Heather Piwowar on How to Read Peer-Reviewed Research for Free

Heather Piwowar
Co-Founder of Impactstory and Unpaywall

The Open Access Week is a yearly event which raises awareness and promotes the free, immediate, and online access to scientific research through Open Access (OA) publishing. For Open Access Week 2018, running from 22-28 October 2018, Eurodoc will publish an article each day on various aspects of OA from international experts.

In this sixth article of the series, Heather Piwowar, Co-Founder of Impactstory and Unpaywall, tells researchers how to access peer-reviewed research articles for free.

So you find a research paper you might like to read. But on the article page it says it’ll cost you $30 to see anything beyond the abstract. What can you do about it?

The great news is that there are LOTS OF THINGS you can do!

First, let’s try to get you the paper for free. There are a good few options for this. A quick and dirty solution is to — you guessed it — google it. Google for the paper title. Lots of times, one of the first hits will be a free copy PDF somewhere on the web. More later on where this free version comes from, but for now just take away that just because the publisher page says it costs money to read, it might actually be available for free elsewhere.

We can do better than that though. If you are looking for lots of research papers, this extra googling step is a pain. It’d be better if your browser just *showed* you if there was a free version, wouldn’t it? Well, it’s your lucky day. There is a free and super easy solution for that: a browser extension for both Chrome and Firefox called Unpaywall. Install the application — it just takes a few seconds — and then any time you are on a publisher page, a little green unlock icon will pop up on the right part of the page whenever there is a free copy of the paper somewhere on the internet. Click on that icon and POOF you are at the PDF. I’m kinda partial to this solution because I’m one of the co-founders of the startup that makes it. We’re a nonprofit organisation, and the tool is open source and free, and the data behind it is all open: so you are making the world a better place by using it!

The good news is that these googling or Unpaywalling options will work on about 50% of the papers you are likely to read (see our paper on that), with the success rate depending a bit on the discipline and age of the paper. Different fields have different habits about publishing in Open Access journals, or depositing their papers in repositories. Making research open in this way is totally legal.

It’s also legal to ask the author for a copy of the paper (using the OA Button, or just by regular old email), post a request on twitter with #icanhazpdf, or ask your librarian for an interlibrary loan copy.

There are also illegal options. You might have heard of Sci-Hub? It’s a collection of almost all the scientific literature, gathered, and hosted illegally.

Here’s the thing though. Legal is better. And you can help make more papers legally open. Have you published any papers yet? Check out whether the agreement you signed with the publisher when you published the paper will let you post it in your institutional repository, or in a free easy place like Zenodo. You can find out the journal self-archiving policy by looking up the journal in RoMEO, or by asking your friendly university librarian, who is always happy to help you with that. Also, next time you publish a paper, seriously consider posting it in a cool Open Access journal. There’s a directory for great OA journals called DOAJ, and for OA books there is a another directory called DOAB. Then brag about all of the downloads and citations to your article rather than just its name, as all of these signatories to DORA have pledged to do. Studies (and common sense) show that OA articles get more downloads and citations than articles people have to pay to read. Be the change you want to see.

Before signing off, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point to one more great way to get access to the research that will be launching soon thanks to a grant from the Arcadia Fund. It is called, conveniently, GetTheResearch, and will serve up all the millions of free papers we can find everywhere on the web. It’ll use AI to link technical terms and jargon to wikipedia explanations, provide lay summaries, and generally just help people read and understand peer-reviewed research. Sign up for a launch email if you’re interested!

Hope that helps, and that you enjoy all the research at your fingertips. Happy OA week!


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License.