So You’ve Hit a Research Paywall…


Most of us are familiar with them, and they hinder access to research for countless people each day. A paywall is a system that prevents Internet users from accessing content without a paid subscription. Because we value peer-reviewed, scholarly sources when searching for information, it becomes a problem when access to quality sources is denied.

So You’ve Hit a Research Paywall… (a guide)

For our example, let us imagine that we are attempting to access the Full Text of a paper written in conjunction with one of my favorite citizen science projects. The citation information for the paper that we want to access is as follows:

Robbins, Stuart J., et al. “The variability of crater identification among expert and community crater analysts.” Icarus 234 (2014): 109-131. doi: 10.1016/j.icarus.2014.02.022.

This example and process is also covered in the Slideshare presentation above.

However, as you might expect from the title, we encounter a problem when we visit Icarus to read the paper:

paywallSo How Do We Get the Full Text?

We can approach the Full Text in a couple of different ways. First, we can attempt to gain Subscription Access to the resource in question. This might mean purchasing a subscription to the journal, but for our purposes we will attempt to use resources already available (or potentially available) to employ subscription access.

Secondly, we can attempt to gain the Full Text via Open Access, Archive or Other Access, with neither a subscription nor access to one.

Subscription Access


Academic Libraries

Often the easiest way to obtain subscription access to a resource is via your local Academic Library. If you are not currently a student, most university libraries offer an alumni membership, and often community patron cards as well. Off-site journal access is typically reserved for students and faculty, but on-site access is often available with the assistance of library staff. As previously discussed, research libraries can be terrific partners to community researchers.

Community Libraries

At your local public library, check to see if they subscribe to the journal you are attempting to access. If not, they may still be able to access your material via Interlibrary Loan (ILL). Ask to speak with a Reference Librarian. The volunteers and helpful staff behind the patron access desk can navigate their holdings inside and out, but there’s no match for a determined librarian when it comes to tracking down exotic resources in another library’s holdings. To start with, try finding your resource at WorldCat to see if there are any holdings near your location.

Professional Memberships

If you are a member of any professional societies (like AIAA, AIChE, or IEEE for us engineers), they might provide helpful subscription access. They’ll mostly be trade publications and industry news, but they might be helpful if the article is published in your field.

Employer Access

Use this professionally, ethically and judiciously if your employer allows access to the journal you need. But bear in mind that your employer may not maintain these subscriptions to enable your personal research projects, and take care not to abuse it.

Wikipedia Resource Exchange

If you are using this resource to contribute to Wikipedia, you can make a request at the Resource Exchange WikiProject. I list this under subscription access because there is a good chance your request will be fulfilled by someone with access to a subscription. Again, this is for Wikipedia editors, but let’s face it, isn’t access to a prized source worth the extra few minutes of improving any related articles?

Other Access

other_full_text_flowchartOpen Access (OA)

This is a topic that deserves its own introductory post, but “Gold” open access generally refers to most of what we’d consider “open access” journals. Published material is immediately made available with full reuse rights. For this reason, if you’ve encountered a paywall, chances are that your desired resource is not in a “Gold” open access journal.

“Green” open access refers to the authors’ ability to self-archive, generally involves more effort on part of author. To see if this applies to the paper you’re trying to access, search for the publisher’s copyright and self-archiving policies (with a tool like SHERPA/RoMEO or to see if the paper might be archived elsewhere.


Subject repositories (Cornell’s arXiv, ResearchGate, etc.) host certain types of papers by topic, whereas institutional repositories are hosted by author’s university or research institution. In the case of “green” open access publishers, you might be able to find a copy of your desired paper in one of these repositories.

Google Scholar

Searching Google Scholar with the bibliographic citation, or perhaps a selected chunk of the paywalled paper’s Abstract, may help to determine if an archive copy is available.

Contact the Author

Many authors are busy, but they are also interested in communicating their research. As long as you are not too demanding or pestering many would be flattered if you were to request a copy of the paper. Better yet, if it’s published in a green open access journal publisher (like Elsevier in our example above), request that they archive the paper in a repository so everybody can access it. Again, make sure you check with a tool like SHERPA/RoMEO or to see if the author retains the right to self-archive. They might just need a reminder, and many authors are not sure if they are able to.

Note: Make certain they have not already made their paper available elsewhere before you request a copy.

Finding Our Full Text

We check the Open Access Status of the Journal > Green Open Access > Check for Self-Archived copy of Article > Success!

Other Full Text > Check Open Access Status of the Journal > Green Open Access > Check for Self-Archived copy of Article > Success!

In our case, as mentioned above, the paper is published by Elsevier through Icarus. Because Elsevier is a green open access publisher (which we are able to determine by reviewing its linked preprint policy or using SHERPA/RoMEO or, the author(s) retain rights to the “immediate post and dissemination of preprints.”

Fortunately, a search for the article’s digital object identifier (DOI) at Cornell’s arXiv reveals that the author has already self-archived a preprint copy of the PDF.

After a bit of searching in subject preprint archives…

Victory! arXiv:1404.1334 [astro-ph.EP]

When All Else Fails, Document Your Request

Even if you (think you) know that your local library or research institution will be unable to obtain your request, make the request anyway.

Unfulfilled reference requests, or “turnaways,” are documented by libraries, and are considered alongside fulfilled requests when making collection development decisions. If you and others are requesting a resource they don’t have access to, they might consider purchasing it.

Additionally, you can now document the impact of paywalls on your research with the Open Access Button. The OA Button is a worldwide project to improve access to scholarly resources. It is a browser bookmarklet that documents the worldwide impact of thousands of users’ research being interrupted by paywalls. After documenting the impact, the Open Access Button will automatically attempt to find the Full Text of your resource, as well as attempt to connect you with its author.

If your information access need is not documented, then how will anybody help you meet it?

Footnote: The example paper used in this presentation documents results from CosmoQuest’s MoonMappers project. They’re pretty cool, and enable average citizens like you and I to engage in science. You should check them out at!