Ten tips for accessing academic papers online

8269142813_cb75e3ec77The question of how to access research is a huge one. When I post and discuss birth-related articles in my newsletter, blog or on social media, people often ask, “how can I see the full text of this?”

I know this is a problem for many people. Because I work completely independently, I don’t have access to a University, hospital Trust or other institutional library, so I am effectively in the same position as a lay person when it comes to accessing information.

But I do have a few tips and tricks up my sleeve, and here they are in an expanded and updated post, with some new suggestions (thank you to those who have shared ideas) and updated links 🙂


1. Can you access it through Athens or a similar service?

I know this differs internationally, so please feel free to add tips for your country/region in the comments below but, in the UK, midwives, students, doctors and other health care folks who are employed by the NHS should be easily able to access many journals and databases electronically via Athens or a similar service. If you know you have access but aren’t sure how to use it, there will almost certainly be a nice librarian around who can help you.


2. Do you have hospital library access?

A number of hospitals still carry paper journals and, if you are employed by or linked to one, you should be able to look around and pick up papers that are of interest to you. In some areas you will need a separate library card, while in others your ID badge will get you in.


3. Can you get university or hospital library access?

15096775708_55ca544a81Even if you’re not a student or health care professional, you might still be able to become a member of a university or hospital library, which will usually give you access to their online resources as well as the actual books and journals. If you have any involvement with local services (for instance, you’re involved with an MVP), it’s worth asking if you can have access to the library or other resources. I know of people who have signed up to do an inexpensive course at their local Uni just to get a library card, but some libraries will let you become an associate member even if you’re not a student. If you once went to a university, you can join the alumni association which can also give you privileges. It can pay to email, check the website, call or go in and ask about the possibilities.


4. Is the article open access?

These days, many articles are open access, which means they’re free to all (although sometimes within certain geographical boundary limits). It’s always worth clicking on the ‘full-text’ or ‘PDF’ link, just to see if you can access it in full before you go looking for other options. Sometimes you can get the article by signing up to the website. It’s free, and just takes a few minutes of time.


5. Can you add an app or plugin to help?

Some browsers – such as Firefox and Chrome – have free plugins that you can use to search for freely (and legally) available full text articles on the interwebs. One that I use is Unpaywall for Firefox. When you see an article that has a paywall, it looks to see if there is a free legal copy in its index and, if so, it shows you a little green tab that you can click to see it.


6. Google is your friend!

If you haven’t got library access or the ability to add a plug-in and the article isn’t open access, the next best thing to try is a search engine or two. Try the title first, but you might need to get creative with what you’re putting in the search box, especially if the paper is on a topic that is commonly written about online. If ‘normal’ google doesn’t work, then try www.scholar.google.com


7. Can you phone a friend?

Perhaps this one is obvious, but do you have a friend who can help you access particular resources, or can you form a group where you help each other? You need to stay on the right side of copyright law, of course, and that’s why I can’t post articles on Facebook, no matter how nicely people ask me, but there are ways of sharing resources legally, and it can be useful to know what your colleagues and friends have access to, so that you can help each other.


8. Does the author have a website?

Twitter1Many authors, including myself, have websites where they post their work (when they’re able to … sometimes, journals ask for a delay, or don’t allow sharing).

In fact, I started my very first website after I had spent a day scanning and photocopying articles for people (this was back in the day, mind!)

When I got home that evening, I decided to make a website on which I could post my work in order to save myself time responding to such requests. (We’ll come back to this from the perspectives of authors and researchers in a moment!)

If you haven’t tried it already, search on one or more of the authors’ names, and you may just find that they have a site, either of their own or – more likely – a page on their University site, and sometimes their articles are available on or linked from there.


9. Have you tried ResearchGate?

If you’re an academic, you might already know about ResearchGate, which is a social media / network site for researchers.

If you don’t have any luck finding a personal or academic website for an author, you may find them on ResearchGate, and you may then be able to ask for their article that way.

Just one request though, in the interests of the stress levels of all researchers and from someone who receives a lot of enquiries! Please look to see if the author has a website first, and please look around properly, use their search button and read their profile page before you send a request for an article. It says very clearly on my profile that all of my articles that are freely available are on my website … that still doesn’t stop people emailing rather than using the search button!

Also, bear in mind that researchers who are employed by universities are salaried, and have more time to answer enquiries than independent researchers (like myself).

If you’ve exhausted every other route, you could try contacting the corresponding author. These days, many journals ask authors for a contact email address, so that people interested in their research can get in touch with them directly.


10. Is it worth paying for a ‘patient’ (sic) access copy?

If you’ve got this far with no luck and still really want the article, you might be willing to pay (or be able to bill somebody else who wants you to read it, perhaps). Several of the online libraries offer ‘patient’ access to articles, though usually for a small fee. Look at their access options for details. It might also be worth emailing them to see if they would let you see a copy, though I have had mixed success with that.


Of course, I can’t guarantee that you’ll get everything you want with these tips, but they work for me a lot of the time and I hope they’ll help you too! You’ll find loads more of this kind of information in my book, ‘101 tips for planning, writing and surviving your dissertation’. Good luck with your searches!


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