The 9 Easiest Ways to Get Free Journal Research

How to find and access quality sources for research.

Some Dude Says
Feb 27 · 12 min read
Image by TuendeBede from Pixabay

One of the most frustrating prospects for writing a scientific article is having the right access to quality sources. A foreign language learner’s blog is fundamentally different than a journal addressing second language acquisition. Google (including Google Scholar) only gets you so far without a more comprehensive toolkit of resources to draw from. Most journals want money for an article, others have a web interface that rivals something spawned from the ARPANET era which even modern search engines struggle to index.

The only real answer if you aren’t attached to a large research firm or a university in some way is to find free materials or bite the bullet on costs. I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t have the money to spend on each source and neither do most thesis writers or content creators. There are more bad free journals than there are good ones; you just have to know what to look for to find what works over what doesn’t.

As I’ve been writing more, I’ve dabbled more in higher quality content that draws from scientific literature. I don’t have the luxury of a firm backing me and providing access, so I need to ensure each article meets a certain metric. You don’t always need a peer-reviewed source for every citation, but if you want more technical content, you need more technical sources. Even questionable journal articles provide more value to an essay or article than a random blog or news clipping.

Let’s look at the 9 easiest ways to get scientific sources for an article or essay. Most of these methods will provide peer-reviewed sources, but there’s also a reason some journals don’t charge for access. You need to be cautious to weed out the trash from the treasure.

Methodology

If you’re doing research, you know that the methodology (e.g. learning a language in your sleep) is as important, or even more important than the results. The wrong methodology can disqualify an experiment or make its results that much more profound. I don’t expect this to be peer-reviewed, but I do want peers to get use from it.

I plan to focus on sources that are more universal. There are great free journals with great search functions and everything you could want for certain niches. They’re great if you’re in the niche, and useless otherwise. I plan to focus on sources that hit sweeping subjects rather than specialized research. Also, most of these are going to be centered around English language searches.

My review depends on the quality of the search functionality (e.g. is it easy to use?), the relevance or accessibility (e.g. do we need to weed out results?), the content (humanities vs. sciences), the quality (e.g. are the articles formal research or a bit more… questionable?), and my own personal metrics (e.g. does it have what I want?). I’d prefer not to have the last one, but ultimately detailing my bias will at least diminish it from the rest of the results, or provide a control. My specific skills and knowledge impacts how accurately and just how much a resource will aid me. Also, these aren’t really in any specific order since each has too many moving parts to accurately rank.

ScienceOpen

ScienceOpen is one of the first alternative methods I learned about for finding journal articles (which is still relevant). The search is extremely straightforward and hits a lot of terms I’m familiar with in a way I didn’t need to dig heavily. If this had existed when I worked in a lab, I very well may have used it over what the university provided just on the search alone.

The search also provides what level of access you can get before clicking. Down the line, we’ll get into a solution that augments these sort of journal search engines, but even without it, this site is extremely accessible. The search bleeds into the reliability and accessibility of the overall site. Even most of the “closed” articles had a way to access them without paying which made my searches more fruitful.

The results are high quality with proper pedigrees for the paths I chased. The content feels more focused on harder sciences, but I saw no lack of social sciences. Philosophy, anthropology, and other humanities were a bit lacking, but that’s expected with a site titled ScienceOpen. You get a great spread of more science-oriented publications (including social sciences) but lose out on traditional humanities.

ERIC

ERIC is another great resource with a great search. You can just hit a checkbox to weed out results that aren’t both full-text and open. While you get a lot less in terms of the sheer volume of results, you get more that is relevant and get it easier.

ERIC doesn’t make it as my first stop, but it tends to round out research when I know what I’m looking for (or at least have a general idea). You get less volume, but it’s higher quality and more accessible. I treat other searches as a place to farm abstracts and methodologies for a baseline, and services like ERIC as a place to flesh it out if I need to go a little deeper.

It’s a government-run service, which makes it much more generic and flexible with topics. I struggled not to find something relevant to a mix of science and humanities. Social sciences were also well represented. Your mileage may vary depending on how niche the subject is, but diving into research I used to use resulted in a good spread of potential resources. This is a great resource to round off a more technical article with a more scientific punch. It can also provide a base for background research and similar ones once you know what you’re looking for.

Like most free resources, it’s hit or miss whether the articles are exactly what you want. That being said, it also manages to hit on a lot of areas I find lacking with other services. I’m not expecting to submit my writing to a journal or similar anymore, but I do want to write about science without resorting to click-bait-level tactics and interpretations. ERIC provides a good source for diving deeper into more topics.

SSRN

SSRN is another great source for research. The search itself is robust enough, but it can take a little coaxing to find what you want. Everything searched (as far as I can tell) is open and fair game. This is one of the more accessible sources for social sciences and similar, but it requires some finesse to make use of.

It has a higher availability of social sciences and humanities than hard sciences, but it has quality research in both sectors. Neither topic is lacking for research, just there’s a focus on humanities and social sciences for quantity, while hard sciences have more hit or miss specialized resources in more niche topics.

One thing I really admire about this specific research search engine is the fact you can further refine a search. If you have a large number of results, you can further delve down to eliminate the less relevant items without having to start over. I struggled to find information on certain topics but hit extremely niche research which is valuable to the refinement stage for other topics. I’m sure this site can help kickstart research for social sciences, but it is more a secondary source for the harder sciences in my opinion.

Core

Core has several hundred million articles in their database for open access. As I’ve started writing this section, their site is basically hard down. This isn’t really the norm, but it does happen sometimes from my experience.

Core touches on some of the other solutions mentioned in this article, but the search and the access it provides make the experience unique enough to list both. It includes references to PLOS ONE (among many other journals and repositories), but the interface is different. I found certain results multiple times due to the multiple tie-ins to open repositories and journals.

I like Core, but it can get frustrating to use. It offers a lot, but you need to dig deeper than single keywords or common terms. The more research is available in more open journals, the more likely it is to flood your search with duplicates. While Core has one of the richest refinement processes of any of the solutions listed in this article, it is frustrating if you don’t know how to manipulate it.

You can search by language, by year, by source, and by all sorts of criteria. The quality of what you found is as good or bad as its source. That said, it also tends to find the better pieces from the same source with the right keywords. Core is slow but Core is able to cross-reference almost as many sources as some smaller academic libraries. I don’t often start with it, but if I get stuck, I end up on it.

arXiv

arXiv is a big dog in the open-access research world, but it’s virtually entirely focused on hard sciences. The search is good enough, but it feels like it focuses on keywords in a way that older search engines do. You need to dredge up your AskJeeves or Altavista skills to get the most out of the search.

The general site is extremely accessible, but it is also a bit more limited than most options in this article. I included it because it has such clout and has a great reputation. I’ve seen more than a few more professional sources forget to replace their arXiv links with an “official” source.

On the other hand, you get some amazing science, but you also get some more questionable items. There’s a disclaimer warning that none of it is actually peer-reviewed by arXiv, which is as much a disclaimer as a warning for the quality of content. This doesn’t mean that the content lacks, but I wouldn’t blindly trust it without vetting it.

ArXiv hits a bit away from what I tend to dabble in so my experience is a bit lacking. That being said, many news and more scientifically literate popular science resources I read reference papers from it. I’ve seen more about the limitations than I have wild claims on articles references by writer’s familiar with the exact qualities of arXiv.

PLOS ONE

PLOS ONE is a journal more than a search engine or repository. Unlike most of our other selections, there are costs associated with using this service as an author, but it does provide open access and the fees aren’t as bad as some journals. There are multiple associated journal pieces, but PLOS ONE is the easiest place to search everything from.

The search is extremely efficient, but still has a bit of a hit or miss approach to it as well. While that may sound contradictory, some terms get me exactly what I want, others take a little finesse to get what you want. The more in-depth you can get with keywords, the more efficient it gets. With that in mind, I don’t think it compromises this as a primary brainstorming platform.

The search feels tighter than many I’ve worked with. If you provide more abstract terms, you don’t just get any article with the terms worked in, you get more relevant research. It’s not as flexible as some, but it’s good enough I feel it can add to primary and secondary research easily enough. You don’t need to know every detail going in, but you also don’t just get flooded with abstractions and thesaurus searches.

The articles I’ve seen myself are good. While you do get a huge mix of content spanning continents, there is at least a minimum to the research. The more you can nail down what you want, the more you’ll get out of this specific journal. Each article is also organized in a way that makes it extremely easy to skim.

Digital Library of the Commons

The Digital Library of the Commons is a great resource for finding certain things, but the search and accessibility leave a lot to be desired. Sometimes you strike gold, but more often than not, you’re reading a bunch of results for very little effectiveness. If you drill the search enough, you can find what you want, but it takes work.

If you can accept the frustration of the search process (which all things considered, is still better than many paid journal aggregators I’ve previously used), you can get a lot done. I found a lot of resources from this specific source once I learned how to manipulate it. For primary research, it isn’t bad as long as you can dive into the topic a little. There isn’t enough to drown the results, but there isn’t so little that you’re searching for a needle in a haystack.

I feel this site succeeds so much due to the fact it continually has relevant research. It might not wow for numbers, but if you know roughly what you’re looking for, you get more out of it than some other sources. I feel a bias towards certain fields over others, but it feels more in line with a university’s specialties rather than an intentional limitation.

Zenodo

Zenodo is one of the newer sources I’ve learned about. While it has a great search and a lot of research to pour over, I feel that a lot of it lacks in one way or another for certain topics. This may seem like a slight, but what Zenodo allows is a bit fuzzier than most other solutions.

The search is great, as is the accessibility. You aren’t digging through results, you’re getting relevant data or research. I found a good mix of content in general hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Certain fields of interest to me were certainly a bit lacking, but other fields were very well represented.

The quality of the results is great, but the research is drawn from a wide number of sources, some of which are viewed lower or higher than others for academic purposes. Zenodo is the fuzziest source on here for the quality and relevance of its results while also one of the clearest. The information is straightforward, but this site would have done little for me in an academic research environment without a lot of work. I don’t have a bias for my data, but the researchers directing our projects definitely weighed the academic value of certain sources.

That said, it still serves a purpose if used correctly. I can see it benefiting source collection as well as general research and brainstorming. It also offers data and similar with restricted access which is more useful to certain types of research or projects.

Unpaywall

Unpaywall doesn’t fit the trend of any of the previous solutions. Unpaywall isn’t a specific way to search, it’s a way to get more access out of resources you already may use. That said, there are multiple solutions I’ve already mentioned which directly benefit from using Unpaywall.

Unpaywall is a browser plugin that can help track down open access for specific resources. I found it extremely effective for digging through Google Scholar or other sources to find the direct paper. While what you search with may not have the resource, this makes it easy to find it if it’s available somewhere else in an open format.

You aren’t restricted to a great search with little content or a lot of content with no search accessibility. This tool allows you to use more mainstream searches to find alternative sources which are open access. It won’t always work, but when it does, it’s glorious.

I’ve found myself crawling many sites with links to journals, articles, essays, book segments, and similar and being pleasantly surprised by just what it unlocks. There are certain articles I figured were just locked which this extension made accessible. Even if you don’t want to dedicate to a specific solution above or mix it into your workflow, this extension is passive. If you’re paranoid about browser extensions, just install it in a separate browser specifically for research.

Conclusion

While free resources probably won’t replace paid access to academic sources (especially if it’s already paid for), they can make a sizable dent and even the playing field. It doesn’t make sense to pay for research access to certain sources for a hobbyist or unfunded project, and free sources can provide enough variability to help expand primary research. Even when I had paid access to certain academic resources, free solutions could add a bit of unpredictability which helped improve the robustness of my research and preliminary research process.

I focused on solutions that were more generic to provide more blanket accessibility without sacrificing quality. Some are more oriented on harder sciences while others focus on humanities and social sciences, but all of them are great jumping-off points for research. You may hit limitations sooner than later with each platform, but at least you don’t need to visit a thousand separate websites to find out if you’re going the right way or not.

Open access numbers have only been growing in recent years and government research has helped the numbers increase. I try to stick to open research where possible with what I push on the side because it benefits both me and my writing. Each citation of an open-access source provides value to the research. See what open access sources can do for you and your research.

Originally published at https://somedudesays.com on February 27, 2021.

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Some Dude Says

Written by

I write about technology, linguistics (mainly Chinese), and anything else that interests me. Check out https://somedudesays.com for more from me!

Educate.

Educate.

Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

Some Dude Says

Written by

I write about technology, linguistics (mainly Chinese), and anything else that interests me. Check out https://somedudesays.com for more from me!

Educate.

Educate.

Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

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