OAW 2011: So You Hit A Paywall?

This is in celebration of the Open Access Week, which is celebrated all across the globe between October 24 – 30 every year. This year, since I am no longer in medical school, I will not be able to organize an event on the grounds but will try my best to see if I can write a series of posts on Open Access and pay my own tribute to the event. This is the first post in this series.

How often do you come across that PERFECT article on PubMed that you think is the perfect one for you, and when you go to the Journal home page to get the full text of the article, you have something like this thrust in your face:


Well, if the answer is often enough, and that makes you pull your hair out, like it does to me, come, join the club. I have known academicians who have been locked out of their OWN articles on journals that have hidden their contributions behind paywalls. The worst thing is this: often, older archives and historical documents that should otherwise be in the public domain, are also squirreled away behind locked doors. In this article, I will try to find out some roundabout ways to see how to overcome the problems of hitting a paywall and bypassing one when you do hit them.

A lot of what I am about to write is legally sensitive and frankly I am not very well versed in the laws that regulate these matters. This is especially complicated since a lot of these laws vary from nation to nation and hence need a wide experience of dealing with these issues. Anyways, please do not consider this post to be anything more than information.

So, to cut to the chase, here are some ways in which you can chase down that article that you think is just beyond your reach, hidden away behind a paywall!

open access

1. Go to the Goog!


Often it so happens that a paper that is not available on the journal website may have been archived on a repository viewable by Google by some academic. Sometimes as a part of a coursework, PDFs are uploaded to the Googleable niches of the web that do not show up on Google Scholar or PUBMED. So, before despairing in vain over the unavailability of the paper, just ask Google. You might get lucky.

2. Email the Authors:

While a lot of people get cold feet when thinking of writing STRAIGHT to a hard core, published academic to ask for a paper, I have found this is a wonderful way of getting what you are looking for. Most authors are very happy to share their papers with anyone who is really in need of reading it. Besides the possibility of being cited, I think most authors just enjoy the fact that someone wants to read their writing so much that they are taking the trouble of writing back to them.

And let’s face it – as and when we get published, our first instinct is to want more people to read us! And since these days it costs nothing to send off an article as an email, more and more academics are eager to share their knowledge in this manner.

email authors

3. #IcanhazPDF

The fantastic Bora Zivkovic has initiated a Twitter-based method to ask for papers. In this, you hashtag the demand of your choice with #IcanhazPDF and send it out in the world. I would recommend adding in some of the more prominent Twacademics (ahem, like Bora-and-Bronto@BoraZ himself) who may sympathize with your need and retweet the same. The problem is, for people like me, who have a bunch of SPAM bots and similarly handicapped people following him, it becomes hard for our voice to go out there. It kind of gets smothered by the high decibel chatter around us.

However, despite this, I must say it has been a very successful move, especially since everyone and their pet dinosaurs seem to be tweeting like mad all the time!

Note: Anyone in possession of this particular paper, please consider sending it in to me?

4. A Friend in Need, is A FRIENDFEED:

The fantastic people over at FreindFeed “References Wanted” group are so very helpful when it comes to getting a hold of papers. Graham et al have been more than cordial whenever I have asked for something.

FriendFeedAnd the best thing is this: whenever anyone does not have access to the papers posted as “wanted” on the group page, they write in about how they do not have access. Somehow it is reassuring to know that I am not the only person on earth who is going through a lot of trouble just because of a paywall in position!

5. Google Groups:

There are rumors that there are bands of rebels who have declared war on the system of paywalls hiding access to knowledge. Hidden behind the façade of Guerilla Open Access, these academic-turned-picaros gather behind secret groups to disseminate education andlicenses-anti-copyright knowledge. Rumor has it, that it is difficult to get entry into the portals of these secret communities, since they are hunted down by carrion feeding legal vultures representing big-pub. However, once you get an entry into the portal of this hallowed group, all you have to do, is email a demand for a PDF and magically, it shall appear in your inbox within a few hours! Baptized by the rebels like Aaron Swartz and Greg Maxwell, these rebels have brought new meaning to the struggle against copyrighting of intellectual and academic properties by big pub and its hordes of hungry lawyers!

If you want to know more about this, send me an email, I may know a guy who can talk to you more about this…

6. Manipulating HINARI

They say that the HINARI is a useful resource for someone looking for papers that are published in the large collection of titles available either for free or for greatly reduced prices depending on which country you live in. Now on paper and pen, this sounds a fantastic, mind blowing idea, that would be like the ultimate wet dream for Open Access advocates like me. However, let us not just get too far ahead of ourselves. The truth is far from it.

In reality, HINARI does not cater to countries like India, China and Indonesia, which are the most populated nations in SEARO. Yet, all three would be eligible for some sort of membership in their ranks. The official reason is: the publishers who have made their titles available for free or at greatly reduced costs in the initiative have decided that these nations have too many subscribers to their titles to merit a free/subsidized membership. While I can totally sympathize with their fears that making HINARI freely accessible in hinari_logoIndia, China and Indonesia would lead to a huge slump in revenues (if papers are available through an unpaid or subsidized portal who would be crazy enough to pay for them?), still it runs diametrically opposed to the principles on which HINARI was itself conceived.

However, they say that username/password combinations for HINARI eligible nations are available in dark and cobwebbed corners of the web. For free. If you can locate one of those, you can use them, till you have rung the bells in HINARIland that bans that combination forever.

Disclaimer: I am not in the know of any such passwords and neither do I encourage illegal activities – all I am doing here is presenting some rumors that do their rounds on the academic discussion boards in the interwebs.

7. Phone-A-Friend

Surely you have one friend in the US or UK or one of those new fangled universities with a large online library that subscribes to every possible form of academic journal? I know several, some of them being librarians at prominent academic centers who have kindly taken my poor self under their wings. Find one such friend, stick to them like a leech for life…


8. Support Open Access Publication:

Remember this simple fact: there are research papers hidden behind paywalls because YOU publish them there. Support Open Access. Publish more in journals that have an open policy.

I know the reality is not always cherishable since a lot of academics are under pressure to publish in certain high impact journals (ufff… impact factors – that is a rant for another day!) to meet their needs for approval from higher ups. However, until and unless we, the people producing the papers that get hidden behind paywalls, start to wake up and take notice, there will still be so many papers that will end up eluding us just because we could not pay for them.

With the rise of PLoS One as one of the premier journals in the biomedical open access game, it has become easier to publish in high impact journals and yet keep the work in public domains. Journals like the ones from the stables of the BMJ and The Lancet groups publish their original research under open access terms. Also, other papers can be made open access by the authors if they choose to make a certain payment towards that mode. These are pretty high IF journals! The NEJM also publishes a lot of its original research content under open access policies. Although I feel that these journals are doing a great job bringing out the original research under terms of Open Access, they also need to incorporate reviews and meta analyses under these terms as well. The problem of access is more acute in the developing world. And also, in the clinical scenario in the developing world, the applicability of the latest in business research findings is difficult. The more feasible and oft adhered to practice is to modify clinical practice in the light of EBM guidelines, meta analyses or, in the least, good quality reviews. These articles are, more often than not, hidden behind paywalls…

The bottomline is, the more you publish in journals that enourage payment of fees to access articles, the more you are setting yourself (and of course, us that goes without saying) for an eventuality like this:

cartoon - knocking on heavens door

4 thoughts on “OAW 2011: So You Hit A Paywall?

  1. Another option is to locate the physical (gasp) copy of the journal itself. Most medical college libraries subscribe to many such journals.
    One can also access many articles through the National medical library portal.


    1. *looks down sheepishly* did not think about digging up the physical journal! 😛

      But on a more serious note, unfortunately, a LOT of medical schools do not subscribe to medical journals. I come from a big one, and we hardly had any international subscriptions to talk of!

      The National Medical Library Portal is a good service, but I have never used it. I would love to hear more details of it please!


  2. The NML subscribes to almost all the medical journals. Most medical colleges in India are members of the NML, and a researcher can request his/ her respective medical college an access to the NML portal, mostly for free. Sure it involves some bureaucracy but it works.
    Since I studied at a place right next to the NML, it usually took just a stroll to dig up any journal. And for whatever its worth, a physical copy is a physical copy 🙂


  3. Good review! I use the email author tactic, it works about 70-80% of the time. I like receiving such requests as well – it reminds me of the old days when we used to receive reference request cards (for a hard copy) and they would be stacked up on the shelves as a sort of competition to see who gets the most

    Once i did receive an email from an author who said she could not send it because the publisher “expressly forbids” emailing her own article to anyone! here it is:

    “I would normally be very happy to send you this article but I have been explicitly instructed by Public Health Genomics not to share the pdf as that is a violation of their copyright agreement.”

    And she sent me several other related papers. I could only laugh – look at the title of the journal!


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