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!


Research Libraries as Community Partners

Accessing and evaluating academic research sources can be filled with challenges, especially to those outside of academia or who have already graduated. Fortunately, university libraries remain an important partner in solving information access problems, even for alumni or those currently not affiliated.

Current Opportunity (June 23 – August 5, 2014)

Florida Tech is offering a free Massive Open Online Course, Mastering Academic Research: Information Skills for Successful Students

Florida Tech is offering a free Massive Open Online Course, Mastering Academic Research: Information Skills for Successful Students

Florida Tech is currently offering a free, non-credit, six week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), to help participants develop skills to “find, evaluate and use information efficiently, effectively and ethically.” Registration is currently open and will remain so throughout the duration of the course. After its completion, participants will be able to access its content. The information literacy specialists at the John H. Evans Library have put together a brilliant set of resources, so I highly recommend taking advantage of it.

Visit the Florida Tech Evans Library Blog for more information and to register.

With this resource, Florida Tech joins a growing number of universities rising to the occasion to help meet and globally address information literacy and access challenges. See the list below.

University Libraries: Your Friend

Libraries at research institutions remain a large and often enthusiastic partner in solving information access problems. While not able to offer the same support to the public as to students and faculty, most institutional libraries offer an alumni program. For non-alumni, community patron memberships are typically available, which may provide on-site access to the library’s subscriptions and holdings. Finally, if neither of these options is available to you, check with your regional public library to see what institutional partnerships might be available to support your research.

If you encounter a reference or article that you cannot obtain through your local institutional or community library, check to see if the item is available through an Interlibrary Loan (ILL). To expand your search, try querying for the resource on the WorldCat web site. Ask a reference librarian for additional assistance with this search.

Research After Graduation: Resources & Information

As the global dialog continues concerning scholarly publishing, open access and the increased shift in favor of electronic distribution of academic research, many university research libraries are rising to the challenge, attempting to ensure their students are as well-prepared as possible to meet these challenges after graduation. Most of these resources are of equal benefit to non-students and the rest of the general public. The following is a growing list, and I hope to continue to add to it.

Government Documents: Applications in Skepticism

Note: the example that follows focuses primarily on UFO claims, but these resources and strategies can be applied to a wide variety of topics related to scientific skepticism.

Ufologist on Campus

United States Capitol in Daylight from Wikimedia Commons

United States Capitol in Daylight
from Wikimedia Commons, by Kevin McCoy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It was November 2007, and “Extraterrestrial Biological Entities” was the title of the IEEE Student Chapter Guest’s Lecture. Like many other members of the campus community, I didn’t expect extraterrestrial life was outside the realm of possibility, given the size of our universe, but based on my understanding of distances and sheer number of places there aren’t life, I found the idea that we were being visited regularly a little doubtful. But intrigued, I resolved to attend the talk, at least to provide a written evaluation in a skeptical column in the campus newsletter.

As expected, the speaker – a longtime Ufologist and amateur investigator – offered personal anecdotes of his experiences witnessing unidentified aerial phenomena. But then he showed some evidence I wasn’t expecting.

Documented Evidence

Out of his bag came a treasure trove of government documents, many marked “Secret” or “Top Secret” or “Classified.” Some had stamps indicating they had been “Declassified.” The prize of his collection was a set of documents referred to in the UFO community as the “Majestic-12” documents, but he had several others as well. All of these, he told us, had been declassified by the U.S. government, allowing him to provide it to us in handouts we could keep.

A lot of people left that lecture very impressed. I had questions. Fortunately, this graduate student happened to work in a Federal Depository Library, so I had the means to get some answers about these documents. With access to an overwhelmingly large authentic Government document repository, as well as access to countless others via interlibrary loan, an extensive search did not turn up the “Majestic 12” documents, but it did turn up legitimate FBI documents concerning an investigation into claims of the document’s authenticity and classification.

Many of the attendees had no means to verify the speaker’s claims, and continue to believe they possess what were once highly classified documents and evidence of extraterrestrial contact.

What Can I Do?

  • Be wary when you encounter collections of “UFO Government Documents.” Lots of Ufology web sites host collections that contain (at best) a mixed bag of real and fraudulent documents. Often these bear very official-looking headers, seals, and stamps.
  • If you have questions about one of these documents, see if you can find them in your local Federal Depository Library collection, perform a search using one of the resources listed below, or consult a reference librarian, preferably at a research library attached to a local college or university.
  • If the document has a call number, that’s a good sign. If not, well…
  • Also, remember that these resources are useful for evaluating information resources pertaining to medical, agricultural and a host of other subjects related to scientific skepticism. It’s not just for UFO research.

What if I suspect I have a legitimate classified government document that has been illegally distributed?

If you’re browsing UFO conspiracy theory web sites, this is unlikely. But it is important to understand that distribution of classified material, no matter how you may have obtained it, is illegal in most countries.

Do not download, further transmit or distribute the document. Data spillage is a serious problem, and there are procedures for reporting them properly. When reporting potential information spillage, you should NOT attach any copies of the document in question.


Federal Depository Library Program, United States Government Printing Office

Federal Depository Library Program, United States Government Printing Office

  • Back in 2011, Google discontinued its Uncle Sam U.S. government search engine, which provided the ability to search U.S. government web documents. A Google Custom Search tool has been established to try and fill the void, at
  • The National Archives provides government publications, guides to federal information and government document indexes. The National Archives also provides information concerning legitimate documents associated with UFO research.
  • The U.S. government’s official web portal, provides a search tool with advanced features to search across multiple government agencies.
  • The Federal Depository Library Program was established by Congress to ensure that the American public has access to its government’s information. A directory is available, listing all participating Federal Depository Libraries. Find the one nearest you.
  • Not all useful government information is going to come out of archives; you might be looking for something a bit more recent! If you are looking to monitor legislation pertaining to a particular topic, check out this guide by Tim Farley at Skeptical Software Tools.