How to access academic papers online, for free!

Sheldon Korpet
Jul 14, 2019 · 4 min read

If you’ve already graduated from your degree programme, it’s likely you’ve lost access to your account then wondered— “How do I search for evidence-based research now?”. Perhaps you’ve never been a formal student or you’re studying an online course.

Your local University Library’s will likely let you register as an alumni or walk-in member of the public. However, you’re allowed to access a very few databases and only loan a token amount of books — which is great if you live locally. However, many people don’t or just want to save time and effort. So, how do you find open information online? Try Open Access information!

‘Open Access’ was created for the public — it’s a way of licensing academic information (like journal articles and some textbooks) to make it freely available, for everyone.

As an Information Professional, here are my top five resources I recommend you should try out to help you access digital resources by topic.

This is a search engine that makes academic information both discoverable and easier to digest. Use it at the start of a search, instead of Google.


+ user friendly interface

+ evidence based quick overviews


— new so there’s likely some bugs to iron out

— not clear what information from external sources is updated automatically

A visualisation tool for literature, demonstrating topics and the relationships between them. Use it to get an overview of the most ‘relevant’ ares of a topic and papers related to those concepts.


+ generates visualisations for your search terms

+ it has an option to visualise results of searches just from PubMed


— still in development

— it only analyses the first 100 papers based on relevance ranking

A website which allows you to search for an Open Access version of a paper using it’s URL (web address), DOI (permanent Digital Object Identifier) or title. You can use it when you’ve found a journal article you want to read, but the publisher tries to charge you to access it.


+ easy to use

+ no installing or configuring, unlike Unpaywall


— success isn’t guarenteed (the tool relies on academics submitting a copy in to a repository, like White Rose Research Online)

A vast collection of repositories. Repositories are places where institutions store publications created by their academics. CORE allows these to be simultaneously searchable through a single interface. It can be used when you have a keyword search and want a more in-depth, systematic overview of a topic or problem.


+ search a lot of credible information, fast

+ there’s an API for text mining


— you aren’t searching ALL the repositories that exist in the world. It’s possible you will miss a source

A collection of open access journal titles, searchable by title or article. Could be use it to follow a specific journal that consistantly produces articles about a topic you’re interested in staying up-to-date with.


+ all of the journals included are Open Access — no paywalls


— there is a small chance of encountering a predatory (scam) journal - however, each journal does undergo over 40 checks before it is listed

And finally, here is a bonus resource to watch out for in the future…

There’s a growing trend towards publishers releasing textbooks, free for anyone to access online. This is one way to search for them. Use this tool when you want to find a comprehensive introduction/overview of a topic or subject.


+ avoid annoying previews, this is the whole textbook, for free!


— the idea of Open Access textbooks is still a fairly new movement, so there’s a limited selection.

— you will have to buy the book if you want to own a complete physical copy of the material. Printing could infringe UK copyright law.

No one is perfect — if I’ve missed a good tool, you can share your knowledge with me by tweeting at SheldonKorpet.

About Sheldon Korpet

I’m an Information Officer at the University of Sheffield. Currently, I’m working towards becoming a Chartered member of CILIP and I also volunteer with Code Club.

Prior to this, I received an MSc in Digital Library Management in 2017 after undertaking a Graduate Traineeship at Manchester Metropolitan University.

I’m happy for you to share my work under CC BY-NC 3.0 — learn how to attribute someone using this useful guide from the Creative Commons wiki.

Sheldon Korpet

Written by

I work in a Digital Library Team — currently undertaking Chartership. Love new ideas, learning to finish old ones.

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