You’re a Researcher Without a Library: What Do You Do?

Investigating solutions for frustrated scholars, nonprofits, independent learners, and the rest of us.

The world of publishing is evolving frantically, while it remains frustratingly fragmented and prohibitively expensive for many. If you’re a student who just left your academic library behind only to discover you are now locked out of the stacks; a startup researching water usage in Africa and keep hitting paywalls; a local nonprofit that studies social change activism, but all the latest papers cost $30 per read… This article is for you.


USE YOUR LIBRARY

Chances are you really do have some library access, and the first step is finding your library and seeing what content and services they offer. It’s probably more than you think.

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Local Library

Citizens, taxpayers, cities, states, and nations pay a lot of money to provide free services. Use them! Public libraries often subscribe to costly databases; the annual investments for these licenses are only worth it if they are of use to the libraries’ constituency. The good news is that most people have a library nearby, many of the resources are fully available online (especially the databases), and a library card is often free or inexpensive. Also, libraries have librarians, who are pros at finding what you want (or something even better).

Bad news is that your local library may not be that local, and you may need to jump through some hoops to get your library card. Not all local libraries can afford masses of scholarly journals either, although many have at least some access.

Think about what “local” means in your context. Some libraries require you to live in the town or county that the library serves. Some libraries have a broader idea of local and will accept anyone with a state, regional, or national ID. Some will let you apply online. The only way to find out is to see what the requirements are for obtaining a library card.

Use WorldCat, a global aggregator of library collections lists, to find libraries near you that hold the journal or book title you are after. Some libraries will also provide an interlibrary loan service, which allows you to request resources from other libraries, for free or for a fee.

A large number of UK libraries are participating in the Access to Research project, which gives public library users walk-in access to research articles from a significant list of major publisher partners. See if your region has a similar initiative!

University Library

Schools, colleges, and universities pay millions per year to keep their students and academics up to speed with the latest (and earliest) research. If you have a good one nearby, you can sometimes walk right in the door and access their entire collection in the library. The bad news is, universities primarily serve their constituents (students, professors, affiliated researchers), and unless you’re one of them you may not be able to access the digital resources on campus (and almost definitely not off-campus). So, you have to make the trip each time (which could be a long trip).

Student Access

If you’re still enrolled in such an institution, currently teaching, or doing research there as a professor or postdoc, then you still have (at least some) of that access, plus the ability to use the school’s interlibrary loan for books and digital docs. Once you graduate, check if your university library has digital access for alumni: you may have to pay a membership fee and you might not get access to everything, but it’s better than nothing. Some university libraries even provide remote access to selected databases for alumni, or allow alumni to purchase that access at a reduced rate.

Visiting Scholar

A potential legit backdoor into a great academic library is to be “visiting scholar” or “research affiliate”. That’s someone who doesn’t belong to the university, but does their research through it. This kind of coveted position is a great resume-builder, and while rare, provides full access to all the on-campus and e-resources of the institution or ability to get what you need through interlibrary loan. Even better if you can affiliate your entire organization or institution. Bad news: it’s highly selective, often tied to particular departments or research groups at the university, frequently requires formal administrative approval, might require you first having a PhD, and only lasts as long as you’re “there” (or until the end of the academic year).

State or National Library

Your state or country may have done you the favor of building a national library with e-resources and giving everyone with a certain passport access to it. Not every country is so thoughtful, but if you are lucky enough to live in, say, Finland, Germany, or Australia, you’re in luck! At least look in the national library website, where you can often find digitized books no longer under copyright and other free resources; some even provide remote access to research databases. And you can always visit the national library building in person, where a driver’s license or passport can possibly get you access to the stacks or reading rooms.

Independent or Institutional Libraries

Is there an independent research library or subscription library near you? Check out what they offer. Independent research libraries usually allow researchers to use their collections for free in person. Otherwise, a subscription fee will gain you access to their databases. As independent research libraries generally focus on a single subject area, they are a good option for focused independent researchers.

Sometimes, other kinds of heritage or memory institutions (like museums or local history societies) or scientific institutions (like hospitals, medical societies, zoos, and conservatories), will have special libraries attached to them designed to serve the professionals working at that institution. If the institution’s focus is similar to yours, you may be able to request access to their collection or beyond. Art museums — particularly large ones — have great digital collections; some museums digitise their exhibition catalogues as well and place them online for free.

Online Libraries

For masses of cultural content indexed across entire continents, look into DPLA, Canadiana, Europeana, and Trove. These are fed through state, region, or country collections and have incredible data about treasures of large regions and their history.

The Internet Archive and its Open Library is also another great resource for books: registration is free and you can read or take out many titles. Partnerships with Authors Alliance, the Boston Public Library and MIT Press, mean there is an increasing amount of free and legal material available (and not just books but also sound recordings, TV broadcasts, and films). Meanwhile, sites like Project Gutenberg, HathiTrust, and the Directory of Open Access Books also deliver works that are free to access.


PREPRINTS AND REPOSITORIES

Many publications are available in a free-to-read archive either entirely, as an unformatted manuscript after peer-review, or as a pre-peer-reviewed version.

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Institutional Repositories

Even the more stringent publishing agreements typically let a research institution keep a copy around for safe-keeping in their university repository — a collection of the digital output of the university community. These papers may be the published version, or a “preprint” version from either before peer review, or after peer review but before layout and formatting. The problem is, many schools and authors don’t self-archive robustly, and there are gaps in publication histories, or in recent publications which may be blocked by an “embargo” for 6–24 months after release.

Subject Repositories

Many disciplines have spun up their own bigger repositories by subject. The big name is PubMed Central, a repository for medicine that holds over 4 million free articles. Another early winner is arXiv, which has long been a place for folks in the hard sciences to deposit at least “preprints” of their work. A preprint is often quite similar to the published version: if it’s a post-peer review version then the main differences are only cosmetic; meanwhile, if it’s a pre-peer reviewed version the core ideas are likely there although changes do happen after peer review. In any case with socArxiv, bioarXiv, lawArXiv popping up anew each month, this is a nifty hack for most newer research.

Directories such as the Directory of Open Access Repositories (DOAR), Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR), or CORE are worth a try, as is a general open access search like OAIster.org or BASE.

Grey Literature

The term “grey literature” refers to resources not controlled by commercial publishers. Whether it’s government reports, conference proceedings, or other content, this can still be valuable material for researchers. It can often be found through a regular search engine, or through grey-lit portals like OpenGrey. When you find something of interest, make sure to save it, either locally or through a service like Webrecorder.

For-profit Academic Social Networks

Not to be outdone by Facebook and LinkedIn, venture capital has zeroed in on “connecting academics” as a profitable investment opportunity. The primary infusions have gone to Academia.edu and ResearchGate.com. These sites are running on millions of dollars, have millions of users… and have millions of authors uploading and sharing their papers. Publishers have sent takedown notices in the past to both sites when authors have uploaded non-depositable versions. That applies to the shiny final versions of papers — if one considers these sites neither institutional nor personal author repositories in the legal sense — but it doesn’t apply to preprints . While their future is unclear and their status controversial in the open access community, these academic social networks are highly popular among researchers and research followers today.

Google Scholar

In its quest to organize all the world’s information, Google didn’t forget academic publishing. Google Scholar is surprisingly robust for a free-to-use tool that searches a lot of academic content. When you type in a query you get back results including free-to-read online versions of the article. Note that Google Scholar often finds more than one version of the same article, and when it does it tries to list the version of record first, which is often paywalled.

If Google Scholar isn’t turning up what you need, try an open Google search with the article title in quotes, and type the added filter “filetype:pdf”. This scours the open web for papers hosted somewhere, by someone, in PDF format. Google Books provides limited preview access to many copyrighted books. Other alternate services include SemanticScholar or Microsoft Academic. Here too there are subject-specific portals like EconBiz or the Virtual Health Library, some of which offer multilingual search options.

Unpaywall

Unpaywall searches any citations on the website you’re reading and checks them in several mega-databases that index gold open access as well as green free-to-read versions. If it finds a match, you are delivered to full-text treasure. Though it’s often not the final, aesthetically polished version, it’s pretty good for a free browser extension.

Special mention also goes to a similar extension and website called Open Access Button, which can search citations, and if it doesn’t find one, email the author a direct request for them to share a copy with you. Other extensions can help too, like Lazy Scholar or Kopernio — technical friends to accompany you during your web research.

BUY IT

Many articles are available to anyone, for a price.

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A la Carte

While most abstracts of an article are free, many publishers (but not all) will let you walk away with the whole article of your choice for a per-article charge, often in the range of 10–50 USD but sometimes more or less. The upside is, the article is yours — all yours — to read/print/highlight/cite. The downside, obviously, is the cost is exorbitant for serious or extensive research, and it prohibits the kind of scanning and digging through hundreds of articles to find the one that you really need (and when do you ever just need one?). For some online articles you can view the reference list without purchasing the full article. Consider searching for accessible versions of those sources instead?

Books and other publications for sale are available all over the place on the web and in your town! The used book market frequently also has books retired from library collections, and many materials that would typically be available in academic circles might be circulating for low/no cost in these secondary marketplaces.

Individual Subscriptions

If you know you need access to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) for example, you can likely purchase an annual subscription. Subscriptions can be costly (JNCI is about $700 for online access and $900 for print), but they have exactly what you need, and you likely get access to the full archives. Some academic or professional society memberships include or provide discounts on subscriptions. Bad news is, how many people need just one or even a handful of journals? Even in a niche field there could be a dozen key publications. Clearly, this only works for special cases with focused research areas.

Aggregated Subscriptions

Nobody these days buys hundreds of individual journals. They buy collections (or even packages of collections called bundles or “big deals”). However, those buyers are often part of a rather large institution. What do you do if you don’t have the time to negotiate deals, the funds to purchase hundreds of collections, or the clout to receive access as an individual? You can hit up the aggregators.

There are several, and none is complete, but can be pretty good buys, especially when they have access options designed for independent researchers. You can subscribe to JSTOR for humanities, Proquest Dialog for huge variety of all disciplines, LexisNexis for news and legal or business content, ACM for computer engineering, HighBeam or Questia for magazines and journalism, and Newspapers.com or Newspaperarchives.com for newspapers. So there is no one-stop solution, but these are relatively few hits for a tremendous amount of content.

DeepDyve

DeepDyve is an independent but publisher-pleasing solution that lets you “stream” journal articles from 10,000 publications for a flat fee of $49/month. That sounds pretty sweet, right? Here’s the catch. It really is like streaming rather than owning, in that the proprietary DRM traps the content behind a virtual pane of bulletproof plastic. Good luck copying passages, printing pages (without paying extra), or integrating with citation managers — because these are essentially read-only pictures of content.


ALTERNATIVE SHARING METHODS

Necessity is the mother of invention, and people have gotten very creative with methods of access.

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Ask the Author

You can locate many researchers by searching profile services, search engines, their academic institution, or via ORCID identifiers. Many scholars includes PDFs on their CV or research website. If not, a request direct to the author, or via their institution’s library or research office generic contact often receives a positive response. You may have to try multiple ways to contact them: Twitter, email, Facebook, or one of the academic social networks. Researchers are quite busy and deluged with email, but they have a professional interest in sharing their work. Another good reminder is that Open Access button can send these requests for you automatically.

Peer Resource Exchange

I have an unwieldy lawn, you have a lawnmower. How about sharing it with me? That’s the idea of peer sharing, and it exists on a spectrum from intimate and unobtrusive to massive and legally barred. When just sharing with another researcher, you may just email your friends who do have access and they can send you a pdf. Also, many professors and researchers will have private libraries or collections of materials for their field: making good friends with others working in your field, might make it possible to distribute the cost of accessing these materials.

Quasi-legal Options

If you’re a little more organized, you could set up, say, a private Slack channel or private mailing list with a group of fellow researchers and those behind the paywall can help out those who are not. When done in an entirely noncommercial, nonprofit context, especially for academic and social good purposes it may be unproblematic, and some publishers include clauses in their “Terms of Use” which allow peer-to-peer sharing within limited, non-public research communities. Not all publishers do though, so depending on the publisher you might be violating their license terms. While you’re unlikely to be discovered or sued for private sharing within a close, small network, at least keep in mind that this is a gray area.

Not all in need are so modest with their cries for help. Check out Twitter for the #icanhazpdf hashtag (“I can have PDF?”; translation: “Would you please send me a copy of this paper?”). Broadcast across a social network of thousands and surely someone who helpfully monitors this topic will be around to assist. The good news is, it often works. The downside is, it’s unpredictable, dependent on strangers, and incredibly public by nature. Standard practice is to delete your request (tweet) after receiving the paper, but it is still broadcast widely at first. It’s also in a legal gray area and even in the best case scenarios, it’s not a full-fledged solution.

Less than Legal Options

Pirate sites like Sci-Hub or LibGen have an immense cache of content, so much so it’s almost unbelievable. What is more believable is that Sci-Hub can’t exist in any legal universe, as numerous lawsuits against the site and its web domains demonstrate. Though many scholars will privately admit to occassional use, we can’t recommend it for the legal and risk reasons (the same goes for equivalent project such as Bookzz and Booksc). Be mindful that while “free as in pirated,” these sites are not Open Access and don’t directly change the publishing model of journals. Publishers are naturally pushing back against these sites and they may be blacklisted by some ISPs.


PUBLISHER DONATIONS

Publishers don’t hoard everything all the time and can be generous, especially with select audiences who demonstrate a need.

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Individual Requests

Here’s an idea: just ask. This can work, for some people, some of the time. Call up a publisher, tell them what you need, and see if they’ll let give it to you for free. It sounds nuts, but publishers like to do good deeds from time-to-time and you might be surprised what gestures emerge from your curious inquiries.

Limited Access Options

Some publishers allow you to access certain articles, or a limited number of articles, without subscribing. For example, JSTOR’s Register and Read program allows access to three full-text articles every two weeks, while major newspapers like The New York Times allow you to read a set number of articles before running into their paywall.

Wikipedia Library Card

Does Wikipedia even have a library? Increasingly, yes. If you are an established, trusted editor, with more than a 6 month old, unblocked account, and 500 total edits with 10 recent edits, you are eligible for access to 80,000 journals for free. At the moment you apply for particular databases or resources of interest individually, but in future there are plans to develop a more library-card-like system to reduce barriers to access.

Other Audiences

Especially if you live in the “global south” (emerging economies, developing nations, transitioning polities…) then there are several programs for you and your institutions like Hinari, TEEAL, ARDI, AGORA, OARE, EIFL, or Research4Life. Of course, you need to live in one of these locations in order to qualify.

There are exceptions in many copyright laws designed to facilitate access for those with visual impairments or other print disabilities. Companies in such jurisdictions are allowed to digitize works so that they can read them in the format of their choice as an exception to normal copyright law.

Medical patients are another population that may receive access to articles about their conditions. In most cases this requires the patient to provide information, such as an email address to receive the article (and some may not feel comfortable sharing this type of sensitive information). The US National Library of Medicine also offers the Loansome Doc system, to connect researchers without libraries to literature.

Some publishers also provide select access to accredited journalists for the purposes of research. This includes major database providers like LexisNexis and Elsevier, among others.

Last, you might be able to convene your own “special audience” and make the case for their needs. There is an opportunity for collective action in your region, demographic, niche, or field and don’t think you can’t collectively advocate for a better deal.


In Closing

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That’s all, really. That’s literally all you can do. It’s kind of sad that such a patchwork of partially suitable options exists. You have to be a research ninja to navigate the obstacle course of paywalls. Who is looking out for those going stag into the wide world of knowledge? The open access movement is, and each year they move the needle towards a future in which every paper is at least free to read, if not free to reuse and share. You should support open access for your own selfish research needs, for the benefit of those even less fortunate than you, and for the untold discoveries that could erupt from a truly open, global, collaborative research ecosystem. Until then, pick your hack.

This guide was a truly collaborative effort led by Jake Orlowitz, head of the Wikipedia Library at the Wikimedia Foundation, but written in a personal capacity. There were too many early readers to name them all, but many, many thanks go to immensely helpful suggestions from folks on the Wikipedia + Libraries Facebook Group, ALA ScholComm list, OpenCon list, ALA LITA list, OSI list, and the broader Wikimedia community. For questions or suggestions, please email jorlowitz@gmail.com. Also, you can make comments directly on this evolving document.

This document is Open Access! It’s published under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. You can reuse or share it without permission, with only attribution and keeping the same license terms required.