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How to Get a Scientific Paper That Is Behind a Paywall

Companies that publish scientific journals exploit scientist and the taxpayer.

Screenshot of the PubMed website with magnifying glass.
Shutterstock royalty-free stock photo ID: 2232008431, by rafapress.

Scientists have to pay to publish their papers

It is a true scandal how commercial publishers of scientific journals have been profiting by exploiting scientists. Scientist do all the work that goes into making a science paper. They do the research, analyze the date, create the figures and write the paper. Then other scientists work as editor for the journal and peer-review the paper. All this work is done for free. Sometimes, scientists even have to pay to get their paper published.

Yes, you read that right. Scientists frequently have to pay to publish a paper. Some journals, like the Journal of Neuroscience, have a submission fee that is not refunded, even if the paper is rejected. Many other journals make authors pay to publish a paper. For example, the Journal of Neuroscience has a submission fee of $2,360 ($1,710 if the authors are members of the Society for Neuroscience).

This could make sense when scientific articles were printed in glossy journals, which is expensive. But nowadays most papers are just published electronically in PDF format, which is much cheaper, so these high fees are no longer justified.

Scientists have to pay to read scientific papers

The publishing house that owns the journal pockets the submission fee and the publication fee. Then it charges scientists again to read the paper. Frequently, publishing houses like Elsevier negotiate contracts with the libraries of universities to sell them packages of many different journals for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many smaller universities cannot afford the cost. Even UCLA recently had to stop their contract with Elsevier because it was too expensive.

Adding insult to injury, publishing companies demand that scientist transfer to them the copyright of their papers. Scientists have no choice but to comply, because their academic careers depend on publishing in journals with high impact factor owned by these companies.

The Cost of Knowledge boycott

These exploitative practices of Elsevier got so onerous that scientists have orchestrated a Cost of Knowledge boycott against it, in which they refuse to submit papers to Elsevier, serve as editors of its journals and do peer-review for them. I signed for the boycott.

The public has to pay to access the research that they pay with their taxes

You may think that this is a problem for scientists and universities. However, the money that is used to pay for journals and publication fees comes from government grants. Scientists use the direct costs of the grant: money destined to pay for salaries, instruments and reagents. Libraries used the indirect costs that come with those grants: a fixed percentage that the university gets with each grant to pay for administrative costs. Hence, the money that publishing companies skim is your tax money!

Hence, it is unfair that you have to pay to read a scientific paper. Typically, getting the PDF file of a science paper costs $32. The money that you pay doesn’t go to the authors of the paper, but to the publisher.

To respond to increasing protests about this business model, publishers created the possibility for scientist to publish their paper ‘open access’, but the authors have to pay publication fees of thousands of dollars per paper to do that. Not surprisingly, many authors opt not to do that.

You can get free papers in PubMed

The USA government passed a law establishing that any scientific paper created with government grants had to be freely accessibly after a year of its publication: the NIH Public Access Policy.

However, this doesn’t mean that the public has access to the paper published by the publishing company. The authors of the paper have to send a manuscript to PubMed, who publishes another version of the paper that is free to the public (but only one year after the paper was published).

This means that the best way to find a free version of a paper is to look for it in PubMed. I explain how to do that in another article. In PubMed, you will find a purple button that says View PDF when the paper is available for free.

Plan S is a similar initiative in Europe.

Getting a preprint in BioRxiv

Another way to get a paper for free is to find a preprint of it in BioRxiv.

Preprints are scientific papers that have not passed peer-review yet.

BioRxiv is a repository for preprints of science papers. Hence, what you will find here is different from the final version of the paper, which would be modified according to the demands of the reviewers. However, for most people, this is close enough.

The good news is that, even after a paper has been published in a journal, the preprint version is still available in BioRxiv.

The bad news is that many papers are not deposited in BioRxiv, particularly those published in the past.

Research Gate

Research Gate (https://www.researchgate.net/) is a social networking site for scientists where they are invited to share their papers. Many scientists do, so you can download the full text of their publications from there. Authors do not care if they appear to violate the copyright that the publishers wrestled out of them by posting the journal’s version of their paper. This is one more way in the which the stranglehold that publishing companies have on scientific publication is being slowly eroded.

If you want to find a paper in Research Gate, just search for the name of one of the authors or for the title of the paper. What works best is to search for the name of the senior author, that normally is at the end of the list of authors.

Sci-Hub

You can also look for papers in Sci-Hub, a pirate repository of scientific papers run out of Kazakhstan by Alexandra Elbakyan. Needless to say, Sci-Hub is highly controversial and subject to a number of lawsuits in many countries.

Ask the author

It’s a time-honored practice to ask one of the authors for a copy of his paper. In the old times, authors bought from the journal a stack of reprints of the paper, which they will then mail to scientists who requested them. Nowadays, authors just email a PDF of the paper. This is not a violation of the copyright, since it forms part of the agreement between the authors and the journal.

Every paper has a corresponding author, normally designated by an asterisk in the list of authors. The asterisk links to a footnote in the first page of the paper with the address and email of that author. This is the author to who you should write requesting the paper. Even if you are not a scientist, you are likely to get a response. A short note explaining why you want to read the paper might help. Authors are delighted to know that somebody cares about their work.

Unfortunately, reading the footnote with the email address of the corresponding author sometimes requires having the full text of the paper. In that case, Google the name of the last author in the list, which would normally be the senior author. It is normally easy to find his academic email address.

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