Aaron Tay
Aaron Tay
Feb 12, 2016 · 6 min read

I always been fortunate to be associated with a institute with a good academic library so I haven’t really kept up with illegal or semi-illegal ways of getting access.

Still I’ve been recently thinking about the amount of free scholarly material available online and the amount of it that is legally or otherwise available and how they stack up against library document delivery.

Let’s say you are searching for an article in Scopus and you come across and article or book that your link resolver fails to find full text and you don’t feel like doing a Document Delivery or inter library loan. What are your choices? Below I list a couple of methods.

Generally, each alternative varies in terms of

a) Reliability — Document delivery by your library is pretty reliable (high chance of getting what you requested) as compared to emailing an author as the email might bounce etc.

b) Speed — Searching for free copies is fast (if available) compared to Document delivery usually.

c) Legality — Generally legitimate researchers will desire to stay on the right side of the law. That said the user’s perception of what is legal is subject to their understanding and knowledge.

For example, while many would stop short at using some of the more illegal methods like searching in sci-hub.org (see below), some would not mind emailing a ex-colleague to gain access to a paper (via their institutional access) and I would submit almost none would worry a paper found on academia.edu via Google or Google Scholar even though it isn’t a legal copy.

1. Search for free copies via web search

Firstly the most obvious way is to search for free copies via Google Scholar etc. This is surprisingly effective (depending on your discipline), if you haven’t done this before.

With tools like Google Scholar button or Lazy Scholar extension, you don’t even need to copy and paste the title into Google Scholar and search as the extension will automatically recognise you are on a page that is worth checking for free full text in Google Scholar and offer a link to the full text if free full text is found via Google Scholar.

The interesting thing is that plenty of articles found this way freely actually shouldn’t be legally available. In fact, a lot resides in Academia.edu, ResearchGate etc. such that Elsevier has sent take-down notices to them.

BONUS (added Oct 2016) — There is also the very useful oadoi.org resolver where you feed it a doi and it will try to find a free version. This covers both items in Open Access Journals and in Institutional/Subject Repositories. In reality though, Google Scholar is still much better at finding free articles. Besides if you already use Lazy Scholar extension you get best of both worlds as both methods are used.

BONUS II (added Jun2017) — There is now a suddenly influx of services that will automatically try to find free copies of paywalled articles. Besides the already mentioned Lazy Scholar extension, there is also Unpaywall , Canaryhaz, Google Scholar button, Open Access button among others.

2. Requesting copies from authors

Another option is write to the author or click on the “Request a copy” button on institution repositories (available on Eprints, Dspace, Fedora) which will route your request for a copy to the author. Unfortunately this fails a lot , because either the email on file is no longer working (author has moved), or the author just doesn’t bother to reply.

These days though, more realistically people probably click on the request pdf buttons on Academia edu or ResearchGate.

Request PDF button in Academia.edu

3. #icanhazpdf requests on Twitter

Shifting towards to the semi-legal? part of things, there are #icanhazpdf requests on Twitter. The idea is you post the article you are interested in, and add the hashtag #icanhazpdf (based on this meme) and some kind souls on twitter will help you with your request. Typically you are expected to delete your tweet to signify your request has been fulfilled.

Some people have tried to analyse the requests (here and here) and there have been blog posts by librarians worrying about how such requests can hurt libraries by reducing demand for ILL and document delivery.

Still it’s interesting to note some libraries like Utrecht University include this method in their official guides. (Hat tip Ryan Regier )

Utrecht University Guide -Training information skills for Sustainable Development Master in GEO4–2328: 4. Search

You can always search on twitter the hashtag to see what requests are made, it’s hard to tell though how many are people who have access to a academic library and those who have no affiliation to any academic library (or public library that provides some form of ILL/DDS).

4. https://www.reddit.com/r/Scholar/ on reddit

Another interesting source of requests is Reddit, where there is a subreddit — https://www.reddit.com/r/Scholar/ , devoted to users posting requests for articles, books that they need.

Essentially, you post requests for items you needed, other readers (there are over 25k now for this subreddit) are supposed to either upload the pdf (presumably via their institutional access) to a free file sharing site or upvote the thread if they don’t have access.

Overtime, requests that are not fulfilled will rise to the top due to upvotes.

5. Illegal sources like Libgen and/or sci-hub.org

In the sidebar , the subbredit suggests you try looking at Libgen first, which is perhaps the biggest and most well known source of illegal scholarly material made available.

Incidentally, the founder of Libgen claims that the #icanhazpdf method is “very archaic”

This year LibGen has drawn legal fire from Elsevier (the excellent analysis in Bibliogifts in LibGen?A study of a text-sharing platform driven by biblioleaks explains why) but it still remains accessible via various mirrors and alternative domain.


The most interesting trick of all is sci-hub.org.

Bibliogifts in LibGen?A study of a text-sharing platform driven by biblioleaks

If my understanding is correct, it works as a proxy to allow you access via other institution’s access.

You can even do a ezproxy trick like technique by appending a string to the end of a domain to gain access! Someone even added a bookmarklet that does exactly that.

From what I’ve read, any article obtained this way will be added automatically to Libgen.

All of these methods are illegal of course, with the last been hated particularly by system people at institutions.


I suspect there is a hierarchy of how comfortable someone would feel using these methods. Most people perhaps even I suspect many librarians would not think too much if a Google or Google Scholar search led them to free a pdf available via say ResearchGate.

How many would be capable of, or even think of checking Sherpa-Romeo to see if the version made available is legal?

With the rise of open access pushing in one direction, and the rise of convenient ways to access subscription journals, the future for academic libraries in the “access business” seems to be diminishing.

Academic librarians and open access

Thoughts on open access, focusing on discovery, delivery from the academic librarian’s point of view.

Aaron Tay

Written by

Aaron Tay

A Librarian from Singapore Management University. Into social media, bibliometrics, library technology and above all libraries.

Academic librarians and open access

Thoughts on open access, focusing on discovery, delivery from the academic librarian’s point of view.

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