How to get access to articles that are not Open Access

Although there is a strong push within the academic community to make research freely accessible (“open access”) to everyone, many research papers are unfortunate still published and available “behind the paywall”. That means that the publisher of the journal, book or a conference proceedings requires someone to subscribe the content. Typically that payer is a university library, who then can make the content accessible to the university students and employees.

But making use of this subscription can be complicated. Even if the seeker for papers – such as a student or a researcher – would have an affiliation with a university, it is not self-evident how one can get past the paywall and download the paper.

This post presents ways to get through the paywall, but requires that you have a user account in a university.

The focus of this post builds on an assumption that the seeker’s main literature search tool is Google Scholar, because its simple use and excellent coverage of different research papers.

Google Scholar with basic internet connection: limited access to “full texts”

It is important to notice that Google Scholar provides access to articles differently depending on the type of internet connection. The difference shows in the links that Scholar displays in its search results.

When a user searches papers with Google Scholar with an ordinary internet connection, Google Scholar helps find papers, but cannot always point the user to a “full text”. By full text, publishing companies mean the PDF that contains the article in its entirety. If access is not full text, then the user can only see the title, abstract, references, and maybe the first page of the paper.

It is sometimes possible to get an access to a full text even with this internet setup. This happens if:

  • The text has been published as Open Access (OA) or with a permission that the authors are allowed to upload a copy of the text to their personal public repository of papers.
  • Someone has uploaded the text somewhere in the Internet even if it is is not OA, thus possibly breaking the copyright of that content. Google has then found that paper.
  • The paper’s preprint or final manuscript version is available from the authors of the paper. A pre-print is often an earlier version of the paper: similar in its content, but not copy-edited to the final layout, and therefore lacks correct page numbers, and may have minor typing errors.

The screenshot below shows an example of what a Google Scholar search can produce as an outcome.

From the screenshot, different kinds of links can be seen. They provide different levels of access to the content:

  • [PDF]: full text can be downloaded from the linked web page
  • [HTML]: full text can be usually downloaded, but not always
  • Getit@Grifols: this is a link whose purpose is not clear to me. No full texts available, anyway.
  • The link of the paper title: takes the user to the publisher’s website. Full text may or may not be downloadable from it.

As a base rule, if the text does not have any links in the right-side column, the full text PDF is not available from any source.

Google Scholar with university’s VPN connection

The access to papers can dramatically improve if you tunnel your Internet connection through a university’s VPN service. With VPN, all the Internet traffic from a computer will travel (i.e., is “tunneled”) through a designated server Both Google Scholar and the publishing companies then recognize that the user is connecting them from an Internet address that has an access also to contents to subscribed contents.

It makes sense to use VPN in using Google Scholar. Here is how the same search results look like with VPN. Note that the two previously inaccessible papers are now downloadable via a “sfx@Aalto” link. Sadly, Klein & Weitzenfeld’s text in Educational Psychologist still remains unaccessible: my university does not have a subscription to its contents:

I cannot be sure, but I believe all the universities provide a similar service as Aalto University does, and therefore VPN opens doors to papers (for those who have a university account, of course). Here are the instructions for Aalto users for how you install the VPN client on your computer.

Accessing papers without VPN

It is not necessary to use VPN to access texts, however. An alternative is to navigate to a university library’s search interface and download the paper through it. Every library works slightly differently in service its users. At Aalto University, it is possible to enter e.g., the paper’s title, and the service tries to find a matching piece of content from its digitally subscribed sources. Aalto University’s article search interface is here.

A good idea is to use the text’s DOI (digital object identifier) as the search term instead of a paper’s name, because otherwise you may get lots of unnecessary search hits too. DOI uniquely identifies the paper, and can be always found somewhere from the publisher’s website.

When you find the desired search result, click on the links that promises to take you to the electronic full text. At that stage you will need to provide your user name and password, to prove that you are entitled to access the content.

Paper request from ResearchGate

As the last resort, you may go to ResearchGate – a service where researchers can upload their works and create a profile page. If a researcher has uploaded the paper to the service, ResearchGate provides a feature where you can ask a researcher to send a copy of the paper to you privately.

A word of advice: It is best to use this feature only after you have tried the other possibilities above and they have failed. By my personal experience, it is always irritating to react to ResearchGate’s paper requests if the requested paper is also available as Open Access, which shows that the requester has not spent even a minimal bit of effort to find it. I get paper requests from ResearchGate approximately once a week. Much more cited researchers therefore probably get several requests each day.

Final words

As can be seen, retrieval of a text can require quite a bit of work. It is better to minimize the amount of work that you need to spend in downloading. Therefore, always download and store the paper on your computer! Also make sure that you can easily find that paper later on from your computer. For example, use a systematic file-naming principle (e.g., authorname year paper title.pdf) for all the papers, or start using reference manager programs such as Mendeley or Zotero. That will save you time next time, and lets you annotate the texts that you read with your own observations.

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