a book or journal article even if it’s academic, often for a nominal fee. They do this via something called ‘interlibrary loan’. But you’ll need to check with your local library for their services and rules.

Note: On Twitter, librarian KP pointed out that many UK public libraries have a lot more access to resources and academic research than you’d expect. Look at Access to Research for more information.

If you’re in a major city in a country with a strong library system, you may also have access to a national library where you can access research. For example, in the UK, you can register for the British Library and access books and journals in the reading room at their St Pancras site in London.

Free, legal access to research can be very dependent on where you live… and what you’re researching. Geographic privilege is a big thing. The primacy of western research is a big old thing too. It sucks, I know – but hopefully the information here will start pointing you in the right direction.

Edit: A little bit more information that may help you access research!

One thing in the US—not sure about elsewhere—is that many colleges and universities have “community status” library cards and you can use them to access academic databases (usually remotely). Which is an incredible free resource but most people don’t realize they have access!— Rowenna Miller (@RowennaM) 18 April 2019

For those who’ve graduated from a college/uni, check whether they include any online journal or database access as an alumni perk. Mine does! Not the full range provided for students, but something. (More privilege, oh well.)
— bespectacledsparrow (@sparrow_specs) 18 April 2019

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