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!


Welcome to Scholastical

Welcome to Scholastical: a guide for well-sourced research, writing and evaluation (even for non-scholars)!

Purpose and Scope


It is my goal with this blog to advance the cause of science-based critical thinking, in particular by providing information aimed at honing information literacy skills. This will hopefully help members of the community (including myself) to become better consumers, researchers and reporters of information on scientific, historical, biographical and other topics.

There are already some excellent resources available for those who would like to get involved in skeptical activism online, and they do so remarkably well. My goal is not to intrude into those niches, which have been ably filled by other pioneers before me, but to arm users with investigative research tools to better achieve their goals, whether they’re writing for Wikipedia, a research paper, their own blog, or even just attempting to evaluate an information source.


At The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012, Tim Farley delivered a presentation entitled “You are the Future of Skepticism on the Internet.” In this talk Farley, a Research Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation, presented a case for making positive contributions of scientific skepticism through the use of available online tools. One example of a group contributing positive skepticism is Susan Gerbic’s GSoW project, which attempts to increase the verifiability of articles on Wikipedia related to skeptical topics.

Inspired by Farley and Gerbic’s undertakings, I was eager to contribute. As a graduate student who had previously worked in an academic research library, I was somewhat uniquely appreciative of the utility of research tools and systems available to students and faculty, and the impact these resources can have in cases where the “University of Google” doesn’t cut it.

Graduation often means losing convenient access to the information resources one has taken for granted, and I have come to understand some of these challenges. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of many dedicated information professionals and academic librarians, things are getting better. Some techniques and strategies outlive our expired student LoginIDs, and the focus on Open Access (OA) is increasing at an encouraging rate among academic libraries. As community patrons, those of us who are academic expatriates or non-students are not without resources, and this blog is about passing on some experience on these resources while I continue to build and hone these concepts for myself.

What to expect

Since graduate school, during which I worked managing information systems for an academic research library, I have moved on to a career in engineering. I mention this because while I have worked with librarians, I Am Not A Librarian (that other “IANAL” disclaimer). The fields of library science and information systems change rapidly, and no single blog will ever match the depth of training that can be taken advantage of by talking to a real-life reference librarian, found not far from your own home.

That said, I will attempt to provide a few creative strategies for information searches, evaluating sources, and improving the scholarly quality of your article, paper or blog, as well as tools to analyze the quality of material that you may be tasked to evaluate. Finding quality references, actually getting our hands on the references we’ve found and managing the information we have aggregated are just the beginning of our journey.

Because this primate has subjective opinions, you can expect to see them reflected in coverage of certain topics. I’ll probably rant from time to time about pet peeves such as paywalls, poor (in my opinion) information search strategies, and other topics – you get the idea – but I’ll try and keep my diatribes constructive. Again, this is as much a journey of discovery and/or rediscovery for me, so I reserve the right to be occasionally wrong, and to change my mind.